Like with all boys growing up in the 1970s, the story of the Kapenguria Six was a popular evening pastime. Our parents would tell us about six Kenyans imprisoned by colonialists at the height of the freedom struggle in the 1950s. The six were Jomo Kenyatta, Paul Ngei and Achieng Oneko. Others were Bildad Kaggia, Kung’u Karumba and Fred Kubai.
We grew up longing to meet any, if not all, of the six independence heroes. In my case, I only came to meet two, Kaggia and Ngei. As for Mzee Kenyatta, I saw him only once when he passed near our school in Elburgon, Nakuru County. All I can remember about the occasion is the old man saying a thunderous Harambee!
I met Kaggia when I was already a journalist and will one day tell his story in this column.
But today I will tell the story of Ngei. I met him just before his death in 2004. He had been wheeled to the office of a friend of mine at the Posta Sacco plaza on University Way. He was on a wheelchair, his two legs having been amputated as a result of diabetes.
MAN OF GREAT DRAMA
As soon as the woman who brought him in had stepped out, my friend told Ngei in half-jest: “Paul, you amaze me, you mean you still have an appetite for beautiful ladies even in your condition!” Ngei replied: “But Charles, one doesn’t need three legs to do it!”
I got the impression that Ngei must be a man of great drama and went out of my way to find out more about him.
I gathered that he had been a ladies’ man throughout his life. A few days before the Kapenguria Six were transferred from Kapenguria pending their release, a woman had shown up with two young children to bid Ngei farewell. When she went away, Kenyatta had joked that the children resembled Ngei in every aspect, to which Ngei replied: “Mzee, of course those are my kids. I had to produce babies while at this place just to demonstrate to colonialists that they had jailed everything else in us except our manhood!”
When he was Cabinet minister for Lands, Ngei had directed that a certain woman be allocated 30 acres of land in Athi River area in Machakos County. Overcome with joy, the young woman went to thank the minister only to be cut short: “Young girl, you mean your mother has never told you that I am your dad!”
At another time, Ngei was called to testify at a sensational murder trial of a daughter of fellow Cabinet minister Jackson Angaine, Judy. It happened that the evening before Judy was found dead, Ngei had dropped her home after draining a bottle of wine with her at the Karen Country Club. Asked by defence lawyer what he had been doing with the deceased on the fateful night, a furious Ngei had answered: “Well, I would say that’s a silly question. You shouldn’t ask a man why he was in the company of a beautiful lady. Every normal man wants to have a nice looking woman next to him!”
Such was vintage Ngei that he and a Cabinet colleague had been nick-named FD (Fagia Dunia) as they had a mistress in every world capital they visited.
His bedroom escapades aside, Ngei, below, somehow strongly believed in a sense of entitlement, and that the world owed him a living on account of his role in the freedom struggle.
Early in the 1960s, he made dubious history as the first Cabinet minister to be questioned over corruption. He had been suspected of selling for profit a consignment of maize brought into the country for relief purposes. When he appeared before a parliamentary committee, Ngei was mad that MPs would “dare probe” a freedom fighter of his calibre. “Where were you when I took up arms to chase away the white man!” he had dared them.
Another notorious incident was in the 1970s when the minister walked to the showroom of the DT Dobie car dealers and asked to be allowed to test-drive a brand new Mercedes Benz, registration KNM 190. He reported back that he liked the car and would keep it. He advised the vehicle dealer to either invoice State House or the Treasury. The money was never paid with Ngei bragging that he had a right to keep the car and not pay a coin having fought for independence of this country!
When he was minister for Lands, he once made a stop-over at the home of Kapenguaria colleague Bildad Kaggia on the Thika-Nyeri highway. Kaggia lived in poverty, with only a posho mill to his name.
On noting the poor living conditions of his friend, Ngei had angrily charged: “Kaggia, why live in abject poverty after spending all those years in prison fighting for independence! Today I am giving you permission to storm the neighbouring Del Monte pineapple farm and allocate yourself as many acres of land as you wish. If anybody asks you a question, just direct them to me at Ardhi House. I will personally deal with them!”
Another bizarre moment came in early 1990s after Ngei was declared bankrupt and his property attached for failure to pay back a Sh19 million bank loan. He marched to the US embassy offices in Nairobi and demanded to be given a million dollars to clear his debt.
His reasoning was that as Cabinet minister, he always ensured US interests prevailed, especially at the height of the East-West ideological war. Told by then US Ambassador Smith Hempstone that the embassy had no budget allocation for such contingency, Ngei replied, without battling an eyelid: “Fine Mr Ambassador, why then not lend me the money from your own pocket or borrow it from your friends?”
The ambassador replied that he didn’t have that kind of money in his bank account, and that he doubted his friends, too, would have that kind of money since none of them were corrupt and only lived from hand to mouth!
In his heyday, Ngei was also known to walk to a high-end hotel with friends, wine and dine to the full, but tell the waiters to send his bills to State House!
THROW A PUNCH
The minister would also not hesitate to throw a punch or wrestle to the ground anybody who crossed his path. A Nation photographer who took his pictures at the High Court against his wish lived to regret it after the Cabinet minister set upon him with kicks and blows.
Once during vote-counting in his Kangundo constituency, a returning officer who hesitated to order a recount as demanded by Ngei found himself wrestled to the ground and threatened with instant death.
In the circumstances, Ngei’s election was nullified by the court, and the minister barred from vying in the repeat poll. The law had to be hurriedly amended to allow the President to pardon election offenders, which is what saved Ngei’s political career.
But, as they say, when misfortunes come, they do so in battalions. In the end, the Kapenguria hero was declared bankrupt, his two limbs amputated, and his earthly possessions auctioned.