On August 14, 1961, came the momentous day: After nine years in detention, Jomo Kenyatta was free.
Around the globe, all eyes were on him as never before, waiting for him to make some decisive move. One of the first things we arranged was a delegation to London with James Gichuru, Tom Mboya and a few others.
Also with us was the white South African Bruce McKenzie. Bruce was something of an enigma, but, as we were to discover, he would prove very useful to Kenyatta. An RAF pilot during the Second World War, he had been shot down twice, the second time over the Mediterranean where he had drifted for two days with most of his face blown away.
Awarded the DFC bar, and with his jaw rebuilt, he came to Kenya in 1946 as a farmer.
By now in his early 40s, and about 10 years older than me, we had first met in Parliament as national members, he for the Europeans. Then suddenly, I discovered he was in Kanu and anti-European, saying emphatically we had to fight them. It didn’t make sense to me — why had this man suddenly changed sides?
I remembered in one of our first Kanu meetings, as Bruce was shouting against the whites, Jackson Angaine, an African who was sitting behind me, muttered: “This bastard, he was a torturer in the camps. He dislocated my thigh trying to get a confession.”
Although a good farmer, Bruce always seemed short of cash. Once when he was staying in a flat in Nairobi West, he asked me to lend him Sh300 for rent, which I did for three months.
On another occasion quite out of the blue he asked: “Fitz, do you like chicken?” I nodded, attaching no significance to the question. A couple of days later, my mother told me that a mzungu had come in a pick-up truck and delivered 70-odd chickens, plucked and cut up. Having no fridges then, I told my mother that she had better give the meat away.
Then one day, Bruce said to me: “You know Kenyatta. Can you introduce me?” Sure, I told him, and sent a request to Kenyatta, who invited us over to his farm in Gatundu at 5.30am. I was surprised to find him already dressed and down in the valley inspecting his crop.
He shook hands with Bruce and they talked about farming. Kenyatta seemed to take to him straightaway. Bruce then said: “You know Mzee, I don’t think this maize you’ve planted is the best variety. It’s the hybrid stuff you want. It’ll yield three or four times what you’re getting now.”
Kenyatta said he’d look into it. The next thing we knew, Bruce was replanting his maize for him.
The real intrigue though began when we got to London. We realised Kenyatta had no money and that we’d have to pay for him. The Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch was £3 a night, a week’s wages for many. Kenyatta also liked to eat well, especially after his time in prison, often putting away three or four steaks for dinner.
When we asked for the bill, the manager informed us that it had already been taken care of. “By whom?” I asked. “Mr Mackenzie.” Surprised, I told Bruce he was very kind, but knowing he was hard up, he must at least let me pay my share. It was then that he put me in the picture; Izzi Sommen, consul at the Israeli embassy, had arranged with Joe Lyons, who owned the hotel, to cover our expenses.
Lyons ran the large chain of ‘Corner Houses’, where in my student days in London, I had enjoyed many a cheap meal. He was also Jewish. Apparently the Israelis, mindful of their interests in a future independent Kenya, were anxious to forge a relationship with Kenyatta. Bruce it seemed had, behind the scenes, been the intermediary.
It would not be the only time he played such a part.
Previously, Kenyatta had always been broke. I remember when he came out of prison and found his house demolished by the British Government, he asked us if we could find some money to help him build a simple garage to live in. We had previously raised small amounts from donations, but things were always tight. After meeting Bruce, however, Kenyatta was mysteriously never short of cash.
London was also the backdrop for a more startling piece of drama. Kenyatta was addressing a public meeting in the hotel when suddenly something flew through the air towards him. It turned out to be the entrails of a chicken.
There was a gasp as we saw Kenyatta take up his walking stick, and drawing from it a gleaming blade, spring into the audience. I ran forward to restrain him, which was not easy. He was so strong, his anger immense. Grasping both his hands in mine, as he continued to shake with rage I said: “Jomo, think please, I cannot defend you against a charge of murder.”
After a few seconds, he calmed down and put away his swordstick. The man who threw the entrails had already fled.
When official meetings were finished, we talked over the day’s events, or socialised a little. Kenyatta, avoiding Tom Mboya and Njoroge Mungai, his personal physician, spent most evenings drinking on the veranda of his hotel room with Odinga. Kenyatta drank only VAT 69. He joked it was the Pope’s phone number.
They would sit and chat for hours, and being both older, I think felt they understood one another. It would transpire that Kenyatta wanted Odinga as his number two, as Finance Minister in the new government. When the British overruled this, he accepted their wishes, and it shocked us all that he gave in just like that. We realised Kenyatta was very fond of Odinga in a way, while at the same time he wanted to make sure he was the right man who would implement and support his policies.
There was only one other person close to Kenyatta during the Lancaster House conferences; anyone wishing to see the Kikuyu leader at his hotel had first to get past Achieng Oneko, who slept in the next room, barring the door with his bed. With the continued death threats against Kenyatta, it was the mild-mannered Oneko who was, literally, putting his life on the line for him.
As the discussions at Lancaster House wore on, it was clear that a major remaining stumbling block was the European settler community. The British Government told us plainly that the only way it could give us independence was if we promised the farmers that we would pay them for their land, buy them out in other words. They had calculated a value of £36 million. That sounds like nothing today but it was a fortune in 1962. I said: “But we don’t have the money.”
No, they said, we’ll give you the money. Good God, I said, we could never afford to pay it back. They said: “Who’s asking for it back? We don’t want it back. We want to give it to you, and every year we’ll write a bit off until the whole lot is written off. We don’t want the British here to say we called you Mau Mau, and now we’re giving you money! You must buy the land from the European farmers on a ‘willing buyer and willing seller’ basis. So when they are willing to sell, you buy.”
Thus would come into being the Land Settlement Board, under chairman Norman Feather of the Standard Bank, with the British Consular-General and Daniel Moi, appointed to the post by Kenyatta, as committee members.
In African politics outward impressions were considered very important. When the two main political parties were competing for Kenyatta’s favour, Ronald Ngala had given him a Standard Vanguard car. It was then that Njoroge Mungai arrived on the scene and, announcing himself as Kenyatta’s cousin, presented us with a brand new Mercedes Benz for Kanu.
I thought this was fantastic, as previously I used to drive out to Gatundu in my 1938 Morris 8 to pick up Kenyatta, or he would wait for a bus or matatu into town and then walk everywhere.
On hearing about the gift, however, Kenyatta demanded to know who was this man telling everyone he was his cousin.
It turned out that Mungai had only paid a deposit on the Mercedes and it had to be sent back. Then the British community clubbed together and bought Kenyatta a Land Rover, while their American counterparts presented him with a Plymouth convertible, which he loved being driven around in.
I suggested that now having four vehicles at his disposal, he donates at least one to the party. “Why?” he asked. I replied: “Jomo, the members need transport to attend meetings. Most of them don’t even own a bicycle. I do my bit with my little Morris but I can only make so many trips.”
“No, no,” he said. “You are thinking like the Wahindis, that only Indians can drive around in big, big cars. These cars have been given to me and I think I must keep them. In any case, you know, I want you to realise one thing. Africans only respect a man with a lot of mali (wealth). If he is a poor man, they will think he is useless. You have to have a lot of hangers-on and your youth wingers going with you, and a lot of cows, houses, etc, then they’ll think, ‘Ah, he is a great leader”.’
I was a bit shocked by this, but then realised it was true. Some time later, talking to a Luo gardener of mine, I mentioned that I believed Odinga was not well off.
“No, no,” he replied. “Odinga is very, very rich, richer than Kenyatta. He has a lot of money.”
I remember thinking that in other communities, this would be a minus point. I then met other Luos who tried to tell me how rich Odinga was. I suddenly understood why Tom Mboya had bought a Mercedes Benz and went around hooting and showing it to everyone, and every year he would buy a new one. Odinga’s money was coming from the Chinese and Soviets, Mboya’s from the Americans.
When Kenyatta came out of prison, he pointed out to me his house and land in Gatundu, which the government had taken and given to his younger brother James Muigai. He remembered carrying Muigai in his hands when he was a baby. On being released, he could have used his authority to demand the property back, but he knew that this was what the government wanted, to turn brothers, and Africans, against one another.
Instead he bought the land and house back from his brother, and it is important to stress that he used his own money to do this and there was no question of him grabbing anything. Kenyatta had taken a similar approach to the Mau Mau.
Peter Koinange put it right when he said: “Look, if you see your brother stealing from someone you don’t like, would you rush to the police and report him? No, you try to convince him not to do it but you don’t want to put him in prison, and you don’t want to fight with him.”
Kenyatta was sworn in as Prime Minister and on December 12, 1963 Kenya was declared independent. Standing in an open-topped jeep, accompanied by Mboya, Odinga and Gichuru, and flanked by a motorcycle escort and waving to the crowds, Kenyatta led a proud procession through the streets of Nairobi.
On the snow-covered Mount Kenya, the black, red and green flag, replacing the Union Jack, was hoisted. Newly printed postage stamps bearing Kenyatta’s image showed the mountain in the background, along with the word Uhuru — Freedom.
Not all Africans were jubilant. Moi, who through the Land Settlement Board had given Kalenjin land to the Kikuyu, was furious when he found out they had not voted for him as he expected, and could not forgive them. Kenyatta also equated loyalty with land and as early as the Lancaster House talks, had told me that when independence came I should have some as a reward and to be patriotic. Without land, he argued, a person had no stake in the country and was not a true Kenyan.
He offered me not one farm but several. I told him that the land was for the Africans and was just one of the Wahindi, a rather dismissive term for Asians. He tried very hard to persuade me. In the end I just said: “Jomo, I’m a city person. I don’t know one end of a cow from the other,” at which everyone laughed, and we left it at that.
Meanwhile, Kenyatta rolled out his first independent Cabinet: Odinga was in charge of Home Affairs; Tom Mboya, Justice Minister; Gichuru, Finance; Oneko, Information, Broadcasting and Tourism; Bruce Mackenzie, Agriculture; and my friend Joe Murumbi given the title of Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, equivalent to Minister of Foreign Affairs.
I realised why he had chosen Joe and Bruce. I could see quite clearly how it worked. Almost everyone — Tom, Odinga etc — had their group, their supporters, but Kenyatta had very few apart from myself, though I wasn’t anyone’s supporter in that sense. He wanted to be able to say: “Look, this is my group.” people who, when an issue arose in Parliament, because he had put them in, would back him.
Joe, though half Maasai, had no constituency in that community as yet, though it would come later. He was a very nice man, amiable and sociable, but not a politician. Pio had taken him into politics, got round him, saying come and help us. Joe was very good to me; after approaching the Maasai Council for somewhere to build a house, he said, “Look Fitz, I’m going to get eight acres in Ngong, I’m half Maasai and half Goan, do you want some?”
At that time, millions of acres were available and they would have given him much more, which he would have well deserved in my opinion.
“Let’s go and have a look,” he said. We jumped in my little Morris 8 and drove out to Ngong, stopping to push the car up the steep hill.
And so Joe gave me two acres of his land. He was generous in other ways. In his capacity as Minister of Foreign Affairs, he one day invited me to be his number two on a delegation to the United Nations in New York.
I said it was very nice of him but I didn’t feel I could go. He was insistent. “Come on,” he urged. We’ll have a good time together.”
We did, though we both worked very hard. It was the first time I had been to America, and New York was a dazzling place, but this wasn’t a jolly. At night, I was shocked that while Inderjit Singh Boy and myself sat down to draft speeches for the next day, the other delegates seemed to be off on dates. I said: “What type of people are you? We’ve come all the way here, to the UN General Assembly, and you don’t want to work?” Tomorrow, they would say, we’ll work tomorrow.
Several were civil servants, all very nice people, but I couldn’t understand why they weren’t making the most of such an opportunity. Inderjit and myself, working until gone 2am, then had to call up the chauffeur and escort the typists home, New York being too dangerous for them to walk at night.
By the time we’d dropped three or four of the girls in different parts of the city, the sun was almost up over Manhattan.