The small bonfire at the back of Pio Gama Pinto’s house at No. 6 Lower Kabete Road, Nairobi, consumed all that the freedom fighter and nationalist had written and received — his letters, articles, books, and speeches.
While an assassin’s bullet on February 24, 1965, had ended his life, fear of what could befall his wife, Emma, and the family, erased the other chunk of history.
Pranlal Sheth and Sarjit Singh Heyer, the two men who burnt the documents, perhaps, meant well. They feared that whoever killed Pinto — or ordered his killing — could now turn to Emma, the nationalist’s young wife. Emma, then only 37, was advised to leave and that is how she left with her three children, Linda, Malusha and Tereshka, for Ottawa, Canada, where she died this week, aged 92.
Before Emma left Kenya in 1967, she realised that her husband’s friends had become the target of politicians after the 1966 falling-out between President Jomo Kenyatta and his Vice President Oginga Odinga, which saw the latter leave Kanu for the Kenya People’s Union.
For being Mr Odinga’s friend, Mr Sheth became the first target. He was deprived of his Kenyan citizenship and deported in 1966 to India – more the country of his ancestors, than a country he knew. His only other possible mistake was that as a journalist, Mr Sheth had, in the pre-Independence days worked together with Pinto as editors of the Daily Chronicle and as members of the Socialist-oriented Kenya Indian Congress. It was this small group of socialists who dreamt of starting a commune in Ruaraka under the leadership of Francis Xavier Da Silva — who was known as Baba Dogo.
It was as if Kenya had forgotten that Sheth was one of the key advisers to Kenyan politicians as they negotiated independence and Kenya’s Constitution at Lancaster House and that he was a member of the commissions that drafted agricultural, economic and broadcasting policies for the new nation.
Emma had thought that her close Kenyan friends, Achieng Oneko, with whom she worked as a secretary when he was Minister for Information and Tourism, former Vice President Oginga Odinga, John Keen and Vice President Joseph Murumbi would protect her. But they were in trouble too and Murumbi had, in a letter dated 15 August 1966 addressed to Kenyatta, indicated that he wanted to resign as vice president. Finally, he was allowed to go. For his part, Keen was detained from May 23, 1967, and amid that political turmoil facing Pinto’s friends, it was time for Emma to leave.
Elsewhere, the Lumumba Institute, which Pinto had helped fundraise to build in Ruaraka, and which was to train Kanu leaders, had been shut down and all its directors, mainly the Kapenguria Six, were asked to leave.
Such was the environment that Emma found herself in – shortly after her husband’s death. Although police arrested Kisilu Mutua and charged him with the murder, it was felt that the plot was thicker than an ordinary murder. Kisilu, who was found guilty, was believed to have been the fall guy for the Special Branch. He told the High Court that he had been asked to scare a certain Asian by a man he only knew as Sammy. It was the second time he had been asked to carry out such a task, only that this time, it turned fatal. He claimed that Sammy and Chege Thuo, his co-accused, were Special Branch agents.
Identity never revealed
Interestingly, the identity of Sammy was never revealed and neither was he taken to court. It was an issue that bothered Judge John Ainley even as he sentenced Kisilu to life in prison:
“The case for the republic is that three men were present and that three men ran away from the scene of Pinto’s murder. Yet it has been asked, why has the police not demonstrated its truth through further investigation? How about the man, Sammy, who is mentioned in the statement, the man who is said in the statement to be the prime mover in the whole affair and the taxi-driver, Charles? Why was the blue Fiat not traced? We may not have all who were involved in the crime before us.”
Emma had arrived in Kenya in 1953, when the country was going through political upheaval following the Mau Mau insurgence. Despite that, she got married to Pinto, a journalist, on January 9, 1954 at the Parklands Catholic Church and at the height of the State of Emergency.
Pinto was poor and had been given a servant quarters by Fitz de Souza’s parents where the young couple lived. Fitz was a Nairobi politician, lawyer and later, deputy speaker.
But Pinto was not an ordinary journalist in Nairobi. Emma would later learn that Pinto was a socialist. What, perhaps she didn’t know was that, her husband was a Mau Mau sympathiser and was instrumental in fetching guns for the movement. From an office at the Desai Memorial Hall, then located near the Nairobi Fire Station, Pinto wrote many petitions and articles lambasting the colonial government for brutality against the freedom fighters. He also called for the release of Jomo Kenyatta and raised money to hire lawyers for the detainees.
Arrested and detained
Pinto did not go far. Six months after the wedding and as the crackdown on Mau Mau members continued in Kenya, he was arrested and detained. As a Goan, the arrest of Pinto was rather surprising to the community since majority of those arrested were either Kikuyu, Embu or Meru. Detention, according to some reports, traumatised him and at one point he contemplated suicide.
Pinto was detained first in Fort Jesus Prison and then in Takwa on Manda Island, reserved for radicals. He was later taken to restriction in Kabarnet where Emma was allowed to join him. That was where their first child, Linda, was conceived. In October 1959, Pio was declared a non-threat to security and released just in time for the birth of their second daughter, Malusha.
The only other Asian detainee was Makhan Singh, the unionist, who had been detained in 1950 on the orders of Governor Philip Mitchell and for an indefinite period. He was released on October 20, 1961, after 11 years of being confined without any charge or trial. He was a close ally of Fred Kubai.
Besides being married by a politician, Emma had arrived in Nairobi with no career. It was Pinto who encouraged her to take up a secretarial course. “You can’t stay at home. Intelligent women don’t stay home.” Emma was told, “Take a secretarial course and find a job.’” That is how she joined Premier College in Nairobi to study Gregg’s Shorthand.
On the day that Pinto died, he had just dropped Emma at her place of work at the Ministry of Information and Tourism. Then he drove back home to pick some parliamentary papers. His daughter was with him. As the gate was being opened, he was shot and killed.
Emma was shattered when her mother called: “Pinto has been shot.”
She reached Defence Minister Njoroge Mungai for help. Then, Mr Odinga, and Mr Murumbi, who lived close by. It was Odinga’s secretary Caroline Odongo, a Black American, who gave her a car to reach home. It was a horrible scene and Kenya had just witnessed its first political assassination.
By leaving Kenya, Emma wanted to feel secure. She was looking for closure. But the question that was never answered was: who ordered the killing of Pio Gama Pinto and why?
Emma Gama Pinto died without ever knowing the truth. She was widowed young, thanks to the backstabbing politics of the 60s. She died a betrayed widow.