On the evening of January 25, 1971, Dr Njoroge Mungai and President Milton Obote of Uganda were seated in a hotel in downtown Singapore, having drinks.
The Kenyan Foreign Affairs minister was in Singapore representing President Kenyatta at a Commonwealth meeting. But the restful occasion suddenly ended when a presidential guard pulled Dr Obote aside and whispered something in his ear.
Tossing hands in the air, the Ugandan President erupted: “Oh, that double-crossing buffoon!” Back home, in Kampala, where it was still early afternoon, General Idi Amin had just rolled the army’s tanks into the streets and declared himself the new Head of State. “I’m catching the next plane home!” President Obote declared.
Dr Mungai quickly called President Jomo Kenyatta and explained that he was with Dr Obote. “Do your best to restrain him because Amin’s people are waiting for him at Entebbe. I’m sending a plane to get him to Nairobi.”
HIDING MILTON OBOTE
And that was how Dr Mungai started taking care of the deposed president; he would hide him in Nairobi for a few days before passing him over to Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere for safety.
Dr Magana Njoroge Mungai was born in interesting times. When he passed on last weekend, I was in the process of writing the long story of his life that started in January 1926. It is a story of uncommon resilience, triumph and, occasionally, spectacular blunders too.
He began his service to Kenya soon after the state of emergency was declared in 1952, while still a student at Stanford University, California.
Whenever he was not busy with academic work, he would pick up fellow student Gikonyo Kiano in a Buick he had bought in Los Angeles and tour the towns, giving speeches and participating in radio talk shows.
They told the Americans that the Mau Mau War was not different from their own Revolutionary War that liberated them from the same British yoke two centuries earlier.
It was the Americans — with valuable input from the Kenyan community in the US — who later convinced the British that the Emergency Policy was not tenable.
But there was something more personal in Dr Mungai’s work against the British. After the death of his father, Muigai wa Kung’u, when he was only 14, Jomo Kenyatta had travelled from Gatundu to live in Muthiga, Kabete, with his father’s sister, who was Dr Mungai’s mother.
Mungai’s journey from Muthiga would take him to Fort Hare University in South Africa in 1948 for a bachelor of science, to the University of London for an uncompleted course, and later to Stanford University for a bachelor of arts and a medical degree.
He returned home in 1957 and started several clinics in various towns. But the allure for the fight for freedom remained with him. He would later donate some of his clinics to the government and join politics full-time.
His cousin, Jomo Kenyatta, had been moved from prison at Lokituang to detention at Lodwar. He was aware of several attempts on Kenyatta’s life while in prison, and as a medical doctor he was concerned about the old man’s health.
GALLONS OF WHISKY
One of the shocking things Dr Mungai found out was that the British had been trying to kill Jomo with Scotch whisky. The British had discovered that Mzee had picked up a taste for Scotch whisky during his long sojourn in England and allowed him to have gallons of it while he was in detention, with the hope that he’d die of liver cirrhosis. Thanks to Dr Mungai, Kenyatta survived.
In 1960, he became the founding national secretary of Kanu and at independence he was made the first minister for Health. His next docket was defence, which he headed during the Shifta insurgency. At one time, the secessionists had placed a reward on his head.
Dr Mungai’s happiest moments in the Cabinet were between 1969 and 1974, when he was Foreign Affairs minister. One of his landmark achievements was bringing the Unep headquarters to Nairobi in 1973.
Dr Mungai was an opinionated man. He belonged to a generation of courageous men who became the founders of modern Kenya.
He insisted that it was not by fluke that almost half of his Alliance class of 1945 made it to the Cabinet.
His was a magical generation of dreamers.