Jommo Kenyatta

It was a marriage in which each partner needed the other nearly as much as the other. Jomo Kenyatta had arrived in Britain in 1929 desperate to secure audience with government officials in London to tell them of the considerable political, economic and cultural impact of colonialism.

His English was not good. He had barely received an education back home, having spent only a few years at a mission school where the skills he learned led to a position as an apprentice carpenter.

He was intimidated by the polished presentation and urbane manners of other anti-colonial figures he encountered, especially those from the Caribbean and he could not decide whether to emphasise his African roots or try and appear as close to an English gentleman as possible to catch the attention of policy makers.

Sometimes, according to one historian, he would walk around the streets of London wearing a leopard skin and carrying a spear to demonstrate he was an authentic representative of those who had sent him before changing into a Western suit for meetings with journalists and sympathetic intellectuals.

Privately, he seethed to fellow anti-colonial activists such as the African-American campaigner and diplomat Ralph Bunche to whom he “expressed hatred and distrust of all whites – ‘use them, but don’t trust them (was) his advice.’”

Low on money and running out of options, Kenyatta had spent five years away from Kenya and had singularly failed to secure audience with British parliamentary and colonial government authorities who could hear his “unanswerable argument” about the injustices of colonialism such as the women’s hut tax, land seizures, lack of African representation on the Kenya Legislative Council and poor access to education.

Bronislaw Malinowski, by contrast, was near the peak of his career by the time he met Kenyatta. He had achieved renown as one of the world’s leading ethnographers and had turned the London School of Economics into the pre-eminent centre for the study of anthropology, attracting students from across the globe.

His work studying the people of Melanesia, an Island near Fiji, had entrenched the practice of “participant observation” — living among people to understand their lives and culture — as a key method in anthropology.

Yet Malinowski wanted more and had turned his thoughts to Africa. He hoped to write a book on the culture and practices of the Kikuyu people and was excited to hear of Jomo Kenyatta’s presence in London. He was also sympathetic to the anti-colonial cause, arguing that Britain could learn from anthropologists and seek to persuade colonial subjects to embrace gradual change rather than using brute force to have their way.

When the pair finally met, they struck up a partnership that was one of the most important in Kenyatta’s career, helping him to build confidence as a representative of his people while opening doors to key offices within the British establishment where he could make the case he had brought to the UK.

Malinowski, in turn, gained a student who helped consolidate his argument on the importance of participant observation in anthropology and advanced his interest in understanding cultures which carried out the practice of female circumcision, a subject that intrigued him and his friend the psychoanalyst Princess Marie Bonaparte, a great grand-niece of Emperor Napoleon I.


It is a partnership about which little is known in Kenya although these were perhaps the most important years of Kenyatta’s pre-colonial contribution to the nationalist cause.

He was never really a leader of the Mau Mau, as the British later assumed, because he leaned more towards the conservatives in Kenya who saw an opening for the use of negotiations to get the colonial authorities to soften their stand.

The 15 years he spent abroad shaped his world outlook but, arguably, his time with Malinowski and the anthropological focus on the practices and culture of the Kikuyu also laid the ground for one of the great criticisms laid at Kenyatta’s door even at that time: That he was, above all, a leader interested in the liberation of the Kikuyu people who, alongside the Maasai, had lost the most due to the colonialists’ desire for their land, and his later national mantle over Kenya was incidental, helping explain why Kenya did not achieve the levels of integration and cohesion witnessed in countries such as Tanzania.

Kenyatta first encountered white missionaries by accident. His father, Muigai, died when he was very young and he moved in with his uncle, Ngengi. When his mother, Wambui, who had been inherited by Ngengi died during child birth a short while later, Kenyatta moved in with his grandfather, Kung’u Magana.

This was a significant development because Magana was a medicineman and tribal sage, a keeper of customs to whom people turned when they had disputes or questions about the community’s culture. The years spent observing the old man’s activities as communal seer provided the basis for his later book, Facing Mount Kenya.

The young Kenyatta suffered an infestation of jiggers at around the age of 10, according to one biography, and he was taken to hospital at Thogoto.
There, he was impressed by the Church of Scotland Missionaries (the first white people he had ever seen) and shortly afterwards he ran away from home to attend their school.

His studies led to a stint first as an apprentice carpenter and then as an interpreter at the Dagoretti law courts before being taken under the wing of a missionary named John Cook who had been his patron at school in Thogoto and who offered him a job as a water meter reader at the Nairobi Municipal Council.

The time spent in Nairobi led to a political awakening and he joined the East African Association (EAA), an anti-colonial pressure group set up by the early nationalist Harry Thuku in 1920.

Around this time, the British authorities made a move which from their point of view was a brilliant divide-and-rule tactic which also laid the seeds for ethnicised politics in Kenya.

They banned the EAA and prohibited the formation of any national political parties. Instead, any pressure groups were to be strictly regional entities and with that decision came the formation of entities such as the Taita Welfare Society, the Young Kavirondo Association, Akamba African Association and the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA).

Kenyatta joined the KCA and became an editor of one of its pamphlets, Muigwithania (the Reconciler), which sought to bridge differences across class, regional and ideological lines among the various strands of anti-colonial agitation.


Unable to secure a favourable hearing from the colonial authorities in Nairobi, elders within the KCA decided to send Kenyatta to London to press their case.

One of the best accounts of the future president’s time in Britain is offered by the Canadian scholar Bruce Berman in his 1996 paper, Ethnography as Politics, Politics as Ethnography: Kenyatta, Malinowski, and the Making of Facing Mount Kenya.

Berman notes that while Kenyatta was considered one of the better educated people in Nairobi, in London he quickly found he was out of his depth.

He became “acutely aware of his limited command of English, oral and written, as well as his unfashionable clothing and awkward manners”.

“The flashy man-about-town in Nairobi was an uncouth bumpkin in London, dependent upon white patrons to help write his letters and gain appointments with men of power.”

Kenyatta was quick to appreciate his shortcomings and wrote a note to readers of Muigwithania, on what needed to be done to get their point across to the colonial authorities: “… if you want us to become of consequence and to become the counsellors of our country, busy yourselves with EDUCATION. But do not think that the education I refer to is that which we are given a lick of; no, it is a methodical education to open up a man’s head.”

Despite his disadvantages, Kenyatta pressed on with the task of trying to put across the message he had brought to Britain.

Sympathetic members of the Labour party helped him access a few officials such as Drummond Shields, the under-secretary to the head of the colonial office Sidney Webb, and he managed to get a letter to the editor published in the Manchester Guardian and The Times.

All this was not enough, though, and Berman writes that the essential problem was that even the “liberal imperialists” who gave Kenyatta a sympathetic ear did not see any problem with colonialism.

“Most of the liberals had difficulty dealing with expressions of African political consciousness and organisations that challenged the colonial authorities, or with ‘educated natives’ like Kenyatta who were their authors and leaders. This first generation of educated Africans was seen as having rejected the savage primitivism of indigenous societies and detached themselves from their tribal roots. However, while they were prevented by colonial racism from fully participating on equal terms with whites in colonial institutions, these men in pants could not be considered leaders and spokesmen for the mass of uneducated tribesmen, the men in blankets. They and their associations, like the KCA, were routinely dismissed as ‘unrepresentative’ groups of hot-headed and impatient young men.”


Going nowhere fast, and still awake to his linguistic limitations, Kenyatta enrolled at the Quaker Woodbrooke College in Selly Oak, near Birmingham in the British midlands, a religious school, which Berman describes as possibly the “least racist” institution he encountered in the UK. Language was the key focus of his studies and he graduated with a certificate in English composition.

Frustrated by his inability to get anywhere with his core mission, Kenyatta began to experiment with more left-wing and Marxist allies.

His friend George Padmore, the prominent Trinidadian pan-Africanist and journalist, arranged for him to go to Moscow to study at KUTVU (an acronym for “The University of the Toilers of the East”) where the curriculum stated students would learn “history, foreign languages, economics, political science, sociology, party and trade union organisation, techniques of propaganda and agitation, public speaking and journalism … from a Marxist point of view”.

Berman writes that “nothing in Kenyatta’s life has been more distorted by myth and rumour, red-baiting, and Cold War paranoia” than this period in Russia as British intelligence concocted tales of how he was learning war tricks at the “Lenin School of Subversion”.

In fact, Kenyatta and his fellow students soon became disillusioned with life at KUTVU. “The facilities were primitive and the experience probably a real disappointment for Kenyatta.

He appears in the Comintern (Communist International Organisation) archives as one of the spokesmen for a delegation of the African, West Indian, and African-American students at KUTVU who complained bitterly about the poor food, bad accommodation, and low standard of English of the instructors.

In any case, the Comintern considered him a poor prospect for either recruitment to the Party, because of his openly anti-Marxist views, or training as an agent, because they thought him already too well known to the British authorities.”

He returned to London and continued to associate with Marxists. “Until the middle of the next year (1934), Kenyatta remained in close touch with a variety of Communist organisations, some of which may have provided him with money,” writes Berman.

“He continued to contribute to Communist journals, most prominently a series of articles for Labour Monthly, the first dealing with the gold rush in the Kakamega location of Western Kenya, which was the first time he had written about the affairs of another people beside the Kikuyu.”

Kenyatta’s background, having been brought up by a sage from his community and been dispatched to London by the Kikuyu Central Association to press demands primarily relating to tribal customs and land dispossession, however, meant that his partnership with the Marxists who advocated global solutions and were against anything to do with ethnic groups was always going to be awkward.

He wanted to write a book explaining that his people had enjoyed an autonomous, peaceful and prosperous existence before the disruption brought by colonialism and sought to do this by explaining their culture and customs before colonialism and with it provide a rebuttal of the arguments in favour of colonialism. This did not fit in the Marxist narrative.


“How could Kenyatta assert, as he wanted, the distinctive identity of the Kikuyu and the value of their traditional institutions and values, as well as their right to define their own future and draw selectively from European culture, and at the same time, forge a trans-ethnic ‘national’ movement to overthrow colonialism, necessarily comprised of numerous peoples, each of whom might contain men aspiring to do for their people what he was attempting to do for his?

To focus exclusively on Kikuyu issues would bring accusations that he was a ‘parochial tribalist’… The Marxist left and the Communists, in particular, required a turn away from the Kikuyu in favour of an as yet non-existent Kenyan nationality, proletariat, and history. They demanded, in effect, the dissolution of a Kikuyu consciousness and existence into the undifferentiated African ‘masses’ pursuing a socialist future antithetic to the Kikuyu notions of property, community, and moral responsibility that Kenyatta struggled to preserve,” writes Berman.

“In the end, Kenyatta found the Communists in Russia and Britain as ethnocentric and European-dominated as he had found the liberal imperialists. The contradictory demands of modernity and a preserved Kikuyu custom would remain unresolved, however, in all his later writings.”

Running low on money and with few friends remaining who could make a difference, Kenyatta was not in high spirits by the time he met Prof Malinowski.

He discovered, though, that the scholar was sympathetic to the anti-colonial cause, partly because of his own biography. As a Polish national who had escaped totalitarianism to live in London, Malinowski had never truly been accepted as a member of the British elite.

The anthropologist was at the same time very keen on Kenyatta’s knowledge of his people’s customs and roots, having previously spent a month in Kenya living with the Gusii, Luo, Luhya and Kikuyu people as part of a preparatory tour ahead of fieldwork.

Meeting someone who knew his people’s traditions and could be tutored to write his story would lend power to Malinowski’s central contention that observation was the best way to advance anthropology.


The pair met at the end of 1934 and got along with each other. “Kenyatta and Malinowski hit it off immediately,” writes Berman. “By the spring of 1935, he was Malinowski’s personal student, and in the autumn, without the benefit of a first degree or even a secondary school diploma, he enrolled as a full-time post-graduate student in the department of social anthropology at the London School of Economics.

Kenyatta not only held his own in seminars with some of the outstanding social scientists of the era, but was also favoured and constantly encouraged by his mentor. Less than three years later, with Malinowski’s support and advice, he published his revised thesis as Facing Mount Kenya, one of the first modern anthropological monographs by an African.”

Kenyatta used the book to hit back at some of those who had failed to help him and to pass a message to the colonial authorities.

In the opening section, he criticised “…those ‘professional friends of the African’ who are prepared to maintain their friendship for eternity as a sacred duty, provided only that the African will continue to play the part of an ignorant savage so they can monopolise the office of interpreting his mind and speaking for him. To such people, an African who writes a study of this kind is encroaching on their preserves. He is a rabbit turned poacher, [whose] power of expression … is breaking through and will very soon sweep away the patronage and repression which surround him”.

Malinowski praised the book to friends as an affirmation of his theories on the practice of anthropology while Kenyatta walked away with the confidence to engage as an equal with the other pan-Africanists and the British colonisers, having received an education that could “open up a man’s head”, the main reason he had opted to spend three years in college.

“Studying at a first class university, especially at the LSE which already had an important reputation among colonial students,” Berman writes, “would significantly raise his status not only in Kenya, but also among Africans and other members of the black intelligentsia in Britain. More importantly, it would enable Kenyatta to deal as an equal with the colonial authorities, with their Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) degrees, and as a man with a better education than many of the settlers, rather than as a ‘semi-educated detribalised native.’ In the pervasive racism of a Britain in which learned people still debated the mental capacity and educability of blacks, there was the motive also, as his friend Koinange would later put it, to show ‘what others can do, we can do too’.”


After leaving university, Kenyatta became more actively involved in efforts to raise global awareness about the effects of colonialism and teamed up with figures such as Dr Hastings Banda of Malawi, Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), novelist Peter Abrahams (South Africa), journalist Isaac Wallace-Johnson (Sierra Leone), Harry Mawaanga Nkubula (Northern Rhodesia), as well as George Padmore and CLR James from the Caribbean to form the Pan-African Federation.

They participated, alongside the pre-eminent American civil rights activist WEB Du Bois, in the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945 which pressed the case for independence.

To avoid being forced to join the British army during the war, he worked as a farm hand and even as an extra in a film set but re-emerged to link up with the pan-Africanists in London in the mid-40s, before returning to Kenya in 1946 as the acknowledged leader of the independence movement.

Prof Malinowski left London for the US in 1938 and died in 1942 just after his 58th birthday, meaning he did not get to observe the fateful direction of the anti-colonial movement in which his former student would play a central role in the following two decades.

-The Daily Nation


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