Killing Jomo: How settlers’ bids backfired

As the world reels from the horror in the US where a white police officer is accused of murdering an unarmed and handcuffed black man, we tell you of the unsuccessful conspiracies to kill Kenyatta in prison

Alastair Matheson was the chief government information officer at the height of Kenya’s freedom struggle against British colonialists and in the countdown to independence.

At independence, he took up citizenship, living in Kenya until his death in 2002. I closely interacted with him in his last years and he allowed me access to his voluminous, unpublished memoirs. Among the incidents he recorded were several unsuccessful attempts to kill Mzee Jomo Kenyatta when the colonial government imprisoned him, as well as events in Maralal that gave a new lease of life to the man who would later become Kenya’s first president. Here is the story as gleaned from the veteran’s memoirs.

At the farcical Kapenguria trial, the white settlers wanted a death sentence for Mzee Kenyatta and his five colleagues. But since that was not provided for in the books, they settled for a maximum sentence for the trumped-up charges – seven years in jail with hard labour, to be followed by an unspecified period under restriction.

They hoped that, at his old age, Kenyatta wouldn’t survive the long jail sentence under harsh conditions in northern Kenya. But they were in for a rude shock.

Poison in prison

The white prison doctor, instead of prescribing medication for skin ailment, vaccinated Kenyatta for smallpox. His body reacted dangerously, causing sores and swellings all over the body.

The situation was saved after he wrote to his eldest daughter Margaret, who sent medication and vitamin supplements to him.

This is how Kenyatta described his situation to the daughter: “My whole body is filled with much pain and constant itching, as if someone were covered all over his body with stinging nettles…. My right leg has swelled up right to the knee.”

Henceforth, he decided not to take any medicine issued by the prison doctors. To play along, he would receive the medicine but secretly dump it in a pit latrine. Luckily, he had a clandestine channel through which he would let daughter Margaret know about his condition and send him medication.

However, the sickness and fear of poisoning took a toll on the old man, leading to depression, which was captured in another letter to Margaret: “Death is one of those things that are beyond our control and which, whether we like it or not, must follow the natural course. All we can do is to be ready to take calmly any news of such happenings.”

To rub it in, the white jailers let Kenyatta know that there was no hope of a life in freedom. His young wife Ngina had been detained, his house in Gatundu pulled down, his farm confiscated by the government and his car left to rot in the bush near where he used to call home.

Close shave

Meanwhile, the settlers opened other fronts to give trouble to the old man. Through disinformation, three younger prison colleagues were incited to pick quarrels with the elder Kenyatta and totally deny him peace of mind.

The younger men would be lied to that, while they were breaking stones in the quarry, Kenyatta, who had been assigned the lighter duties of a cook, had eaten the best portions of their rations. Other times they would be told that while they were away Kenyatta had secretly sold out to the white District Commissioner and would soon be released and leave them to suffer alone.

The situation got so much out of hand that the “Young Turks” plotted to kill Kenyatta. However, two other prisoners who knew of the plot not only warned the young hotheads against it, but also offered to constitute themselves as Mzee’s prison bodyguards.

One morning, as Kenyatta came out to fetch water, one of the prisoners went for him with a knife, but, fortunately, the attacker’s trousers were caught by a splinter of wood in the table.

Kenyatta had just enough time to hold the man’s arm and shout for help. The attacker was wrestled to the ground and the knife taken away.

In the ensuing melee, the fighting prisoners splashed the other with porridge before the warders ran up to separate them. Kenyatta’s would-be killer was transferred to another camp to avert further confrontation.

The old man took it all in his stride and wrote to daughter Margaret: “Calm your heart, for although the attack was planned secretly and craftily, it didn’t achieve its aim.

“Almighty God brought me out of this great danger. I wasn’t badly injured, because although the attacker had a knife, I managed to get hold of the hand that held it and it was snatched from him. I don’t want to go into any more details, but I think you are well aware that envy and ignorance are a trouble for many people in this world. We leave it all to God.”

After a physical attack failed, the whites tried alcohol. Suddenly, prison warders who all along had been hostile to Kenyatta became friendly and generous, particularly with one commodity – hot spirits.

In a secret cable to the colonial governor, the Turkana District Commissioner reported: “We have made a big bottle of assorted spirits the main item of his daily menu. The old man has found it his cure for depression. He will likely drink his liver dry and the possible attendant consequences.”

But, somehow, alcohol didn’t kill the old man while, away from prison, the resurgent freedom movement championed through newly registered African political parties – Kanu and Kadu – insisted that Kenyatta was the undisputed African leader in Kenya and that he be set free to play his rightful role in the countdown to independence.

Cornered, the whites came with a new trick; they would project Kenyatta as a senile, dying old man with neither hope nor a future. They arranged for African leaders to meet him in prison and at about the same time, for the prison doctor to recommend that Kenyatta’s remaining 16 teeth, which had been giving him trouble, be removed on the false promise that he would be fitted with dentures prior to the visit.

The plan went well and so Kenyatta’s visitors found a toothless, emaciated old man, with sunken cheeks and hooded eyes. The intended message to African leaders was simple: “Look, you people, are you serious this is the man you want as your future leader?”

But Kenyatta made a strong impression on his visitors, who left convinced that despite his battered physical looks, his brain and resolve were intact.

 Rebirth at Maralal

When all failed, the settlers opted to move Kenyatta to Maralal, where he would be in semi-free conditions on his way to total freedom.

Two things happened in Maralal that literally gave the aged Kenyatta – he was into his 70s – a new lease of life. First was a reunion with his young family – his fourth and youngest wife Ngina, and young daughters Jeni and Christina. The two girls had been toddlers at the time he was whisked away to prison, but now they were charming teens in upper primary school – Jeni in Standard 6 and Christina in Standard 5. The two were transferred to Maralal DEB Primary School to be with their father.

Simeon Lesirma, a former assistant minister and long-serving permanent secretary, studied with the Kenyatta girls. He recalls: “You could see the shine and pride in the old man as he walked his daughters in the streets of Maralal town on weekends.

But he would look at us young boys with eyes that sent a loud and clear message: ‘You dare mess around with my daughters and I will deal with you!”

The climax of it all came when the old man’s young wife started to complain of fatigue. Kenyatta, still untrustworthy of white doctors, did not want them to examine her, so he sent for a young African doctor by the name Munyua Waiyaki, who had just returned from training in Scotland.

On examining Ngina, Dr Waiyaki told the old man: “Your wife is pregnant.”

Years later, Dr Waiyaki, who branched off into politics and served as Kenyatta’s Foreign Affairs minister, told me that in all the years he had known Mzee Kenyatta, he had never seen him as happy as he was on the day he told him his young wife was expectant.

“The thought that, at his old age, and despite all the troubles in prison, he could still bear a child sent Kenyatta to cloud nine. He shouted hallelujah and said he was now sure he would be leader in independent Kenya and possibly live to be a 100.”

Incidentally, Dr Waiyaki had lunch with Mzee Kenyatta on the day he died – August 22, 1978 – aged 89, although it is suspected he was much older than that.

Postscript: The baby boy conceived in Maralal and who gave Mzee Kenyatta a feeling of rebirth and the will to start all over again, is today the President of Kenya – Uhuru Kenyatta.

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