What you need to know:
- Kenyatta was special. Not many people knew when he was born. Not many people knew his classmates.
- Not many people knew where he went to school. All that they knew is that he was a tough man who had gone to Britain.
A stern face stared out at Kenyans for more than 24 years. Framed on office and shop walls, pictured on every banknote and coin and ever-present on our daily news bulletin. His eyes seemed to say, “Don't question the chief, I’m everywhere.” The chief was Kenya’s retired President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi.
A phone call out of the blue got me working on this four-part series, researching Kenya’s history and understanding the political events that unfolded during both Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi’s administrations.
I thought I was pretty well read on our country’s history and the events that happened over the last 50 years, but I soon realised there was so much more than what any Kenyan knew of these two great men. I decided to embark upon this journey to reveal insights into our former presidents’ habits, obsessions and intimate moments. More importantly, I wanted to tell the story on a life and the experiences of a man who worked around the clock with two of the most powerful men in Kenya’s history.
I also discovered how closely my own father was linked to this country’s history and how the images he shot sync perfectly with this incredible story
Join me on this exclusive four-part series of ‘A Life Behind the Scenes’ with Mr Lee Njiru.
SALIM: Why did you pick me to make that phone call to say that you wanted to tell your story?
NJIRU: I knew your father, the late Mohamed Amin. He was a professional photographer, a professional cinematographer, a friend of mine, a decent man.
I remember one incident which will forever remain etched in my mind. We were covering Mzee Jomo Kenyatta; we were doing a mini Cabinet reshuffle and because our car was small, we were overcrowded. So we put the film on the rack. Somewhere along the way, well, it fell off and the film was exposed. And, you know, Kenyatta was not a joke; he could finish you. Now, we were wondering, “What do we do?” We organised that we go to the nearest chemist, buy some bandages, get red ink, and then roll the car and also roll like donkeys and then go and tell Kenyatta that we had had an accident, so that we do it again. But when we were just about to roll the car, we saw a big car, you know, flashing lights at high speed; it was your father. He asked me: “Are you a friend, really? You knew this reshuffle … what am I going to tell my bosses in London?”
I told him: “Don’t worry, we will take you there.”
So we went. We saw Kenyatta’s bodyguard — his name was Kimotho. We told him, “Now, what we have can only be shown in Kenya. But what Mohamed Amin will take, it will be shown all over the world.” So Kenyatta was called. He said: “Okay, Itaonekana mpaka ulaya? (Will it be viewed abroad?)” We told him “yes sir. The whole world, your excellency.” Then he said: “Come on, bring that speech of mine.”
So we re-organised then Kenyatta asked, “But you people. What are you taking?” We said: “No sir, we are just helping Mohamed.” So now, when we finished, we had actually to babysit the film; we didn’t want a repeat of the mishap. So, from then on, your father and I became very good friends.
I was born in 1949, in a small village called Mbiruri, and the nearest town was Runyenjes. I was born during a very, very difficult time. When I was about four years old, there was a State of Emergency. In 1950, there was a lot of agitation for independence. The British began what was called ‘The Scorched Earth Policy’.
We were completely cut off and we had no communication even with our wives or our children or even with our sympathisers anywhere.
So that is the kind of conditions I grew up in; no food, no medical care, no peace. My people were denigrated, they were insulted, when you said that you are Muembu, people thought that you are nothing, you are inconsequential. In fact, that is one of the reasons why I worked very hard so that the Embu people could be known in Kenya. Especially those days, there was this nonsense of referring to some people in diminutive terms. So if you are a Taita, you are called ‘Kamutaita’. Even if you are a six-footer, a ‘Kamutaita’, ‘Kamujaluo’ — very insolent terms.
On April 24, 1954, about 25,000 British soldiers surrounded Nairobi. They had megaphones telling all men to come out of their houses with whatever you could carry. If you are a Kikuyu, Embu, or Meru, you were beaten because you had to show your papers. You were beaten and taken to detention; Lang’ata, Manyani, Hola and wherever. If you were a Luo, Kamba or any other tribe you were released and told to go back home. And that was the beginning of the torture of anybody who was suspected of being Mau Mau.
And, in any case, being a Kikuyu man, an Embu man, a Meru man, you are a Mau Mau automatically, either an active one or a passive one, but you were Mau Mau; that was the label — you were Mau Mau. And they suffered; many of them were killed.
Others were castrated, beaten to death, they were maimed, and others went mad. Even some people, up to now, they are nursing those scars.
People wanted independence and they turned violent. Why they turned violent is because during the Second World War, which began in 1939, many Kenyans went to fight in Burma; they went to fight in Malay, which by then was called Malaysia, they went to fight in North Africa; now that one opened their eyes. You know before that, not many people had seen a dead European; not many people had seen European prostitutes; not many people had seen Europeans who were sick; not many people had seen mad Europeans. They had not seen their beggars. Now when they went to join them in all those areas, they found that Europeans could also die. Some of them were screaming because of shell-shock. They realised that the only way to get Europeans out of Kenya was to terrorise them. So people started ganging up, taking oaths, going to the forest and fighting.
Around 1955, when I was six years old, I started hearing about people like Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi, Oginga Odinga, but Kenyatta was special. Not many people knew when he was born. Not many people knew his classmates. Not many people knew where he went to school.
All that they knew is that he was a tough man who had gone to Britain, he had gone to Russia and he knew psychology and he could read people’s minds. There was even a myth that he had a hairy tongue.
I remember in 1959, when he was in detention, Mzee Moi, Henry Cheboiwo and others, they went to visit him and they knew that Kenyatta would one day become President. So when he was released, Moi had organised with friends to buy him a car. So they bought him a car whose registration number was KHA, which is ‘Kenyatta Home Again’.
I begun hearing about Tom Mboya in the 1960s. He was a very charismatic leader. He was a very smooth operator, very skilful politician. I think Kenyatta liked him, because he was a workhorse and an intellectual, but Kikuyus did not like him — he was too clever.
Before Kenyatta left detention, one time Mboya had gone to Canada, and when asked: “Who will be Kenya’s President?” He said: “Kenyans will decide.” The Kikuyus noted that. They did not want any grey area, the answer should be, “It is Kenyatta.” People thought Mboya would succeed. Embu people were not worried because we were told, “That’s a Luo.” You know there was that divide that leadership must stay within Mt Kenya region. So as young people, you know, we had been brainwashed that a Luo should not lead this country. And you know there is that narrative even up to now.
SALIM: So you didn’t quite understand the consequences?
NJIRU: I did not understand the consequences. That was a Luo who had been killed. And you know, Mboya was not even loved by all Luos, because he was not a Luo. Mboya was not a Luo. Mboya was Bantu. It is the wife who was Luo — Pamela. Mboya was Basuba, from Rusinga Island; those are not Luos. But because of Luos’ numerical strength, the Basubas speak Dholuo, they speak the Luo language for their own survival. Because they cannot survive with Basuba.
SALIM: It seemed quite obvious that a Kikuyu was the assassin; was it really that simple?
NJIRU: I was curious to know, but information regarding the issue is not forthcoming, because all we get is from newspapers. Because Nahashon Njenga, the killer, all what we know he said, “Why don’t you ask the big man?” We do not know who that is. Because nothing has ever been written beyond that. There is no information about it, at all. I have tried to do research; to read, but it is not there. Even nobody knows where Nahashon Njenga went.
SALIM: You said Kenyatta had a lot of admiration for Mboya, and you know, they liked each other and they seemed to get on very well. They were good friends. But perhaps it wasn’t in the interest of other people that Mboya would rise to that position?
NJIRU: Yes they did not want that. You remember, even Moi, they did not want Moi to become President. You know, this Change the Constitution group, which did not want Moi to become the President, you know that very well.
But it is [Charles] Njonjo who issued a statement quoting the Constitution, that it is treason even to imagine the death of a President. So when you talk about succession, you are imagining that Kenyatta will die. And that statement shut them up.
But they wanted now to change the Constitution so that Moi could not become the President automatically after the death of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
(Looking at a photograph): If you look at Kenyatta here, look at the twinkle in his eye. Look at the facial expression in general. You can see he was telling Moi very good things. This shows exactly the depth of their friendship. You know, it is Kenyatta who is leaning because he wants to get a message clear to Moi. And you can realise it’s a very good message. See, how Moi is relaxed.
It is this relationship which made many people from Central Kenya to hate Moi because they knew this relationship would lead to Mzee Kenyatta endorsing Moi for presidency. This picture tells a story — Moi is happy, Kenyatta looks genuine. Look at the flash of happiness on his face. It tells it all.
SALIM: There is another one that you talked about, you know, them always having something interesting to say. Do you remember?
NJIRU: Yes I remember this very well. Mzee Kenyatta had gone to Olkaria Geothermal Project. You know there is a hissing noise of the steam coming from underground. So they could not hear each other properly, so Mzee Kenyatta had to whisper to Mzee Moi, his Vice-President.
But then, Kikuyus — most of the people from Mount Kenya region — did not like this picture. Because when you look at it, you do not know why he is whispering. You will think he is telling him a secret. He is not telling him any secret.
We made a lot of political capital out of this during the campaigns. ‘Moi, the son Kenyatta loved’. ‘The secret between two men’.
SALIM: I also see the twinkle in your eye when you are looking at these pictures.
NJIRU: When I was in Kangaru High School in [the] 1960s, we used to play football, then the following day, I would read the story in the newspapers.
Then I said: “Why should somebody write about us, and not anybody in this school? We can also write about ourselves.” Now that is why I developed a liking for journalism.
Then there was a person from Embu called Matthew Njeru; he was a press attaché in London. So whenever he came home, I said, “Press attaché’. What is that?”
So he told me about it, I said: “I would also like to be a press attaché.” And I saw that some people used to write letters to the editor from around Runyenjes, then they would appear. So I developed a taste for journalism.
So when the chance came, the Public Service Commission advertised for people to go to Kenya Institute of Mass Communication. I applied. They needed only 15 people from the whole country. So I was among the 15 people who were selected.
At Independence, I was not even excited because I did not know what it meant, because I was born [into] slavery. In 1963 I was still a slave. It is like you take a chicken to a market. Even if you untie its legs it doesn’t go; you have to kick it so that it knows that it is free. I did not know.
In fact, I came to know the value of freedom far much later, far much later. You see, even if I was insulted by a European, I felt good because that was the way of life. Up to now, many people feel that there is no independence. Why? Because the people who went to the bush, to the forest, to fight, they think they were given a raw deal.
The home guards, the people who had education were the people who benefited. Sons of colonial chiefs, sons of loyalists; those are the people who became permanent secretaries, became high commissioners and those are the people, actually, who took the cream of independence.
Up to now people feel very disenchanted; they feel they were given a raw deal. So they feel that independence is not for all …
Many sections of our society are still very, very angry; they think they were not treated fairly. Those feelings are still with the people up to now.