My earliest memory of my father is a pair of legs covered in suit trousers, the three youngest of us running up to them when he walked through the front door. He was the tall, busy stranger who worked late, sat in the back left of his driven car, wore a gold watch and forever smelled of cigarettes and cologne. We grew apart over the years. I moved to the U.S. becoming entangled in a new life and he, dutifully fulfilling his non-communicative role as an African father. It had been 10 years since I had last seen him and at least two years since we had spoken by the time I returned. Yet he was one of the people I was most interested in talking to. I knew he had stories to tell and my father has always been a good storyteller.
My oldest brother drove us through the scenic curves and lush hills of Murang’a County, where the dust of Nairobi washes away and the smell of tea bushes infiltrate the car, to my father’s home in Ndakaini. Ndakaini being the kind of small town where everyone knows you, the tea grows plenty and the mist settles softly on the hillsides. There, I arrived to a homecoming fit for a long lost daughter.. My father hugged me heartily, pleased to see me after so long. He was older, smaller than when I had left, but still effortlessly charming. A man always interested in politics, he asked about America’s turmoil as the emissary delivered from the land of milk and honey. He told me about my writing and I blushed at his validation.
After lunch, we sat on a wooden bench facing the house, my stepmother feeding us a healthy supply of tea. I had come to find answers to who the people on my father’s side had been; he being the closest connection to the paternal grandparents I had lost over a decade ago.
When it comes to Kenya’s history, as a Kikuyu daughter, I have held steadfastly to the belief that my people were fighters; the resisters of colonial rule in my beloved Kenya. After all, we are the tribe that engineered the Mau Mau uprising of which thousands of Kikuyu men, women, and children, were tortured and executed for (expertly documented in Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya). What I found, instead, was that my grandfather had been a loyalist to the British. As a stout Christian convert, he opposed the “ugliness” of the Mau Mau and served as a Home Guard, whose duty it was to defend against the uprising.
Note: History is disappointing.
But in other respects, my grandfather supported the struggle for independence and saved many Mau Mau fighters from execution by the colonialists. He was also one of the agents who helped raise funds to send Jomo Kenyatta to Britain in 1930. My father was a young boy at the time of these momentous events and our interview begins here. Tracing his thoughts on the events that triggered Kenya’s 1952 State of Emergency and his own life afterwards.
What were your thoughts during all this unrest and talk of independence? Or the general feeling in the population?
The awareness was not there. Nobody really, other than the few educated ones or the then elite knew—[and] they were not that educated. Other than Kenyatta [Jomo Kenyatta] who had been to Britain for maybe 15 years. But Kenyatta was never a Mau Mau. It was an irony of fit that he was imprisoned for managing Mau Mau. The late Bildad Kaggia stated this in his acclaimed book Roots of Freedom which was published during Kenyatta’s life time. It is a fact that Kenyatta preferred the non-violent path expounded by Mahatma Gandhi .
So he became the first president because the British needed somebody who they were comfortable with?
Yes. But even the British were not entirely comfortable with Kenyatta. During his stay in Britain, he went to Russia for about a year and was perceived to be a sympathizer with the communists. But he had won the populace. Everybody believed he was born to be the leader. But if you look at his history critically, he was more friendly with the [colonial] chiefs and loyalists than with the freedom fighters.
In your eyes, who should have been the post-independence leader?
Kenyatta was still head and shoulders above everyone else. Initially, when he was being sent to Britain by the first political organization [the Kikuyu Central Association], he was not the one to be sent. James Beatteau was the one. He was a radical who used to work for the the East African railways. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania had a common railway company and you could be transferred anywhere. When the British learned that it was Beatteau who was going to be sent to Britain, they transferred him to Uganda. He was out of the scene and the next person was Kenyatta.
So who were the real freedom fighters, are they the nameless as always?
If you look at Mau Mau history critically, there were some outstanding and brave generals. One called General Kago Mboko. General Kago from all the accounts I have read was the real fighter. Fearless. He is the one who came to burn the Ndakaini Home Guard Post in June 1953 and all the Home Guard homes, including ours. Even the mzungus [white people] agree that was the real fighter. He was courageous and they can document the engagement he had with the forces. But not [Dedan] Kimathi.
Why is Kimathi considered a hero today? [Dedan Kimathi is widely considered to be one of the heroes of Kenya’s independence struggle and was executed by the colonial administration in 1957 for his involvement with the Mau Mau]
When the Mau Mau went to the forest, Kimathi immediately took over leadership. He had more education than the average man so he used to write a lot of letters to the Governor. In the forest, he established what we called the Kenyan Parliament and was the President, I think. Self-proclaimed. But I am unaware of any battle Kimathi is credited with.
Since we’re talking about education. What about yours? Did you go to Law School in London? [I knew my father had been to London in his early years but couldn’t remember why]
All my education was in Kenya. I went to London and Europe on holiday. In fact, my first trip, I took a plane from here to Munich, Germany. Then I took an overland train all the way to Antwerp, I stopped at Brussels for a week then crossed the English Channel in a boat. That’s how I ended up in London. It was a very fascinating trip.
What time period are we talking and why those countries?
Late 70’s and 80's. Out of curiosity, I wanted to know how Europe is.
What did you find?
Nothing really exciting (smirks). Okay, from a learning point of view, it’s an experience. But it’s just like when I went to Minnesota, I didn’t find anything…
You seem very unimpressed by many things.
I was not impressed at all, not with the snow [in Minnesota]. The place I went to many times is South Africa, during the late ’90’s right after apartheid. My business partners were mainly in Johannesburg but I went to Pretoria and Durban.
And where does your interest in reading come from? You’ve always been very big about books.
Boredom. Even today. I’m not too good in discussions.
But you are a good a storyteller.
No, I’ve never been. Maybe cheating (laughs).
What is the genesis of that, your ability to bend the truth to what other people want to hear?
Simply not being a Christian. Or that I am a trained lawyer. I have practiced law for 45 years.
But you are a Christian now?
Yes and No. Christianity as taught today has come to mean a lot of things I cannot believe in, like Jesus being God. Nowhere in the Bible does it categorically say that Jesus was God. I believe Jesus was a holy messenger of God but not God. He stated that the miracles he performed were through his father. He never stated that we worship him. Islamic teachings, to me, are what capture the essence of Jesus as a holy prophet sent by God. I’m a Muslim [now]. I converted about two years ago. It believes nearer what I believe. Are you ready to accept Muhammad as your…
I thought Muslims don’t proselytize, that’s a Christian thing.
(laughs) What are you?
I am nothing. I am Karī, daughter of Mumbi and Gikuyu who had nine daughters that formed the nine Kikuyu clans.
There were ten actually. In Kikuyu we don’t count ten because some misfortune is going to befall you. We talk about a full nine which means ten.
You seemed a very firm atheist when I was a child. I remember coming home from Sunday School and you would ask us to prove the existence of God. Why do you need Islam now? It surprises me.
I’ve never been an atheist. I’ve always believed in God because even Gikuyu and Mumbi believed in God. The african religion held God in very high esteem. They also held the spirits of the ancestors very high. They did not believe in hell, which I also don’t believe in and believed in spirituality. That even the trees have a soul. If you talk to foresters, they’ll tell you, when you go to the forest and cut one tree, the neighboring tree’s leaves will droop because they know. It’s only that our perception is not developed enough. Maybe by the time you’re even cutting the tree, it’s yelling, but you can’t hear it.
How do you define what home means to you or where is home to you?
Home? Do you know the difference between a house and a home?
I know the difference.
Where you are staying now, that is a house. A home is where your family resides.
So where is home for you?
Has it always been Ndakaini?
I would say yes, because that’s where I was born, that's where I now reside and where my parents lived.
Read more Letters here.