It is only when you see what happened to the Mau Mau War Council safe — and the offices where most of the radical trade unions in this country were born — that you start to get an idea of the historical neglect of the freedom struggle as part of a national conversation.
If we have preserved Karen Blixen’s House, as a national monument, why haven’t we done the same to Kiburi House? Where is our history, where is our past?
Last week, I visited Kiburi House — a name that might not ring a bell to many Kenyans born after independence. Now, join me in getting angry — and to my readers, this is a follow-up of last week’s story on Joseph Murumbi, on the neglect of our heritage.
Tucked in Nairobi’s Kirinyaga Road, or what the old denizens call Grogan Road, is this nondescript one-storey building that was at the heart of Kenya’s liberation struggle. In the same spirit that freedom fighters were forgotten, the same fate befell Kiburi House and its history.
To enter Kiburi House, you have to use the back door, the same door that the likes of Jomo Kenyatta, Bildad Kaggia, Achieng Oneko, Makhan Singh, Fred Kubai and many other freedom fighters and trade unionists, used to access their offices here.
The lane, narrow and filthy, and with the walkways taken up by parked vehicles, is, without doubt, crowded. Apart from the name Kiburi House, there is nothing else to identify this building as an important part of Kenya’s history.
What we know from records is that when the Kenya African Union (KAU) — the first nationalist political party in the country — was unable to pay rent in the city centre, it was given an office at Kiburi House, by then the only building within the city owned by African businessmen.
African petty bourgeoisie
It was here I met the current director of Kenya Fuel and Bark Supply Company, Kamau Mamicha, who shepherded me into the hallowed grounds of Kiburi. There are many lessons to learn from this company and I will share some of them because I found them to be unique.
When this company was registered in 1946, it brought together the African petty bourgeoisie, as Nicola Swainson puts it in her book The Development of Corporate Capitalism in Kenya.
1946 was a crucial year: It was the year Kenyatta returned from Europe and revitalised KAU by opening branches in various parts of the country.
Today, the unmarked KAU office, which housed Jomo Kenyatta, and where much of the liberation struggle efforts took place is now a hardware store on the first floor. You peep inside and feel: What a historical waste.
In his book, Never be Silent, Shiraz Durani describes Kiburi House as “the centre of progressive political and trade union activity in the country.”
He recalled that “plans of anti-colonial activities such as meetings and strikes made at the Kiburi House were spread throughout the country in a short time. It was also from Kiburi House that Mau Mau cadres were organised and recruitment campaigns launched. If there is one Kenyan institution that symbolised the strength of Mau Mau, it is Kiburi House. It represents the strength of working class organising in total secrecy its anti-imperialist strategies right (at the heart of the city)”.
It was here that most of the pioneer trade unions found solace and space and where labour strikes could be planned. Those that found space in Kiburi House were Bildad Kaggia’s Clerks and Commercial Workers’ Union, Makhan Singh’s Labour Trade Union Congress of East Africa and Fred Kubai’s Transport and Allied Workers’ Union.
It was from Kiburi House that the collaboration between these trade unions and KAU was solidified since they were all housed together. It is now known that by 1951, the trade unions of Kiburi House were the most militant in Kenya – and this small building became the base of trade union and political propaganda in the country.
According to Kaggia in his book, Roots of Freedom, Kiburi House haunted colonialists and it offered African politicians a sanctuary and a relaxed atmosphere.
Before the country lost its touch with Kiburi House, Parliament was told about this important building as early as 1965. This was during the opening of the extension of the parliament building – and its new clock tower - on November 2, 1965, when the Speaker of the Senate, the late Muinga Chokwe, paid tribute to Kiburi House for its contribution to the freedom struggle. It was the last time, perhaps, that a high-ranking government official publicly acknowledged the importance of this nondescript building.
In his short speech, Mr Chokwe said: “It will not be out of place if I recall the days when our nationalists used to cram in a small room, in a small building called Kiburi House, down Grogan Road, under the chairmanship of His Excellency Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. This small place happened to be owned by Africans, may be the only building then owned by our people; the only place that we could find shelter to plan our future. Those were dark days indeed for we lived in constant fear.”
Named after its founder, Kiburi Thumbi, whose portrait hangs at the office of Kenya Fuel and Bark Supply Company Ltd, this company was first founded as Kiambu Fuel Supply in 1943 before it changed its name and was registered under the Companies Ordinance of 1933. It was this enlarged company, which drew its membership from Central Province districts of Kiambu, Murang’a, Nyeri, and Embu, which in 1946 bought Kiburi House for Sh70,000.
Of the 6,000 members who had bought shares in this company — for Sh50 per share — only 2,000 families can now be traced.
“We have been appealing to individuals whose parents or grandfathers were members of Kiburi to come forward so that we can have a proper register and we share the dividends together,” says Mamicha.
Unlike most historical companies that have convoluted shareholding, the Kenya Fuel and Bark Supply Company Ltd has maintained its original register since 1946 and it survived the colonial raid after the declaration of the State of Emergency.
“We were very lucky that these documents survived. They not only form part of the company history, but also the history of nationalism in this country,” says Mamicha.
In the records are names such as Jomo Kenyatta, his wife Wahu Kenyatta and son Peter Muigai Kenyatta. But in an era when most people did not have physical addresses some entries such as P.O. Fort Hall mean it will be hard to trace families of the original shareholders.
Besides Kiburi House, the company also owns Yangu House and a separate building in Mbotela Estate in Nairobi’s Eastlands. These are now worth hundreds of millions. “We are a unique company and that is why we are always looking for the shareholders. Our founders fought hard for freedom and it will be an insult to them if anyone tries to fiddle with the register,” says Mamicha.
One important aspect of this register is that it could also have hidden the KAU membership – or members of the Mau Mau central committee.
After the crackdown that followed the State of Emergency and arrest of the KAU leaders, Kiburi House was left in the hands of the remaining KAU officials who used the offices here. The rent was collected by a Nairobi law firm, Bhandari and Bhandari Advocates.
“The party’s surviving leaders — Walter Odede, Tom Mboya, acting treasurer W. W Awori and acting vice-president Joseph Murumbi and a few others — could do little except meet at the office in Kiburi House, Grogan Street, and talk sombrely over the run of the events,” writes Mboya’s biographer David Goldsworthy in the book, Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget.
Was this company used to fundraise for Mau Mau or for KAU? Mamicha tells me that that was a possibility but it will need proper scrutiny of the books. Interestingly, there has been very little interest in the Kiburi House records and, as Mamicha tells me, the company would like to preserve the building for posterity as a monument.
“We always wonder why the government cannot help us to preserve this building as a monument,” he says.
Adjacent to Kenyatta’s office is what is now used as a restaurant. In the kitchen, where workers were busy taking orders, is a large safe. I am told that this could have belonged to the Mau Mau central committee. The safe, which is still locked, is embedded in the wall.
A few years ago, a Mau Mau veteran told me that attempts by the colonial government to break the Kiburi House safe failed. We are then taken to an adjacent room, which used to house the original offices of the company. There is another safe here, also embedded in the wall. There is a hole drilled in it — and which looks like a recent effort to open it.
When the State of Emergency was declared, it is said that the company directors hid their documents in the two safes. Among the first directors of the company were James Muigai (Kenyatta’s brother), Stephen Mbuthi Kimachia, Muchohi Gikonyo and J.K. Kamakiru.
It was also here that most of the African newsletters, such as Wiyathi and Afrika Mpya, were published and which challenged the colonial regime. Actually, Kaggia writes that Kiburi House represents the audacity and intelligence of an organisation that planned the independence struggle.
Some years back, the seat that was used in Jomo Kenyatta’s office was still here. It then disappeared.
As the government continues to dilly dally on preserving such history, some irreplaceable artefacts continue to disappear. Kiburi House represents how this country has lost its link with the freedom struggle. To their credit, the owners of Kiburi House have tried to maintain the building with the little income they get.
But it is a shameful that nobody at the Ministry of Heritage has ever made a visit here — or thought of how to make this building a citadel of history. And yet, we preserve Karen Blixen as part of our national museums. What a scandal!
[email protected] @johnkamau1