In 1960s and early 70s Lena Tungo Moi strode Kenya’s political scene with her visibility as the vice-president’s wife.
Then, she faded away from the public arena never to be heard of again until her death in 2004.
The collapse of her marriage in 1974 was a bitter blow to the ardent Christian who had been raised under strict African Inland Church (AIC) doctrines and carried herself in public – first as the teacher’s wife and later as VP’s spouse.
Lena’s parents, the Paul Bomett family, were pioneer Christians in Eldama Ravine and they respected Moi, the young, tall, handsome and well-mannered orphan boy.
That is how Moi found himself in the compound of Bomett, where he silently admired Helena, the beautiful girl with a round face.
It was at the Bometts where Moi was always seeking shelter during school holidays unable to return home, 160 kilometres away, like the bigger boys.
Moi’s father, Kimoi arap Chebii had died in 1928, when he was only four and little is known about his mother, Kabon.
What is known is that Moi ’ was one of the herds boys from Sacho Location recommended to joini the new AIM school at Kabartonjo in 1934.
Lena, born in 1926 was also a student at the AIM School in Eldama Ravine before she joined Tenwek Girls’ Boarding School in Kericho.
After some exposure in the US, with some Christian families, Lena had returned to become a primary school teacher.
“She was an iron lady but with a great sense of humour,” recalled Paul Chemirchir in Moi’s biography, The Making of An African Statesman by Andrew Morton.
It was during this period that Lena started dating Moi, whose promotion to a principal at Tambach shoved him to stardom in the region first as a teacher and then as a preacher.
A year after Moi returned from further training in Kagumo Teachers College, he married Lena in a ceremony conducted by the Reverend Erik Barnett
The choice of Barnett was apt. Whereas the Barnett family was instrumental in Moi’s education, Erik’s younger brother Paul had actually baptized Lena – his first act after returning to Kenya as a missionary and also built Moi’s first house.
Erik’s father, Albert Barnett had left Australia in 1907 believing that God had called him as a missionary to Kenya.
Then a bachelor, Barnett had boarded a steamship to Mombasa, and travelled towards Lake Baringo where he settled among the Tugen in what is today Kabarnet before settling at Eldama Ravine.
Kabarnet town is named after him. At times when Moi was not staying with the Bomett family he would stay with the Barnetts. It is here that the story of Kapkorios Toroitich arap Moi and Helena Bomett, later Lena Moi, starts.
The Barnetts had made Moi the Sunday school teacher at an early age, as they encouraged him to take church leadership role.
By 1942 he was the school captain of the Government school with his peers being Paul and Erik Barnett – the two missionary sons of Albert Barnett.
With the marriage, Lena abandoned her career as a teacher and immersed herself into bringing up a family settling down with Moi at Tambach Government School where his first two children, Jennifer ( 1952), and Jonathan Kipkemboi (1953), were born.
Things took a new twist for Lena in 1955, when her husband was appointed to the Legco to replace the inefficient John ole Tameno.
Moi started spending his early years of marriage life crisscrossing the Rift Valley as the region’s senior most politician at the height of the Emergency.
The quiet teaching life that the couple had anticipated was gone as Moi moved out of the school compound with his family for Nairobi.
“He now dressed in suits and ties rather than the shorts and long socks which had been his trademark as a teacher…he and his family was better fed – eating a richer diet than they had ever had before,” wrote Moi’s biographer.
As Moi was on the move in the pre-independence politics, Lena became the housewife. In an interview she did in 1967, she said it was necessary that children are cared for by their own mothers if they are to grow up mentally and physically healthy.
“She is equally assiduous about looking after her husband, who enjoys her cooking and only eats outside the home ‘when he has to,” veteran journalist Faraj Dumila who conducted the interview wrote.
Moi would also remark: “”I owe her much of my success in the service of my people and my country. She has been always an encouraging factor in all aspects of my political life.”
But Moi chose not to say much about Lena to his official biographer, Andrew Morton leading him to conclude:
“The character of the man is elusive…a biographer’s nightmare, happy to let you near, but not so close. He has mastered the art of selective deafness…” It was perhaps out of frustration.
Thus, Moi reveals nothing about his ex-wife. What we know is that in most of Moi’s public functions, especially after independence, Lena was always in tow, spotting a headscarf or with her afro-hair pushed back.
There was also the romantic walk in July 1970 on the Orapa Diamond pipe in Botswana where millions of diamonds, the richest in the world, had been discovered.
With most of her children in their teens – the last-born, Gideon, was born in 1964- Lena had ploughed herself into public meetings conducting Harambees and supporting women’s groups in the Rift Valley.
But it was Moi’s appointment as Vice President in 1967 that brought her to national limelight and she was to enjoy six years of fame.
Lena was everywhere and she shifted to Nakuru’s Delamere(now Moi) Flats in Milimani area and enrolled her children at St Joseph’s Primary School.
She was loved by her neighbours due to her humility. At the height of her popularity, President Jomo Kenyatta bestowed on her on January 1, 1968, the Order of the Golden Heart medal for her service to the community.
That week, when the wife of the US vice-president, Hubert H. Humphrey, arrived in Nairobi as part of her husband’s “listen-and-learn” Africa tour, Lena led the government delegation that received Mrs Humphrey at the Embakasi Airport, although she held no government position.
With Kenyatta suffering a heart-attack in 1969, Moi (and to an extent Lena) were left to fill in for official engagements. In the mix, Moi abandoned Lena for politics which was fast moving and dangerously so after Tom Mboya’s assassination in 1969.
It was this year that he bought the Kabimoi Farm and built a house where Lena settled.
In 1974, Moi’s place in Kenya’s politics came under severe threat from the mandarins surrounding Kenyatta. As he was fighting for survival and getting harassed in the Rift Valley by the likes of Provincial Commissioner Isaiah Mathenge and Roads Engineer Kim Gatende – on behalf of the Kiambu mafia- his marriage to Lena took a nosedive.
Lena started disappearing slowly from the public arena and little is known on what else caused the cracks. Moi’s biographer blames politics and there is little about Moi’s days with Lena and it leaves the reader unable to have a glimpse of the woman who bore him eight children. Instead he let family friends speak of Lena.
Reverend Paul Barnett, who had known both Moi and Lena was perhaps privy to the couple’s problems. He was the only one who agreed to be quoted talking of Lena and the breakup but only saying: “It was for the best that they parted.”
Lena left the vice-president’s official residence at Nairobi’s Kabarnet Gardens and retreated to Kabimoi. From here, she immersed herself into the rural life attending the local church, joining women groups and keeping off the media glare that she was used to.
With Moi settling elsewhere with the children, Lena’s hope, according to Morton, was that Moi would return one day to the matrimonial home once he was done with politics.
He wrote: “Even today she keeps a room of the house as a shrine to her former husband, believing that when he sets aside the cares of high office he will return…”
It is now known that apart from Jonathan, who opted to stay in Rongai with the mother, the others - Jennifer, Raymond, John Mark; Doris Elizabeth and her twin Philip, Gideon, and adopted daughter June opted to stay with the father in Nairobi.
Despite this, according to his biographer, “Moi had little joy from his family…Those who know the family well observe that, with the possible exception of Gideon and June, the President feels disappointed and rather let down by his children.”
Bringing up children, with the mother away, took a toll on everyone in the family. Moi was also fighting to survive politically as Change-the-Constitution campaign was started to block him from ascending to the presidency.
Four years after the separation, Kenyatta died and Moi, thanks to Charles Njonjo and Mwai Kibaki, managed to outwit his political foes for the job.
By this time, Lena had vanished from the limelight. Interestingly, she was never seen at the weddings of her own children. In 1997 when her father died, Lena was kept in the background during the burial.
After the break up, Moi and Lena saw less of their children. “This combination of absence and sternness produced the inevitable backlash, and as adolescents the boys rebelled against their father’s austere moral code,” wrote Morton who says some had to be disciplined by the Presidential Guard.
Lena was buried at Kabark in front of the imposing bungalow where Moi lives. In death, she was reunited with her lover.