Kenyatta, Jomo 1891(?)–1978

views updated Jun 08 2018

Jomo Kenyatta 1891(?)1978

Former President of Kenya

At a Glance

Political Awareness Awakened

His Mission in England

Facing Mount Kenya

Returned to Kenya

Ideas of Independence Take Root

Terror Stalked the Land

Imprisoned as Mau Mau Organizer

The Cell Door Opened

Kenyan Independence

Cracks in the Facade

The 1970s: Money and Murder

Selected writings


On December 12, 1963, the flag of independent Kenya billowed over the capital city of Nairobi for the first time. Flanked by thousands of other Kenyans, Jomo Kenyatta watched the unfolding of a 50-year-old dream that had sent him overseas to Europe, landed him in jail, and earned him the hushed admiration of his fellow-Kikuyu tribesmen. An astute politician known to his people as Mzee, or The Wise Elder, Kenyatta became the countrys first president in 1964. History remembers him as a brilliant communicator who stressed the importance of black African rule in Kenya and conveyed his message with stunning effectiveness to both his supporters and his opponents.

Jomo Kenyatta never knew the exact year of his birthonly that he was born sometime in the 1890s into a tribe that had always counted peoples ages according to their initiation groups. This custom, part of a long tradition, had kept the group members loyal to each other even after the burgeoning Kikuyu population expanded into new territory during the nineteenth century. However, unchanging tradition could not barricade the people against outside events; it was powerless against both the drought of 1889-1890 and the evils of smallpox and cattle disease that sent Kikuyu fleeing back to their ancestral stronghold in the fertile highlands around Mount Kenya. On their homecoming, they met yet another disaster: foreigners had claimed their vacant land after Kenya became the British East Africa Protectorate in 1895. Furthermore, these foreigners could support their claims with 99-year Crown leases that virtually turned the Kikuyu into squatters on their own land, tolerated only as a source of cheap labor.

By 1902 Kikuyu lands were divided again, this time by the Uganda Railway built by the British to connect the Kenyan port of Mombasa with Lake Victoria. The railroad shattered tribal isolation forever, enticing the people into the new era with trading posts and introducing them to European missionaries bearing the messages of Christianity and education for their children.

The future president of Kenya enrolled in a Scottish-run mission school in Kenyas Central province around the year 1909. Naked except for three wire bracelets plus a strip of cloth around his neck, he is said to have given his name as Kamau wa Ngengi. There was little about him to hint at his future role as Jomo Kenyatta: he abandoned academic life for a carpentry apprenticeship in 1912, though he stayed at the mission long enough to undergo both the traditional Kikuyu initiation into manhood and entry into Christianity, taking the

At a Glance

Born Kamau wa Ngengi, c. October 20, 1891 (birth date is uncertain; some sources say 1890, 1893, or 1897), in Ngenda, Kiambu District, British East Africa Protectorate (now Kenya); took the name Johnstone Kamau, 1914; later known as Jomo Kenyatta; died August 22, 1978, on Mombasa, Kenya; son of Muigai (a farmer and herdsman) and Wambui; married Grace Wahu, Edna Clarke, Jane (daughter of Chief Koinange), and Ngina (four wives; no divorces, since Kikuyu society was polygamous); children: eight. Education: Attended University College, London; studied in Moscow, 1932; postgraduate study in anthropology, London School of Economics, 1937. Politics: Conservative Pan-Africanist. Religion: Christian.

Store clerk and water works maintenance employee for Nairobi Municipality, 1921-26; Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), secretary, beginning 1928 (organization banned in May 1940), KCA representative in England intermittently between 1929 and 1945; also worked as a teacher, farm laborer, and lecturer while abroad; co-organizer of 5th Pan-African Congress, 1945; Independent Teachers College, Githunguri, Kenya, vice principal, beginning 1946, became principal; president, Kenya African Union (KAU; political party), 1947-52 (also president in absentia, beginning 1944); imprisoned by British Government for alleged role in Mau Mau terrorism, 1953-61; president, Kenya African National Union (KANU; political party), 1960-78 (first year in absentia); Government of Kenya, minister for Internal Security, Defense and Foreign Affairs, 1963-64; prime minister of Kenya, December 12, 1963-December 12, 1964; president of Kenya, December 12, 1964-August 22, 1978.

Awards: Knight of Grace, Order of St. John of Jerusalem, 1972; LL.D. from University of East Africa; Order of the Golden Ark, bestowed by the World Wildlife Fund, 1974.

baptismal name of Johnstone.

The end of World War I found Johnstone Kamau settled in Nairobi, attending evening mission classes and working as a water meter reader. Generously paid, he was able to build a hut for his new wife and baby in his native Kiambu district. Johnstone is said to have made his hut big enough to accommodate a small general store, which he called Kinyata after the bead-strung leather strips he often wore as a belt.

Political Awareness Awakened

A social center as well as a place of business, the shop was an ideal place for customers to air grievances over the laws that were instituted after Kenya was declared a British colony in 1920. Several topics came up for discussion. A 1915 law extending white-held land leases from 99 to 999 years and placing all black-held land under the British Crown was hotly opposed, as was a registration act stating that all black males had to carry a kipande, or document listing their employment history and references. Taken together, these laws increased the squatter problem, especially when combined with a ban on profitable sisal (hemp) and coffee crops for black farmers. The Kikuyu resented this almost as much as they resented the hut tax now payable for each wife, complaining that tax money would be better spent on government-run schools.

Discontented rumblings found expression in a rash of government-opposed societies. Kenyatta joined the fledgling Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) in 1925, later becoming secretary. Successful at increasing member support in rural areas, he soon earned himself an official reputation as a troublemaker by helping to shape a petition to the British government, asking, among other things, for permission to grow coffee and for publication of all laws in the Kikuyu language.

By 1929 the KCA had not received a response from local government about either these grievances or the issues of land rights and the hut tax. Disregarding the local authorities assurances that they would have no success as an unofficial organization that did not represent all the Kikuyu, the KCA scraped together the funds to send Johnstone to England to consult the Colonial Office.

His Mission in England

From London, Johnstone wrote to the British Colonial Office frequently. While he waited for a response, he took the opportunity to visit Europe and Russia, despite a shortage of money so acute that his landlord impounded his possessions in lieu of rent. Ignored by the authorities, he returned to Kenya in 1930 but was soon sent back by the KCA to protest a threatened federation of Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Uganda, and Kenya that would tighten Britains colonial grip. Johnstone ventured back to England eagerly, lingering only to send his wife two bunches of bananas by way of acknowledging the birth of his second baby. Once in England, however, neither frequent letters to the Colonial Office nor impassioned pleas to several parliamentary committees brought any response on the federation question.

Nevertheless, he gained a chance to make himself heard, for the Kikuyu land loss complaint had at last found a British response. In 1932 the government appointed the Carter Commission to walk the precarious claims tightrope teetering between the powerful, wealthy settlers and the impoverished, aggrieved Kikuyu. Sir Morris Carter took statements from Kenyatta and others, then went to Kenya to inspect the lands. Finding that the ancestral territory around Mount Kenya had indeed been cut, he compromised by ruling that the Kikuyu be moved and compensated with less desirable land reclaimed from the thin strip of forest separating them from the Masai tribes. The white settlers were permitted to remain in the fertile area that would henceforth be known as the White Highlands.

Having infuriated the Kikuyu by removing them from their ancestral stronghold, the might of the law moved on to the neighboring Wakamba. Outraged by the devastating effects of Carters dictums on their cattle-raising tradition, 3,000 Wakamba tribesmen marched to see the governor in Nairobi. Denied entry, they protested by swelling KCA membership rolls, which reached 10,000 by 1938.

These explosive events were faithfully relayed to Johnstone in England. In turn, he publicized the Wakamba and Kikuyu complaints both in lectures given all over England and in articles published in the Manchester Guardian. The Colonial Office, however, refused to acknowledge him, though they had begun to keep a list of all his activities. Meticulously documented were Johnstones 1932 visit to Moscow, where he attended an institute for revolutionaries; his job teaching Kikuyu language at London Universitys School of African and Oriental Languages; and a bit part he played in a movie called Sanders of the River, which brought him a friendship with the world-renowned singer and activist Paul Robeson. Also noted were details of Johnstones association with left-wing intellectuals who introduced him to the possibilities of Kenyan independence and black majority rule.

Facing Mount Kenya

In 1936, despite the fact that he lacked a college degree, Johnstone went to the London School of Economics to take a postgraduate level class in anthropology from the distinguished Bronislaw Malinowski. Around the same time, he wrote a study of Kikuyu life called Facing Mount Kenya, depicting a complex African society that had developed free from European influence. To illustrate his pride in the uncorrupted Kikuyu culture, he was photographed for the books cover in tribal dress consisting of a borrowed monkey-fur cloak and a spear made from a sharpened plank. He also rejected the missionary-given name of Johnstone, deciding that Jomo, meaning burning spear, might be more appropriate. By way of a last name, he adopted Kenyatta, reminiscent of his little store in Kiambu. His book sold only 517 copies but was well received in academic circles.

The outbreak of World War II prevented Kenyattas return to Kenya but did not leave his Colonial Office dossier incomplete. The list now included his job as a farm laborer in an English town, his 1942 marriage (Kenyan family notwithstanding) to an Englishwoman named Edna Clarke, and the birth of a son the following year. The record ended in 1946, when he finally returned to Kenya, leaving Edna behind.

Returned to Kenya

Sixteen years abroad had changed both Kenyatta and his country. Fiftyish, highly educated, and well-traveled, he received an ecstatic welcome from his supporters. Kenya now had a booming economy, fueled mainly by exports of food to a hungry, wartorn Europe. Wealth, in turn, had brought thousands of settlers streaming from India on the eve of its partition from Britain. By 1948, the white population in Kenya stood at around 30,000, many of whom needed cheap labor to work their growing lands.

But Kenyattas keen eye saw that the countrys labor force would not be easy to manage. Blacks who had spent the war years in Kenya had learned about free education and territorial security from British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news bulletins. Those who had gone overseas with the 75,000-strong fighting forces had left the racial discrimination of their colonial-run homeland behind, only to return at wars end to the usual problems of work documents and confiscated land. With no means of livelihood, these highly trained veterans had drifted into the rapidly swelling new slums of Kenyas cities, where the crime rate had begun to soar.

Kenyatta was dismayed to see the traditional honor of the Kikuyu besmirched by dishonesty and violence. Despite government restrictions that made meetings difficult to arrange, he harangued his huge audiences with pep talks on the necessities for hard work, fair trade in the cities, and an immediate end to tribal violence.

Ideas of Independence Take Root

Kenyatta was a staunch opponent of white rule for Africans, and he introduced the idea of independence for his countrys people through the Kenya African Union (KAU). Formed in 1944, the multitribal organization declared him its president in absentia and rallied for racial equality by law, voting privileges for blacks, and the restoration of land ownership rights to native Kenyans. Noting that urban blacks were more comfortable with the move towards independence than their conservative rural counterparts, Kenyatta made a decision that led to disaster: he chose to spur black allegiance with traditional oath-taking.

Oaths had always been part of the Kikuyu moral code. Underscoring loyalty to initiation groups, they were also a familiar part of each land sale, proving the sellers ownership before new boundaries were marked by the stomach contents of a ceremonially-slaughtered ram. But Kikuyu acceptance did not automatically guarantee backing for oaths from tribes unfamiliar with the practice. Distrustful of the unknown, they withdrew their support. White Kenyans, citing Kenyattas enormous following and his familiarity with Communism, demanded that he be followed constantly by the Special Branch Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Kenyatta proceeded to reject oathing as a rural canvassing measure, but not soon enough to stop it from spreading in a perverted and most virulent form.

Terror Stalked the Land

In 1948 Kenya began to experience a terrorist threat called Mau Mau. Its architects, both Kikuyus, were British army veteran Bildad Kaggia and trade unionist Fred Kubai. Like Kenyatta, they were bent on Kenyan independence; unlike him, they were committed to using any means necessaryno matter how forcefulto achieve it. Determined to force the whites out of Kenya, the men swiftly organized fighting cells in the Kikuyu-held forests girdling Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Range of mountains. Mau Mau raiders left behind them trails of strangled dogs and cats, disembowelled cattle with amputated legs, and human victims who had been burned alive or hacked to pieces with machetes. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Mau Mau is believed to have murdered a small number of white settlers and more than 11,000 blacks suspected of collaborating with the white regime.

Many political observers agree that Kenyatta knew about Mau Mau. However, he always disclaimed connection with it on the simple grounds that he opposed its brutality. Asked by the British government to denounce Mau Mau in his home district of Kiambu, he gladly did so, thereby bringing Mau Mau assassination threats down on his head. Still, the government banned the KAU in 1952 as a suspected Mau Mau front and then declared a state of national emergency.

Imprisoned as Mau Mau Organizer

Kenyatta and several Mau Mau committee members were arrested in October of 1952 and tried in a remote little town called Kapenguria. Found guilty of organizing the terrorist group, Kenyatta spent the following six years in Laukitaung Prison, cooking for the other convicts, reading books on comparative religion sent to him by his daughter, and piecing together news of his home district, where his farm had been destroyed on government orders.

Kenyatta completed his prison sentence in April of 1959. Opposition to colonialism in Kenya continued, and the government was reluctant to release him immediately. The turning point came after eleven hardcore Mau Mau supporters were slaughtered in an alleged disciplinary action that embarrassed the British government and caused the resignation of the colonial secretary.

The Cell Door Opened

The new colonial secretary was Iain MacLeod, a man firmly committed to Kenyan independence and black majority rule. Moving briskly, by mid-1960 MacLeod had encouraged the formation of two political parties: the Kenya African National Union (KANU) was a coalition between the dominant Kikuyu and runner-up Luo tribes, while the Kenya African Democratic Union was made up of smaller tribes fearing Kikuyu domination. Once again in absentia, Kenyatta was nominated the president of KANU.

MacLeod also authorized a press conference for Kenyatta, who had been transferred to another town. Now about 70, Kenyatta appeared before selected journalists fit and alert, and armed with a crisp three-point statement: he declared that he had not been the organizer of Mau Mau; he expressed his belief that black Kenyans must rule their country; and he emphatically denied any Communist connections, assuring the journalists that he had merely been to the former Soviet Union for educational purposes. Kenyatta went back to Kiambu in August of 1961 to a rebuilt farm packed with 10,000 well-wishers. The greeting was a triumphant boost to the beginning of his successful KANU campaign.

Kenyan Independence

Kenya became Africas 34th independent state at the end of 1963. Honored guests at the celebration included Britains Prince Philip, actor Sidney Poitier, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Also present were several truckloads of Mau Mau, all of whom had been promised feasts of oxen, jobs, and generous loans for land purchase. (Their euphoria, however, was shortlived. On learning that the loans would have to be repaid, many of them returned to lives of crime in the forests.)

Kenyatta was now the countrys prime minister, and Harambee! (Let us all pull together!) was the motto of new independence. By December of 1964, Kenyatta had become the first president of Kenya, with business in the one-party state getting off to a brisk and pragmatic start. The new order swept away tribal rivalries in favor of nationalism for the benefit of all Kenyans.

Kenyanization became the new economic watchword. A British-financed Land Transfer Program eased government efforts to buy out white farmers so that blacks could purchase their land; reluctant sellers, especially if they were noncitizens, were warned of severe action if they refused to comply. As a result, despite the doctrine of forgiveness and nonviolence that had always been Kenyattas creed, 5,000 of the 45,000 white farmers in Kenya had already left the country by the time it became a republic at the end of 1964.

Still, Kenyanization was progressing more slowly than Kenyatta had expected. Nearly six dozen American companies, including Union Carbide, Colgate-Palmolive, and Caltex, had established ties with Kenya, but the president was troubled by and determined to curb the considerable economic influence of Asians who gained prominence in Kenya since the days of the Uganda Railway.

Cracks in the Facade

Anxious to avoid claims of Kikuyu favoritism, Kenyatta had carefully selected his first cabinet from each population group. Nevertheless, cracks in party loyalty began to appear early. Vice President Oginga Odinga, a self-confessed Communist, was later shown to have campaigned for anti-government support among the Mau Mau. Odinga resigned from Kenyattas government in 1966 and formed a new party called the Kenya Peoples Union, which gained considerable support in the late 1960s. Kenyattas aura of invincibility was threatened by the opposition of Odinga and the Kenya Peoples Union. He met the challenge with a grim warning later published in Time magazines November 7, 1969 issue: We will crush you into flour. Anyone who toys with our progress will be crushed like locusts. His first example was Odinga, who was placed under immediate house arrest.

The 1970s: Money and Murder

As the 1970s advanced, the Kenyatta ranks split further. Rumors of government-sanctioned corruption abounded, with officials of the Kenyatta regimeand even members of the presidents familyimplicated as key players in incidents of poaching, deforestation, ivory exportation, and land grabbing.

A courageous and popular politician named Josiah Kariuki began to speak out against the corruption surrounding the aged president. Kenya does not need ten millionaires and ten million beggars, he declared in a speech quoted by the London Times in 1975. Soon afterwards, Kariuki was abducted from the Nairobi Hilton, tortured, and murdered, his body lying unclaimed in a mortuary for more than a week before one of his wives identified it. Kenyatta made his position on the murder clear: he warned that further opposition would bring further bloodshed.

When Jomo Kenyatta died in his sleep on August 22, 1978, Vice President Daniel arap Moi, a handpicked successor, assumed smooth control of the government. In spite of the controversy and charges of corruption that surrounded him during his lifetime, Kenyatta remains in death the father of Kenyan independence and a key figure in the struggle to promote black rule and economic autonomy throughout Africa.

Selected writings

Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu, Secker & Warburg, 1938.

My People of Kikuyu and the Life of Chief Wangombe, United Society for Christian Literature, 1942.

Harambee! (speeches), Oxford University Press, 1964.

The Challenge of Uhuru (speeches), East African Publishing House, 1971.



Cox, Richard, Kenyattas Country, Hutchinson, 1965.

Delf, George, Jomo Kenyatta, Doubleday, 1961.

Edgerton, Robert B., Mau Mau: An African Crucible, Free Press, 1989.

Farson, Negley, Last Chance in Africa, Gollancz, 1950.

Kenyatta, Jomo, Facing Mount Kenya, Vintage Books, 1965.

Lineberry, William P., editor, East Africa: The Reference Shelf, volume 40, number 2, 1968.

Murray-Brown, Jeremy, Kenyatta, Dutton, 1973.

Nelson, Harold D., editor, Kenya: A Country Study, American University, 1983.


Nation, August 11, 1969.

Newsweek, September 4, 1978.

New York Times, October 29, 1952; June 9, 1953; July 2, 1953; May 13, 1963; December 11, 1963; July 16, 1964; April 3, 1965; April 15, 1966; May 2, 1966; January 11, 1970; February 11, 1970; October 17,1975.

Phylon, volume 14, number 4, 1953.

Time, June 11, 1965; November 7, 1969; September 4, 1978.

Times (London), August 10, 1975; August 17, 1975; August 24, 1975.

Gillian Wolf

Jomo Kenyatta

views updated May 14 2018

Jomo Kenyatta

Jomo Kenyatta (1891-1978) was a Kenyan statesman and the dominant figure in the development of African nationalism in East Africa. His long career in public life made him the undisputed leader of the African people of Kenya in their struggle for independence.

In the modern political history of Africa very few of the representatives of African peoples have had the opportunity for a sustained position of leadership. The lack of a Western education and the limiting horizons of tribal politics hindered the rise of an African political elite, especially in the British East African possessions, in the years before World War II. Kenyatta is one of the outstanding exceptions of this process; his public career of over 40 years established him as one of the most significant African leaders of the twentieth century.

Jomo Kenyatta, who was known as a child as Johnstone Kamau Ngengi, was born, according to most biographies, on October 20, 1891 at Ichaweri. There have always been questions about his birth date created by the unusual way the Kikuyu kept records and Kenyatta's own convenient ability to deny his correct age. His parents were Muigai, a Kikuyu farmer, and Wambui.

Little is known of the early years of his life. He was baptized in August 1914 and received the first 5 years of his education at the Church of Scotland Mission in Kikuyu near Nairobi. From 1921 to 1926 he was employed by the water department of the Nairobi Town Council. He also served as an interpreter to the Kenya Supreme Court. It is said that his use of the name Kenyatta dates from this period, deriving from the Kikuyu-language designation for the beaded workers' belt he wore while at work called a mucibi wa kinyata.

Early Political Career

In the Kenya of the 1920s the emerging nationalism of the African inhabitants was dominated by the dynamic Kikuyu peoples, the country's largest tribal grouping. They had proved receptive to some aspects of European culture, especially in education, and they began to attempt using the techniques of British democracy to secure their desired goals.

A particularly vital problem to the Kikuyu was the question of land ownership within the colony; they held that the British had unjustly seized much Kikuyu land. Various political organizations, such as the Young Kikuyu Association and the East African Association, were formed to advance their case. Kenyatta, as one of the few educated Kikuyu, joined the Young Kikuyu Association in 1922. British opposition, however, prevented these organizations from achieving any success. The Kikuyu Central Association was created from the Young Kikuyu Association and the East Africa Association and, like all the former groupings, needed men trained in English.

In 1927 Kenyatta, one of the elite as an educated Kikuyu, was asked to become its general secretary, a position which he accepted in early 1928. His office entailed work to encourage the growth of a modern political consciousness among the Kikuyu and thus to develop a broad basis of support for the organization. This required extensive traveling throughout the extensive Kikuyu territory. During 1929 the organization decided to issue its own publication, the Kikuyu-language monthly Mwigwithania (The Reconciler), and Kenyatta was selected as its editor. It was probably the first newspaper produced by Africans in Kenya.

Residence in Britain

Kenyatta's chance for a broader role arrived in 1928, when he testified before the Hilton-Young Commission, which had been sent to East Africa to investigate the project for a federation of British East African Territories. In February 1929 the Kikuyu Central Association decided to send Kenyatta to London to testify against the proposed union of Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda. He was refused an opportunity before the commission, but the experience of visiting Europe was valuable. He became involved with some radical anti-colonial organizations and traveled to the communist-sponsored International Trade Union of Negro Workers in Hamburg. He also traveled to Berlin and spent several weeks in the Soviet Union in August 1929.

He returned to Kenya in the fall of 1930 and gained permission for the Kikuyu to control their own independent schools despite opposition from the Christian missionary schools. In May 1931 he and Parmenas Githendu Mockerie were dispatched to London by the Kikuyu Central Association to testify before a select parliamentary committee studying the East Africa federation plans by the Colonial Office. He remained in Europe for 15 years, married an English woman, and had a son, Peter. He studied English at the Quaker College of Woodbrooke and at Selly Oak in Birmingham. Among the positions Kenyatta held was that of assistant in phonetics at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies from 1933 to 1936.

In 1936 Kenyatta enrolled at the London School of Economics as a postgraduate student. In the course of his studies he presented a series of papers to the seminar directed by the eminent anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. They were published in 1938 as Facing Mount Kenya. This work, which has been labeled as "a text in cultural nationalism" since it was one of the earliest publications by an African discussing his own culture without apology, made considerable impact.

Kenyatta asserted the right of Africans to speak for themselves, and not only to be discussed by foreign anthropologists or missionaries and, more important, he declared that Africans should be proud of their own cultural heritage. He especially developed his case around the then important issue of female circumcision, currently under attack by Christian missionaries, demonstrating the relevance of the ceremony to the total Kikuyu culture and indicating how Europeans had ignored this ritual aspect of the study of any African cultural facet. Facing Mount Kenya remains a classic among studies relating to the Kikuyu way of life.

When World War II began, Kenyatta worked on a farm in Surrey and lectured to the British army and the Worker's Educational Association on Africa. He became intensely active in general African movements; along with other pioneers of African nationalism, including Kwame Nkrumah and George Padmore, he founded the Pan African Federation and organized the fifth Pan African Congress at Manchester in March 1945 with the theme "Africa for the Africans." One great advantage of these long years away from Kenya was to isolate Kenyatta from the many divisions and rivalries of his homeland's nationalist movements, brought about by the frustrations imposed on Africans trying to organize in the British-dominated territory.

Politics in Kenya

Thus when Kenyatta returned to Kenya in September 1946, he was generally recognized by politically conscious Africans as the most effective leader for their new moves toward greater freedom. Many Europeans reacted also by regarding him as a potentially effective threat to their position of privilege. Kenyatta immediately began organizing a political movement which would be represented all over Kenya. In June 1947 he became president of the most effective African political movement to that time, the Kenya African Union. His efforts to encourage non-kikuyu to join the movement were successful and membership in the Kenyan African Union increased by over 100,000.

In 1947 Kenyatta also accepted the position of principal of the independent Teachers' Training College at Githanguri, thus bringing another facet of Kenyan protest under his influence. But despite his considerable success, the European settler dominated government of Kenya managed to keep control of the country's evolution. Many Africans therefore became increasingly frustrated by their lack of progress, and extremist groups began to prepare for a direct challenge to European domination.

Trial and Imprisonment

Kenyatta was unable to control the extremists, and by 1952 the violence had risen to such a level, particularly in the so-called Mau Movement, that the British reacted by declaring a state of emergency. Kenyatta was arrested on October 20, the government considering that if the leader of the Kenya African Union were removed from political life the Mau Mau crisis, which had claimed nearly 200 European and 12,000 Mau Mau lives, would cease. They planned no reforms to meet African aspirations.

A world-famous trial for Kenyatta was held at the remote location of Kapenguria in November. In conditions of intense military security, the government aimed to prove that Mau Mau was a part of the Kenya African Union and Kenyatta its leader. The judgment of the court in April 1953 gave Kenyatta and five other defendants the maximum sentence of 7 years at hard labor, but the trial was conducted in such a manner that many doubted the justice of the sentence.

Achieving Independence

During the state of emergency all Kenya-wide African political organizations had been restricted. But as the British began to regain control of affairs after 1955, African parties were allowed to reemerge at the local level, a decision which harmed future African developments by encouraging separatism among African leaders. Nevertheless, the Mau Mau crisis had forced the British government to realize the futility of continuing the evolution of Kenya through the existing colonial government.

The Colonial Office took a firm direction in moving the country toward independence through a series of new constitutions (in 1954, 1957, and 1960) designed to increase African participation in governing their homeland. But although African leaders seized the advantages offered to them, continually striving to wrest control from the European settlers, they made Kenyatta's participation in any government leading to independence one of their essential demands.

Kenyatta was freed from the desert prison of Lokitaung in northwestern Kenya in 1959 but was restricted to house arrest for two years in the Northern Frontier District town of Lodwar. In March 1960 the Kenya African National Union was formed and elected Kenyatta as its president in absentia. On August 14, 1961, after nine years of detention, Kenyatta assumed the presidency of the Kenya African National Union party.

On January 12, 1962, Kenyatta was elected to the Kenyan Legislative Assembly to represent the constituency of Fort Hall. On April 10, he agreed to serve in a coalition government as minister of state for constitutional affairs andeconomic planning. In the May 28, 1963 elections Kenyatta led his African National Union party to victory. Kenyatta was invited to form a government and became self-governing Kenya's first prime minister on June 1. He took steps to reassure the European farmers about their future and also appealed to the freedom fighters and members of the Mau Mau to lay down their arms and join the new nation.

On December 12, 1963 Kenya became the 34th African state to gain independence. The duke of Edinburgh was in attendance as the colonial flag was lowered at midnight and the new Kenyan flag raised.

Ruling Kenya

The first years of Kenyan independence were dominated by restructuring and rebuilding the nation. In November of 1964 Kenyatta convinced the rival Kenya African Democratic Union and its leader, Ronald Ngala, to dissolve and join Kenyatta's Kenyan African National Union party to form a single chambered National Assembly. Ngala had been Kenyatta's greatest political rival because his party stood for regional autonomy while Kenyatta's party stood for a strong central government.

The European settler problem disappeared, since most of those antagonistic to African rule left the country, but the problem of integrating the various African and Indian citizens of the new republic continued.

The greatest political challenge to Kenyatta was a dispute with Dginga Odinga, the leader of the powerful Luo tribe. Odinga had served as home affairs minister and later as vice president. Odinga was accused by other cabinet ministers of accepting financial aid from Communist China and using the money to buy influence with members of parliament. In March 1964, Kenyatta, who had given Odinga the benefit of the doubt for past loyalty, finally abolished Odinga's position as deputy president of the ruling Kenya African National Union party. In 1966 Odinga resigned as Kenya's national vice president and formed the Kenya Peoples' Union as a leftist opposition party.

On July 5, 1969, Tom Mboya, a popular Luo politician, was assassinated by a Kikuyu. The assassin was tried and executed, but Luo anger still ran high. In October 1969, Kenyatta's appearance in Luo territory set off riots and threatened to divide the new nation. After initially ignoring the problem, Kenyatta imposed a curfew, detained Odinga and his leaders, and banned the Kenya Peoples' Union party. Kenyatta moved the election date to early December 1969 and declared anyone could run for a seat if they were a member of the Kenya African National party. Several members of Kenyatta's party were defeated, but his government survived the election. Despite Luo anger and rumors of military plots, Kenya regained a surface calm which continued through Kenyatta's presidency.

Kenyatta made Kenya a showcase nation among the former African colonial states. Leading his nation on a relatively conservative course, he provided for peace and prosperity in his nation while improving health, agriculture, tourism, business, and manufacturing. Although Kenyatta utilized both communist and capitalist financial and technical aid, which helped Kenya take the lead in economic development in East Africa, he came down heavily and communist efforts to infiltrate the country.

Kenyatta followed a nonaligned, but pro-western, foreign policy and pursued an orthodox African policy towards the apartheid tactics of Rhodesia and South Africa. In 1971 he became the unmitigated leader in East Africa and achieved his greatest foreign policy success when he helped to settle a border dispute between Uganda and Tanzania.

Kenyatta died peacefully in Mombassa on August 22, 1978. His successor, Daniel arap Moi, was Kenya's vice president. The transition of power was seamless and Moi suggested a continuation in Kenyatta's policies by calling his own program Nyayo or "footsteps."

Further Reading

Kenyatta's own writings include: Facing Mount Kenya (1938); My People of Kikuyu and the Life of Chief Wangombe (1944); Kenya: The Land of Conflict (1944); and Harambee! (1964); an account of the early life and times of Kenyatta and of Mau Mau groups is by Carl G. Rosberg, Jr., and John Nottingham, The Myth of "Mau Mau": Nationalism in Kenya (1966); for general historical background are Kenya, a Political History: The Colonial Period (1963), by George Bennett; and History of East Africa, vol. 2 (1965) by Vincent T. Harlow and E. M. Chilver; the life and career of Kenyatta is traced in the Anthony Howarth and David Koff film Kenyatta (1979); Kenyatta is also listed with a brief biography in the A&E Television Networks online biography at (1997); and mentioned in relationship to Kenya's present government in the JamboKenya homepage at □

Kenyatta, Jomo

views updated Jun 08 2018

Kenyatta, Jomo 1893-1978


Jomo Kenyatta, also known as Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, is considered the founding father of the independent nation of Kenya. He became Kenyas first prime minister (19631964) and first president (19641978). Acknowledged as a fascinating and courageous leader, his controversial life began when he was born to Muigai and Wambui as a member of the Kikuyu people. His birth name was Kamau wa Ngengi. His parents died while he was a young boy, and he spent time in his youth working with his grandfather, who was a medicine man steeped in the Kikuyu tradition. Kenyatta married his first wife, Grace Wahu, in 1920. They had two children, a daughter and a son.

Kenyatta entered local politics in 1924 when he joined the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). He created and began to edit a monthly journal for the KCA known as Muigwithania (The Reconciler) in 1928. Much of the writing in this journal was focused on cultural nationalism, unity, and moral ethnicity for the Kikuyu people. He also focused heavily on campaigning for land reform, ownership rights, and political rights for African people. The KCA sent Kenyatta to London to lobby for Kikuyu rights, and in 1931 he enrolled in Woodbrooke Quaker College in Birmingham, England. He later attended the Comintern School in Moscow, then returned to London to study at the University College London and the London School of Economics (LSE). He focused on social anthropology and economics, and published his LSE thesis in 1938 as his first book, Facing Mount Kenya, an ethnography of the Kikuyu people penned under the name Jomo Kenyatta. He was briefly married to Edna Clarke during this period, and she gave birth to his son in 1943.

In England, Kenyatta had many friends and associates, and formed the Pan-African Federation with Kwame Nkrumah (19091972) in 1946. He then returned to his homeland and became the principle of Kenya Teachers College and president of the Kenya African Union (KAU). Upon his return to Kenya, he married Grace Wanjiku in 1946. She died in childbirth in 1950 after giving birth to a daughter. The following year, he married his fourth wife, Ngina Kenyatta, to whom he would remain married for the rest of his life. They had four children together.

On October 20, 1952, Kenyatta was arrested by the British government and charged with being a manager and member of the society of Mau Mau. The Mau Mau revolution was a lengthy battle of the Kikuyu people against British control. Kenyatta denied any participation and countered that he spoke out against the Mau Mau because they were not working with the KAU. After a lengthy trial in 1953, Kenyatta was convicted and imprisoned for six years in Lokitaung, a region in northwestern Kenya. He was later sent into exile. While in exile, he was elected president in absentia of the Kenya African National Union, which later joined with the Kenya African Democratic Union to become one party. Kenyatta was released by the British government, and returned to government in 1961. He was instrumental in forming a parliamentary body, instituting a new constitution, and creating the republic of Kenya. Kenyatta is heralded as a great leader. He was also a noted author, publishing numerous books and pamphlets, including My People of Kikuyu and the Life of Chief Wangombe (1944), Suffering without Bitterness (1968, a biography), Kenya: The Land of Conflict (1971), and The Challenge of Uhuru: The Progress of Kenya, 1968 to 1970 (1971). He died in his sleep in Mombasa in 1978.

SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Kimathi, Dedan; Mau Mau; Nkrumah, Kwame; Pan-African Congresses


Berman, Bruce J., and John M. Lonsdale. 1998. The Labors of Muigwithania: Jomo Kenyatta as Author, 192845. Research in African Literatures 29 (1): 1627.

Branch, Daniel, and Nicholas Cheeseman. 2006. The Politics of Control in Kenya: Understanding the Bureaucratic-executive State, 195278. Review of African Political Economy 107: 1131.

Kenya: Landslide for Kenyatta. 1963. New Republic 148 (23): 8.

Kenyatta, Jomo. 1968. Suffering without Bitterness: The Founding of the Kenya Nation. Nairobi, Kenya: East African Publishing House.

Kijua Sanders-McMurtry

Kenyatta, Jomo

views updated Jun 11 2018

Kenyatta, Jomo

Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of the Republic of Kenya, was born Johnston Kamau in Kiambu, in the Central Province of Kenya. The history of his life traverses Kenya, Europe, and other parts of Africa that he visited as a nationalist leader and as the head of state. Kenyatta is best known for his part in the nationalist movement in Kenya in which he played various roles both within Kenya and abroad. He was the secretary general of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) from 1926 until 1940 when the organization was banned. In 1928, he served as the editor of one of the first African newspapers in Kenya, Muiguithania (The Reconciler). He represented the KCA in 1929 when he was sent to present to the Colonial office in Britain the KCA grievances on land, female circumcision, and the establishment of independent schools.

Between 1931 and 1946 Kenyatta was based in London, from where he toured many European countries including Russia, France, Italy, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. He studied at Moscow University and at London School of Economics. He wrote articles in newspapers such as The Manchester Guardian and spoke at public meetings where he addressed the plight of his people the Kikuyu, land hunger in Kenya, and the harsh colonial pass laws. He also represented the KCA demands that included direct representation of the African people in the legislative council. Kenyatta wrote anthropological works such as Facing Mount Kenya. He worked closely with George Padmore, the radical West Indian trade unionist in the 1930s, and was one of the founders of the Pan African Federation with Kwame Nkrumah.

Kenyatta returned to Kenya in 1947, joined the Kenya African Union (KAU), and was elected president of the organization in 1947. During his tenure, he attempted to dissociate KAU from Mau Mau but was arrested and detained between 1952 and 1962, accused of organizing the Mau Mau movement.

Kenyatta is remembered for his controversial trial at Kapenguria where the British colonial government detained him for seven years with hard labor. He denied being the leader of Mau Mau or adhering to any of the violent activities conducted by Mau Mau in Kenya.

At Independence, Kenyatta stood for and personified national unity and urged Kenyans to work hard through his calls for Harambee ("to pull together") through which he urged Kenyans to redouble efforts in nation building. He urged Kenyans to "forget the past"—that is, the colonial encounter and its negative impact, and work together for national unity. Kenyatta, drawing from the nationalist movement, viewed poverty, ignorance, and disease as the major problems that Kenyans had to overcome in order to develop their nation and move forward.

His leadership was colorful, and Kenyatta always carried his flywhisk and wore the nationalist hat made of colorful beads, often accompanied with an entourage of singers at his public gatherings, which he addressed with great oratory skills. His leadership was, however, at times controversial. As the first president of Kenya, he ran the country as a de facto single-party state from 1966, becoming precursor to the later de jure one-party state from 1982 under the second president of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi.

Kenyatta commenced political detention without trial in independent Kenya when he banned the opposition party Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) and detained all KPU members of parliament in 1968. Under his regime, gender issues around women's leadership in Kenya were mainly silent, although he nominated at least two women to parliament among the twelve nominated members during his last two tenures as the president in 1968 and 1974. Despite the controversy associated with his leadership, Kenyatta is remembered as a great African statesman who remained in office during a time of prosperity for Kenya. He died on August 22, 1978, having led Kenya for fifteen years.

see also Nationalism, Africa; Nkrumah, Kwame.


Delf, George. Jomo Kenyatta: Towards Truth About "the Light of Kenya." Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961.

Slater, Montagu. The Trial of Jomo Kenyatta, 2nd ed. London: Secker and Warburg, 1962.

Wepman, Dennis. Jomo Kenyatta: President of Kenya. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.

Kenyatta, Jomo

views updated Jun 08 2018

Kenyatta, Jomo (c.1894–1978). Kenyan nationalist statesman. Kenyatta's involvement in politics began in 1922 when he campaigned for the restoration of land lost by his Kikuyu tribe to white settlers. In 1929 he went to London to plead the case of the Kikuyu and stayed in Europe, studying, writing, and lecturing. Returning to Kenya in 1946 he was elected president of the Kenya African Union in 1947. In 1952 he was found guilty of master-minding the Mau Mau rebellion although the evidence was far from conclusive. When the government gave the vote to Africans he was elected president of the newly founded Kenya African National Union. He was released in 1961 and became prime minister in 1963 when the country achieved independence, then president in 1964 when Kenya became a republic. His sympathies inclined towards the western powers and he displayed remarkable magnanimity towards his former white opponents.

Kenneth Ingham

Kenyatta, Jomo

views updated Jun 08 2018

Kenyatta, Jomo (1893–1978) Kenyan statesman, first president of Kenya (1964–78). A Kikuyu, he led the struggle for Kenyan independence from 1946. In 1953, after a dubious trial, the British imprisoned Kenyatta for Mau Mau terrorism. As leader of the Kenya African National Union, he became president on Kenya's independence in 1964. Though he suppressed domestic opposition, he presided over a prosperous economy and generally followed pro-Western policies.