In 1966, after serving first as Kenya’s Foreign Minister and then as Vice-President, Joseph Murumbi resigned from Government. Having concluded that the country had made a wrong turn away from a concern with the poor and the ideals he believed in, Murumbi told an old friend that he could no longer ‘be part of corruption in this country’. Tribalism, too, which was to take Kenya to the brink of disaster years later, had already become firmly entrenched, and he wanted no part of it.
Today, Murumbi stands as a symbol of what Kenya could have become, and still could be. As the son of a Goan father and a Maasai mother, he disdained prejudice of any kind. As someone plucked from relative obscurity by Jomo Kenyatta thanks to his hard work and talents as an organizer, he was dismissive of those who depended on family or ethnic connections. And as a strong advocate of embracing and preserving African culture, he was a champion of African artists and their works.
What follows, starting today, are three adaptations of chapters from Joseph Murumbi: A Legacy of Integrity, to be launched on Friday, 22 June. The origin of the book was a series of interviews Murumbi did in the late 1970s. The transcripts of those interviews have been edited, combined with other material, and provided with background by Karen Rothmyer, a former Star public editor.
Joseph Murumbi’s father, Peter Zuzarte, came from an old landed family in Goa, now part of India, but after emigrating to Kenya became a trader. His mother, the daughter of Murumbi, the leader of the Uasin Gishu Maasai, was a remarkable linguist who spoke a dozen languages including English. The two met in Eldama Ravine, where Murumbi was born in 1911. The couple eventually separated, by which time Murumbi was studying in a Jesuit-run school in India. He returned to Kenya as a young man in 1933.
At the urging of his father, who said the African people needed his skills more than the Asian people, Murumbi renounced his Asian identity and became identified as a Maasai. His mixed background never seems to have caused him political problems; he was elected to Parliament in 1963 from a mixed-race constituency in Nairobi.
Murumbi’s father also encouraged him to read about colonialism in both India and Kenya, which led him to appreciate the injustices of British rule. Over the next fifteen years or so, however, he paid little attention to politics, working as a clerk in Nairobi and then for the British Army in Somalia. In 1952, already past 40, he decided to return to Kenya.
Following the imposition of a State of Emergency in October of that year, Murumbi became Acting Secretary of the Kenya African Union and assisted in the defence of Jomo Kenyatta at his trial in Kapenguria on charges of masterminding the Mau Mau insurgency. Before the trial ended, Kenyatta instructed Murumbi to take Kenya’s case to the outside world. The KAU was banned soon afterward, meaning that Murumbi would be subject to immediate arrest if he were to return home. This led to his spending nine years in exile in England.
There, Murumbi worked to further the goal of Kenyan independence. During this time he was spied on and harassed by British intelligence, while learning how to petition Parliament, engage in public debates, and become comfortable in front of a news microphone.
Muthoni Likimani, the Kenyan author and broadcaster, lived in London in the mid-50s and recalls how Murumbi organised meetings between MPs and visiting Kenyan leaders. ‘He was cool-headed and quite an effective person,’ she says. ‘He was a man of action, not a man of talking too much.’
Joseph Murumbi’s father Peter Zuzarte. /COURTESY
IN MURUMBI’S WORDS
The atmosphere in Kenya when I returned from Somalia in 1952 was different, people were more conscious of their rights and more conscious of the need for change. They wanted a legislature in their hands, the elimination of the colour bar, more land, and more money spent on education and agriculture.
When I first came back I stayed with a friend who took me over to a meeting where I asked some questions. When the meeting was over, a young Asian, Pio Pinto, came up to me and asked who I was. Then he told me, ‘You must meet all the boys—Bildad Kaggia, Achieng Oneko, and the others in the Kenya African Union.’ Gradually I got involved with a group of about twenty KAU members which we called the Kenya Study Circle.
The only activity we organised was a conference on the economic problems of East Africa, which we held in Ngai’s office on River Road. Mzee Kenyatta came to this meeting and afterward Mzee, who was meeting me for the first time, asked me who I was and whether I was a member of the Kenya African Union. I said that I was not, but that I would become a member, and he told me—I remember these words: ‘You must play an active role in the Party.’
On the day the Emergency was declared, when I read that Mzee had been arrested I went straight to KAU headquarters. I asked whether there was anything I could do to help. They told me to come back in the afternoon; they had to elect a new committee. At the meeting, Muinga Chokwe was elected as the Acting Secretary. However, as he was wanted by the police, it was suggested that my name be put forward as the Acting Secretary, merely as a cover for Chokwe, which I accepted.
About a week later, I was at the airport to help receive Fenner Brockway and Leslie Hale, British MPs who were visiting Kenya at KAU’s invitation, when Chokwe suddenly turned up. Immediately the police saw him they arrested him, and he just had time to give me the keys to the office before he was taken away. As I was on the list as the Acting Secretary General, I was left ‘holding the baby’, and that’s how I entered politics—not by design, but by accident.
Also read: Murumbi’s Legacy Part Three: The Later Years
I saw Mzee almost every day of the trial, but the only thing he said to me, and this is something which may damn the Old Man if I say this, but he said to me, ‘Please go and tell these people to stop this fighting. This will take us nowhere.’ I said, ‘How can we do it? It’s reached a stage now that if we tried to say anything the people would butcher us.’
The trial was just a sham. The defence lawyers were not lacking in any respect. But the British Government had to justify the oppression and the exploitation of people here, they had to find a scapegoat.
Kenyatta felt that I should go out of the country and speak to people in India, in Cairo, Britain, North America and West Africa about the situation.
When I arrived in London, The Congress of Peoples Against Imperialism had arranged a program of meetings for me right throughout the country. But as I was late in coming they had to reorganise the program and this took some time. So I spent the first month in London going about to see the museums and art galleries, which I found very interesting. And, with the little money I had, I started buying books.
I also made contact with some of the foreign students who were there in London, and contacted some Quaker friends, who arranged for me to have a meeting with the Colonial Secretary. I was supposed to be the KAU representative in London. When we arrived, we were told that I couldn’t see the Colonial Secretary but that a Mr Barton would see me.
Joseph Murumbi’s mother. /COURTESY
When Mr Barton came in he shook hands with the two Quakers and ignored me. He sat down and said in a very rough voice: ‘Murumbi, I’d like you to understand I’ve been in Kenya for twenty years.’ I looked at him and said, ‘That is perfectly obvious.’ He asked me what I meant by this. I pointed out what he had done and said, ‘That is the attitude of the European in Kenya, who does not shake hands with an African.’
I had prepared a short note of the points I wanted to discuss, which were mainly concerned with the release of Jomo Kenyatta and talks with him and other African leaders about ending the State of Emergency. All my suggestions were of no avail.
After the interview I asked Mr Barton where he had been stationed. He replied that he had been a District Commissioner and mentioned a number of places including Eldama Ravine. I told him I’d been born there and asked if he knew the reason for the nine-foot stone wall around the DC’s house. He didn’t know, but he remembered the wall. So I told him, ‘The reason for that wall was that my grandfather disliked the British and attacked the District Commissioner’s house and nearly killed him.’
In 1954 we formed the Movement for Colonial Freedom. The movement was sponsored by nearly a hundred and twenty Labour MPs and many other distinguished individuals. I was appointed Assistant Secretary.
We worked with committees which covered the whole of the colonial world. We met regularly in the House of Commons, in rooms that were just below the main debating room. I liken our activities to termites who operate underground.
Whilst I was in the MCF we made contact with most of the colonial leaders and that made my later task as Foreign Minister much easier because I knew them on a personal level. I also met a lot of leaders at the first All-African People’s Conference in Accra in 1958. It was such an enlightening, inspiring conference that it gave the political parties the extra energy to struggle even harder for independence.
I met Sheila [an Englishwoman whom he later married in a Maasai ceremony] at a dance at Mbiyu Koinange’s house, in London. I had heard that she was a librarian and I wanted to get my library catalogued. Sheila volunteered to do it. It may be a question of the spider saying to the fly, ‘Come to my parlour,’ but anyway she catalogued my library and we developed a very keen friendship from then onwards.
When Mzee came to London [for the second Lancaster House independence talks in 1962] I managed all the delegation’s appointments, did all the typing work for them, arranged meetings for them and so on.
Odinga is very generous with money. I remember in London he came to us after Mzee was released and said, ‘Look here, Mzee, I’ve got £10,000, you must have some of this money because you’ve got no money.’ He gave the Old Man about £2,000 or £3,000. Odinga never hid the fact of where he got the money. But as far as I know Odinga is not a communist.
I worked very closely with Tom Mboya during the London conferences, and he was the only one who actually worked. While other people were having a good time, Mboya was working. And one must accept that, whether you like him or not, he played his part.
On the night before Mzee left for Nairobi, he asked me to have dinner with him. He told me, ‘Joe, now you’ve got permission to come back to Kenya, what are you going to do when you go back?’ And I said, ‘Mzee you know I’ve been away for nine years, and I’ve got to go back to see my people and friends and then look for a job.’ So, he said, ‘Now supposing I make a proposition to you to work for me.’ I said, ‘Mzee, I’ll work anywhere.’ When the Constitutional talks were over, I packed up my books and everything and I came back.
Joseph Murumbi: A Legacy of Integrity will be launched as part of the Samosa Festival on Friday, 22 June, at the Alchemist, beginning at 4pm. It will retail at Sh1,000 during the Festival and at Sh1,200 after 11 July. It will be available at Bookstop at Yaya Centre and other locations.