Royal literature and Kenyans’ fascination with Kenyattas

From left: Narc Kenya leader Martha Karua, Executive Director at the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development Oley Dibba-Wadda, Beth Mugo and Narc leader Charity Ngilu during Mugo's memoir launch at KICC, Nairobi, on September 12, 2023.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada I Nation Media Group

“I think the king is but a man, as I am… all his senses have but human conditions... he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing.

Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are,” so wrote William Shakespeare in Henry V, emphasising that our rulers are as human as we are.

Shakespeare was almost whimsically obsessed with the British royal family with whimsy because it was sometimes whimsical and with magic because it was sometimes magical. And the British monarchy became a profound source of inspiration for his works.

Shakespeare had the British monarchy but in Kenya, the Kenyatta family is as close as it gets to “royalty”. They have the mystique of a royal family as Kenya’s foremost political clan, cemented in the public consciousness for generations and immortalised by producing two of Kenya’s five presidents.

At the centre, Mama Ngina, the steady matriarch of the family has steered the ship with grace and strength—as a symbol of resilience over the years. Mzee Jomo Kenyatta symbolised power and glamour in a way that probably no Kenyan had ever done before and maybe since: the severe look, the talismanic flywhisk and raised arm were enough to freeze people in their tracks in rarefied charm and political might.

During last year’s presidential campaigns, there was a barbed tangle of epithets for then President Uhuru Kenya, a man whose criticism was voiced by fierce rivals probably awed by his outsize political influence—and the tag they used against him was that he was a “dynasty”. Fair or not, there was some truth in that tag.

It was, therefore, gratifying to learn that former Cabinet minister Beth Mugo, a member of the Kenyatta family, has published her memoir titled Early Bird which was launched on Tuesday, September 12.

Nothing humanises leaders as much as memoirs as they can put off their masks and be vulnerable in telling their stories. Kenyans will read the memoir with one eye on Beth Mugo’s life and the other on her relationship with the larger Kenyatta family.

Kenyans will probably scour the memoir for more details on former President Uhuru Kenyatta. There was a time when he had the most powerful job in Kenya, a time when he enjoyed new evenings and a different time. But now, like a lion with a fading mane—a discoloured symbol of nobility—he is no longer in power. The decade of his presidency is caught in that act of wrenching subjects from the present and planting them firmly in the past. Completed actions. Past tense.

The relationship between former President Uhuru and President Ruto will be great material for memoirs. The doomed friendship—engrossing, melodramatic, overwrought, and graphic—ended after a brief illusion. That friendship had a certain tension that later made it hostile and difficult to continue—becoming an unknown, stormy sea with the fear of a shipwreck. It was like a rope pulled taut, building a terrible sense of foreboding suspense, guaranteed to keep readers on the edges of their seats.

According to Sigmund Freud, strong opposition may reveal some unconscious wish. The former president vehemently opposed the current president before he took over the reins. Does President Uhuru wish he were president still? Maybe not. However, we need more books especially President Uhuru’s memoirs or President Ruto’s to shed more light on this, as it is too personal for Beth Mugo or anyone else to capture the intricacies involved.

Is former President Uhuru like the Greek hero who knows many things, but not how to come home from war? Not knowing how war (the presidency) has changed him, what it has done to him? What is it that happens to people after they become president?

It would be great if he could write his memoirs to give us a front-row seat to the dramas of his life: what it means to bear a famous name, connections and access to the storied Kenyatta enterprise. Shed light on the way people get disillusioned when politics beckons—seductive and alluring—and then smashing into hard metal and concrete barriers.

And then only glimpses of glamour remain. Politics broke its promise to them. Maybe they softened over time, or maybe hardened; becoming callous and insensitive, especially after losing money and elections. Politics has its way with people. And seemingly no one is left unscathed. How did he succeed to the top seat? It’s a question he alone can answer.

Did he feel at the beginning of his political journey as if he was on a quest planned by mysterious agents of fate, “as a child, carried asleep aboard a midnight train, becomes conscious of enormous, purposeful movement in the dark, of acceleration,” as American memoirist Edmund Morris described the life of President Ronald Reagan?

For a cloistered and secretive family, Beth Mugo has done well to document the grand but mostly unchronicled saga of the Kenyatta family. We can now read and hopefully learn more about Kenya’s foremost first family.

The writer is a book publisher based in Nairobi. [email protected]