Tribute to Kenyan patriot Salim Yakub (1924-2016)

Salim Yakub
Salim Yakub

SALIM YAKUB passed away peacefully on Saturday, February 27, 2016. In his family home in Nairobi, surrounded by his children and grandchildren, in the arms of his devoted daughter-in-law Khatuni, Salim left this world the way he had planned to. He could not halt the cancer which had invaded his body but he reduced his hospital visits to an absolute minimum and gave strict orders for no life support or intensive care. Six years ago, when I interviewed him for an article in AwaaZ, he had said, ‘I don’t fear death. There is no after-life after here. When I die, I do not want any rites in a gloomy room. Miss me a little bit, but not too long. Why cry over my long, accomplished journey?’

And accomplished it certainly has been. Born of Yemeni ancestry, his uncle Suleiman Omar was known as the ‘Robin Hood of Kutch’ — a district in India. He came to East Africa in 1899, started a logging business and brought over his younger brother Yakub Omar in 1902. Yakub (and his wife Zuleikha whom he married later) settled in Thika and that is where Salim was born in 1924. He did his early schooling in Thika before moving to the Government Indian Boys’ Secondary School in Nairobi when he stayed at an Ashram in Parklands run by the Arya Samaj.

In 1941, he moved to Kijabe where his cousin and fellow-Manjothi (sect), who was to become one of Kenya’s renowned nationalist journalists, Haroon Ahmed, enrolled him as a teacher in the primary section of the Itefaque Ashram he had established. When this school closed down in 1944, Salim moved to the Fidelity Lake Board School in Naivasha.Two years later he was called back to Nairobi to help his older brother Ebrahim manage an auto garage.

In 1947, Salim and his friends went to hear the newly returned Jomo Kenyatta address a mammoth crowd on Chief Koinange’s farm. So inspired were they that they resolved to join the anti-colonial struggle. Never a journalist himself, he raised funds to found the United Printing Press and together with other stalwarts including his mentor, Haroon, they began to publish the Daily Chronicle.

It was, according to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the first and only English language newspaper to advocate a militant nationalist policy, and to issue a call for total independence of the colony under majority African rule.

This was Salim’s introduction to the nation’s evolving political and social milieu. Kenyatta regularly brought his car to Salim’s garage for repair and would then borrow from him his teaching aides for his school in Githunguri. In 1952, when the Kapenguria Six were arrested, some of Salim’s notes were amongst the books seized from Kenyatta — an incident which resulted in some lengthy interrogations of Salim by the CID. Charges of sedition and heavy fines imposed by the colonial government also spelt the end of the original Chronicle.

As the Mau Mau War of Liberation came to a close, Salim joined other progressive South Asians such as K P Shah, Pio Gama Pinto, Fitz D’Souza, Makhan Singh and others in the Kenya Freedom Party. In 1963, he was elected as councillor of Eastleigh Ward and served under Mayor Charles Rubia. The following year, former president Mwai Kibaki was the candidate in the adjoining constituency of Bahati. He had just returned from Makerere and Tom Mboya requested Salim and Dr Munyua Waiyaki to campaign for him. By 1968, the racial composition of the City Council had become more representative of the population and Salim was the only remaining South Asian councillor in Nairobi. He continued to serve in that capacity up till 1975 and chaired, at different times, the Education and Town Planning committees.

Salim gave 12 years of selfless service to the community. In this position he was able to implement the ‘Robin Hood’ streak in his character. He initiated the building of a social hall, medical clinic, football pitch, soup kitchen and open-air market; and embarked on a tree-planting project in his constituency.

He was involved in the construction of 18 new primary schools and was on the advisory board of Mathare Mental Hospital together with Ladies Erskine and MacMillan. For 25 years Nairobi’s Kenya Polytechnic benefited from his services. In 1983 when the Queen of England visited the institution, Salim was executive chairman. In his meeting with the Queen he mentioned that their mechanical equipment had not been upgraded since it was first installed in 1957. And sure enough, in the months that followed, new machines appeared.

He served on 25 different committees, officiated in the Kenya Bus Services, the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenya Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, founded the City Arts Society and was executive chairman of the Kenya Polytechnic from 1977 to 1992. His business interests ranged from farm, hotel and driving school to photographic studio ventures. He became a freemason in 1953 and rose to the position of ‘worshipful master’.

Sport was not to be left out. He played volley ball and cricket and attended four Olympics — Tokyo (1964) and Mexico (1968) as an official on the Kenya team, Rome (1960) and Montreal (1976) as a visitor. The football World Cup in England (1966), the first Hockey World Cup in Spain (1971) and Cricket World Cup in England (1975) all saw him there! Salim travelled the world.

But of all his interests, singing and music were Salim’s first love. Back in Thika, a school teacher had noticed the melodious voice of six-year old Salim — a talent he had inherited from his mother. In Nairobi, Salim was able to get professional instruction in Indian classical music, and singing became a passion. He was a much respected exponent of ghazals, bhajans and classical songs and performed not only in Kenya, but in India too.To celebrate the advent of independence, Salim organised a dandiaras dance by 180 girls and boys who performed at our flag raising ceremony on December 12, 1963. In Mumbai in 1964, he won a trophy from Madan Mohan, one of Bollywood’s best known music directors and sung for the King in Katmandu, Nepal.

Born a Sunni Muslim, Salim professed to have a universal religion. He attributed his remarkable physical fitness and mental alertness to the yoga routine he had practised since his Ashram days in Parklands and to the love and caring he got from his large family. Many a fiery nationalist has mellowed with age but not Salim! When I visited him a month ago, he once again vehemently expressed his strong views: he condemned today’s permissive society, the depths marriage had sunk to and the lure of money. "As for the politicians, they are self-centred, the whole lot. Back then we had brilliant politicians," he remonstrated.

Zullikha, whom Salim married in Uganda in 1946, passed away in 1991 leaving him four sons and one daughter. To this large extended family we express our condolences. To AwaaZ, he was a living archive with his historical memory and wide network of acquaintances; to all Kenyans he remains a role model to emulate.