John Kimuyu Kalendo, who was buried on Saturday, November 18, in Makueni County, epitomised resilience in the face of adversity and defiance against colonial inequalities.
In 1949, a time when Africans had little access to education, he overcame his blindness and travelled from Mwala to Thika to attend school.
In 1959, he did the unthinkable when he defied the ban on interracial relations and married a white woman despite being threatened with violence.
Although many prominent politicians such as Jomo Kenyatta and Argwings Kodhek had married white women while living abroad, Kimuyu’s was different since it was the first interracial marriage to be registered in Kenya.
Kimuyu went blind at the age of two after an illness. In 1949, aged 16, he left Mwala to attend Thika School for the blind, which had been established three years earlier as the first learning institution for the visually impaired.
But two years later, he dropped out due to poor health. However, his passion for education overcame his illness, and in 1953, he returned to the school and really excelled.
It was while there that he met Ms Ruth Holloway, a young missionary from Nottingham in England, who had been sent by the Salvation Army to teach braille.
Just before Ruth left England for Kenya, she had undergone missionary training at the Salvation Army’s William Booth College in Denmark Hill London.
A paragraph in a guide booklet titled Qualification of the Foreign Missionary instructed her not to associate too much with white people, but to dedicate her time serving the locals.“Learn to love the company of the people you have come to serve. They will soon understand, and to win their confidence is worth all.”
So as she arrived in Kenya in June 1955, aboard the Union Castle Mail Ship, she was already independent of the racial prejudices then prevalent in Kenya colony.
Ruth taught braille, but was also interested in learning local languages, especially Kiswahili. On the other hand, Kimuyu was interested in learning fluent English. So, the two struck up a friendship to complement each other’s language needs.
As Kimuyu later recalled in an interview “I used to try and make sure that I talk to English people, especially ladies.”
The teacher-student relationship soon evolved into romance, much to the chagrin of the officials who tried to break it up by transferring Ruth to another area. According to Kimuyu’s account to the Sunday Nation in 2019, he developed an interest in Ruth and decided to profess his love for her. Surprisingly she was receptive and before long, the two were planning to get married.
Interracial relationships were highly resented by the colonialists who were keen to maintain their power. Four years earlier, Mr G Dickson, an Englishman serving in the Kenya Police, was deported to England after it was discovered that he was about to marry a Kikuyu woman known as Margaret Muna. The colonialists feared that such relationships would water down their privilege and prestige since they had already created the perception among Africans that they were a superior race.
They, therefore, took every step to convince Ruth out of the relationship by reminding her that Kimuyu, apart from being black and blind, was not earning much from his job as a telephone operator in a taxi company. This bigoted view was echoed in article published in the UK’s Guardian newspaper which argued: “His few pounds a month salary, adequate though it may be to feed an African family with its maize meal diet , is far from enough to maintain a woman accustomed to European standards of living.”
The couple also grappled with finding a place they would call home after their wedding. The segregatedNairobi of that time had estates designated for Europeans, Africans and Asians. Africans were not allowed to live in whites-only estates such as Muthaiga, unless they worked there as servants, and white people could not live in African estates such as Kaloleni, to preserve the “dignity” of the white race.
Meanwhile Ruth was being accommodated in Ruaraka by Argwings Kodhek and his Irish wife as she prepared for her wedding. The Kodheks had faced similar challenges after returning to Kenya from Britain where they had married in the early 1950s.
In January 7, 1959, banns were posted outside the District Commissioner’s Office at Kariokor, announcing the impending marriage between Kimuyu and Ruth. Although no one came forward to challenge the proposal, there were fears of violence after radical European settlers vowed to stage a protest in Nairobi.
The Wedding eventually took place in Jan 23, 1959, but was conducted in high secrecy to avoid racial protests. Only Kimuyu’s mother and two sisters were present as witnesses. On his special day, Kimuyu had only two hours off work to say “I do”. Ruth on the other hand hitch-hiked to town, hiding her wedding dress in a basket. She arrived at the DC’s office looking sweaty and bothered, and went straight to an empty room to wear her dress, stockings and make-up.
Before the ceremony the registrar sat her aside and asked again whether she was really sure about marrying Kimuyu. “This marriage should not happen.” he warned. Ruth was adamant, so the ceremony went ahead, lasting 30 minutes, after which the newly-weds were driven off in a Peugeot 403 as a small crowd of curious Africans gathered at the gate of the DC’s office.
The couple settled in Ofafa Jerusalem, an African housing estate modelled on an English council estate. They were blessed with three children — Ndinda, now 63, Wendo 61 and Elizabeth 60. At home, Kimuyu owned an accordion on which he always played his favorite hymn ‘I will sing of my redeemer.’
With independence came better jobs for educated Africans like Kimuyu. He got a new job at the Industrial Area Police depot, in charge of a 16-line telephone switchboard. He also became the chair of the National Committee of Telephonists and an official of the Kenya Union for the Blind. His goal at that time was to put forward the claims for the disabled for gainful employment.
“We feel that time has come to put an end to mere sympathy for the disabled,” he declared. “What is needed is the recognition that a disabled man, when trained and given a chance, can be a useful citizen.”
But just when things seemed to be going well for the Kimuyus, the marriage collapsed in mid 1960s, and his wife returned to England with their three children. However, they still kept in touch.
For instance, in a letter he sent Ruth on October 7, 1977, he wrote: “Thank you very much for the effort you made to keep informing me how you and the children are getting on, but most of all I thank you for preserving a nice image of the only dad they have. Once again thank you very much indeed.”
This they did until Ruth died of stroke in 1996 at the age of 73 .
- The writer is a London-based Kenyan researcher and journalist