Thursday, January 8, 2009

Who was Jomo Kenyatta?

In a recent article, Dr. Edward Kisiang’ani (The East African Standard, Saturday, December 13th 2008) attempted to set record straight about the real Jomo Kenyatta.[1] He argued that Kenyatta does not deserve the honour of being refered to as father of the nation of Kenya. Dr. Kisiang’ani contested Kenyatta’s credentials bringing into question Kenyatta’s role towards independent Kenya. In his opinion Kenyatta was a master of pretence and deceit who masqueraded as a champion of the African cause. One may be forgiven to ask if Dr. Kisiang’ani’s claims are true reflection of Kenyatta’s historical role(s). It is my contention that while Dr. Kisiang’ani fairly captured Kenyatta’s mutation from a supposedly reformer to a diehard dictator and neo-colonial stooge, he may as well be accused of intellectual dishonesty whose anti-Gĩkũyũ and “tribal” sentiments are subtly implied. Intellectual dishonesty in Kenya is not new. Kenyan academic history is full of examples where the intelligentsia from the wider Kenyan community (whether out of irrational fear, malice or sheer dishonesty) with the help of European revisionists attempts to rewrite history in order to downplay or dismiss any positive contribution of some Africans especially that of Agĩkũyũ. In most cases nationalistic tendencies among the colonised though at rudimentary level of development are dismissed as “tribal”, uncivilised and unacceptable while imitations from the West are accepted as universal, civilised and modern (see elsewhere in this blog on my discussion on tribalism.) The Agĩkũyũ attempts to organise or resist colonialism has equally been dismissed as tribal, irrational and inconsequential. Such intellectual discourses inadvertently sanctions colonial designation of Africa’s epistemological emptiness as well as perceived African inferiority. The point of reference of such an assumption always starts with Africans’ backwardness and general inadequacy to be independent, equal and fit.

Attitudes of this kind are not different from colonial justification of missionaries’ religious fervour or the colonial intellectual energy to deny that Africans had any useful culture or a significant past. It is also a fraudulent conceptual legitimisation of European theory that nationalism is the result of profound mutation of mind from lower mental level to higher European levels. It legitimises European supremacy by negating the important fact that African conceptual level has never been deficient. Those like Dr. Kisiang’ani who serve revisionist role do so in order to lessen the impact of colonial linguistic and epistemological constructions as well as Agĩkũyũ’s central contribution to Kenya’s political and cultural independence. This is not to mean that Agĩkũyũ occupies any superior role in bringing Kenya to the threshold of independence but the community’s or individual Agĩkũyũ’s role is historical and cannot be wished away. It serves no one to under-represent or to misrepresent historical reality. Revising history in order to satisfy an “ethnic” bias is a great disservice to so many sons and daughters of Kenya who sacrificed so much in order for us to enjoy democratic freedom in an independent Kenya. To continue seeing early African initiatives, and particularly those of Agĩkũyũ, as “tribal” perpetuates colonial epistemological power to inculcate guilt in the so-called barbarous communities in order to destroy Africans’ political, religious as well as cultural imagination and creativity.

Secondly, Dr. Kisiang’ani’s appraisal implicitly endorses an intellectual lie that it is possible to see history from an objective, neutral, value-free perspective. It is a false belief that dichotomises historical realities one as either acceptable while the other is treated otherwise. Such a claim in itself is susceptible to limitation, blindness, and prejudices of many kinds. There is no truly neutral, objective, universal starting point to historical consciousness. Historical and cultural developments whether in form of “Kikuyu” or “Kalenjin” nationalism are important trajectories in the development of African nationalism or patriotism. Masai cultural resistance or Nandi armed resistance or Mau-Mau uprising were not isolated or tribal affairs but manifestation of something greater which later received intellectual expression from the likes of Tom Mboya, Bildad Kaggia, among others. Recognition of historical particularity and the contingent adds up to intellectual honesty. Historical consciousness recognises that present reality in a particular time and space is connected to what has gone before or what will come afterward. In this way we arrive to conclusions by examining different contingent historical situations without claiming historical absoluteness implied in Kisiang’ani commentary. It gives sufficient attention to history, individuality, diversity, and particularity.

The point of this blog post is to offer another side of Kenyatta which Dr. Kisiang’ani chose to ignore. What Kisiang’ani avoided is to discuss Kenyatta’s apparent epistemological commitment, though not as a revolutionary but as an evolving cultural and political reformist. My argument does not deny in any way the fact that after the demise of colonialism, Kenyatta did betray the cause which he had championed in years of his youth. For those who would want to have an objective understanding of post-colonial evolution of the likes of Kenyatta, Nkrumah, Mugabe and others, I would recommend Frantz Fanon’s book “The Wretched of the Earth”. However, in order, to appreciate Jomo Kenyatta’s role in Kenya political and cultural independence, we must be willing to accept the fact that although Kenyatta later betrayed the cause of history, it does not lessen his contribution to the very struggle that he betrayed. Intellectual honesty demands that we hold this contradicting stance in tension in order to come to a full understanding of our common history as a republic. Every individual contribution to this history must be recognised since History in itself is subversive. We must also be willing to accept the colonial situation in which Africans in those days had to operate. In the first place, it was not possible for Kenyatta and others to operate on a national or regional scale because of the colonial barriers that were effectively put in place. Africans could not operate beyond the confines of “the Reserve” and those like Kenyatta who broke such barriers found themselves always alienated from other members of the larger African community.

Creation of Reserves which was first proposed by Sir Charles Eliot aimed at justifying European colonisation. Eliot, who served as one of the pioneering colonial commissioners of the East Africa Protectorate from January 1901 until June 1904 when he was forced to resign unceremoniously, had declared the colony a white man’s country. He appealed to British Imperial government to hasten European settlement since the colony’s ideal attractions and advantages offered both in climate and produces favoured such a settlement. However it was Governor Sir Edward Northey who implemented the policy on “Native Reserves”. This led to the creation of “purely Native areas” divided into provinces and districts; the creation of post of Chief Commissioner of the Native Affairs Department and the creation of the European Settlements under Resident Magistrates. Northey stipulated that the so-called “native policy” allowed for elasticity to suit various “conditions of tribes” combined with the progress and prosperity of Europeans. Northey further declared that “the Whiteman” was paramount and that in the ensuing colonial set up, “the paramount” had to make “the native a useful and contented citizen, playing a large part in the economic development of the country”. The “native” was to be given “reasonable” education especially technical, industrial, and agricultural where the workshops and the farms would become the schools for education. Anything above this tokenism was considered anathema. It is in this context that we must understand the role played by the likes of Kenyatta and others.

Who was Kenyatta? Jomo Kenyatta himself was an enigma. He was a product of the Church of Scotland Mission where he started as a ‘laddie’ in Gĩkũyũ Mission working for Mr. W. O. Tait as “house boy” before taking employment with his carpentry teacher John Cook who left the mission to start his own business in Nairobi. His master, we learn, used to call him ‘John Chinaman’ “because of his oblique eyes.” Kenyatta later took employment with the same man as water-meters reader. Kenyatta was among some of the educated Agĩkũyũ who had realised that the Reserve was too limiting and sought knowledge in the confines of Nairobi city – the colonial seat of power. He was among the founders of the first Gĩkũyũ newsletter which he became its editor and secretary to Kikuyu Central Association. He left Kenya in 1929 to represent the Kikuyu Central Association in London. After his return he stayed for a while only to leave for London again in 1930 where he stayed until 1946. By then he had studied under Professor Malinowski (professor of social anthropology at University of London) under whose direction he wrote his classic book Facing Mount Kenya published in 1938. Jomo Kenyatta also played a pivotal role in collaborating with Lilias E. Armstrong in producing the phonetic and tonal structure of the Gĩkũyũ language. He was under the employment of the Department of Phonetics, University College in London from 1935-1937 where he worked under the supervision of the phonetician and lecturer Lilias Armstrong. Kenyatta’s work on Gĩkũyũ language was always recognised, by missionary though grudgingly. He was also among the first African intellectuals to form the Pan-African Federation and was elected its President, with Kwame Nkrumah as its Secretary. Kenyatta chaired its congress in Manchester in 1945. Kenyatta was later to become the first president of the Republic of Kenya after the demise of colonialism.

There are several other points that Dr. Kisiang’ani failed to mention about Kenyatta’s contribution towards African empowerment and independence. First, through Kenyatta, we experience the power of Athomi’s appropriation of the written word to augment their orature (oral literature) in their awakening. Jomo Kenyatta told of how his desire to learn how to read was triggered by the power of the written word which could only be acquired in the mission schools. He said,
“I used to see tribal policemen coming to visit my father who was some kind of a chief…They would bring a letter pinned on a stick and after the letter had been read, I would see young people arrested from their homes…and sent to work for European settlers…I thought, ‘well, this is strange. How is it that these people bring the paper and then say that the European said so and so from Kiambu?’ After they had gone, I would look at the letter and listen to it and I would not hear it talking. Then I would ask the letter ‘What did they say there at Kiambu?’ And the letter would not answer me. And this created in me a desire for knowledge, and I said to myself ‘I must go to Thogoto[2] to discover this miracle, how it is that a paper can talk from one who wrote it to someone else.” [3]
Inquiry led into knowledge and this knowing was held as the key entry into the new order. Jomo Kenyatta intended to put into good use the power of both the written and spoken word because of its potency. What followed as a result of the spoken word through the speeches Jomo Kenyatta offered after his return from England was transformative. Kenyatta’s speeches on return made a great impact upon the minds of many Africans to whom he directed his words. As far as African politics was concerned, what happened to the Agĩkũyũ and the word they listened to from 1946 could be regarded as an irrevocable turning point. The other important point is that Kenyatta restored the African lost sense of pride and self-respect. Africans in Kenya believed that Kenyatta loved them and whatever he told them came from the bottom of his heart. Through Kenyatta’s speeches hard work was exalted as a virtue to which all members of the community were to aspire in order to eradicate “foolishness and poverty”. He reminded Africans to take advantage of the new “ũgĩ” (knowledge or wisdom) since it compared to “a kind of sharpness and a sharp knife is capable of cutting many hard things.” Through the power of spoken word he hammered through his trademark theme of unity and “eagerness to do our work.”[4] Kenyatta told his community that unity and hard work gave the Africans a greater weapon more than “weapons of war.”

Towards the end of 1927, Jomo Kenyatta together with other members of Kikuyu Central Association launched their own newsletter under the banner Mũiguithania.[5] Kenyatta who was the then Kikuyu Central Association General Secretary assumed the editorial role of Mũiguithania. Kikuyu Central Association just like Kavirondo Taxation Association was formed to offer a forum through which the Agĩkũyũ would champion their cause. K.C.A. demanded fundamental political, social as well as economic change although it remained more reformist than revolutionary. For example, on the question of Africans representation as proposed by the Hilton Young Commission, Agĩkũyũ intelligentsia was categorical that the leaders had no other choice but consider and meditate in their hearts the seriousness or implication of this proposal. In their words “gitigunaga muthiomerwo” (it benefits not him who is spoken to in a foreign language or it benefits not him is passive as the foreigner dictates the terms of their existence.) The matter required urgency. Representation by foreigners was unacceptable and something practical had to be done in order to reverse this situation. On the other hand, Mũiguithania was a paper written in vernacular and with a wide circulation, dealing with Agĩkũyũ customs and proverbs, and bringing in some world news, as well as local politics. Through it Agĩkũyũ learnt to express themselves. As Africans they believed that they had every right to “free development and expression”, to civilise but not to be “Europeanised or Indianised.” Through Mũiguithania other correspondences were initiated with West Africans living in London, Ugandans and Tanzanians, which served as the impetus behind self-support and sending of students like Kenyatta to overseas for studies. The first issue of Mũiguithania appeared in May of 1928 and the monthly newsletter remained in operation until the beginning of 1930 when it was proscribed by the Colonial Government.

To dismiss Mũiguithania as a “tribal” newspaper as Dr. Kisangani does is to fail to appreciate the novelty of the venture. Such a view also embraces uncritically the colonial designation that dismissed anything African as childish, tribal and lacking in universality. According to Kenyatta Mũiguithania served as the source and path of knowledge and news (both local and international) for those unable to join in politics, those also handicapped or limited in understanding events and information as well as those who could not move out of the Reserve due to colonial restrictions. By using Mũiguithania in reference to the Christian use of Mũhunjia, Kenyatta subverted the meaning of Mũhunjia (the “sent” one). In actual fact he robbed the missionaries their exclusive claim to this office and applied it accordingly. The object of its publication was avowedly that of unifying the Agĩkũyũ people. The theme throughout Muigwithania is that “Urutagwo Mwiruti” – i.e. work is accomplished by self-help or learning is best acquired when one teaches himself.

In his call to self-help and self-realisation, Kenyatta aptly observed that in the traditional society wealth could only be acquired through use of “itimu na ngo” (spear and shield) but in their time (colonial era) that was no longer viable means. People could only acquire wealth through “uugi na uhoreri” (Knowledge/wisdom and gentleness/peaceful ways.) There was no need to procrastinate or depend on handouts. Well educated Africans were urgently needed. Kenyatta pointed out that this could only happen if the community came together to raise funds to send men to Europe for training in Law, Medicine, Education and Agriculture. Kenyatta observed that the education which they were receiving in Kenya was inadequate. He called on the African leaders to find an abiding place for the future generations for there was no room for procrastination. Like Moses of the Bible, Kenyatta argued that best leadership would rouse the country into “ũthingu” (righteousness or goodness.) Such leadership would come if they were able to mobilise people to raise money and send some of their own to Europe for education. Following Kenyatta’s exhortation the Africans knew that the kind of education given to them was not adequate and thus they desired that many more like Chief Karũri wa Gakure, take their children to Europe “igakunuruo wega na githomo gitekunonuo” (to be enlightened with and education which is not curtailed). It is most likely that in sending Kenyatta and Gĩthendũ to England the Agĩkũyũ desired that the two African Athomi acquire knowledge so that on their return they may take up leadership.

Hermeneutically, Kenyatta used the term Mũiguithania as well as the newsletter itself to inculcate moral and ethical appropriateness of unity. His discourse recognised that the journey to “ũiguano” (unity or togetherness) under the banner “Rũgendo rwa Muigwithania” (i.e. Mũiguithania’s journey) would only be possible if all the Agĩkũyũ from Kabete to Meru were to wake up from the slumber and avoid slackness. Unity went hand in hand with good work ethic. The exhortation for unity demanded that all Agĩkũyũ grapple with the task of putting their land rights, not only in the claim of rightful ownership but also through hard work, cultivation of their fields, building good homes, that the land may look well attended and beautiful. Using his mastery in Gĩkũyũ rhetoric Kenyatta prodded his contemporaries to unite (ngoro ĩmwe ya ũiguano wa bũrũri), work hard and be accountable. The beginning of moral foundation and work ethic exhorted by Kenyatta could be found in the mind. In his “Marebeta ma Muigwithania”, Kenyatta argued that mental foundation would be the source of good deeds, working with a strong will, moral uprightness which added “possessions to be relied on”, i.e. “muthithu” (“treasure”). In the end Kenyatta concluded, “gutire undu kiriga, he meciria na ugi” (There is nothing baffling where thoughtfulness and wisdom is).

Kenyatta added to the power of the mind the idea of “ngoro” (soul/heart/conscience) as the source of moral strength, hospitality and wisdom. “Ngoro” warms up when friends meet together. Those with such a friendly “ngoro” were called to be discreet or prudent and speak their mind truthfully and with definitiveness. A “ngoro” that lacked wisdom or thoughts was compared to a stony ground which produced nothing. Ngoro was also seen as stronger than “ruhio rwa njora” (fighting sword). As a consequence any person, who can trust the other in “ngoro” (heart), shows that he is a statesman. For a “theru” (pure) “ngoro” is the source of strength and nothing need weigh heavy upon one whose heart is pure. “Ngoro ya muma-andu” (heart of hospitality) brings many friends to him who has such a heart. Such moral formation also recognised the dialectics of moral wisdom. “Ũrimũ (Foolishness or Ignorance) and “Ũgĩ” (Knowledge or Wisdom) live side by side in the same “Ngoro” and each desiring praise and glory. In the same dialectical tension exists Ũgũta (Laziness) and Ũthayo (Sloth) each for its own glory. To have a “gitaranirio”, one must utilise the God-given gift of the mind in order to be able to consider the reasons (causes) of things beneficial coming from “Ngoro.” The good things or beneficial includes diligence in good works to eradicate poverty; patience and self-control in order to assist others in distress without self-conceit and lust. For this reason, the wealth of “ngoro” was seen as better than ones wealth in thousands and thousands of cattle. However, the thing that surpassed everything is the “teri” (land.) Its permanence was of paramount importance – and acquisition and protection of it surpassed the “ngoro” which also perishes.

Kenyatta argued in defence of land tenure that for the Agĩkũyũ land tenure secured the “peaceful tillage of the soil which supplies their material needs and enables them to perform their magic and traditional ceremonies in undisturbed serenity, facing Mount Kenya”. The loss of the land under “Crown Lands” was through Agĩkũyũ “magnanimity, for the Gikuyu country was never wholly conquered by force of arms, but the people were put under the ruthless domination of European imperialism through the insidious trickery of hypocritical treatises.” Internationally, it was evident that nations supported each other and were in unity.[6] Africans could not really comprehend how their sons who had been lost in World War I as given by Princess Marie Louise could be honoured by such great words as written in the Memorial “that if you fight for your country, although you should die, your children will remember your names” – how such words could not be used as a commitment to the African country. It is because of this that invocation of the curse of Ahab was spoken by the Agĩkũyũ leaders who believed that even the strongest colonists, however powerful (who wished to continue to take away “ithaka” of the black people for their own selfish benefit and interests, should be warned of what happened to Ahab when he took away Naboth’s vineyard.) These words became a rallying call for the Africans to prove that there was nothing greater than a man’s country. For this reason Africans had no reason to be apathetic or half-hearted in the call to serve the cause for fighting for land rights. The “bururi” (nation/country) was greater and more important than the individual.

Ironically, just like Dr. Kisiang’ani, missionaries and other Europeans did not take Kenyatta kindly. He became their target for ridicule. Insinuations of all kind were levied against him. Once his book Facing Mount Kenya was published, missionaries grew more frantic. Missionaries and colonialists paid meticulous attention to minuet details, arguing about the use, choice and exact meaning of various Gĩkũyũ words that Kenyatta used. These were thoroughly scrutinised and debated. His photograph of his theatrical posing in Gĩkũyũ traditional dressing holding a spear and nursing its tip posted in front of Facing Mount Kenya was forever the point of debate in missionary circles. When Kenyatta’s book was sent to the Kikuyu News editor for review, the editor refused to review it and hoped that no other missionary would “think it wise or worthwhile to do so”.[7] Rev. Philp dismissed Jomo Kenyatta as author who “glories in shame and parades that which is indecent” in the name of science and contrary to the Spirit of true Christianity. In Rev. Philp’s imagination Kenyatta’s book was an aspect of conflict with ‘unfruitful works of darkness’ that the young Kikuyu Church was engaged in. It worried these Churchmen that Kenyatta’s book was introduced by Dr. B. Malinowski of Department of Anthropology in the University of London. Kenyatta was also accused of being a communist who had “immersed in politics, to the annoyance even of many of his own countrymen”. Corfield report on Mau-Mau blamed Kenyatta as the sole architect of the Mau-Mau Movement. To the Administration, settlers and many a missionaries Kenyatta was “the African leader to darkness and death”. Nonetheless, to many Africans in Kenya, Kenyatta was a symbolic figure in unity and strength of the community.

Even under such tough circumstances, Kenyatta expressed that he had no intention of entering into controversial discussion with anyone apart from letting “the truth speak for itself”. It is quite clear that he had the missionaries in mind when he said that he was aware he could not do justice to the subject without offending “‘professional friends of the African’ who are prepared to maintain their friendship for eternity as a sacred duty, provided only that the African will continue to play the part of an ignorant savage so that they can monopolise the office of interpreting his mind and speaking for him.” To such people he warned that the African was not blind and could recognise “pretenders to philanthropy” who need to awake to the fact that “a running river cannot be dammed for ever without breaking its bound.” Kenyatta argued that it was beyond Africans’ comprehension “to see how a people can reach so-called ‘higher level’ while they are denied the most elementary human rights of self-expression, freedom of speech, the right to form social organisations to improve their condition, and above all, the right to move freely in their own country”. Kenyatta concluded that the African power of expression may momentarily be hampered but it was breaking through, and would “very soon sweep away the patronage and repression which surround him”.

In conclusion Kenyatta, though not accorded any historical prominence by Dr. Kisiang’ani, galvanised the Kenyan African colonial community rallying them to unite. He became the first to achieve university education outside Kenya, and more so wrote a book! He was immortalised and accepted as the supreme leader who lead the community from the fetters of colonisation. Kenyatta was literally a “mũhonokia” (saviour or redeemer) of Kenya. It is no surprise that missionaries feared him and loathed him with a passion. Nonetheless, it is in the interest of the country if Kenyatta’s positive contributions in pre-independent Kenya are considered hand in hand with his post-colonial leadership. Historians such Dr. Kisiang’ani should cast aside their ethnic hatred and be truthful when writing history of our beloved republic. When all is said and done, history will judge Kenyatta kindly.

[1] I have borrowed most of this information from missionaries’ journals and letters, copies of Mũiguithania (available in Kenya National Archives), Kenyatta’s own work Facing Mount Kenya and Suffering without Bitterness, Henry Muoria’s Book I, the Gikuyu and the White Fury among others.
[2] This is where the Church of Scotland Mission headquarter was located and also the historic Alliance Boys school stood.
[3] This was in March 23, 1968 in an address at 70th anniversary of the founding of the Presbyterian Mission at Kikuyu by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta the president of the republic of Kenya.
[4] This is one of the major themes that Kenyatta pursued from the days of Mũiguithania as the basis of Gĩkũyũ moral economy. This point will be further elaborated later.
[5] Jomo Kenyatta spelt Mũiguithania as Muigwithania.
[6] Perhaps Kenyatta was referring to the evidently unity shown by the European nations against the Germans during the First World War.
[7] Rev. Dr. Philp was at the time the editor of Kikuyu News and had served as a missionary doctor in Tumutumu Kenya for many years.