Jomo Kenyatta

By: Victoria Yates

Jomo Kenyatta was born Kamau wa Ngengi on the 20th of October 1894 in a village in British East Africa (modern day Kenya), a member of the kikuyu tribe. After the death of his parents, Kenyatta was raised by his uncle and medicine man grandfather, with whom he became particularly close.  He was educated at the Church of Scotland Mission School  near Kikuyu. The influence of the missionaries led to his conversion to Christianity in 1914, changing his name to John Peter (which would again later change to Johnstone Kamau). Kenyatta moved to Nairobi around this time and lived with Maasai relatives during the first world war, working as a clerk.

In 1922 Kenyatta married Grace Wahu while working in the Nairobi City Council water department. His first son was also born in the same year. Kenyatta entered politics in 1924, taking an interest in the activities of the KCA (Kikuyu Central Association) leaders. This was also the point at which he joined the KCA. In 1928 Kenyatta was involved in working on Kikuyu land problems before the Hilton Young Commission in Nairobi, the same year that he began to edit the newspaper Muigwithania (Reconciler).

He first came to London in 1929, having been sent by the KCA to lobby for their views on Kikuyu tribal land affairs, and wrote articles about this for British newspapers. On his return to Kenya in 1930 he took part in the debate over female genital cutting, taking the traditionalist stance. He stayed for another year in Kenya, working for the Kikuyu Independent Schools, until in 1931 he went back to London and enrolled in Woodbrooke Quaker College in Birmingham.

In 1932-33 he also studied economics in Moscow until he fell out with his Soviet hosts and was forced to move back to London. He then moved to University College London in 1934, before moving the year after to study Social Anthropology under Malinowski at the London School of Economics. Throughout this long period abroad he continued to lobby for Kikuyu land affairs. He published what was to become his best known work ‘Facing Mount Kenya’ in 1938 under his new name Jomo Kenyatta. At this time he also became an active member of a group of African, Caribbean, and American intellectuals that included some of (what were to become) some of the most influence figures in Africa’s future.

He stayed in Britain during the second world war, working on a farm to avoid conscription, continuing to lecture on African issues for the Worker’s Education Association. Whilst in England he married the Edna Clarke who gave birth to his son in 1943, he later left her in 1946 to return to Kenya. Upon his return his political career began in earnest, founding the Pan-African Federation with Kwame Nkrumah (the future head of independent Ghana). He also married for the third time to Grace Wanjiku (who died four years later in childbirth, which was then follower by another marriage in 1951). He became a principal of the Kenya Teachers College and, in 1947 he became the president of the Kenya Africa Union (KAU), at which point he began to receive death threats from white settlers.

His reputation was marred for the British Government when he was assumed to be involved in the violent and bloody Mau Mau rebellion, for which he was arrested in 1952 and indicted with “managing and being a member” of the Mau Mau Society. He was accused with five others who became known as the “Kapenguria Six.” The main witness was found to have perjured himself, the judge was openly hostile to the defendants during the trial and despite the defense that the white settlers were attempting to scapegoat Kenyatta, he was sentenced to seven years of hard labor and permanent restriction thereafter. Following this he was sent into exile in a remote part of Kenya. Later research has conclusively proven no link between Kenyatta and the Mau Mau. However he remained in prison until 1959.

In 1961 the leaders of both parties that followed the KAU, the Kenya African National  Union (KANU) and the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) demanded Kenyatta’s release. Kenyatta had been elected president of KANU in absentia in 1960 and was his fully released in August 1961. The following year he was involved in creating a new constitution as part of the legislative council.

On the first of June 1963 Kenyatta became the Prime Minister of the Autonomous Kenyan government, upon which he asked white settlers to remain in Kenya and to was a staunch supporter of reconciliation. After official independence was declared in December 1963 he retained his role as prime minister.

He attempted to maintain continuity in the new Kenya, keeping many colonial civil servants in their old jobs, even asking for British troops’ help against Somali rebels. Ever interested in land affairs, Kenyatta instituted a relatively peaceful land reform, however he has since been criticized as having land policies which have been criticized for entrenching corruption in Kenya and allocating some of the best parcels to his relatives and friends while at the same time he became the Nation’s largest landowner.

He did however oversee the introduction of Kenya into the UN and undertook trade negotiations with both Uganda and Tanzania. His pro-Western, anti-Communist policies and national stability attracted foreign investment and made him a pivotal power-figure in Africa. At the same time his authoritarian policies were cause for criticism and dissent at times. His reelection in 1966 saw a constitution alteration which granted him greater power and was also a more conflicted time for Kenya; border conflicts rising up with Somalia and a greater Political opposition being born. Kenyatta made his KANU party virtually the only political party in the country and his security forces are thought to have harassed dissidents. He has been linked, by some, to the deaths of some of his political rivals during this second term but as both suspect deaths were car crash victims this has never been clarified fully.

Although a controversial figure to all concerned Kenyatta is a pivotal part of not only Kenyan but African history. He was one of the first of a new generation of African leader in the post-colonial era, and oversaw an immense amount of change within his country. A holiday is still observed in Kenya in his honor to this day. Despite the negative aspects of his control and the shadows that surround some of his policies Kenyatta cannot be dismissed as anything less than a vital historical leader in Kenya’s history.