Mukuru kwa Njenga slum founder breathes his last

Njenga Mwenda Kariuki

Some of Njenga Mwenda Kariuki’s children at his home in Mukuru kwa Njenga slum with his photo.

Photo credit: Elvis Ondieki | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Njenga Mwenda Kariuki leaves behind 13 children, numerous grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
  • His burial is scheduled for February 17 at the Lang’ata cemetery.

Imara Daima stage, Nairobi. Friday 12.22pm. The first boda-boda rider I approach has no clue about the location of the home of Mr Njenga Mwenda Kariuki, the man after whom Mukuru kwa Njenga slum is named. The second rider knows. He wants Sh150 and he will take me straight to the gate. Deal.

The journey to Mr Njenga’s house is a ride through sections of paving block-lined roads and also patches of horrific slippery roads combining the waters of the rainy season and the black soils of the area to form a slime that motorists dodge or splash at pedestrians. 

Mr Njenga died aged 85 on Tuesday, February 9, as one of his sons was driving him to hospital. His burial is scheduled for February 17 at the Lang’ata cemetery. My rider is momentarily taken aback when I tell him of the death.

“Are you a relative?” he asks.

“I am out to get a glimpse of this Mzee’s life story. He is one of the two people in Nairobi to have a mukuru (Kikuyu for valley) named after him,” I tell him.

Across the railway line is Mukuru kwa Ruben, named after a white settler. Not too far is Mukuru Kayaba, said to have been named after a kei apple fence that marked its border.

Mr Njenga’s house is not the most remarkable, save for the fact that it is stone-walled while a majority of adjacent houses are made of iron sheets. It is also inside a gated compound, a rarity here.

Opposite this house on the other side of a paved road is the Kwa Njenga Manyanga Bar. This is a business that has run from the 1950s. This is the business that contributed to the integration of the words “Kwa Njenga” in the everyday parlance, eventually giving the place its name.

Some mourners are gathered at the bar to ponder about the life and times of Mr Njenga.

Ancestral home

In Mr Njenga’s house, his cousins have arrived from his ancestral home in Limuru, Kiambu County, and are holding a piece of paper written in Gikuyu. They are piecing together his eulogy.

Mr Peter Giathi, 58, is the most eager to talk.

“My mother and his father are siblings,” he says. “His mother died when he was young, when Njenga was six months old. Njenga was raised by my mother, Wanjiru.”

“When Njenga was at home, he studied at a mission school in Loreto, Limuru. From Loreto, he got initiated. That was in 1952,” adds Mr Giathi.

Then a time came, he says, when the colonial government relocated residents from Limuru to Kamiti. Around that time, Mr Njenga moved to Nairobi.

“We don’t know when he came here. He never returned to the countryside,” says Mr Giathi.

In 2010, Mr Njenga told The Standard that he moved to Nairobi aged 22.

“Since I did not have sufficient formal education, some friends directed me to the quarries where menial jobs were readily available,” he said.

Those quarries, also preserved in common parlance “kware”, are often used to describe the area near Mukuru slums and also one of the stages leading there. Quarries ordinarily cause valleys (mukurus) and some people argue that it is those features that gave Njenga, Reuben and Kayaba their prefixes.

Origin of Kwa Njenga

Quarrying was not a very lucrative venture for Mr Njenga, who would later start selling liquor and later pork to the quarry workers.

According to 85-year-old Muiruri Karanja, a friend of Mr Njenga’s, the miners used to be housed in iron sheet structures constructed by their employer, reportedly of Asian descent. 

And according to 76-year-old John Kariuki, who identifies himself as a long-time personal assistant of Mr Njenga, the quarry owner abandoned the project a few years before Kenya attained independence.

“He left workers here, unpaid. But he left the mabati houses. They were then concentrated near the railway after Ngong River,” Mr Kariuki says.

Those shanties, he adds, were the foundation of Mukuru kwa Njenga.

As the residents came to terms with life without work in the quarries while Kenya was progressing towards independence, Mr Njenga’s bar was growing in popularity and so was the man.

“Whenever someone had a problem, Njenga would help. And so the common discussions became, ‘Twende tukakunywe huko kwa Njenga. Kuna starehe huko’ or ‘Wikendi hii tukunywe kwa Njenga,’” says Mr Kariuki.

Mr Njenga’s daughter Nancy Wanjiru, 50, says he progressed from selling chang’aa to bottled beer.

A January 2015 memorandum to President Uhuru Kenyatta, signed by 27 Mukuru kwa Njenga residents, states that Mr Njenga was the chairman of the founder members of the slum, who were at least 15 in number.

Njenga’s family

“He dealt with conflict resolutions and such. When populations shot up, he and the area chief could show someone where to put up a structure,” Ms Wanjiru says, adding that Mr Njenga never harboured political ambitions.

What started as a residence of about 3,900 people soon expanded. Day by day, a new structure could come up. Amid that growth, Mr Njenga’s family was also growing. He had two wives, Agnes Njeri and Mary Wangui, who had seven children each. There are 13 surviving children, the family says, with numerous grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

According to Duncan Mwenda, Mr Njenga’s fourth child with his second wife who was with him when he died, he had been ailing for the last five years. In the days leading to his death, Mr Mwenda said, Mr Njenga had been diagnosed with a heart problem.

Burial at Lang’ata, says Ms Wanjiku — his second child with his first wife — was what Mr Njenga wished for.

“Mzee’s legacy is that he wasn’t so greedy as to grab the Mukuru kwa Njenga land,” says Ms Wanjiku.

“Land grabbers from different places came and started to grab then sell to wananchi, and it wasn’t his wish. If he had that greed, he could have owned the whole of Kwa Njenga. Nobody could have stopped him.”

Ms Wanjiku, Mr Mwenda and other children of Mr Njenga admit that their father’s name has opened some doors for them, though they wish authorities can give it more credit by ensuring a good supply of water, electricity and other amenities to the area.

Mukuru residents particularly wish they could be given titles to the land.

Soon the interview is over. It is my time to leave as a candle continues to burn next to a framed photo of Mr Njenga on a table in his living room.