The day President Kenyatta died

The day President Kenyatta died

In 1978, I was a fresh from school cub reporter with The Nairobi Times, a Sunday newspaper belonging to Hilary Ng’weno’s Stellascope Group. The paper and its sister publications – the fabled Weekly Review and the children’s title Rainbow – were based at Asili Cooperative House at the junction of Moi Avenue and Murang’a Road. Graffins College, our neighbor on the third floor, is still based there today.

Every day, I would go for lunch in my rented one-roomed cubicle in Nairobi’s Park Road. It was part of about 20 other rooms that comprised a plot with common amenities for the tenants. I shared the room with my elder brother.

In the early afternoon of August 22, I went home for lunch as usual, taking a bus from town to Park Road. There was nothing out of the ordinary along the way.  But on reaching the plot where I lived, a lady neighbor came rushing out of the building. She was in a state of nerves. She held her trembling hand over her mouth. Fear shone from her eyes.

On running into me, she asked in a quivering voice: “Is it true?”

“True about what?” I asked in puzzlement. He panic alarmed me.

“About the President?” She said. I could see her legs were also trembling. I remember a thought of the unthinkable crossing my mind in a millisecond before going away.

“What about the President?” I asked.

“That he is dead?”

I was shocked but made an effort not to show it. I asked her how she had learnt that.

“It’s on the radio,” she told me.

“Let me go and hear for myself,” I replied, my heart pounding quite a bit. I left her to herself and disappeared into my room, which my brother and I disparagingly called “the hovel.”

I switched on the radio and the first thing that came one air was the martial rendition of the national anthem. It played twice followed by a pregnant silence. Then the somber voice of veteran broadcaster Norbert Okare, he of impeccable diction, followed. He announced:

“This is a special Government announcement: His Excellency the President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Kenya Armed Forces, died peacefully in his sleep at 3.30 am at State House, Mombasa. The Government requests all Kenyans to remain calm at this moment of national shock. All flags are to fly at half mast.”

Another broadcaster, Ali Hassan Mazoa, repeated the same announcement in Kiswahili. And then the national anthem followed, still the martial version. I warmed my food and ate in a hurry, all the while listening to the repetitive fare of announcement-national anthem-announcement. Then I switched off the radio and headed for town.

It seems as if the news wasn’t known at Park Road because people were going about their businesses normally. It started spreading when I reached town. I alighted from the bus on Tom Mboya Street and as I walked towards the office, I saw traders closing their shops in a hurry. All over the streets, for as long as the eye could see, shopkeepers were closing their shop doors.

Nairobi of 1978 was nothing resembling the steel city of 2011. Shops did not have grilled doors. When it was time to close, the owner just pulled the glass door behind him and turned the key on the flimsy lock. That was all. Metal grilles were a phenomenon of the 1980s, beginning with the failed coup of August 1982.

Small groups of people formed in the streets, and then they quickly disbanded, heading home. It was the era of slow communication. There were no mobile phones and fixed lines could only be found in established businesses and the homes of only a privileged few. But word of mouth still spread fast and by the time I was nearing the office, the city was slowly getting deserted. People were heading towards bus stops. They were very orderly and clearly anxious. But I did not see anybody weeping.

Before crossing Murang’a Road to get into the office, I looked up the second floor and saw my boss, Hilary Ng’weno and he saw me. His office was strategically in the building’s corner. He had arranged his desk in such a way that he could survey the street below him. I wondered what he was thinking or what his next instructions could be.

I entered the office to find my colleagues discussing the news. They were a study in contrast. Ng’weno’s driver, a middle-aged gentleman called Mwangi, was filled with grief and he could barely speak. I recall him gravely observing: “Wasn’t it just the other day when he gathered his entire family together? He clearly knew he was going.”

We looked out of the large windows and saw people peacefully going home. By now all the shops were shut. So silent were the streets that Rose Kimotho, another colleague, said with a raised voice: “How come it’s as if nothing is happening? I want some action!” Indeed, there seemed something eerily incongruous that the death of such a colossus, whose demise was never supposed to be even imagined, should be received with such pin-drop placidity.

A police land-rover made a gentle turn from Moi Avenue – then known as Government Road – and slowly drove down Murang’a Road. I strongly doubt its presence there had anything to do with the President’s death; most probably, it was just on a routine patrol.

But on seeing the vehicle, Blamuel Njururi, our senior writer, leaned over the window and shouted at it: “Chini! Chini! Chini!” (“Down! Down! Down!”). He poked the air with his index finger indicating the ground. I was horrified at his action and at the same time really scared. I didn’t understand him. But I dreaded what the police might do in response to such unnecessary and wholly inexplicable provocation. Mercifully, they didn’t seem to see the man perched there on the second floor of the building taunting them. Most likely, they were too engrossed with the breaking news. The land rover soon disappeared from view towards the Globe Cinema.

Ng’weno finally appeared in the newsroom looking stricken. He called Njururi to his office and I didn’t get to know what he told him. I was a reporter in the sports department and I knew there was unlikely to be work for me on this story. Not only that: I was only 19 and the youngest member of the editorial staff. There was not that much I could hope to do when in the company of heavyweights such as Njururi, Peter Kareithi, Otieno Mak’Onyango and Horace Awori.

Kareithi shortly burst into the newsroom from whichever beat he was on. “The Nation is publishing a Special Edition,” he announced to no one in particular. He was dead serious. He had an abrupt manner and a cutting tongue, completely bereft of any niceties. He told you exactly what he thought of you, regardless of the consequences. And he was simply the best investigative reporter in Kenyan journalism, probably never replaced.

I admired Kareithi and tried to copy him. But at that moment, I knew better than to approach his desk as he sat down shuffling notebooks and papers while smoking furiously. Instead, I found myself musing about Kenyatta. I didn’t have any strong feelings, positive or negative, towards him. He was the larger-than-life figure I had grown up in awe of.

He went by the semi-official title Father of the Nation and his wife Mama Ngina Mother of the Nation, though the latter was used sparingly. But he was a distant father who had very few public engagements outside the confines of the State Houses of Nairobi, Mombasa and Nakuru, his apparent favourite.

As a teenager, I could scarcely relate with his favourite pastimes – bird watching on Lake Nakuru and joining elderly traditional dancers in the evenings. To me, he was as much a myth as he was a man. He wore huge glittering rings on his fingers and as boys we were told by our teachers that some of those rings were for warning him of impending danger. We also heard that he used to beat up his cabinet ministers when he was upset with them. It was told that he used his bakora – walking stick – to cane the ministers. It was also said that he flailed at them with his flywhisk. Both the bakora and the flywhisk were permanent fixtures of his hands until the end of his life. But to this day, and with the attrition of his cabinet well beyond 90 per cent, no minister or senior official has come forward to authoritatively confirm or deny these stories.

However, we knew for a fact that he was prone to using vulgar language on people he didn’t like during his public meetings.

Some of this language could be particularly coarse, especially when referring to female genitalia. Surprisingly, almost everybody found it funny. For the life of me, I cannot remember hearing anybody expressing outrage. Of course, that was highly unlikely. Though obsessed with sports, I developed an interest in politics from an early age and found myself following Kenyatta’s actions and utterances. I noticed that there was hardly any national address that was not peppered with strong warnings to his critics. He also loved flaunting state power.

“Mkono wa serikali ni mrefu!” (The Government’s reach is long), he admonished both criminals and political opponents.

“The hawk in the sky is ready to swoop down on the chickens!” he ominously warned in 1975. This statement was a prelude to an unprecedented act of sacrilege as parliamentary tradition in the Commonwealth goes. Kenyatta had Jean Marie Seroney, the Deputy Speaker and Martin Shikuku, a fiery critic, arrested and sent into detention from the precincts of the House.

“Serikali ni siri kali!” (Government means top secret!) This warning, that rhymes well when spoken in Kiswahili, was a recipe for repression. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the Government agencies I grew up fearing the most were the para-military General Service Unit and the Special Branch. Kenyatta warned that those who made “nyoko nyoko” (chaos) would be crushed by the GSU whose frightful sobriquet was “fanya fujo uone.” (Make trouble and you’ll regret it).

But there was a dignity about his demeanor that should be the cultivation of every old man. He carried himself with a certain majesty that must have awed those who interacted with him. He never lost this regal aura even when he was hurling the crudest epithets at his enemies in public. He was always perfectly dressed, whether in loose-fitting shirts while at the coast or in the animal based regalia of University Chancellor.

His double breasted suits were immaculately cut and far from taking anything away, the open shoes at his feet in fact enhanced his bearing. It seemed as if that is just how an old man should dress. His health, of course, remained a state secret but years later, I learnt that the open shoes were not a fashion statement from him. He suffered from gout.

At the time of his death, there was an episode in his presidency that had greatly sullied my view of Kenyatta. This was the murder of JM Kariuki. When JM – as he was popularly known – was killed in March1975, I was only 15 years old. I knew virtually nothing about his politics or his personality. But I was an avid newspaper reader and from the saturation coverage that his death received in the media, I concluded that JM had been a good man.

When the parliamentary select committee named people very close to Kenyatta as the principal suspects in his murder, I felt alienated to Kenyatta. I was still nursing these feelings at the time of his death.

We looked out of the window and saw people scrambling for the Special Edition copies of the Daily Nation that were now on sale. Mwangi, Ng’weno’s driver, was sent to fetch some. In the boldest headline I had ever seen in my career, the banner headline splashed: MZEE IS DEAD. The story kicked off with four succinct words: “President Kenyatta died today”. And then: “An official announcement from State House, Nairobi, said Mzee died in his sleep at 3.30 a.m. at State House Mombasa.”

The story was accompanied by a close-up, head and shoulders picture of a much younger president dressed in the leather jacket he loved to don on Kenyatta Day. Kenyans were often reminded that it is the same jacket he wore on the day of his arrest by colonial authorities in 1952.

The Nation added a front page tribute of its own. “We have all known that our President was advancing in years…Today we know that his long life is over at last. We think first of Mama Ngina, his devoted wife, and all his children. We pray with them that his soul may rest in peace. …we salute his memory, which will never perish.”

He died on a Tuesday. As far as production schedules at our weeklies went, The Weekly Review came out on Fridays and The Nairobi Times on Sundays. This early in the week, the news gathering process was in low gear and production would not be until later in the week. For the news people, the events of the day had retched up matters dramatically. I had no part to play in all this. At 5 pm. I left for home.

My brother arrived shortly after dusk. He found me seated on my bed struggling to enjoy a Marlboro cigarette. I had been so impressed by the advertisements of Marlboro Country with their cowboys on horseback in spectacularly scenic country sides that I had decided to try out their sticks. But the images turned out to be much better than the cigarettes and I gave up attempting to become a smoker. My brother looked surprisingly grave. Quite clearly, he was bereaved.

“When did you learn that we had lost our president?” he asked me in quiet, measured tones. I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. I looked closer in his eyes and I wasn’t sure he hadn’t shed a few tears. Goodness me, I thought, Kenyatta wasn’t that close. He dampened my evening; I had been prepared for a more academic appraisal of the day’s events.

So we weren’t on the same wavelength. My brother was in mourning and wanted to speak little. I was not emotionally involved and I was approaching the matter with a journalist’s detached mind. Voice of Kenya radio was now playing classical music to signify the nation’s mourning. Later, it began to play Christian religious choral music.

This development did not escape my notice. For I had never known Kenyatta to be a religious man. I had never seen or heard that he was in church. Ever since I was a boy, I had known his name, Jomo Kenyatta, as religion-neutral. Stories that he had at one time in his life been known as Johnstone Kamau and that he had been baptized at the Church of the Torch in Kikuyu were just that – stories. They were part of his myth.

The music sounded incongruous. Kenyatta was the quintessential traditionalist, wasn’t he, I thought. His kind of music was of the ndumo and mucung’wa variety beloved of people of his generation and which he reveled in with Nyakinyua dancers at State House. Smooth, soothing and sweet as the choral music sounded to my ears, I just couldn’t fit it to Kenyatta.  But it went on and would go on for days to come.

During the day, in the course of its many announcements about the president’s death, Voice of Kenya radio had told the nation that vice-president Daniel arap Moi had been sworn into office as president in an acting capacity. I was dying to discuss this development with my brother.

My head took a spin each time VoK talked about “President Daniel arap Moi”. It sounded so strange and needed effort to get used to. Since I was a child, my life had been conditioned to know only about “His Excellency the President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.” It didn’t seem as if this could change. But I quickly noticed that at no time did VoK refer to Moi as “Acting President.” In hindsight, it must be clear that power games were going on in earnest.

“What do you think of him?” I asked my brother skeptically.

“He’s okay,” he replied distantly. I think my irreverence annoyed him. My attitude was not in keeping with the somberness the moment called for. We went to bed without the only president we had ever known in our lives sure to dream different dreams.

I was immensely impressed by the composure with which the Government took Kenyatta’s death. If there was panic in high places, it didn’t show in public. Most surprising of all was the candor and obvious sincerity with which it released information to the public. For a machine that we had become conditioned to fear as siri kali, this was astonishing.   

After telling the people that their present was dead, the Government announced a raft of measures. His body was flown to Nairobi from Mombasa by the Kenya Air Force. It would lie in state at State House, Nairobi and the public would be invited to file past and pay their respects. A 30-day period of mourning was declared. All entertainment and sports activities were suspended until after his funeral.

It is then that speculation started: where would he be buried? This question was addressed with surprising speed. Before the guesses gained the momentum that controversies are made of, the Government announced that the President would be buried in a mausoleum that was soon under construction in the grounds of parliament. It also announced that his body would be transported for an overnight stay at his Gatundu residence before the burial.

This was amazing. It is as if the officials were reading from a script. It was the first and only time I have seen the Government of Kenya organize an event of an international scale with composure, efficiency and orderliness. Since Kenyatta’s death, this is a skill that has completely deserted it as many Kenyans now ruefully know.

Soon a mausoleum went up. I thought it looked both elegant and forbidding.  It also instantly gave a name to a bar in Buru Buru which had an uncanny architectural resemblance to the president’s final resting place. That bar came to be known as the Mausoleum. It retained popularity for years to come.

On the morning of August 30, his funeral train left State House and snaked its way through downtown Nairobi on its way to Gatundu. My colleagues and I stood by the windows of our offices and watched in silence as the glittering, open Land Rover with C-in-C plates carried the president’s flag-draped coffin for one last night in his ancestral home. I saw some people in the street wiping tears. But most just stood in respectful attention.

It was a very somber spectacle and it affected whoever was watching. The vehicles in the motorcade were driven and escorted by soldiers dressed in formal red tunics. The land rover carrying the body was right at the centre of the motorcade. The vehicles moved very slowly. It was a very military procession.  

The following day, Kenyatta was buried in his mausoleum in a ceremony attended by presidents, prime ministers and royalty. The tyrant, Uganda’s Idi Amin, attracted a lot of curious attention from the public. I did not attend the ceremony in person but followed it on VoK television.

Later that evening, some of my friends and I met in a bar in town and reviewed the day’s events. The government announced that the suspension on entertainment and sports activities had been lifted but asked Kenyans to conduct themselves in a manner befitting a nation still in mourning.

As we drunk beer, I struggled to clarify to myself what Kenyatta meant to me. I neither loved nor hated him. He was too distant from me. There are some aspects of his personality that I admired and there were others that I didn’t. Neither held overwhelming sway over the other. In the end, he remained what he still is to me today – a figure of historical fascination.

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