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From the love of crisp notes to fear of crickets: Unknown side of Jomo

In the 15 years he was Kenya’s President, hardly anybody recalls seeing Mzee Jomo Kenyatta boarding or alighting from an aircraft.

He had quit flying immediately after independence.

In one of those last flights, he had flown to London for the pre-independence constitutional conferences at Lancaster House.

Politician John Keen sat next to him on the flight to London.

HATE FLIGHTS

He would tell me years later: “The old man was visibly terrified. You could see him shake any time we hit a heavy cloud. He told me he came to hate flying the night he was arrested by colonialists and flown blind-folded to Kapenguria in a rickety police chopper. The nasty ride scared the wits out of the old man that he acquired a life-lasting phobia for flying,” Mr Keen remembered.

The very last time the old man was in the air, Presidential Escort Commander Bernard Njinu, was to tell me, they had flown from Dar es Salaam to Mombasa a few months after independence.

On landing in Mombasa, the fuming old man told his Escort Commander: “Tell that pilot (Mzee used the SoB phrase) that henceforth he will be flying his mother not Kenyatta!”

HEIGHTS

The same phobia extended to heights.

Opening the new Coast Provincial Headquarters in 1970s, Mzee Kenyatta was escorted to take the lift to third floor where he would sign the visitors’ book.

Once the lift-car opened, he beckoned Mama Ngina: “You go sign the book on my behalf and find us here.”

The book had to be brought to the ground floor for the old man to sign.

DRIVING

Driving high speed was another no-no for old Jomo.

His speed limit was 40 km/h and you risked his wrath to exceed it, his Escort Commander would tell me.

When travelling long distances, especially from State House Nakuru to Mombasa, the Escort Commander and the President’s driver had designed a trick.

They would wait for the old man to take a nap on the way; cruise at topmost speed, but be back at 40 km/h as soon as Mzee stopped snoring.

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CASHMONEY

Like many old men, old Jomo also wanted to see and feel his money when in cash.

The Kikuyu call it mbecha bari bari.

Independent Kenya’s first African Police Commissioner Bernard Hinga told me of an incident when he requested Mzee to lease to the Kenya Police a portion of his private land in Gatundu for construction of houses for the presidential guard.

Mzee had no objection.

When asked to give the bank account where the rent money would be deposited, he replied: “I want you to be paying me in cash.”

Every end month, the police commissioner would personally take to the president the rent money in cash.

BRING CASH

The old man would neatly arrange the money in his wallet as he said: “Ici ni ciakwa (This is my cash)!”

Politician and businessman Stanley Githunguri has also told me how he came to acquire the plot on which he constructed the Lillian Towers along University Way.

He bought the land from Mzee Kenyatta for Sh200,000 in mid-1970s.

He had offered to transfer the money to Mzee’s bank account at the National Bank where he (Mr Githunguri) was the chief executive.

Mzee objected: “Don’t bank the money,” he said. “Bring it to me in cash”.

When he delivered the money, Mr Githunguri remembers, old Jomo fondly touched the new banknotes, smelt them, and handed them back to him: “Now you can go deposit the money in my account,” Mzee said.

LAND

Land (mugunda) is another thing that touched the old man in special places.

Then Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Isaiah Mathenge told me that he once showed the president a plot he had bought in the front row of the main street in Nakuru town. When he asked the old man whether he would be interested in owning a similar plot, Mzee impulsively replied: “Of course yes and, since you are the one who knows where to get the other plot, I will take this one as you get another one for yourself.”

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But much as old Jomo had a peculiar appetite for the soil, apparently he was ahead of his generation in acknowledging women can own land with or without knowledge or consent of their spouses.

WOMEN AND LAND

Then Coast Provincial Commissioner Eliud Mahihu told me of the day he took old Jomo for lunch at a beach hotel.

In those days, all beach hotels at the Coast were owned by foreign nationals.

As they drove back to State House, the president saw one undeveloped plot and asked Mr Mahihu: “Can you find out who the owner of the plot is and tell him I can buy it from him even at double the market price?”

The following day when he went to report back to the president, he found him seated with Mama Ngina: “Mzee I got to know who owns the plot but I am sorry she said she is not willing to sell it to you.”

Mr Mahihu told me Mzee was genuinely surprised that his offer could be rejected so casually and said: “Well, why don’t you ask her to come here we talk.” Mr Mahihu replied: “Asking her to come talk to you can’t be difficult. Actually she is right here and seated next to you.” Mr Mahihu recalled old Jomo making a loud laugh and saying: “This must be the uhuru (freedom) we fought for.

Even our women can own land without our knowledge!”

SUPERSTITIOUS

Like the men of his generation, old Jomo was superstitious.

He would never spend a night at Nairobi State House which he said was inhabited by colonial ghosts.

His Escort Commander recalls one night in the 1970s when he advised that the President spend the night in Nairobi after a pre-Jamhuri Day ball dance at the City Hall lasted late into the night.

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The old man agreed only to wake up past midnight and demand to be driven to Gatundu: “He told us he could not catch sleep because colonial ghosts had invaded his bedroom,” the Escort Commander recalls.

CRICKETS

Neither would old Jomo catch sleep with a cricket chirping out there.

Staying late on a visit to Embu one day, the old man spent the night at a government guest house.

In the middle of the night, a cricket started chirping unaware a VIP was sleeping nearby.

Administration Police Officers had to be mobilised to hunt for the offending cricket which they clubbed to death.

What an extra-judicial killing!

FRIENDLY

Old Jomo was also good at keeping friends.

Up to the day he died in August 1978, one man he had met in the 1920s, the first African Moderator of the PCEA church, the Rev Charles Muhoro, remained his buddy and never needed an appointment to go to State House.

The two used to call each other by the nick-name kabaki (cigarette).

The two had met at Nairobi Town Hall in their youth where they worked as water-metre readers.

At the time, both were chain-smokers and would borrow a stick (kabaki) from the other, hence the nick-name.

At the burial of Mzee Kenyatta on August 31, 1978, Rev Muhoro said a prayer for his departed buddy and which he closed with the words: “Where Mzee has gone, we shall soon join him”.

He, too, passed on within weeks.

He must have found it hard to live in this world without his old buddy.

 

Postscript:

How come Mzee Kenyatta mausoleum at Parliament Buildings isn’t open to the public as is Arlington Memorial in Washington and Westminster Abbey in London? Second, what became of the idea to have a national Heroes/Heroines Square to inter departed illustrious sons and daughters of this land? Isn’t it a national shame that Tom Mboya mausoleum on Rusinga Island is vandalised and overgrown with thickets?

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