What you need to know:
- The Gachukias are a household name in Kenya, mainly in Nairobi County, where thousands of children have attended Riara schools.
- They are accomplished teachers and public figures who once worked in the civil service and the corporate sector.
If the Kenya that optimists believe the country should be ever happens one day, it will have to be like the story of Daniel Gachukia. For the world that Daniel Gachukia was born and raised in, although haunted by the ghost of colonial oppression because of the Mau Mau war, had the potential of becoming a country where one’s tribe would have been the least of the defining features of one’s identity.
Gachukia’s story of being Kikuyu and Kamba at the same time is a story of the prospects of a postcolonial Kenya. He tells this story in his autobiography, Homecoming: Through the Eyes of Three Generations (Riara University Publishing House Limited, 2020).
Daniel Kiguru Gachukia is the husband of Eddah Waceke Gachukia, the famous educationist couple that founded the Riara Group of Schools and Riara University. The Gachukias are a household name in Kenya, mainly in Nairobi County, where thousands of children have attended Riara schools. They are accomplished teachers and public figures who once worked in the civil service and the corporate sector.
Eddah Gachukia, who was once a parliamentarian, is also a much respected name in the women’s movement. But when one mentions the Gachukias today, they are remembered for having been pioneer African Kenyan private investors in the education sector.
Daniel Gachukia’s story is largely a story of his aunt, Wanjiku, who ran away from her parents’ home in Kiambaa, Kiambu County, because her father had betrothed her to an older man. Wanjiku, in the naïve boldness of the youth, leaves home without knowing where she’s headed.
She has a vague idea that she could settle in the land of the Ikamba, the people who lived beyond a mountain. Some of these people worked in Wanjiku’s village. Wanjiku’s people also traded with them. But where was she really going to end?
Wanjiku walks into the wilderness, crossing rivers and the grassland, encountering wildlife but firmly convinced that she has to escape from her arranged marriage. As fate would have it, when she encounters a group of Ikamba warriors who were returning from raiding livestock from the Maasai.
The warriors initially think she is a Maasai spy but soon discover that she isn’t. But they capture her and lead her to their community. The leader of the raiding party is called Kimomo. He would later be her husband. Thus Wanjiku’s journey into the unknown ends well when she settles in the hills of Kangundo and starts a family.
As fate would have it, one day Wanjiku would meet traders from her village. These men would travel from Kikuyuland to Mwala, in Kambaland to buy livestock, calabashes, cloth, cowrie shells, beads etc. These men would settle near Kimomo and Wanjiku’s home. They would one day discover that Kimomo had a wife who was Kikuyu and would return home to inform Wanjiku’s relatives that their daughter and sister was safe and married.
Consequently, Wanjiku’s younger brother, Lazaro Gachukia, would accompany the traders to Kambaland to confirm the news. Thus, Wanjiku would be reunited with her brother, and later with her larger family. This is how Daniel Gachukia’s roots got established in Kambaland.
Eventually Lazaro Gachukia settled in Kangundo, near his sister’s home. Their sibling, Nduta, and her husband would also settle in the same place. Some of Lazaro Gachukia’s children, including Daniel Gachukia, would attend school in Kangundo. But their life would be interrupted when the family was expelled from there in 1931 and sent back to Kiambaa.
Apparently their eldest brother, Joel Kimani, had been accused of leading young men in Muthirigu, a song and dance performance that the colonial administration imagined was part of resistance to their rule. The family would be exiled in Kiambaa for some time but it would return to Kangundo. It would be expelled again in 1943. But this time all Kikuyus who had settled in Kangundo would be asked to leave.
Daniel Gachukia stayed in Kangundo to complete his primary school, living with his sister. He would pass his primary school leaving exams and join Machakos High School, then Kagumo High School and later Makerere University College. He would meet his future wife in 1955 at the Nairobi Train Station, whilst waiting to board the train to Kampala. They would wed in 1956.
History of his community
Both would work as teachers at Thika High School before Daniel left for France to study French. His sojourn in France would lead him into the diplomatic service. Daniel would later serve as Kenya’s Chief of Protocol at a fairly young age.
In Homecoming: Through the Eyes of Three Generations, Daniel Gachukia revisits the history of his community, the Kikuyu; that of his immediate family, from Kiambaa; and of himself. What ties these three stories together, though, is the problem of identity. How do we become who we are? How do others see us? How do we see ourselves in the immediate family and bigger community? How do the actions of others and ourselves determine our fate? Probably these old questions need not be answered. But they need constant reflections. Why? Because they make and unmake our everyday life.
Daniel Gachukia’s identity is quite complex, if we allow the cliché. His father was born in Kiambaa, Kiambu. The father then settled in Ukambani. Daniel would live and school in Ukambani before going to Kikuyuland as a teenager. His father, though, as Daniel writes, “… was born Miring’u Ngugi. Later as a teenager, he became popular for his prowess in one of the popular dances and of the time: the gicukia. Good dancers were feted and respected as masters of the art. At any rate, my father was given the nickname Gachukia, and it stuck ….”
His father would later be baptized as “Lazaro Kasukya”, adopting the Kamba pronunciation of the name Gachukia.
About his own multiple identities, Daniel writes, “… my first identification documents carry ‘Kasukya’ as my surname. This duality of identity was not unusual or in any way a dropping of either identity. One simply accepted that the pronunciation of names was different in different countries (sic).” What is in a name? What does Gachukia convey that Kasukya doesn’t? If the Kikuyu from Kiambaa would buy land and settle among the Ikamba in Kangundo in colonial times, leading to marriage between the two ethnic communities – as it happened with many of Daniel’s sisters – who really are the descendants of the intermarriages? Are they Ikamba or Kikuyu? Do they themselves even have a problem with the dual identity? Aren’t they better off because they can speak two tongues, live two cultures, present themselves to others as either Ikamba or Kikuyu, depending on circumstances?
In claiming his Kikuyu identity after leaving Ukambani, was Daniel Gachukia simply being tactical, as he did when he used it to apply for a bursary whilst at Kagumo High School, or is he claiming something that one he feels and understands? Would his old Kangundo playmates and schoolmates ever think of him as not a Kamba? Or would his Kikuyu age mates think of him as a Kamba and not a proper Kikuyu? Beyond the world of politicians with narrow interests and ethnic jingoists, do declarations and claiming of fixed ethnic identities ever really matter?
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]