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Jamhuri wives: They came face to face with polygamy, patriarchy and culture shock

By Eric Nyakagwa | December 12th 2020

The euphoria of freedom was in the air in the run up to Kenya’s Independence in December 1963.
Lockdowns were over, racial segregation too. The White colonialists were leaving, and Black African elites were returning from studies abroad-with White or African-American wives in tow.

Never mind kissing a White woman,  for instance, was a punishable offence. These dashing Kenyan men, most of them beneficiaries of educational airlifts, had also been studying in Apartheid South Africa and India where caste system reigns supreme.   

And it was tricky for those from the USA where anti inter-racial marriage laws and policies were only outlawed in 1967.
That aside, White women- inspired by global perceptions via higher education rebelled against racism, fell in love with our previously very rural dudes and followed them to Africa-the heart of darkness.

Picture this: In the early 1960s, Kenya had 100 telephone land lines (most of them in government offices), about 100,000 cars gassing on slightly over 2000 km of tarmac and no fully-fledged universities. There were no matatus, just Kenya Bus. These foreign wives would come face-to-face with culture shocks including polygamy, entrenched patriarchy, different customs and racism. Others experienced detention, divorce, deportation and bereavement.


Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano dated future wife of Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
Take the first Kenyan to earn a  PhD, Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, an intelligent, young African scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. Kiano first dated Coretta Scott, the future wife of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. But the two went separate ways after five years since Gikonyo was “too bright” and “too political” and would return to his country after graduation, according to Dorothy Stephens in her 2006 memoir, Kwa Heri Means Goodbye: Memories of Kenya 1957-1959.

Dr Kiano later settled for Ernestine Hammond, an African American public health nurse in a marriage that would test the limits of patriarchy against feminism. Kenya at independence was fighting three enemies: poverty, ignorance and disease.

Over 50 year later, those enemies still stand. But there is a fourth enemy — unemployment. Just imagine  despite his PhD, Dr Kiano wouldn’t get a job. Ernestine wouldn’t understand why a PhD holder was working as a petrol station attendant at Esso!

When he finally became the first African Kenyan lecturer at Royal Technical College, today the University of Nairobi, the couple would quarrel endlessly over Dr Kiano’s many relatives. Ernestine was coming face to face with ‘African Socialism.’ After all, Dr Kiano’s air ticket was sourced through a village harambee!

The Kianos quickly sired four kids. Ernestine even renounced her American citizenship in 1964. But there was no school for black Africans. Dr Kiano and other elite Africans at Royal Technical College founded Hospital Hill Primary school for their children.

Dr Kiano shortly got engrossed in the Kennedy Air Lifts, a scholarship programme to America where it was funded by among others, President John F Kennedy’s family. These graduates would later play a crucial role as technocrats who galloped Kenya’s economy in the first decades of independence.

 Before the Kennedy airlifts, most of the top Kenyan students attended Makerere University College in Uganda. This group included retired President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, which explains why they never returned with mzungu wives!


Kisumu Rural MP Tom Okello Odongo's wife was detained
The African-American wife of Kisumu Rural MP Tom Okello Odongo to be detained for two years because of Jaramogi. Caroline Okello Odongo, a Kenyan citizen by marriage, was detained for helping Odinga write his book, Not Yet Uhuru in 1966, the year her husband joined Odinga’s Kenya People’s Union (KPU) when he decamped from Kenyatta’s government.

No family was allowed to visit the native of Texas for the two years she survived on government posho.
Some airlift beneficiaries were even helped to fill in forms in the sitting room of the Kianos. One boy, George Kinuthia, went on attain a PhD in algebra. He later became Kenya’s vice president, Prof George Saitoti, who died in a plane crash in 2008.


Ruth Njiiri widowed in 1975
Dr Kiano was helped out by nationalist Tom Mboya and Kariuki Njiiri in sorting out the scholarships.
Njiiri had attended Lincoln University where fellow students included later presidents Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Njiiri returned  with an African-American wife, Ruth Stutts Njiiri in 1958.

During a 2005 interview, Ruth recounted how new foreign wives were settling down: “The first place we lived was with Duncan Ndegwa who had a flat in Parklands near the Hospital Hill School before we moved to Nairobi West. While in Nairobi West, my husband built a house in Riruta near Dr Gikonyo Kiano and Mareka Gecaga. That was where we eventually lived while in Kenya.”

Kariuki Njiiri after whose father Njiiri School in Murang’a is named, later gave up his (Fort Hall) Murang’a seat in the Legco for Jomo Kenyatta, allowing him to attend the Lancaster II Constitutional conference that paved the way for Kenya’s independence.

Ruth became one of President Kenyatta’s personal secretaries in between running the family’s high end Njiiris clothing store. Njiiri later became Kigumo MP and Assistant Minister for Local Government.

Ruth also helped in the Kennedy airlifts before being widowed when Njiiri died in a road accident in 1975.
In the 2005 interview,  Ruth  explained that she accompanied Kenyan students and helped them settle in the US.

One beneficiary, Pamela Odede got married Tom Mboya — a friend of the Kianos — and became Pamela Mboya. Indeed, it was in Kiano’s sitting room where Mboya and Kiano played with colours to create our current national flag colours!

Ernestine anger issues led to deportation
Ruth and Ernestine, being African-Americans were very close, but with dissimilar temperaments. Ernestine had anger management issues aggravated by her feminist streak.

She had open disdain for social restrictions and her conduct that was judged ‘unseemly’ for a politician’s wife. Like having  no qualms throwing her stilettos at Dr Kiano during drinking sessions at the United Kenya Club,  which was among the first to admit elite Africans.

Her dramas became common fodder but when she pulled her tantrums in the presence of founding President Kenyatta, she found herself at the then Nairobi International Airport on a one-way ticket back to America.

The-then vice president and Minister for Home Affairs, Daniel arap Moi signed Ernestine’s deportation orders in 1966, making her a ‘prohibited immigrant.’  

Six months later, Dr Kiano wed Jane Mumbi Kiano, a receptionist at the Panafric Hotel in a Kikuyu traditional wedding. Dr Kiano, one-time Minister for Commerce and Industry, died aged 77 in 2003.



Kodhek kissing Tate, mother of his  two daughters, was criminal

Now picture an abrasive Argwings-Kodhek, Kenya’s first homespun lawyer returning with Mavis Tate in 1952.
Independence was 11 years away. Tate was nurse and daughter of an Irish engineer. They met while Kodhek was studying law in Britain.

They settled in Ruaraka where racial segregation laws did not permit Tate to live among Blacks and Kodhek couldn’t live among Whites.

Kodhek kissing Tate, mother of his  two daughters, was an offence! Kodhek successfully challenged laws prohibiting mixed race marriages, but they still divorced in 1963.

Tate died in 1967. Kodhek married Joan Omondo.The former MP for Gem and Assistant Minister for Internal Security died along what is today Argwings Kodhek Road in Hurlingham, Nairobi in 1969 — the year of Concorde, Woodstock Rock Festival, the first man landing on the moon. The year Tom Mboya was assassinated.  

Property wrangles
But Jamhuri wives also faced property wrangles. Dr Kiano and Ernestine were co-registered owners of 167 acres in Kabete. But she and her children got no inheritance from Dr Kiano. Ernestine died in 2010 aged 84. Jane Kiano, the former chair of Maendeleo ya Wanawake, died in 2018 at 74.

The Kianos were not the only couple to meet marital headwinds. Other mzungu wives returned only to find illiterate first wives with their brood in rural Kenya.

Others still returned to embers of racial segregation. Living in Nairobi demarcated. Asians in Parklands, Pangani, Ngara, and Highridge while mzungus could breathe the fresh air around Lavington, Karen and Muthaiga.
Africans were condemned to Eastlands.



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