Veteran Kenyan-born journalist CYPRIAN FERNANDES, a ‘Nation’ reporter in the turbulent post-independence years, celebrates the life of liberation hero Pio Gama Pinto, who was assassinated 58 years ago on February 24, 1965
Pio Gama Pinto was a soft-spoken man. He was also a man of greater inner strength but he always stood his ground. He would often win an argument by making his point of view clearly and concisely. He was not known to be abusive or use threats to get his way.
That is why when Pio Gama Pinto reportedly told Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta that he (Pinto) was going to fix him over the controversial land distribution issue, it was completely out of character.
Again, when he called Mzee Kenyatta a “bastard” (after the president supposedly called him a bastard first), it was also out of character.
Every time I have thought about that incident in the grounds of Parliament House, I have not been able to find any reason that could have driven Pinto to challenge Mzee Kenyatta in public, to exchange abuses. I can only surmise that it was a moment of madness. Pinto seemingly knew that and fled to hide in Mombasa.
If there is a single beacon alight, many, many decades from now, to evoke the name of Pio Gama Pinto, it will be because of the saddest irony: that Africa chose to murder the one man who had two important lessons that could have saved the continent hundreds and thousands of deaths and created nations in which all of their people shared in the fruits of independence from the various colonialists.
His foremost vision was that every single man, woman and child (of any colour, of any tribe, of any religion, of any language) should be completely free, not just the few that were opportunistically positioned to grab power and exploit it for the benefit of the few. He always professed to be a complete African socialist.
However, it would seem, in hindsight, that his devotion and dedication to African socialism, particularly sharing everything he had or owned was ridiculous, to say the least. At his death, he owned nothing and did not have a single cent to his name in his bank account.
He fed and clothed anyone who needed his help, including many who went on to high political office and were counted among Kenya’s first millionaires. Even his Kenyan socialist colleagues were clever enough to practice the cynical idiom: what is mine I keep, I share everything else. No so-called Kenyan socialist was the beggar that Pinto was in the end.
Yet, he was able to beg from various friendly nations, including India, and more importantly, the Kenyan Indian merchant community, and arm, clothe and provide for the Mau Mau rebellion in colonial Kenya. He also provided the Mau Mau movement with strategic planning he later became famous for.
Almost a few days after marrying Emma Dias, he told her “intelligent women did not stay at home” and promptly drafted her into secretarial college. It was these skills that provided the bread-winning for the family, first with a private then replacing one of the many British secretaries who were leaving Kenya after independence.
Like many prophets before him, Pio Gama Pinto was shunned by his own community — the Goans in Kenya — who were more aligned with their Portuguese masters and fought with words (among themselves in their clubs and through letters in the local media) to stop India from annexing their homeland of Goa. Pinto and the Goans mutually divorced each other.
In October 1960, he led a campaign to disrupt the visit to Kenya of the Vice Premier of Portugal Pedro Teotinio Pereira, a sabotage mission that was opposed by the general Goan community. Pereira was visiting at the invitation of the colonial government. His main aim was to renew links with the Goans in Nairobi and Mombasa. His programme would see him officially open the Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa and visit the Vasco Da Gama (the first Portuguese to set foot in Kenya en route to his search for spices) memorial in Malindi.
Pereira’s visit was pure Portuguese propaganda. Britain and Portugal colluded to prop up each other’s claims to their respective patches in Africa. Pereira had arranged the financing of the Fort Jesus Museum through the Gulbenkian Foundation of which Pereira was the administrator. Some 30,000 pounds were made available. Fort Jesus was hijacked and forced into celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. At stake was Portugal’s colonial identity.
Pereira arrived in Kenya on a six-day visit (two in Nairobi and four at the coast) on October 27, 1960.
In the media, the war was fought by the Goan Voice on the side of the loyalists and the Goan Tribune for the East African Goan League. There was also strong opposition to the visit by The Colonial Times and The Daily Chronicle.
Pinto’s links with the latter publication date back to 1953 when he became editor. Both the Chronicle and the Times were owned by Indian merchants. It was rich Indians who propped up Pinto’s efforts, especially against the Portuguese.
In the weeks before the opening of the Fort Jesus museum, Pinto made clear his opposition to the visit. He challenged the contention by the Goan Overseas Association that “Goans look to Portugal as their Fatherland”. Letters in the East African Standard (then strongly a paper supporting colonial rule) stomped on Pinto’s East African Goan League as being unrepresentative. The letters were like a knee into Pio’s groin.
Catholic priests, perhaps putting an unofficial spin on the subject, had vilified socialists and communists as being akin to devil worshippers and told the Goans that they should have nothing to do with them.
Pinto had cut his political teeth agitating against the Portuguese in Goa and against the British in Mumbai. When Goa was freed, he was asked to come back and lead the new state. He declined, saying that there was enough talent in Goa to do the right thing by the people.
Instead, having been born in Nyeri, he decided he would dedicate his life to the country of his birth. Thus was born his second lesson for Africa: total commitment to the country. His vision was for one country: Kenya for Kenyans, tribe-neutral, religion-neutral, colour-neutral, one people living the one shared dream.
To achieve this, he first shed his Goan/Indian skin and grew a new one to his complete Kenyan persona, taking the first steps by learning the proper Coast-style Swahili, at a time when virtually all foreigners spoke the ugly version.
It was not long before that Pinto was the respected confidante of Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya, Harry Thuku, Njenga Karume, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Achieng Oneko, Mbiyu Koinange, James Gichuru, Julius Kiano, Paul Ngei, and an army of Kenyan politicians marching towards freedom. Before that, he had already won the respect of several Mau Mau leaders who quickly recognised in him a valuable ally.
His influence was such that he was able to convince the Mau Mau leadership to leave the rural Indian shopkeeper community safe even though the urban Indians had set up two Indian units to fight the Mau Mau. One of the units actually killed two Mau Mau. However, this was put down to misadventure by a few misguided Asians in Nairobi.
Pinto’s passion for Kenya was so strong, he became a member of the Nairobi Chapter of the Mau Mau. I am not sure if he took one of the various Mau Mau oaths but I doubt he could fire a weapon in anger.
According to author Shiraz Durani, who is an unflinching disciple of the independence hero, in his book Pio Gama Pinto, Kenya’s Unsung Martyr: “He could not have been involved in the formation of the Mau Mau War Council in Nairobi nor in the procurement of arms had he not been part of the central leadership of Mau Mau.
“His involvement ranged from supplying weapons to the fighters, providing medical and other care to fighters and their families, organising legal aid to those condemned by the colonial system to jail terms, researching and writing documents, letters for the struggle, to gathering international support for the liberation struggle.
“The progressive, anti-imperialist elements in the South Asian community, men like Pinto, Jaswant Bharaj and others, played a very important role in supplying KFLA (Kenya Land Freedom Army) with firearms, intelligence information, fund, and medicine and helped the movement to produce revolutionary literature. Pinto in particular established contacts with the illegal South Asian gun traders who secretly sold firearms and ammunition to KLFA.
“Pio’s work under the Central Committee of Mau Mau was especially important during the Emergency. The Committee needed money, food and arms for the fighters. Most of the leaders were in prison... Despite these difficult conditions, money was collected from supporters... These were carefully collected in sacks and taken to certain trusted persons. Pio was one of these. He would then take the money to wherever he was directed by the Central Committee.”
Little wonder that he told his wife that he wished he had been born an African.
It wasn’t long before he was working shoulder-to-shoulder with the Kenya African National Union elite, first through the trade unions with the enigmatic Tom Mboya, later with Mzee Kenyatta himself, Julius Kiano, Mbiyu Koinange, James Gichuru and others.
However, his lifelong friends were Joseph Murumbi, Bildad Kaggia and Fred Kubai, who shared his vision of an African socialist Kenya. Soon after independence, Kenya was veering more and more towards a capitalist society under the guise of non-existent African socialism, he found a kindred spirit in Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
He brought to Kenyan politics a single, uncompromising and nationalistic vision: that independence meant independence from ignorance, poverty and disease for all and not for the few who happened to be in the right place at the right time. His war against the ravages of the early days of land-grabbing eventually cost him his life. Who is not to say that if the fruits of Uhuru had been shared equitably Kenya’s recent history would have been much less turbulent?
Successive Indian diplomats, beginning with the illustrious Apa Pant who captured the imagination of the Kenyan political leadership, had played a pivotal role in enhancing Pinto’s political aspirations by providing him with the means including money to pursue his political dream.
Pran lal Sheth, the outstanding Indian leader who was forced to leave Kenya after independence, remained a political partner until Pinto’s death. He lit the pyre at Pinto’s home to burn every scrap of paper Pinto had ever written or any correspondence written to him. Sheth did this with the aid of another Pinto disciple, the economist Sarjit Singh Heyer. They did it instinctively to protect Pinto’s family and his allies. That is indeed a tragedy because very little or none of Pinto’s written material exists today.
One of his closest friends was Fitz de Souza, barrister and former Deputy Speaker of the Kenyan Parliament. He was also a kindred spirit who was able to mask his socialist ideals. Fitz de Souza tried his best to shepherd Pio away from a confrontation with Jomo Kenyatta. He reminded Pio that he did not have a tribe or an army of people behind him. Pio was on his own, he told him.
In February 1965, Tom Mboya, the Economic Planning and Development minister, with the help of a couple of American strategists, had drawn up Sessional Paper No. 10 which was designed to turn Kenya into a capitalist country. Kenya did become capitalist as a result.
There is mention that at some stage, Pinto once called Mzee Kenyatta a “land-grabber”, fuelling an already simmering mutual dislike. In the meantime, Pinto quit the Kenya African Union and joined the opposition Kenya People’s Union which professed social ideals to a point and was led by the experienced capitalist Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Pinto drew up plans for the KPU to raise a motion of “no confidence” in Sessional Paper No. 10 and President Kenyatta.
The story goes that Mzee Kenyatta (with a group of ministers and other officers) ran into Pinto on the grounds of Parliament House and later Pinto admitted that he “had called Jomo Kenyatta a bastard because Jomo Kenyatta called me a bastard first”. The angry exchanges between the two men could reportedly be heard even in the halls of Parliament House that day.
When I heard about it, I thought it was the dumbest thing ever. No human being could expect to remain alive after abusing the first President of Kenya or threatening to “fix” him in Parliament with a motion of no-confidence.
"Forward to Independence"
An excerpt from Fitz de Souza’s book Forward to Independence says: “I reminded Pio of Kenyatta’s strength, of the sacrifices and struggles he had made and his firm belief that sacrifices and struggles he had made and his firm belief that the fruits of independence should be his. I said, ‘Pio, I think you have a lot of good things to say, but however much you say them, Kenyatta is not going to give up power or go away. He is a very courageous man and would fight to the death to stay the leader if he had to.
“So, don’t try to attack him morally and not expect to get on his bad side, you are just wasting your time, it is not possible to remove him. It was on an afternoon in February, as I was taking a break for tea outside the Parliament building, that I heard someone calling my name. ‘Mr de Souza, come quickly please!’ Turning around I saw that a few tables away an altercation had broken out between Pio and Kenyatta. Both men were gesticulating and swearing, and as their voices rose, everyone on the veranda could hear. Tom Mboya was standing nearby, now joined by several onlookers.
Pio, his face contorted with anger was shouting, ‘I’ll fix you!’ Kenyatta, equally incensed, was shouting back at him. I knew immediately what they were arguing about: the English farms, which Pio claimed Kenyatta was grabbing. Running up behind Pio, I put both my arms around him, trying to restrain him and calm him down. When Kenyatta had gone, we sat down. I warned him not to shout at Kenyatta again, as Kikuyus rarely forgive someone who becomes their enemy. ‘In the eyes of most Africans,’ I said, ‘you are just a Muhindi, you are perfectly dispensable, but he is not.’
I reminded him how at almost every meeting, Kenyatta would ask the same rhetorical question: if a man plants a tree, who has the right to claim the fruit of that tree when it has grown? Ask any African, I told him, and they will say that Kenyatta has been very little compensated for the sacrifices and hardship he has endured in the struggle for independence. ‘If it comes to the push,’ I said, ‘there’ll be two shots fired at you and no one will remember you in a year’s time.’
The book continues: “Pio shook his head, ‘No, no, there would be a bloodbath.’ I said, ‘Pio, you are overestimating your position; maybe if you were a Kikuyu or a Luo, then yes, there would be a backlash, but you’ve nobody to support you; like me, you’ve no support in the Indian community and none outside it’.”
Joseph Murumbi, who served briefly as Mzee Kenyatta’s vice president, cajoled Pinto out of hiding in Mombasa after the “bastard” spat in Parliament. Murumbi assured Pinto “that everything will be all right”. Pinto would be safe and Murumbi would talk to Jomo Kenyatta (who would listen to Murumbi) and all would be well. Broken-hearted, Murumbi would eventually leave politics. He would later cry his heart out every time he thought about Pinto.
The trade union visionary Makhan Singh shared Pinto’s vision. The academic and visionary Pheroze Nowrojee knew Pinto from his earliest days, as a clerk, as a hockey correspondent, editing the Chronicle. Pheroze remains the single witness in Kenya to the short life Pinto lived.
There are many others who played a part in his life, too many to mention here. However, there are two outstanding people who helped make Pinto who he was: his brother Rosario and his wife Emma. Rosario walked in the shadow of his illustrious sibling, but he provided the support Pinto needed every single step of his life.
If Rosario was the silent martyr in the family, then Emma was the silent spirit. She provided him with unconditional love as a wife, partner and mother and, as was the way in those days, she went about without the support of her husband without question, even though he did not provide even a single glimpse or the smallest whisper into his political life.
There is still time for Kenya to bring Pio Gama Pinto’s legacy to fruition for a better, more equitable and happier Kenya but without the violence that cost him his life. It has to be done with the will of maturity, the wisdom of hindsight, the vision of foresight and the sheer, unadulterated love of Kenya.
A truly beautiful paradise deserves a beautiful dream. Pio had one. In the end, there was no place for an Asian like Pio Gama Pinto in Kenya. He had planned to move to Tanzania to help the fight for freedom in the Southern Africa States. He never got there. In the end, he would have left Kenya, perhaps forever, they didn’t need to kill him.
Fernandes, a front-line journalist, has worked in Europe and Australia, where he now lives. You can read more at his blog: www.headlinesofmylife.today