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Jomo Kenyatta – A Pan-Africanist, A Nationalist, A Father of a Nation
Jomo Kenyatta – A Pan-Africanist, A Nationalist, A Father of a Nation

By - Isaac Joseph

Posted - 05-09-2019

Jomo Kenyatta, whose original name is Kamau Ngengi was born sometime in the mid 1890s to Kikuyu farmers in Kiambu at Ichaweri, southwest of Mount Kenya in Eastern Africa. His original birth date is not known as people of Kikuyu tribe do not keep track of birth dates in terms of calendar years.  Kamau’s father was a leader of a small Kikuyu agricultural settlement; and he got his education at a missions school, after which he worked in different places before delving into politics through the Kikuyu Central Association.

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The Early Life of Jomo Kenyatta

At the age of 10, Kamau became seriously ill with infections from jigger in his feet and one leg. A successful surgery was carried out on his feet and leg at a newly established Church of Scotland mission. This was Kamau’s first contact with Europeans. He was left overwhelmed with all he had seen during his recovery. He decided to run away from home to the mission to become a resident pupil. At the mission, Kamau studied the Bible, English, Mathematics and Carpentry; he was able to pay his fees by working for a European settler as a houseboy and cook. Later on, he was baptized with the name Johnstone Kamau in August 1914. He also became one of the earliest of the Kikuyu to leave the ‘shores’ of his own culture. Afterwards, Kamau left the mission life for the urban attractions of Nairobi, like every other Kikuyu youth, who were drawn to the city life. It was in Nairobi that he adopted the name Kenyatta, which was a Kikuyu term for a belt he wore. He also secured a job in the Public Works Department as a clerk. Kenyatta served briefly as an interpreter in the High Court; then transferred to a post with the Nairobi Town Council. It was at this period that he got married and raised a family.

In Nairobi, Kenyatta joined the first African political protest movement, known as the East Africa Association (EAA) in 1922, in Kenya against a white, European government.  This movement was led by Harry Thuku, an educated young Kikuyu. One of the objectives of the EAA was to recover Kikuyu lands lost when Kenya was transformed into a British crown colony in 1920. During this period, Africans were dispossessed of their lands, while the lease of lands was restricted to white settlers and native reservations were created. However in 1925, the EAA was disbanded as a result of pressures from the government; which eventually led to a change of name for the movement, from EAA to the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Kenyatta was so committed that he became the organization’s general secretary after three years; even if he had to give up his job at the municipal.

Kenyatta’s Quest for Freedom

Kenyatta started a monthly Kikuyu-language newspaper called Mwigithania (“He Who Brings Together”) in May 1928.  This move was targeted at gathering support from all parts of the Kikuyu. The tone of the paper was mild and preached personal improvement; which was then tolerated by the government. However, he faced a new challenge as the British commission proposed a closer union of the three East African territories (Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika). This proposal was supported by the British settler leaders who expected that internal self-government was next in line but the KCA saw the proposal as detriment to the interests of the Kikuyu. Kenyatta went to London in company of Isher Dass, an Indian lawyer living in Nairobi to testify against the scheme in 1929 but in London the secretary of state for colonies refused to meet with him. Kenyatta had hoped to meet the imperial authorities but he was only able to briefly met senior officials at the Colonial Office. However, he was able to make contacts with other anti-colonial activists in London and the Communist Party like George Padmore and Shapurji Saklatvala.

Kenyatta wrote a letter in The Times of London in March 1930 highlighting five issues championed by the KCA: security of land tenure and the return of lands allotted to European settlers; increased educational facilities; repeal of hut taxes on women, which forced some to earn money by prostitution; African representation in the Legislative Council and non-interference with traditional customs. In his concluding remarks, he stated that the lack of these measures “must inevitably result in a dangerous explosion—the one thing all sane men wish to avoid.” In 1931, Kenyatta’s testimony on the issue of closer union of the three colonies was bluntly refused, despite the assistance of liberals in the House of Commons although the government temporarily abandoned its plan for the union. Kenyatta was also able to testify on behalf of Kikuyu land claims at hearings of the Carter Land Commission in 1932. Compensation was awarded by the commission for some appropriated territories but still maintained the “white highlands” policy, which restricted the Kikuyu to reserves that were overpopulated.

In 1930, Kenyatta returned to Africa but was back in Britain in 1931, where he stayed until 1946, while taking few trips to Europe. At this time, Kenyatta was admitted to the London School of Economics to study anthropology under Professor Bronisław Malinowski. He wrote a collection of articles in 1938 that were later revised and published as Facing Mount Kenya, which was a study of the traditional life of the Kikuyu laced with both insight and a tinge of romanticism. The publishing of this book brought about another name change, to Jomo (“Burning Spear”) Kenyatta. He met a small group of black activists and campaigners at this period and they included C. L. R. James, Kwame Nkrumah, Peter Abrahams, Eric Williams and Paul Robeson. Kenyatta was also associated with the India League and the League of Coloured Peoples; he later met Gandhi in November 1931, when he visited London. The General Secretary of the Labour Trade Union of East Africa, Makhan Singh asked Kenyatta and Krishna Menon to represent his organization at a conference scheduled for the end of September in Brussels. However, the conference was not held because of the outbreak of the Second World War.

During the 1930s, Kenyatta was temporarily cut him off from the KCA at the beginning of the World War II, as KCA was banned by the Kenya authorities as potentially a threat. Kenyatta stayed in Sussex where he was lecturing and working as a farm labourer during the Second World War. Kenyatta continued to produce political pamphlets that were tailored towards the cause of the Kikuyu. In October 1945, Kenyatta, influenced by his friend George Padmore, he embraced anti-colonialist and Pan-African ideas and helped to co-organize the fifth Pan-African Congress which was held in Manchester, England, , with W.E.B. Du Bois of the United States as the chairperson; Kwame Nkrumah, the future leader of Ghana, was also present at the event. Resolutions for mass nationalist movements to demand independence from colonial rule were discussed and passed at this congress.

In 1946, he returned to Kenya and became a school principal. In 1947, he was elected President of the Kenya African Union, an organization of Kenyans fighting politically for independence and a platform through which he lobbied for independence from British colonial rule; this move attracted overwhelming native support but animosity from white settlers. In 1952, there was a very violent uprising against the British by a series of Kikuyu groups, especially the Mau Mau rebellion. Kenyatta was not part of this movement but he was among the Kapenguria Six arrested and charged with masterminding the anti-colonial Mau Mau Uprising. Kenyatta protested his innocence but he was convicted. He was imprisoned at Lokitaung until 1959 and then exiled in Lodwar until 1961.

However, in the 1950s and 1960s, the world was becoming dynamic. Britain faced a lot of pressure to decolonize most of its remaining colonies and preparations were being made for Kenya to rule herself. A political party was formed by the Kenyan nationalists called the Kenya African National Union; they also elected Kenyatta, president, despite being imprisoned. Kenyatta proclaimed that the Europeans should be allowed to live peacefully alongside Africans as equals, and in 1961, he was released from prison. Kenyatta was invited to the London Conference in 1962 to negotiate the constitutional terms of Kenyan independence. Kenya celebrated its independence with Jomo Kenyatta as its prime minister on December 12, 1963. That title, prime minister, was changed to president a year later.

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The Legacy of Jomo Kenyatta

Kenyatta came to be regarded as the “Father of the Nation” within Kenya, and he was given the unofficial title of Mzee, a Swahili term meaning “grand old man”. Until his death, Kenyatta was surrounded by a cult of personality in the country that deliberately linked Kenyan nationalism with Kenyatta’s own personality. This use of Kenyatta as a popular symbol of the nation itself was reinforced by the resemblances between their names. He is widely regarded as a father figure not only by Kikuyu and Kenyans, but by Africans at large.


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