Harry Thuku

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Harry Thuku

Harry Thuku (1895-1970), Kenyan politician, was one of the pioneers in the development of modern African nationalism in Kenya.

Harry Thuku was born in the Kambui district of Kenya; he traced his descent from one of the most influential Kibuyu families of the region. He spent 4 years at the school of the Kambui Gospel Mission, and in 1911 he received a 2-year prison sentence for forging a check. Next Thuku became a typesetter for the Leader, a European settler newspaper. In 1918 he became a clerk-telegraph operator in the government treasury office in Nairobi. All this experience had made Thuku one of the first of Kenya's Africans to be fully capable of working in the English language.

At this time the first African organizations were being formed to defend African interests against the European rulers of Kenya. One of the first, the Kikuyu Association, was a nonmilitant group with ties to the government and missions; its main concern was the preservation of African-owned land. During 1920-1921 Thuku served as its secretary. He was interested, however, in more forceful action to deal with other problems facing Kenya's Africans, and in 1921 he left the Kikuyu Association when it did not respond as he wished to new European pressures. Kenya then was suffering from economic difficulties, and the organized Europeans wanted to cut African wages to revive the colony's economic position.

Thuku was one of the founders of the East African Association (1921), Nairobi's first modern political organization. It drew members from many tribal groups, but because of its location most of the members were Kikuyu. Thuku played an important role because of his education and government position. The Kenyan government opposed the association's aims since the settler-dominated colony was not yet ready for any forceful presentation of African views. But Thuku and his colleagues continued to work and to gain support among Kenya's educated Africans. This success led to Thuku's arrest in 1922. This event was met by an intensive African protest which resulted in a demonstration culminating in violence. Thuku was then deported to remote Kismayu.

The East African Association then declined, but those interested in African rights remained active. Thuku remained in their thoughts as a primary leader. He was released in 1931; in 1932 he became president of the Kikuyu Central Association, then Kenya's foremost African political group. But dissension arose among the leaders of the association, and the organization split into factions, with Thuku eventually founding his own group, the Kikuyu Provincial Association, devoted to legal, nonmilitant protest. This turn to moderation caused a permanent split between Thuku and the rising generation of the future leaders of Kenya. From this period on Thuku played no important role in the evolution of African nationalism within his country.

Further Reading

The best account of Thuku and his times is Carl G. Rosberg, Jr., and John Nottingham, The Myth of "Mau Mau": Nationalism in Kenya (1966). Other useful sources are George Bennett, Kenya: A Political History (1963), and B. A. Ogot and J. A. Kieran, eds., Zamani: A Survey of East African History (1968). □