In Kenya, Nairobi‘s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi’s main street and main streets in many Kenyan cities and towns, numerous schools, two Universities (Kenyatta University and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology), the country’s main referral hospital, markets, and housing estates are named after Jomo Kenyatta. A statue in downtown Nairobi and monuments all over Kenya stand in his honour. Kenya observed a public holiday every 20 October in his honour until the new 2010 constitution abolished Kenyatta Day and replaced it with Mashujaa (Heroes’ ) day. Kenyatta’s face adorns Kenyan currency notes and coins of all denominations,but this is expected to change as the new constitution bans the use of the portrait of any person on Kenya’s currency.
Jomo Kenyatta was born Kamau wa Muigai to parents Muigai and Wambui in the village of Gatundu, in British East Africa (now Kenya), a member of the [[|Kikuyu people|Kikuyu]]. His date of birth, sometime in the early to mid 1890s, is unclear, and was unclear even to him, as his parents were almost certainly not literate, and no formal birth records of native Africans were kept in Kenya at that time.
His father died while Kamau was very young after which, as per custom, he was adopted by his uncle Ngengi, who also inherited his mother, to become Kamau wa Ngengi. When his mother died during childbirth, young Kamau moved from Ng’enda to Muthiga to live with his medicine man grandfather Kũngũ wa Magana, to whom he became very close.
He then left home to become a resident pupil at the Church of Scotland Mission (CSM) at Thogoto, close to Kikuyu Town, about 12 miles north-west of Nairobi. He studied amongst other subjects: the Bible, English, mathematics, and carpentry. He paid the school fees by working as a houseboy and cook for a white settler living nearby.
In 1912, having completed his mission school education, he became an apprentice carpenter. The following year he underwent initiation ceremonies, including circumcision, to become a member of the kihiu-mwiri age group. In 1914, he converted to Christianity, assuming the name John Peter, which he then changed to Johnstone Kamau. He left the mission later that year to seek employment.
He first worked as an apprentice carpenter on a sisal farm in Thika, under the tutelage of John Cook, who had been in charge of the building program at Thogoto. During the First World War, Kikuyu were forced into work by the British authorities. To avoid this, he lived with Maasairelatives in Narok, where he worked as a clerk for an Asian contractor.
In 1919 he married Grace Wahu, under Kikuyu customs. When Grace got pregnant, his church elders ordered him to get married before a European magistrate, and undertake the appropriate church rites. On 20 November 1920 Kamau’s first son Peter Muigai, was born. Kamau served as an interpreter in the Nairobi High Court, and ran a store out of his Dagoretti home during this period. He eventually married Grace Wahu in a civil ceremony in 1922. Grace Wahu lived in the Dagoretti home until her death in April 2007 at the age of around 100.
In 1922 Kamau began working, as a store clerk and water-meter reader for the Nairobi Municipal Council Public Works Department, once again under John Cook who was the Water Superintendent. Meter reading helped him meet many Kenyan-Asians at their homes who would become important allies later on.
He entered politics after taking interest in the political activities of James Beauttah and Joseph Kang’ethe the leaders of the KCA (Kikuyu Central Association). He joined KCA in 1924 and rose up the ranks of the association. Eventually he began to edit the movement’s Kikuyu newspaper. By 1928 he had become the KCA’s general secretary.
In 1928 he launched a monthly Kikuyu-language newspaper called Mwĩgwithania (Reconciler) which aimed to unite all sections of the Kikuyu. The paper, supported by an Asian-owned printing press, had a mild and unassuming tone, and was tolerated by the colonial government. He also made a presentation on Kikuyu land problems before the Hilton Young Commission in Nairobi in the same year.
In 1929 the KCA sent Kenyatta to London to lobby on its behalf with regards to Kikuyu tribal land affairs. He wrote articles to British newspapers about the matter.
He returned to Kenya on September 24, 1930 and was welcomed at Mombasa by his wife Wahu and James Beauttah. He then took part, on the side of traditionalists, in the debate on the issue of female genital mutilation of girls. He later worked for Kikuyu Independent Schools in Githunguri.
In 1932 to 1933, he briefly studied economics in Moscow at the Comintern School, KUTVU (University of the Toilers of the East) before his sponsor, the Trinidadian communist George Padmore, fell out with his Soviet hosts, forcing Kenyatta to move back to London.
In 1934, Kenyatta enrolled at University College London and from 1935 studied social anthropology under Bronisław Malinowski at the London School of Economics (LSE). He published his revised LSE thesis as Facing Mount Kenya in 1938 under his new name, Jomo Kenyatta. The name “Jomo” is translated in English to “Burning Spear”, while the name “Kenyatta” was said to be a reference to the beaded Masai belt he wore, and later to “the Light of Kenya”.
During this period, he was also an active member of a group of African, Caribbean and American intellectuals who included C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, W.A. Wallace Johnson, Paul Robeson, and Ralph Bunche. During his presidency, a number of streets in Nairobi were named after those early black-emancipation intellectuals.
In 1942, he married an Englishwoman, Edna Clarke. He also published My People of Kikuyu and The Life of Chief Wang’ombe, a history shading into legend. Edna gave birth to their son, Peter Magana, in 1943.
He left Edna Clarke behind in Britain when he returned to Kenya in 1946.
Return to Kenya
Kenyatta returned to Kenya in 1946, after almost 15 years abroad.
He married for the third time, to Grace Wanjiku, Senior Chief Koinange‘s daughter, and sister to Mbiyu Koinange, who later became a lifelong confidant and was one of the most powerful politicians during Kenyatta’s presidency.
Kenyatta then went into teaching, becoming principal of Kenya Teachers College Githunguri.
In 1947, he was elected president of the Kenya African Union (KAU). He began to receive death threats from white settlers after his election.
From 1948 to 1951 he toured and lectured around the country condemning idleness, robbery, urging hard work while campaigning for the return of land given to White settlers and for independence within three years.
His wife, Grace Wanjiku, died in childbirth in 1950 as she gave birth to daughter Jane Wambui, who survived.
The Mau Mau Rebellion began in 1951 and KAU was banned, and a state of emergency was declared in on October 20, 1952.
Trial and imprisonment
Kenyatta was arrested in October 1952 and indicted with five others on the charges of “managing and being a member” of the Mau Mau Society. The Mau Mau Society was a radical anti-colonial movement engaged in the Mau Mau Rebellion. The accused were known as the “Kapenguria Six“.
The trial lasted five months: Rawson Macharia, the main prosecution witness, turned out to have perjured himself; the judge — who had only recently been awarded an unusually large pension, and who maintained secret contact with the then colonial Governor of Kenya Evelyn Baring during the trial — was openly hostile to the defendants’ cause.
The defense, led by British Lawyer Dennis Pritt, argued that the white settlers were trying to scapegoat Kenyatta and that there was no evidence tying him to the Mau Mau. The court sentenced Kenyatta on April 8, 1953 to seven years imprisonment with hard labor and indefinite restriction thereafter. The subsequent appeal was refused by the British Privy Council in 1954.
Kenyatta remained in prison until 1959, after which he was detained in Lodwar, a remote part of Kenya.
The state of emergency was lifted on January 12, 1960.(Anderson, pg 393)
On Feb 28 1960, a public meeting of 25,000 in Nairobi demanded his release. On April 15, 1960, over a million signatures for a plea to release him were presented to the Governor. On May 14, 1960, he was elected Kanu President in absentia. On Mar 23 1961, Kenyan leaders, including Daniel arap Moi, later his long time Vice President and successor as president, visited him at Lodwar. On Apr 11 1961, he was moved to Maralal with daughter Margaret where he met world press for the first time in eight years. On Aug 14 1961, he was released and brought to Gatundu to a hero’s welcome.
While contemporary opinion linked Kenyatta with the Mau Mau, historians have questioned his alleged leadership of the radical movement. Kenyatta was in truth a political moderate. His marriage of Colonial Chief’s daughters, his post independence Kikuyu allies mainly being former colonial collaborators, and his short shrift treatment of former Mau Mau fighters after he came to power, all strongly suggest he had scant regard for the Mau Mau.
Kenyatta was admitted into the Legislative Council after his release in 1961, after Kariuki Njiiri (son of late Chief Njiiri) gave up his Kigumo seat for him.
In 1961 and 1962, he led the KANU delegation to first and second Lancaster Conference in London where Kenya’s independence constitution was negotiated.
Elections were then held in May 1963, pitting Kenyatta’s KANU (Kenya African National Union- which advocated for Kenya to be a unitary state) against KADU (Kenya African Democratic Union- which advocated for Kenya to be an ethnic-federal state). KANU beat KADU by winning 83 seats out of 124. On June 1, 1963, Kenyatta became prime minister of the autonomous Kenyan government, with Queen Elizabeth II remaining as Head of State (after Independence, styled as Queen of Kenya), represented by a Governor-General. He consistently asked white settlers not to leave Kenya and supported reconciliation.
Kenyatta retained the role of prime minister after independence was declared and jubilantly celebrated on December 12, 1963.
On June 1, 1964, Kenyatta became President when he successfully had Parliament amend the Constitution to make Kenya a republic with his office becoming executive President: the head of State, head of Government, and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.
His policy was that of continuity and gradual Africanization of the government, keeping many colonial civil servants in their old jobs as they were gradually replaced by Kenyans. He asked for British troops’ help against Somali rebels, Shiftas, in the northeast and in ending an army mutiny in Nairobi in January 1964.
On November 10, 1964, KADU officially dissolved and its representatives joined KANU, forming a single party.
Kenyatta was re-elected un-opposed in 1966, and the next year had the Constitution amended to expand his powers. This term featured border conflicts with Somalia, and more political opposition. He made the Kikuyu-led KANU practically the only political party of Kenya. He consolidated his power greatly, and placed several of his Kikuyu tribesmen in most of the powerful state and security offices and posts. State security forces harassed dissidents and were suspected of complicity in several murders of prominent personalities deemed as threats to his regime, including Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya and J.M. Kariuki. MP and Lawyer C.M.G. Argwings-Kodhek and former Kadu Leader and minister Ronald Ngala, also died in suspicious car accidents.
In 1968 he published his biography Suffering Without Bitterness.
In the 1969 elections, Kenyatta banned the only other party, KPU (formed and led by his former vice president, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga who had been forced to quit KANU along with his left leaning allies), detained its leaders, and called elections in which only KANU was allowed to participate.
On 29 January 1970 he was sworn in as President for a further term. For the remainder of his presidency, Kenya was effectively a one-party state, and Kenyatta made use of detention, appeals to ethnic loyalties, and careful appointment of government jobs to maintain his commanding position in Kenya’s political system. However, his advancing age kept him from the day-to-day management of government affairs. He intervened only when necessary to settle disputed issues. His relative isolation resulted in increasing domination of Kenya’s affairs by well-connected Kikuyu who acquired great wealth as a result.
Kenyatta was again re-elected as President in 1974, in elections in which he, again, ran alone. On Nov 5, 1974, he was sworn in as President for a third term. His increasingly feeble health meant that his inner circle effectively ruled the country, and greatly enriched themselves, in his name. He remained president until his death four years later in 1978.
President Kenyatta had suffered a heart attack in 1966. He would in the mid-seventies lapse into periodic comas lasting from a few hours to a few days from time to time. In April 1977, then well into his 80s, he suffered a massive heart attack.
On August 14, 1978, he hosted his entire family, including his son Peter Magana who flew in from Britain with his family, to a reunion in Mombasa.
On August 22, 1978, President Kenyatta died in Mombasa of natural causes attributable to old age.
Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was buried on August 31, 1978 in Nairobi in a state funeral at a mausoleum on Parliament grounds.
He was succeeded as President after his death by his vice-president Daniel arap Moi.
Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, as he was popularly known, was an important and influential statesman in Africa. He is credited with leading Kenya to independence and setting up the country as a relatively prosperous capitalist state. He pursued a moderate pro-Western, anti-Communist economic philosophy and foreign policy. He oversaw a peaceful land reform process, oversaw the setting up of the institutions of independent Kenya, and also oversaw Kenya’s admission into the United Nations. During his reign, the country was reasonably well governed, peaceful and stable, the economy developed and grew rapidly and attracted high levels of foreign investment, and a black Kenyan professional and business middle class was established.
However, Kenyatta was not without major flaws, and did also bequeath Kenya some major problems which continue to bedevil the country to date, hindering his development, and threatening her existence as a peaceful unitary multi-ethnic state. He failed to mould Kenya, being its founding father, into a homogeneous multi-ethnic state. Instead, the country became and remains a de-facto confederation of competing tribes. Also, his resettlement of many Kikuyu tribesmen in the country’s Rift Valley province is widely considered to have been done unfairly.
His authoritarian style, with elements of patronage, favouritism, tribalism and/or nepotism drew criticism and dissent, and set a bad example followed by his successors. He had the Constitution radically amended to expand his powers, consolidating executive power. He has also been criticised for ruling through a post colonial clique consisting largely of his relatives, other Kikuyus, mostly from his native Kiambu district, and African Kikuyu colonial collaborators and their offspring, while giving scant reward to those whom most consider the real fighters for Kenya’s independence. This clique became and remains the wealthiest, most powerful and most influential class in Kenya to date, and has held the country back, blocking reform and change, and the emergence of fresh progressive leadership, in its manoeuvres to maintain its power and wealth. Kenyatta has further been criticised for encouraging the culture of wealth accumulation by public officials using the power and influence of their offices, thereby deeply entrenching corruption in Kenya.
His policies are also criticised for leading to a large income and development inequality gap in the country. Development and resource allocation in the country during his reign was seen to have favoured some regions of the country, mainly Nairobi and the Country’s Central Highlands, over others.
Kenyatta had two children from his first marriage with Grace Wahu: son Peter Muigai Kenyatta (born 1920), who later became a deputy minister; and daughter Margaret Kenyatta (born 1928). Margaret served as mayor of Nairobi between 1970–76 and then as Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1976 -86. Grace Wahu died in April 2007.
He had one son, Peter Magana Kenyatta (born 1943) from his short marriage with Edna Clarke.
His third wife, Grace Wanjiku, died when giving birth in 1950. Daughter Jane Wambui survived.
His fourth wife, the best known due to her role as First Lady, was Ngina Kenyatta (née Muhoho), also known as Mama Ngina. She often accompanied him in public and also has some streets in Nairobi and Mombasa named after her. She bore Kenyatta four children: Christine Wambui (born 1952), Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta (born 1961), Anna Nyokabi (also known as Jeni) and Muhoho Kenyatta (born 1964). Mama Ngina lives quietly as a wealthy widow in Kenya. Uhuru Kenyatta, Mzee Kenyatta’s political heir, unsuccessfully vied for the Kenyan presidency as President Moi’s preferred successor in 2002 and is today the Kenyan Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance. Muhoho Kenyatta runs his mother’s vast family business but lives out of the public limelight.
Kenyatta was the uncle of Ngethe Njoroge, Kenya’s first representative to the United Nations and the great uncle of Tom Morello, the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine. His niece, Beth Mugo, married to a retired ambassador, is an MP and currently serving as Minister for Public Health.
Books by Jomo Kenyatta
- Facing Mount Kenya (1938)
- My people of Kikuyu and the life of Chief Wangombe (1944)
- Suffering Without Bitterness (biography 1968)
- Kenya: The land of conflict (1971)
- The challenge of Uhuru;: The progress of Kenya, 1968 to 1970 (1971)
Books about Jomo Kenyatta
- Guy Arnold (1974), Kenyatta and the politics of Kenya, London: Dent ISBN 046007878X
- Jeremy Murray-Brown (1979), Kenyatta, Allen & Unwin, ISBN 0049200593
- George Delf (1961), Jomo Kenyatta: Towards Truth about “The Light of Kenya” New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-8371-8307-3
- Rawson Macharia (1991), The Truth about the Trial of Jomo Kenyatta, Nairobi: Longman. ISBN 9966498230
- Veena Malhotra (1990), Kenya Under Kenyatta Kalinga. ISBN 8185163162
- Montagu Slater (1955), The trial of Jomo Kenyatta London: Secker and Warburg. ISBN 0436472007
- Elizabeth Watkins, (1993) Jomo’s Jailor — Grand Warrior of Kenya Mulberry Books ISBN 978-0952895206
- Caroline Elkins, (2005) “Imperial Reckoning” Henry Holt and Co ISBN 0805076530
Films about Jomo Kenyatta
- Anthony Howarth & David Koff (1973), Kenyatta Part 3 of The Black Man’s Land Trilogy