Hassan, the mysterious Somali trader who funded Mau Mau fighters

The compound on which Hassan’s shop stands in Juja town, Kiambu county. Picture was taken on April, 8, 2017. PHOTO | ERIC WAINAINA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

During the crackdown on Mau Mau, loyalists and other traders took over property of detained freedom fighters.

In the famous 1946 picture of Jomo Kenyatta with top officials of Kenya African Union (KAU), there was an unidentified Somali man who sat on the front row with his legs crossed.

For decades, the identity of this mysterious man – who funded KAU and later Mau Mau – has been a matter of debate since no one seemed to know his name.

In the national debate of freedom fighters, the tall man with immaculate looks hardly features.

The Nation has, for the first time, identified the man as Mohamed Hassan – and managed to trace his family in Nairobi.

“Nobody seems to recognise my father,” his daughter Amina Mohammed, a former broadcaster with the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told me as we sipped coffee in a city restaurant. “He was perhaps the only Somali detained during the Mau Mau war and he lost all he had acquired, but nobody has written about him.”


On this day, Amina was holding a pouch full of old photos flanked by her husband – a former Somalia ambassador to Kenya.

In Juja town in Kiambu County, Hassan’s shop, which was forcibly shut down at the height of the Emergency, remains closed up to now. It has no tenants and nobody seems to know who owns it after all the tenants left due to unpaid bills after independence.

Currently, the building is rotting away unattended, a mabati perimeter fence still erected around it. It is still on the compound of what later became the East African Bag and Cordage, a company that used to manufacture gunny bags until it went under during the Moi regime.

I ask Ms Mohammed whether they still own the shop, a pointer to what happened to some of the properties that were forcibly taken away from Mau Mau supporters and never returned – or were simply handed over to loyalists.


“We don’t know whether we still own it. But my mother (now deceased) used to tell me that the shop, as it is today, was the way it was left by my father,” she says.

During the crackdown on Mau Mau, loyalists and other traders took over property of detained freedom fighters, an issue that haunted the Kenyatta government for years as it struggled to undo the damage.

At best, the loyalists – most of whom were in the civil service – won, and at worst the freedom fighters were settled in the settlement schemes away from their original homes.

Hassan’s shop is one of the remaining pillars of this struggle. It is a shop that hides much of the history of the freedom movement and inter-race relations in colonial Kenya – but sadly, it is a monument that is rotting away despite its place in Kenya’s history. It also hides the story of the place of the Somali community in the freedom struggle.

Because of its location, especially in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the shopping complex offered restaurant and butchery services and had three entrances: one for the European settlers, one for Asians and Arabs, and another for Africans. It also had a petrol pump and records say it was one of the best-lit areas in Juja.


“We don’t know who owns that shop now but our father died trying to get justice on his properties. He never did,” says Ms Mohammed.

In 1969, Hassan had written a letter to President Jomo Kenyatta asking him to order East African Bag and Cordage “to restore my confiscated property”.

That never happened and he died, perhaps, a dejected man.

So famous was this shop that there are various letters written by the colonial government on it. During the independence struggle this shop was the chosen stopover of Mau Mau guerrillas on their way to the forest – at a time when the crackdown on Kikuyu, Embu and Meru communities had started in Nairobi.

“It used to be a famous stopover for those plying Thika Road. I used to visit that shop prior to independence and I personally knew Hassan,” says former Juja MP Gitu Kahengeri, a Mau Mau freedom fighter who spent seven years in Manda Island detention camp.


“Hassan was targeted by the colonial government because of the support that he gave to Mau Mau,” Mr Kahengeri tells me.

We managed to get an archival February 27, 1954 letter which was written by Ndarugu Plantations Limited, the predecessor to East African Bag and Cordage, ordering Hassan to vacate the shop “until the end of emergency” and at the instigation of the colonial government.

It was only eight months after the June 1953 ban on KAU which was accused by Oliver Lyttelton, Secretary of State for the Colonies, of being a cover organisation for Mau Mau.

Mohammed Hassan is seated (far right) with other KAU leaders in this 1946 photo. PHOTO| FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

We also found evidence that two years after the State of Emergency was declared on August 20, 1952 by Governor Evelyn Baring, the Central Province Commissioner CM Johnston issued a Gazette notice order dated July 15, 1954 that targeted Hassan’s business in particular. By this time, he had continued to give clandestine support to the Mau Mau movement.

The colonial order issued as Government Notice No 1069 prohibited “all persons who are members of the Kikuyu, Embu or Meru tribe from being or remaining in … the block of stone shops known as Juja dukas on LR 255/1/2 on the main Nairobi-Thika Road.”

It was this shop that Jomo Kenyatta would occasionally pop in, with his retinue of supporters and hangers-on, when he was campaigning to strengthen KAU as a national movement. Hassan had become one of Kenyatta’s financial supporters and one of his employees, Ali Mohammed Kabati, had once talked about Kenyatta visiting the shop to get some money.

KAU had been registered in October 1944 with Harry Thuku as chairman, Francis Khamisi as Secretary and Albert Owino as Treasurer.

It was the first broad-based multi-ethnic party to advise Eliud Mathu, the first African nominee to the Legislative Council (LegCo), on the issues to be addressed in Parliament.

The name was changed in November 1945 to Kenya African Study Union (KASU) on the advice of Governor Phillip Mitchell and the group was now composed of educated Africans.


Hassan was central to this group – led by his former teacher James Gichuru – and that is how he found a seat on the front row of the famous KASU picture.

The word Study was dropped a year after Kenyatta joined the movement after ending his 16-year sojourn in Europe in 1946. His contemporaries were W.W.W. Awori and J.D. Otiende.

So besides being a customer in Juja, Mzee Kenyatta and Mr Hassan were members of KASU.

“He must have paid the membership fee,” says Mzee Kahengeri.

But in the history of Kenya’s struggle for independence, Mr Hassan hardly features mainly because the Somalis were largely ostracised after independence following the Shifta war crisis triggered by a desire by the Somalis to join the larger Somalia.


Actually, his employee Mohammed Kabati became better known than his employer and rose later to become deputy mayor of Thika.

When Mr Kabati was interviewed a few years ago, he acknowledged that Jomo Kenyatta used to visit the shop after he returned to the country in 1946. “He was a regular customer,” Kabati confirmed.

As the first Somali boy to join Alliance High School, Hassan – who died in Nairobi in 1977 – had entered the elite circles and was one of the students taught by Eliud Mathu, the first black Kenyan to join the colonial Legislative Assembly (Legco), and later on the Comptroller of Kenyatta’s State House.

The history of this small shopping centre is also the history of pioneer shopping centres in Kenya.


The original shopping block was built in 1918 when Hassan’s father, Hassan Ismail, opened a small wooden shop in the plains of Juja at the edge of the late Mr A.S. Haller’s Mrefu Farm.

It was after the death of Ismail that Hassan consulted Mr A.P. Moller, a millionaire Swedish shipowner, whether he could erect a permanent building at the edge of his farm. Moller agreed.

The story of Moller was well known in the Kenya colony. In 1922, he had surprised many other entrepreneurs when he bought shares worth Dkr50,000 in the BEA Planting Company of Kenya Ltd, founded in 1917 by Ake Bursell, another Swedish entrepreneur.

That date coincides with the time that Ismail set up his shop in Juja. It was this company which owned the BEA Planting Company of Kenya and which owned LR255/1/2 in Juja. It was within this land that Hassan built his shop.


Moller was a serial entrepreneur and his companies included a Copenhagen arms factory, Dansk Rekylrifell Syndikat, a plantation in Kilimanjaro and a fleet of ocean liners.

Hassan’s business thrived in Juja, thanks to the tens of settlers who had settled on this stretch and who included the US steel billionaire Sir William Northrup McMillan – the man who owned the stretch of land from modern day Juja to Mt Kilimambogo where he is buried near the peak. He also gave Juja its name from the two idols he had collected from West Africa named “Ju” and “Ja” – thus Juja Farm.

The dalliance between Hassan and the white settlers is also the story of his father Ismael, a cook for pioneer coffee settler Karen Blixen whose struggling farming enterprise in modern-day Karen in Nairobi became the theme of the epic movie, Out of Africa.

Ismail had established himself as a dukawallah near Karen’s farm – and another in Dagoretti and Ngong towns. Whether Jomo Kenyatta used to visit these Dagoretti shops is not clear but since he had stayed in both towns, it is almost certain that he got to know about this entrepreneur.


It was in Karen Blixen’s farm that Hassan was born in 1922 and this was also the time that his father had set up a duka in Juja. He was only 16 when his father died and so took charge of his father’s business.

By this time, he was the only muslim student in Alliance High School and his education was interrupted by the father’s death and the World War II. It was Ake Bursell, the Swedish entrepreneur who gave him the land on which he built the shop in Juja.

Hassan’s former teachers James Gichuru, Eliud Mathu, and JD Otiende would later join nationalist politics influencing many of their students.

His student contemporaries in Alliance included former Attorney General Charles Njonjo, former Agriculture minister Jeremiah Nyagah, and former Cabinet minister Ronald Gideon Ngala and who was leader of opposition Kenya African Democratic Union (Kadu).

That is how Hassan found himself at the centre of freedom struggle among his educated peers, who had become teachers and activists.

His fortunes seems to have dipped in 1954 when he was arrested by Charles Rand, the officer in charge of Ruiru Police Station. He was charged before magistrate RL LeGallasi (and later acquitted) of possessing a firearm without a valid license. Also, the government issued the notice that members of Kikuyu, Embu and Meru should not venture into Hassan’s business premises.

In a letter he wrote to Jomo Kenyatta in 1970, Hassan recounted how he lost his business in 1955: “I went to the District Commissioner, Thika, to renew my trading license… but the cashier did not issue me with the license. He referred me to the District Commissioner Mr Walters who refused to issue me with a license.”

He asked for the reason and he received a curt reply: “We know you!”

“About three days later, I went again to the District Commissioner regarding the license and he told me not to come to his office again ‘you are bloody Mau Mau’,” he wrote.

Hassan was forced to close the shop and it was occupied by some Indian traders after independence.

That he never got back his shop is perhaps the fate of many other freedom fighters. It is also the story of the Somali in Kenya’s independence.

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