Fathers of the Nation at UCL: Jomo Kenyatta

Fathers of the Nation at UCL: Jomo Kenyatta

Alexi Demetriadi tells the story of Jomo Kenyatta, a UCL student who became the first president of Kenya.


Everyone at UCL knows that the statesman and unofficial ‘Father of India’, Mahatma Gandhi attended the university in the late 1800s as a law student. But what other ‘Fathers of the Nation’ studied at UCL? The list is long and varied: it includes the founder of the tiny Indian Ocean island Mauritius and Itō Hirobumi, the first Prime Minister of Japan.

Alongside these figures are the founders of three African nations who also all studied at UCL. Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa of Nigeria and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana all went on to govern their newly independent nations in the middle of the 20th century and were all key figures in the Pan-Africanism movement. In the first of three pieces, I’ll examine the life of the first of the three to attend UCL (albeit briefly): Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya.

A figure whose legacy has proved divisive, Kenyatta was born sometime in the mid-1890s. His parents named him Kamau. He was of Kikuyu ethnicity, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, and it was his Kikuyu heritage that would end up shaping the path Kenyatta took in leading his country to independence.

Kenyatta was a young boy when his father died; he was sent to live with his uncle, only for tragedy to strike again when his mother passed away in childbirth. Now living with his ‘medicine man’ grandfather, Kenyatta worked as a houseboy and cook for a white settler near Nairobi to fund his education at a Church of Scotland Mission School.

After completing his education, Kenyatta spent the following years occupying small jobs to fund himself, before entering politics with the Kikuyu Central Association. The KCA was a large political movement within Kenya at the time, set up to act on behalf of the Kikuyu community. He quickly became the group’s general secretary and it was thanks to this role that Kenyatta travelled to London in 1929.

It was London where Kenyatta’s hopes for Kenyan independence would be accelerated. He was initially sent by the KCA to act as a lobbyist, but his English was weak and it was believed that he was intimidated by the polished presentation of other anti-colonial figures in London. Canadian scholar Bruce Berman remarks that in Kenyatta’s early years in London, he was torn between how to represent himself. On one hand, he would walk down the streets of London wearing a leopard skin and carrying a spear; on the other, he would wear a suit and tie for a meeting with intellectuals.

Berman explains that even though Kenyatta was one of the better-educated people from Kenya, he quickly realised that he was out of his depths in London. “He was acutely aware of his limited command of English, oral and written,” states Berman, “as well as his unfashionable clothing and awkwardness.”

Taking steps to amend this, Kenyatta quickly completed an English language course at a Quaker school and then, five years after travelling to London, he was to officially enrol at UCL in 1934.

Little is known about Kenyatta’s time at UCL, although we do know that he enrolled with the intention to help work on an English-Kikuyu dictionary. It can be assumed he completed his task, as he was then to move a mile south to LSE, to study Anthropology under Professor Bronislaw Malinowski. It was here where he would publish his thesis, Facing Mount Kenya, and when he first started to use the name Jomo Kenyatta. Jomo, a Kikuyu name meaning ‘burning spear’ in English, and Kenyatta, a Swahili word meaning ‘light of Kenya’, were to be the names he chose to stick with for the rest of his life.

After nearly twenty years abroad, Kenyatta was to return to Kenya to seek its independence. He became a teacher, and started to receive death threats from white settlers when he was elected as the president of the Kenya African Union, a political group devoted to achieving independence from colonial rule.

His drive for an independent Kenya was soon to be significantly stalled by the Mau Mau rebellion in 1951. The rebellion, an armed conflict between the Mau Mau Kikuyu people, white settlers and parts of the British Army, led to the country declaring a state of emergency. Two years later Kenyatta would be arrested and jailed for his apparent ties with the radical Mau Mau group, a claim that is much contested.

For seven years, the British-educated intellectual and political leader was to be detained in the remote town of Lodwar, but after more than a million signatures were sent to the governor of Kenya pleading for his release, Kenyatta, after eight years behind bars, was freed in August 1961.

He was then swiftly admitted into the Legislative Council in 1961 after an old friend gave up his constituency seat so that Kenyatta could become leader of the party. Two years later, Kenyatta’s Kenya African National Union won 83 out of the 124 available seats that saw Kenyatta become the Prime Minister of an autonomous Kenyan government, albeit still under colonial rule.

On December 12th 1963, to wild celebrations, Kenya became an independent country with Kenyatta retained as Prime Minister. Two years later, he became the country’s first president. Thanks to constitutional amendments, President Kenyatta had wide-ranging powers to shape the newly liberated country during its early years. Kenyatta was then elected unopposed for another term in 1966 before banning the only other party, detaining its leaders, and turning Kenya into a one party state.

Human rights activist Koigi Wa Wamwere remembers travelling for miles as a teenager to see Kenyatta give a speech. Later, he denounced the president as a dictator. Wamwere explains, “the name Kenyatta was synonymous with the word freedom”, but after making Kenya a one party state this link was lost. “He was once a hero of Africans everywhere, but when he became president he became a king, a dictator.”

After having a heart attack in 1966, and then suffering through periodic comas lasting days throughout the 1970s, Kenyatta slowly retreated into isolation and out of public life. It was on August 22nd 1978, during a family reunion in the city of Mombasa, that the UCL alumnus and ‘Father of Kenya’ passed away.

The success of his legacy is debated; many streets in the capital Nairobi, two universities and the international airport are named after the country’s first president. Kenyatta pursued a successful western, anti-communist and inclusive foreign policy that saw strong ground works laid and institutions established in Kenya, but he was also to later rule autocratically, overseeing the temporary formation of a one party state in a country where patronage and tribalism still dominated public life.

Dividing the opinion of many, Kenyatta once stated that “our children may learn about the heroes of the past, our task it to make ourselves the architects of the future.” It is in this context that Jomo Kenyatta, the Father of the Nation, certainly succeeded.


Featured Image: Wikimedia

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