As first Kenyan PhD holder, Kiano gave us a craving for education

Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, the first Kenyan to earn a PhD.

What you need to know:

  • He traversed the US and met top shots like John Kennedy in order to have as many Kenyans as possible fly to the US and return to move the young country to greater heights
  • He teamed up with Mboya to organise academic airlifts for thousands

Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, the first Kenyan to earn a PhD opened the floodgates for thousands of others to seek university education.

In February 1948, aged 22, Kiano embarked on an eight-year academic journey to a tiny commercial college in Philadelphia.

The voyage from Nairobi, took him to Antioch College, Ohio, where four years later, he obtained a BA degree in economics.

By 1953, Kiano had earned an MA in political science from Stanford University.

From Stanford at Palo Alto, California, Kiano became the first Kenyan to earn a PhD.

The ambitious youngster from Weithaga returned to Kenya in 1956. He joined the University of Nairobi, then known as the Royal Technical College, to become its first African lecturer.

Together with Tom Mboya, Kiano transformed many lives when he played a key role in the student airlifts to the US.

The airlift would lay foundation of the young country’s political and economic take-off. More than 5,000 Kenyan students went to Europe, India, Israel and the US.

While Kiano taught at the University, Mboya was the secretary-general of the Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL).

“When I returned from the US, I knew it was only a matter of time before we were independent. We needed educated people and technicians. Mau Mau had broken the backbone of white supremacy. Having been helped so much by elders to go to America; it was my turn to help others. I therefore used my contacts to arrange for scholarships,” Dr Kiano says in Search For Our Liberty: The Story Of Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano, a yet to be published biography.

Mboya had befriended William Scheinman, a millionaire American, who introduced him to John F. Kennedy, then a young senator later to become US president.

Kennedy agreed to participate in the programme of educating Africans. While Bill spearheaded collection of funds with which to defray the cost of the first two airlifts (1958 and 1959), Mboya and Kiano were selecting students for scholarships.
Kiano says his biggest desire was to free Kenya from colonial yoke through formal education.

He recalls how in 1959 he was invited by the American Society of African Culture (ASCA) to discuss the future of Africa.

ASCA was headed by Horace Mann, president of Lincoln University and Black Educators. Kiano shared the platform with Senator Kennedy and Congressman Dicks of Minnesota.

“My address was titled: Africa Shall Be Free. It was at that meeting that I appealed to American homes to accommodate our students while studying in their schools and colleges. I also asked for Senator Kennedy’s help. When I returned, I told Mboya about the meeting. He also succeeded in seeing Kennedy who organised finances for the airlifts,” says Kiano.

Kiano told Kennedy that despite the major response by Americans in accommodating Kenyan students, acquisition of air tickets remained a serious headache. Kennedy promised to help.

In early 1960, the Director of admissions at Harvard University organised the African Scholarships Programme for American Universities. His effort alone got 200 American colleges and universities to offer free tuition to African students.

“William Scheinman was an American millionaire. Him, Frank Montero and a group known as the African American Students Foundation and the African American Institute played a key role in the airlifts. Kennedy tried to keep his contribution to the airlifts private,” Kiano said years later.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, who Kiano met in 1959, was also instrumental in the programme. Dr Kiano says Dr King’s wife, Coretta, had been his college mate and lover.

After dating Coretta for five years, she turned down his marriage proposal.

“She said she was not ready to marry a famous man,’’ he says.

Ironically, her husband became even more famous than Kiano.

The Kenyan later fell in love with an African American beauty queen, Earnestine, and the two married and had a son, Clinton Gaylord.

“I recall the airlifts. I helped one young man, George Saitoti with his papers and scholarship. I’m proud he became a senior politician in Kenya,” Earnestine says of the former vice-president killed in a copter crash last year.

After a painful separation with Earnestine in the ‘60s, Kiano married Jane Mumbi with whom he had two daughters.

Kiano had other ambitions too. In March 1958, he was elected to the Legislative Council (Legco) as a member for Central Province.

He says his political ambition sparkled at Alliance High School when he witnessed Eliud Mathu’s election as the First African Representative in the Legco).

Some of Kiano’s schoolmates at Alliance included Dr Njoroge Mungai, Dr Munyua Waiyaki, Mr Kyale Mwendwa, Mr Henry Muli, former Cabinet minister Robert Matano, former National Assembly Speaker Fred Mati and Mr Maurice Alala, a Maths professor at the University of Nairobi.

Kiano was at Makerere from 1946 to 1947 before heading to the US. At the time, Makerere was not yet a fully fledged university. He wanted a degree and not just a diploma on offer in Kampala.

He wrote letters to various American colleges. The Crisis Magazine, published by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), was his main source of information. Towards the end of 1947, he was admitted to Pioneer Business Institute, a private college in Philadelphia.

Like Shakespeare said, ambition is made of sterner stuff. Kiano got in touch with elders from his village, among them Jesse Kariuki, James Beauttah, and Waiganjo Wandotono. Many were previously involved in Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). They fundraised for his air ticket.

Among the first people to benefit from the Kiano-Mboya programme was Francis Githaiga wa Cioma, whose father was at the forefront of organising Kiano’s trip. Githaiga became one of the first Kenyan graduates in criminology. Hillary Ng’weno, a pioneer journalist was the other.

“I remember Ng’weno coming to seek advice on whether to join Harvard or Makerere. I told him to go to Harvard. He later became the respected owner and editor of The Weekly Review. I also got a scholarship for Dr Zachary Onyonka,” Kiano says.

Political nemesis

In 1959, 1960 and 1961, Kennedy, the African American Student Foundation and Phillip Randolph, an American trade unionist, enabled the chartering of a plane to fly Kenyans to the US.

In 1952, Kiano travelled to the Bay area in San Francisco to visit his PhD supervisor, Dr Robert Scalapino and his wife, Dee Scalapino. Soon after, the Scalapinos were interested in looking for homes for Kenyan students to study in San Francisco. In three years, Mrs Scalapino had helped more than 45 students get accommodation.

Apart from the flights to the US, Mboya’s political nemesis, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, organised several airlifts of his own to the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries.

Oginga obtained thousands of scholarships from the Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and other eastern countries. Among the beneficiaries were Mr Joseph Kamotho, Dr Odongo Omamo, Mr SM. Otieno, Mr Johanna Seroney and Mr John Gatuguta, Kiano recalled.

Kiano said that, the criteria for student selection depended on the university qualification requirements. All applications were thoroughly scrutinised.

Kiano was among the 14 elected Legco members who went to Lancaster House to negotiate Kenya’s independence constitution.

Caleb Atemi is a biographer and communication consultant.