SPECIAL FEATURE

Sad saga of the Murumbi legacy

Neglect abounds after he and his wife dedicated their lives to African heritage

In Summary

• Little has been done to honour renowned patron of the arts and unflinching patriot

• His Muthaiga house was demolished, Narok mansion and City Park grave vandalised

Joe and Sheila Murumbi with one of their statues by Francis Nnaggenda, who left Africa and settled in Texas for 20 years because of lack of support for his monumental art that Murumbi fought for
Joe and Sheila Murumbi with one of their statues by Francis Nnaggenda, who left Africa and settled in Texas for 20 years because of lack of support for his monumental art that Murumbi fought for
Image: AFRICAN HERITAGE

“You can’t kill the memory of a good man” was the headline of an editorial in a local newspaper in 2009 at the time of the unveiling of the long-awaited Murumbi Peace Memorial in the City Park of Nairobi. The editorial stated, “The starkest reminder of the leadership Kenya could have had would be brought to the fore during the opening ceremony of the memorial.”

Two books have been written on Joseph Murumbi, the country’s second Vice President, since that time: A Path Not Taken, collected from his own transcripts, and Joseph Murumbi: A Legacy of Integrity, by Karen Rothmyer.

Although it may be true that you cannot kill the memory of a good man, little has been done to honour the memory of Murumbi, a pan-Africanist, a renowned patron of the arts and an unflinching patriot. Appointed Vice President after the resignation of Oginga Odinga, Murumbi became deeply disillusioned after the assassination of his mentor and close friend, Pio Gama Pinto. According to his will, he was to be buried as close to the Pinto grave as possible, but City authorities declared that the old Cemetery within the City Park where Pinto lies was full. Consequently, Murumbi’s body was laid to rest, on its own, in the City Park, only a few metres from Pinto’s grave.

Murumbi resigned from the government prematurely, and the only position he held after that was as the chairman of the Kenya National Archives, which he had helped to establish, and which holds the bulk of the collections he had sold to the government in 1976. This was just after the African Heritage Gallery, which he had opened on Kenyatta Avenue with this writer, had been totally destroyed by a fire in one of the largest blazes recorded in the Nairobi Central Business District.

The government then came to Murumbi and said they had no proper home for his collections. They implored him to sell his cherished house in Muthaiga. Murumbi agreed on one condition: that his house would be transformed into The Murumbi Pan-African Studies Centre. Unesco agreed to purchase an adjoining plot even larger than Murumbi’s, as well as to fund the construction of a library, a hostel for students and kitchens. Murumbi then moved on to a site near Maasai Mara, called Intona (which suitably means ‘roots’ in Kiswahili), to live with his Maasai kinsmen. There, he planned to establish an important medical research centre for Maasai cattle and to engage in beekeeping and other agricultural activities.

Murumbi in his beloved indigenous gardens at his house in Muthaiga
Murumbi in his beloved indigenous gardens at his house in Muthaiga
Image: AFRICAN HERITAGE

HEARTBREAKING BETRAYAL

The government of the day, however, never took up the offer from Unesco. It allowed the Murumbi house to deteriorate to the point where all Murumbi’s collections had to be moved out to avoid further water damage. They were transferred to the basement of the present Kenya National Archives building.

When Murumbi suffered a series of strokes and a fall at his mansion near Maasai Mara, he was evacuated to Nairobi, where he heard the news that his beloved house in Muthaiga had been demolished. Peering through the same gate, where, as a younger man, he used to view that house and yearn to buy it, he saw that his house had been demolished and his cherished indigenous forests had been replaced by three housing developments. A short time later, in 1990, he died, a heartbroken man.

Murumbi's famous collections languished at the National Archives basement, including thousands of invaluable books published about Africa before the 1900s, over 50,000 documents, and a pan-African postage stamp collection ranked next to the Queen of England’s in importance. There was also the vast collection of art objects he had collected throughout his life as foreign minister and entrepreneur.

Yet, it was not until decades later that the Murumbi collections were renovated and properly displayed in the grand old columned building that was once the Bank of India, which was thoroughly renovated. This work was spearheaded by the Murumbi Trust and well-wishers in 2003.

Mrs Sheila Murumbi had died in 2000, leaving behind another fabulous collection of artefacts and books, most of which were taken by heirs in London whom she hardly knew. A few containers full of African Heritage art and furniture remained in storage near the JKIA Airport for nearly 10 years. After these were finally released, the Murumbi Trust displayed in the oldest building in Nairobi, the Old PC’S office next to Nyayo House, along with Murumbi items from The Kenya National Archives and my own collections. It took more than two years to get permission from the Provisional Commissioner and City Authorities before the Murumbi Trust was allowed to create a separate entrance to this building so it had its own parking lot, entry gate and fences.

In the transcripts by Murumbi recorded in the book “A Path Not Taken”, Murumbi devoted a long chapter on his vision for his library and postage stamps to be enjoyed by scholars in posterity. He envisioned spacious, well-lit libraries and bookshelves to be built at his Muthaiga House by Unesco. This was never to be and the books are now kept in a dim upper floor of the National Archies, certainly not what Murumbi wanted. The Rahimtulla Trust Library, an old stone building of even older vintage than the nearby National Archives, has been renovated in recent years and the Murumbi Trust has appealed for the books to be moved there. It has the quiet, spacious, well-lit reading rooms and refurbished bookshelves that Murumbi yearned for to house his precious books.

NO RESTING IN PEACE

Joseph Murumbi, however, was not allowed to rest, even after his death. The money allocated by the government to create his memorial went missing. Several times, would-be grave robbers dug holes in his gravesite, thinking they might find buried treasures. It was necessary to move huge boulders onto his grave to preserve it. The same happened to the grave of Mrs Murumbi.

Finally, The Murumbi Trust was given an acre of land to create a memorial for the couple. A hand-carved signboard was erected on Limuru Road, which was stolen a short time later, and the metal gates installed disappeared after only a few nights. The wooden stakes placed in the ground around the plot were removed by City officials. It was then revealed that the very same plot had been given to developers to build apartments in the Nairobi City Park. It was only the heroic actions of the then director of the Kenya National Archives, Lawrence Mwangi, who stood on the grave and declared in front of the advancing machinery already on site, “A building will be put in the City Park only over my dead body!” The developers moved on after several articles and editorials of outrage in the Kenyan press.

However, there was still no peace for Murumbi and his wife. Scrap metal thieves invaded the memorial. Once, a group of seven, armed with sledgehammers, succeeded in knocking over a two-ton metal sculpture, ‘Woman at the Gate,’ which had proudly stood at the Muthaiga house for decades and was once lost and then found forlornly left behind at the Agricultural Showgrounds.

After a battle with park askaris, the band of thieves amputated one arm of the statue, which was later replaced by the late artist Expedito. Expedito had already created a brilliant metal statue for the grave called ‘The Universal Couple’. It was saved from a similar fate as Nnaggenda’s when it was bought by the Nairobi Serena Hotel, where it now serves as a special attraction in the hotel’s lobby. Unfortunately, the magnificent stone statue he replaced the metal one with has recently been horribly vandalised and damaged, broken in two by thieves while trying to remove it. Through the Murumbi Trust, it has now undergone a process of renovation and once again stands within the Murumbi Memorial.

Earlier, a metal statue, one of John Odochameny’s “mass communication” series, was chopped off its pedestal by scrap metal thieves, no doubt shipped to China, leaving only its feet behind. John, in turn, has replaced his metal sculpture with a wonderful stone sculpture called ‘The Paragon Couple’.

Before his death, Murumbi had asked famed Kenyan stone sculptor Elkana Ongesa to produce a huge bird for his grave, similar to the one Elkana had created for the Unesco Headquarters in Paris, after the Unesco director had seen one of his sculptures at the Murumbi House in Muthaiga. Elkana produced a wonderful sculpture of solid granite called “The Bird of Peace Emerging from the Stone of Despair”, taken from a Martin Luther King speech. It stands proudly today, guarding the two graves. Monkeys frolic on it and use it as a slide.

The Nairobi City Park is in a horrible state. The Aga Khan Foundation had agreed to renovate the park, and it put aside funds to bring back to life such features as the famous reflecting pool, the legendary bandstand and the indigenous forests. Sadly, they gave up on this endeavour after failure to come to terms with City officials and local organisations.

The park now stands as a monument to years of neglect. It has been turned into a gigantic parking lot for the nearby market, which was supposed to move into the new buildings provided for them after a fire had destroyed the market. They now stand empty and desolate. Encroachment of the parklands continues unabated.

Opening of the Murumbi Gallery at the Kenya National Archives after renovations by the Murumbi Trust funded by Ford Foundation
Opening of the Murumbi Gallery at the Kenya National Archives after renovations by the Murumbi Trust funded by Ford Foundation
Image: AFRICAN HERITAGE

SAVING THE LEGACY

The Murumbi graves were never provided with security or night guards. I had provided a night guard for decades until this service was thankfully taken over by the National Museums of Kenya as one of the country’s historical sites and monuments in recent years. After the Murumbi Trust put in benches, tables, walkways, gardens and information boards, artists close to Murumbi gathered to provide sculptures to commemorate him.

No one has ever offered to provide services to maintain the gravesite. I have left money in my will for my gardener, who has looked after the grave for the last few decades, to continue these duties for as long as possible. I have also looked after the Pinto gravesite since Murumbi’s death, replacing the signboard after the original one was eaten by termites. The same fate as the house that held the trestles nearby, which were used to hold the caskets of those to be interned. The photo on Pinto’s monument has been stolen as I reported to Mrs Pinto, who died last year.

Perhaps it is not too late for the Kenyan government to revive the offer of the Aga Khan Foundation to recreate the park as they have done so well in Zanzibar, Dar-es-Salaam, Cairo and other cities. This project remains on the Aga Khan Foundation's books. In recent years, the press extensively reported that the fate of African Heritage House was following in the footsteps of Murumbi when the house was threatened with demolition to make way for the SGR railway.

Fortunately, the house was in the process of being made a national monument by the National Museums of Kenya and it was finally declared a National Monument in January 2016. I am now looking for a buyer for the house and its contents. Price is not the main objective, but the quality of the buyer must be someone who can carry on my work in preserving and protecting African heritage.

The fate of the Murumbi Intona mansion is another monumental worry for me and others who know the Murumbi history. Like what happened with his house in Muthaiga, the ornate, hand-carved Lamu doors and windows have been stolen and the house totally vandalised. The once glorious swimming pool at the house is now covered with a thick residue of moss and mould.

Over the years, many well-wishers have tried to sort out the problems of the Murumbi Intona House, which involves wrangles between the bank which loaned money to Murumbi and the local Maasai, including his extended family, as well as would-be land grabbers. I have implored the country’s highest officials to take steps to rehabilitate the Murumbi mansion, if not to its former glory, then at least to honourably serve the memory of the couple who lived there, who had dedicated their lives to African heritage, particularly the country of Kenya.

Edited by T Jalio