Looking at a map of Africa early in the 20th century, one gets the feeling that he is looking at the “states of Europe.” With exception of Liberia (founded by ex-slaves from United States, who declared its independence in 1847), the entire continent was one large European smorgasbord. That is the world that greeted Jomo Kenyatta when he arrived into the world in 1889/1894 (the year is uncertain) in the village of Ngenda, in the Gatundu Division of Kiambu (formerly British East Africa). At the turn of the 21st century, Africa’s population was approximately 732,000,000, and Kenya, about 20,000,000.
Born Kamau wa Ngengi into the Kikuyu tribe, Kenyatta lost his parents (Muigai and Wambui) early in life, and was brought up by his uncle, Ngengi, and his grandfather, Kungu wa Magana. His early education came via the Church of Scotland missionaries at Thogoto, about 12 miles northwest of present-day Nairobi, where he converted to Christianity and later changed his name to Johnstone Kamau—blending part of his original name with his newly-adopted “Christian” name. He took the name “Kenyatta” after the bead-strung leather strips he often wore as a belt. Around World War I, Kenyatta moved to Narok, west of Nairobi to live with his relatives who were members of the Masai tribe and there he also worked as a clerk.
After marrying Grace Wahu in 1922, he became involved in the political activities of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), one of the early African protest movements. At the same time Kenyatta worked for the Nairobi Water Department and his first son Peter Muigai (named after his father) was born. He quickly rose within the KCA ranks and became the editor of its newspaper, “Muigwithania” (Reconciler).
In 1929, Kenyatta went to London, as a representative of KCA, to present his people’s demands for the return of tribal lands that were usurped by the Europeans and for greater autonomy (political and economical) in Kenya affairs. He had little success. Disappointed yet undaunted, he returned to Kenya deciding to become involved in education. He began working for Kikuyu Independent Schools in Githunguri until 1931, when he returned to London.
Kenyatta enrolled in Woodbrooke Quaker College in Birmingham and for the next 15 years, he attended several universities, traveled extensively and published numerous articles, and pamphlets on the plight of life in Kenya under British rule. In 1938, Kenyatta published his first book, “Facing Mount Kenya” describing how colonialism disrupted Kikuyu traditions and the consequential indignities that followed the indigenous people.
During this period, Kenyatta, at various times, met many future leaders whose common interests were eradicating colonialism (white supremacy) in their respective homelands including Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and Ralph Bunche. In one of Robeson’s movies, “Sanders of the River,” he was an extra and along with Nkrumah, he helped organize one of the Pan-African Congresses in Britain in 1945.
Kenyatta worked at a farm in Britain during World War II to avoid being inducted into the British army. He also married an English woman, Edna Clarke, who, in 1943, bore him a son, Peter Magana (named after his grandfather). Before he returned to Kenya in 1946, Kenyatta and Nkrumah founded the Pan-African Federation which continued the anti-colonial movement after they left Britain.
Back in Kenya, he married Grace Wanjiku, his third marriage and became the principal of Kenya Teachers College. In 1947, Kenyatta became president of the Kenya African Union (KAU), the first colony-wide African political organization. In 1950, Wanjiku died in childbirth while giving birth to his daughter, Jane Wambui (named after his mother). The following year, Kenyatta married Ngina Muhoho.
Kenyatta’s activities within the KAU escalated and aroused concern among the British administration. His efforts focused on resistance to colonial policies and to win self-government for Kenya under (Black) African leadership. The British responded brutally and the Kenyans took on a more militant tone that was labeled extremist by the British, led by a guerilla group called the Mau-Mau. Though Kenyatta reportedly never advocated violence to achieve political goals, he was identified with the Mau-Mau.
In one of his speeches at the KAU meeting at Nyeri, Kenyatta exhorted Kenyans to stand up, fight and demand equality. He said, “We are here under the KAU flag to find which road leads us from darkness to democracy. In order to find it, we Africans must first achieve the right to elect our own representatives. That is surely the first principle of democracy. We are the only race in Kenya which does not elect its own representatives in the legislature and we are going to set about to rectify this situation.”
As a result of his speeches and reported links to the Mau-Mau, Kenyatta, along with five members of the group, was arrested and charged in 1952. After a five-month trial they were all convicted and sent to prison in 1953, and the KAU was outlawed. With the removal of the leaders of the so-called extreme faction, the British continued their “business as usual” never intending to implement any of the reforms sought by the Kenyans.
While Kenyatta was in prison, the movement towards independence continued. Research has shown that though he was not directly connected to the Mau-Mau, his political rise after imprisonment was a direct result of the Mau-Mau activities. And historically, his name has been closely aligned with the Mau-Mau.
When Kenyatta was released in 1961, after spending almost nine years in prison, Kenya was on track towards self-government. He was hailed as the country’s independence leader and assumed the leadership of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), a political party which was formed while he was in prison. In 1963, Kenyatta led the party to an electoral victory and became prime minister of an independent Kenya, the 34th African nation to gain its independence. In December the following year, Kenya became a republic and Kenyatta was elected as its first president.
As president, Kenyatta worked to foster harmonious relations despite his country’s colonial past. He adopted “Harambee” as a slogan (Swahili for “Let’s all pull together”), encouraged foreign investment and capitalist economic policies. There was some discomfort with his pro-Western policies, especially since the brutality of West (British) was gone but not forgotten, and there were still lingering remembrances such as the British Commonwealth that Kenya was a part of, and the Queen of England was its head.
The post-independence years were spent on restructuring and rebuilding the nation with an African vision. Kenyatta’s model was for a strong central government; others differ. His balancing act was to control differences and disagreements within the bounds of civil discord and not become violently disagreeable. There were no serious challenges to his leadership. Advancing age slowed the aging Kenyatta and by 1970, he turned over the day-to-day management of the country to his deputy. Though this action was brought about by physical necessity, it also resulted in a gradual isolation and his critics seized the opportunity to rebel against Kenyatta’s rule.
He died in office in 1978 and was succeeded by the vice president, Daniel Arap Moi. Kenyatta served as one of the guiding lights of the so-called Dark Continent. He left a body of knowledge in several books that he wrote including, “My People of Kikuyu and the Life of Chief Wangombe” (1944); “Kenya: the Land of Conflict” (1944);”The Myth of Mau-Mau: Nationalsim in Kenya” (1966) and “Suffering Without Bitterness” (1968).
(Mukoma Wa Ngugi, a Kenyan scholar recently wrote, “Because recent authoritarian governments suppressed Mau-Mau history and threatened survivors with arrest if they tried to organize, the Mau-Mau movement was not legally recognized in Kenya until 2003.” History shows that there is a certain similarity between KAU and the ANC [African National Congress] and how Kenyatta, Nelson Mandela and many African leaders were imprisoned and the organizations outlawed because they were demanding freedom from colonialism and oppression. A recent magazine article reported that the U.S. State Department still has former President Mandela on its terrorist watch list).
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.