Burying Kenyatta: The moment and memories

President Jomo Kenyatta’s final journey from State House on August 31, 1978. FILE | NATION

The year 1978 was the year of Stayin’ Alive – on our movie screens, our dance floors, even in our nation’s politics.

In the film Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta gave us new dance moves as his character Tony Manero conquered the dreariness of his dead-end day job with his weekend prowess on the dance floors of Brooklyn jiving to Stayin’ Alive. From New York to Nairobi and Nepal, that song by the Bee Gees became a global dance anthem.

In our nation’s politics the Constitution won and kept Kenya alive. The sudden death of our founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, was not followed by an acrimonious fall-out. The machinations of the change-the-constitution group that had been plotting a succession that would exclude Vice-President Daniel Moi fell asunder thanks, ironically, to Attorney-General Charles Njonjo.

That was August 1978. School was out. Totally out because back then, the school calendar run like clockwork without holiday tuition and extra exam classes.

The estates were teeming with children. Young girls were playing kati and kalongo in the open fields. The boys were busy with futa and cricket using improvised bats and an old ball. On the tarmac road weaving through the estate, pre-teen boys and girls were deep in a complex game of shake as it was called west of Tom Mboya Street. In Eastlands the game was called mchuz kaffir.

The teenagers were doing their usual thing – some were indoors playing music on cassette or waiting to hear top hits like Stayin’ Alive and Makonde’s Mola on the morning radio show, Disc Drive.

Others were standing around the kiosks chatting or escorting each other back and forth between houses. A few brave ones had gone out visiting in neighbouring estates while others had been subjected to the quarterly ritual of going “shags”, “home-square”, “up-country”, or the village of their parents’ birth as it was variously known.

For all these youngsters, Tuesday August 22, 1978 was a perfectly normal day until that 1pm bulletin when the world momentarily stopped. Voice of Kenya radio had a strict schedule of programmes. Everyone knew what kind of music to expect when. The news bulletin was never late. And martial music was certainly not a substitute for mid-day programming. But from about noon that day, martial music was the only thing the two main stations were playing.

Where was the General Service’s Midday melodies? After the news bulletin would Lunchtime Music feature the usual pop standards turned into jazz medleys by James Last?

Salaam na Nyimbo, Lugha ya Wanamziki and Je Hujambo? were the midday staple on the National Service. Instead Leonard Mambo was on air sounding solemn and uttering a new word – Hayati – over and over again. Jomo Kenyatta had died in his sleep in Mombasa.

It dawned on us that we would not be watching Kojak on TV at 9.45pm that evening. We wondered what other aspects of our lives would be derailed because it was now clear that our world had just been turned on its head.

The martial music continued. It seemed it was the only suitable soundtrack that the station could find to accompany that announcement. Were there no recorded dirges from any of Kenya’s diverse communities all of which doubtlessly had traditional songs to accompany the dead? 


Darius Mbela, Information and Broadcasting ministry permanent secretary and choirmaster at St Stephen’s Church, Nairobi, answered that question. In the space of four days he assembled his choir, composed a set of dirges steeped in church worship and the rhythms of traditional music, rehearsed and recorded the album Tribute to Mzee Kenyatta at the VoK studios.

The Old Man Dies at Last thundered Time magazine in its September 4, 1978 issue. The tenor of welcome relief in that announcement of Kenyatta’s death in the global West might indeed have echoed the sentiments of some Kenyans but the anxiety and grief in the period preceding Jomo’s burial told a different story.

The Daily Nation editorial of August 23 said, “Mzee was loved and revered. Kenyatta was Kenya and in every home in the land, his name was synonymous with Uhuru”. Other press accounts said “All of Kenya stunned by the news” and reported August 22 as “The day when Kenya came to a standstill”.

Maybe it was mourner hypocrisy or the anxiety of a nation on the brink of dismantling “Big Man politics”. Kenyans hurriedly closed their shops, left their offices and market stalls and went home too stunned to work.

A quickly assembled funeral committee headed by new President Moi comprised two Kenyatta family members – brother James Muigai and son, Peter Muigai. Other members were Charles Njonjo, Head of the Civil Service Geoffrey Kariithi and Kenyatta’s dearest friend and minister of State, Mbiyu Koinange.

They set the burial date for August 31 at Parliament grounds where a mausoleum designed by Nairobi architect George Vamos would be constructed by a team of over 100 African, European and Asian workmen led by C. Campagnola Ltd.

Kenyatta’s body lay in state at State House. On the first day, ministers, MPs, foreign envoys and other dignitaries paid their respects. Wananchi trooped there from Thursday, August 24.

By Wednesday, August 30, when Kenyatta’s body was moved to his Gatundu home at 4pm, the press reported that over 500,000 Kenyans had viewed it.

As they filed past in varying shades of distress, a motionless ceremonial military guard stood by. St Stephen’s Church Choir was also at hand, capturing the emotions of the crowds with words commemorating a life of service and others describing devastated grief anchored in the hope of Christian salvation.

The choir members were picked up from their homes in the wee hours of the morning to arrive at State House by dawn. They would leave late in the day after the last visitors had paid their respects and head for more rehearsals and recording.

Prayers were offered in every shade and accent. By a contingent of Catholic bishops; by the Anglican Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Hindu Council of Elders, the Sikh community, Muslim clerics, even the Banana Hill healer Margaret Wangari was accorded space at State House to work her magic with members of her sect.

But the most colourful visit of all came on Friday, August 25, from Kenyatta’s old nemesis, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Earlier, he had sent condolences saying that he was “gravely shocked and dispossessed” by the death of his old friend. Now, he arrived at State House blowing oporo, the trumpet, clad in grand traditional Luo regalia and chanting dengo, a mixture of praise-name poetry, pleasant memories, anger, disappointment — in one word: bereavement.

Jaramogi’s grandly executed performance of farewell to a man whose fortunes were intertwined with his own in so many significant ways struck one as a moment of reconciliation. Its tone also suggested a deeply felt regret; a kind of “what if…” reminiscing.

Cartoonist Terry Hirst made a special editorial drawing in the Nation. Reporter Irungu Ndirangu penned a poem, A Tribute to the Burning Spear. Robert Kingston Davies wrote, Let us mingle thanks with tears.

It was a week like no other. Fresh from heady victories at the Edmonton Commonwealth Games and the All-Africa Games in Tunisia — which included a gold medal in the women’s singles final featuring Susan Wakhungu and Jane Davies — all weekend sporting activities were now cancelled.

Dr Sam Ongeri of the Kenya Amateur Athletics Association told us that Henry Rono, would not be going to London’s Crystal Palace that weekend. Rono was the world record-holder in the mile, 3,000m steeplechase, 5,000m and 10,000m. He and boxer Steve Muchoki had been among the last people to meet Mzee in Mombasa on August 20. Rono was now too devastated to compete.

Musicians too sent their formal condolences through the producers union and the Kenya Union of Entertainment and Music Industries Employees. Their vernacular compositions in praise of Mzee quickly appeared on vinyl.

Radio programming resumed its schedules interrupted often by Mbela’s dirges. Many favourites of the time now carried a strange ironic relevance – Stayin’ Alive, Margaret Singana’s I Never Loved a Man (the way that I loved you), Slim Ali’s Tell Me (you don’t want me) and Someone Loves You by American country sensation Charly Pride.

Others like Les Mangelepa’s Nyako Konya and Super Mazembe’s Kasongo just carried us along to a happy place that escaped the somberness all around us in that long week which included a three-day public holiday.

Tanzania announced seven days of mourning. Fourty Ugandans flew in for the funeral. Among the African presidents were Julius Nyerere, Idi Amin, Siaka Stevens, William Tolbert and Kenneth Kaunda who brought with him Zimbabwean freedom fighter Joshua Nkomo.

The Americans sent Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall, Andrew Young their ambassador to the UN and Coretta Scott King.

Britain sent Prince Charles.

Thursday August 31. Mzee’s casket left Gatundu at 7am for State House. Over 120 press personnel, half of them representing overseas outlets, covered the event beaming it live on radio and television across the world.

8.30am. At walking pace and in total silence, the funeral procession left State House. The national flag was draped on the coffin and Kenyatta’s blue standard bearing the spears known as Jomo lay atop.

All along State House Avenue and down Kenyatta Avenue, the only sound in the air was that of the horses’ hooves drawing the coffin alongside the synchronised marching of the pall-bearers. Silence. A deathly silence. A silence of uncertainty.

But for those with a literary mind, there was one song that accompanied Kenyatta’s casket down State House Avenue. Joseph Kamaru’s 1975 song of protest — JM Kariuki. In it Kamaru resorted to deep Kikuyu mythology to aver that those who were responsible for Kariuki’s callous killing would, in the way of ancient Kikuyu justice, be rolled downhill in a beehive with the whole world watching.

Traditionally the beehive was made from Muu, the silver oak or from Muringa, the medicinal healing tree. Was that song a curse or a prophecy? How was one to interpret it now that Jomo’s oak casket was rolling down State House Avenue atop a gun-carriage imported specially from Britain for this occasion?

One other sound stood out clearly on the day Jomo was buried. “In all my 38 years with him, I have never heared (sic), a word of hatred from him”. Jomo’s dearest friend Mbiyu Konainge eulogised him with such pain, compassion and oratory. It was the first and the last time that many of us ever heard Mbiyu speak in public.

Prayers, more speeches, a fly-past formation by the Air Force and a 21-man gun salute. The band played martial music and the national anthem. And the choirs sang.

So many sounds were buried along with Jomo that day. Playwright Kenneth Watene observes that one of the reasons Kenya goes on is on account of its ability to forget. But our nation’s fragile memory has now reached the harmful stages of chronic amnesia - we forget even the good along with the bad and the painful.

The work of St Stephen’s Church Choir in that week when Kenya mourned the passing on of an important leader should never have been forgotten. Their Tribute album never became part of the repertoire of national remembrance, not even in the annual August 22 commemoration. Like the songs of protest by Kamaru, Misiani and others, it was buried with him.


In the multiparty era, Jomo’s voice and image began to adorn some matatus filling in the gap created by the National Museums, which had never held a Jomo Kenyatta exhibition. Matatus aired snippets from various speeches reproduced on cassette and later on audio CDs. But those Tribute songs have never again been heard in public.

On the day Jomo died, 20th Century Cinema was — by some strange twist of fate — due to screen the movie Another Man, Another Chance. It was like an echo of the old adage with which the British Empire marks the end of one reign and the start of another: “the king is dead, long live the king.” 

All movie houses cancelled their screenings that day. Still, with Jomo’s exit came another man and another chance to get things right in Kenya.

We have since had two and a half other men (Raila was only one half of the mseto government) and two and a half other chances to get things right. Some things, like the constitution, have been fixed. Others, like our roads, are in the process of being fixed. And yet others, like our cultural sector, remain in need of a radical overhaul.

Those who write our songs shape our idioms. They provide the soundtracks and the story to mark the moments and the memories. They anchor the nation. The late Darius Mbela and his amazing team of the St Stephen’s Church Choir of August 1978 played this part, splendidly, at a critical moment in our nation’s history.

Dr Nyairo is a cultural analyst [email protected]