|Some of the famous graves are long-forgotten. Photo:Courtesy|
By Mwaura Samora
Death is a common denominator, the greatest equalizer. When it makes its uninvited visit, the unlucky has no choice but to become a non-tax payer and rest ‘six feet’ under. While Lang’ata Cemetery, the city’s largest public burial ground, is running out of space to plant stiffs, Counties like neighboring Kiambu are hiking fees to ensure invasion by mourners is not cheap.
That aside, our city hosts the resting places of Kenyans who ate their lives with a big spoon, those who gained fame and infamy before death, as it does to all men, came to them.
The Nairobian visited their lonely, derelict graves as well as a few well-kept but long-forgotten ones.
He is Kenya’s only head of state to leave office via the route we will all take, some day. Jomo Kenyatta is interred in a mausoleum inside Parliament on Parliament Road, Nairobi. His permanently embalmed body has been guarded by Kenya Defense Forces soldiers since his death 35 years ago aged around 85. It is a no-go zone as proven by the stern warning from the stone-faced, red-clad military men as we attempted to approach it. The Kenyatta Mausoleum is opened once annually during his memorial on August 22 when the sitting President, family and dignitaries lay commemorative wreaths.
Of all graves in the city, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s is the most notable, his burial site the most guarded, respected and hallowed, almost.
He was Kenya’s second Vice President after replacing Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in 1965. Murumbi resigned in 1966 and barely six months into his job. He wept uncontrollably when his friend, Pio Gama Pinto, became Kenya’s first post-independence political assassination victim.
He never recovered from Pinto’s death and couldn’t cope with political hyenas in the Kenyatta administration.
Murumbi, who had no children besides a rumoured son fathered while serving with the British Military administration in Somalia, asked that he be buried next to Pinto. When he died in 1990, the then 79 years old Murumbi was buried at the City Park Cemetery, but slightly outside the perimeter: It was full house, you see.
The most notable object in his grave is the ‘Birds of Peace Emerging from Stone of Despair’ granite sculpture by renowned sculptor Elkana Ong’esa in 2008.
There is also a junk art metallic statue and a humongous Mugumo tree, beside a notice board pinned with Murumbi’s stories and photos from newspaper cuttings on his love of art and politics.
Throughout his life, Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi collected art that is now part of the Murumbi African Art Collection at the Kenya National Archives and the National Museums of Kenya. Little wonder thieves raided the grave in 2005 in search of treasures. In 2006, the Nairobi City Council yielded to pressure from the Murumbi Trust to have the Murumbi Memorial secured to ward off not just thieves, but land grabbers who had been allocated his grave.
While Jomo Kenyatta’s mausoleum is guarded by the army, the half-Maasai-half-Goan’s grave yard is manned by scruffy-looking guards from Hatari Security who understandably asked for ‘lunch’ after our tour.
Pio Gama pinto
A few metres from Murumbi’s Peace Memorial is the equally dilapidated and seemingly forgotten grave of Pio Gama Pinto, the only Asian detained during Kenya’s war of independence.
The journalist and politician was assassinated in 1965. He was 38. Pinto was a staunch communist who faced permanent political elimination at the height of the Cold War. Capitalist Kenya was then under the cusp of Kenyatta’s 70 plus year old trembling hands that was in turn, jealously under the reptilian watch of the Kiambu political Oligarchy-and here was Pinto planning to bring a motion of no confidence in his government!
Partially covered by vegetation, Pinto’s tombstone is hard to find at the now closed City Park Cemetery.
Unlike Pinto’s grungy final abode, some graves nearby belonging to white settlers who died in the 1940s and 1950s look neatly tended. Their relatives, we’re told, foot shearing and pruning bills.
As for Pio Gama Pinto’s grave, well, we had to wipe the dirt to reveal the epitaph that epitomizes the fiery politician’s life philosophy: “If he has been extinguished, yet there arise a thousand beacons from the spark he bore.”
She was Kenya’s and Africa’s greatest collector of rare stamps. Murumbi’s wife is on one corner of the lonely Murumbi Peace Memorial, her grave covered halfway by overgrown vegetation.
Sheila Ann Kaine Murumbi, who met her future hubby in cold old England where she was a librarian, died in 2005. Some distant cousins almost carted away the Murumbi African Art Collection were it not for old friend Alan Donovan with whom, together with her husband, had founded the African Heritage Gallery in 1973.
“There is a mzungu who takes care of this place by repairing the graves and slashing the grass as well us hiring our services,” the guard told The Nairobian. “Otherwise the visitors are few and far between, with most of them being school children, history lovers or white tourists.”
Edward Maina Shimoli
Accused of 14 murders, 88 rapes and three prison breaks, Maina ‘The Jackal’ Shimoli was buried at the Kariokor Muslim Cemetery. As he had feared, his 38-year-old body was found with a bullet hole to the head two months after he was released from Kamiti Prison before serving his full 12-year jail term in 2007.
The caretaker refused to show us his grave, saying the man’s reputation is a disgrace to the graveyard.
Nicholas Mwea “Wakinyonga”
One of the most notorious post-independence criminals of his time, Nicholas Mwea Wakinyonga” was shot in 1978. His specialty was bank heists and car thefts for which he escaped, three times from copper dragnets, at one time, with slugs in his butt.
Residents of Kangemi, a slum valley 15 minutes’ drive from the city, still remember one of its most notorious sons. Just ask anyone where Wakinyonga met his Waterloo and you will be directed to what was Nyakiambi Lodge and Night Club, off Kangemi Road. The area was for a long time called ‘Kwa-Bernard’ after the owner of Nyakiambi Night Club, which closed three years ago and now houses the Cooperative Bank.
Quite ironical for a most wanted bank robber to have been shot dead in a bar that would later become a bank.
Up to the day of his murder on June 26, 1978, Wakinyonga was binge-drinking with revellers at Nyakiambi Lodge and Night Club before cops surrounded it after a tip off. Wakinyonga was buried at Makaburini, a 20-minute walk from Nyakiambi Lodge and Night Club in Kangemi. But the grave site is now a dumpsite, over grown with shrubbery, goats here and there munching nylon, people ambling along the dirt road adjacent to the grave yard. Coppers attended his burial to hunt down his accomplices.
Geoffrey William Griffin
He founded an institution for street children and those who had escaped from approved schools that later morphed into the Starehe Boys’ Centre & School-the alma mater of Presidential contender Peter Kenneth and Raphael Tuju and prominent mandarins of the corporate world.
Geoffrey Griffin never married. The famed disciplinarian is buried in the school’s chapel- according to his wishes. It is at this chapel that many old boys return to tie the knot.
The grave on the smooth tile floor is a grey rectangular metallic plate in one corner besides the altar scribbled with one of life’s doctrines: “Happy are those who dream dreams and are ready to pay the price to make them come true”.
Starehe’s love for Griffin is immortalized by the inscription “With the toil of his today he brought for us tomorrow.” Being buried inside the chapel also means the man who was born in Eldoret but came to Nairobi and created one of Kenya’s only two schools that are members of Round Square in Africa (besides Brook house)… has his final resting place in holy condition, literarily.
‘Dae’ for ‘Director’ as students privately called Griffin died at 72 in 2005.
Robert Napunyi Wangila
Just behind Starehe Boys on your way to Nairobi’s Gikomba secondhand clothes market is the famous Kariokor Muslim Cemetery.
After a protracted court battle that saw several fathers claim paternity, Robert Napunyi Wangila, one of Kenya’s most revered boxers, was buried there in 1994 following a court ruling granting his Muslim wife right to have Wangila rested according to Islamic traditions as he had wished.
Wangila, alongside the likes of ‘DK’ Kamau, Stephen Muchoki and Patrick ‘Mont’ Waweru, made Kenya’s national boxing team, the Hit Squad, one of the continent’s most lethal.
With it, he won the featherweight gold during the 1987 4th All-Africa Games in Nairobi before becoming Africa’s first pugilist to win an Olympic gold in welterweight after knocking out Frenchman Laurent Boudouani in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
But his grave is decaying, overgrown with vegetation and hard to find in the maze of others at Kariokor, its state a far cry from what a national hero who flew the national flag high deserves.
The caretaker, an old man who has tended this graveyard for more than two decades, ordered that photos would not be taken.
He was a giant in life, as he is in legend.
His trademark cream Mercedes KVF 845 and .38 revolver sent everyone scampering for cover whenever he showed up.
So dreaded was he that when he died it is rumoured that pimps, prostitutes and thieves attended his burial to ensure he was kaput! The casket of the 52-year-old 300 pounder was never opened for public viewing that February 15, 1988.
At the Starehe Boys’ Centre where he was assistant director and The Shaw Memorial Music Centre is named after him, would often punish students (who socks were down) to race ‘across’ (as the tuition block across General Waruinge Street was called).
He drove his Volvo after you, but you were supposed to arrive first…running!
But 25 years later, the grave of the man Starehe students fondly called ‘PD’ and who, more than any other reservist copper helped eliminate crime, is to say the least, pathetic.
The gravestone, which still bears the “To the helpless, compassion against evil valour”, is broken and the grey marble is worn by neglect.
So dilapidated and rundown is Pat Shaw’s eternal nest that we had to do rounds before we could find it tucked among some glistening marble graves at the Lang’ata Cemetery.