Kenyatta never paid for his Gatundu house? Ten things Kenyans never knew about Mzee

Jomo Kenyatta with traditional dancers

At the dawn of 1929, a young man from Ichaweri, Gatundu in Kiambu departed for the United Kingdom. His name was Kamau wa Ngengi, and had Christened himself ‘Johnstone’ and would later be known as Jomo Kenyatta. This man’s history would dominate that of Kenya for the next half a century .

As President, Mzee Kenyatta was the aged king whose word was law. At one point, it was debated in first Parliament whether his Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga had referred to him as “a second God”. 

Such were conversations that surrounded the presidency of the founding father. He led Kenya as a Prime Minister from 1963 to December of 1964 where he took up the leadership role as President until his death on the morning 22nd of August of 1978 in Mombasa.

Here are a few things that you might not know about Kenya’s first President:

  1. Mchango for Trip to the UK

His first trip in 1929 to Europe was funded by locals’ contributions who sent him to push for land rights in London.

This was a result of dissatisfaction on how British were handling land issues, Charles Hornby tells us in his book- Kenya since Independence. He returned with no concrete solution to the problems facing his people.

  1. Stayed abroad for over ten years

As the Second World War brewed, and even when Germany invaded Poland to mark the beginning of Second World War in 1939, Jomo Kenyatta was in the UK. While he might have lost track of what was happening in Kenya, it helped him avoid jostling and growing tension among his local men. He stayed abroad from 1931, until 1946, the memoir reveals. It was at this time that he married his second wife, Edna.

  1.  Never paid for his house?

 The 34 square feet Kenyatta mausoleum next to Parliament building in Nairobi was designed by famous Israeli architect George Vamos. It was constructed by Campagnola Ltd an Italian company, with a team of over 100 Africans, British service men and Indians as watu wa mikono.

The same G Campagnola was also tasked with building Kenyatta’s Gatundu home in 1963 but was never paid for their service! Mzee Kenyatta, a tightwad with debt, argued that it was G Campagnola’s “contribution to independence celebrations”. Duncan Ndegwa captures this in his 2009 memoirs, Walking in Kenyatta Struggles: My Story.

Jomo kenyatta swearing in ceremony in 1974
  1. Independence

  At a ceremony on 11 December, 1963 Jomo Kenyatta received Kenya’s articles of independence in front of the Duke of Edinburgh, Colonial Secretary Duncan Sandys and 200,000 Kenyans. Mzee’s independence speech gave hope, breath life to dying dreams and re-lived spirits of thousands who watched as Union Jack came down and as the colorful Kenyan flag went up for the first time in human history.

  1. Church Going

The British conquest saw the Bible arrive alongside the gun, and Kenyatta made it very clear to the colonial masters. Well, unlike retired presidents Moi and President Kibaki, and his son Uhuru, the current president, Jomo never attended any church service in his 15-year presidency.

His funeral service was inter-denominational though, with the late PCEA moderator Charles M Kareri leading the pack that included Banana Hill healer, Margaret Wangari. Of his religious inclinations, Kenyatta told presiding judge Ransley Thaker during the infamous Kapenguria Trial in 1953 that he was “agnostic,” basically a kafiri.

  1. Jock Scott

On 20th October 1952, Governor Sir Evelyn Baring declared the infamous State of emergence in Kenya. The state initiated operation ‘Jock Scott’ and arrested over 100 political leaders across the country, among them Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. He was taken in even though the colonialist could not directly link him to MAU MAU movement.

  1. Kapenguria Six

They were jailed in April 1953 after a trial held at Kapenguria in Pokot. But did you know that the trial was held in Pokot- far from the nearest Kikuyu to avoid the intimidation of witnesses? This is because prosecution feared that Mzee Kenyatta broad connections would interfere with the outcome had it been done in Nairobi. 

  1. Bribed judged and dangerous Jomo

Reports showed that British had almost no evidence that indeed Kenyatta had been the leader of Mau Mau movement. They however could not take chances because Kenyatta was a dangerous man, or so they thought.

It was later found, Charles Hornsby writes , that the government of day ‘bribed witnesses to provide false evidence, and the ex-settler British judge was reportedly  paid 10 years’ salary to facilitate a conviction!” And yes, a conviction he gave. He sent Kenyatta and the rest to Jail for seven years’ hard labour, with indefinite detention thereafter!

  1. Never travelled

He was not a globetrotter. Mzee Jomo Kenyatta last trip out of Africa was in 1964. After a visit to the United Kingdom for a Commonwealth conference in 1964, he never left Africa again. He instead chose to focus on local issues and according to memoirs, his high blood pressure made long-distance flights hazardous.

He feared heights and hated lift as well. He relocated his office at Harambee House to the first floor so that he could take the stairs! The office of the president to date is on the first floor of the building.

  1. Support for Nelson Mandela

Jomo Kenyatta spoke openly about his position on the threat of apartheid to the Republic of South Africa. He would in strongly worded statement in 1964 criticize the life imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. Jomo Kenyatta said that “Kenya will do all that is within its power to bring about the liberation of South Africa.”

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Pictures: Standard Archive/Jesse Kamwaro

Excerpts from Kenya since Independence

Walking in Kenyatta Struggles: My Story.