Kenya’s birth as an independent country the next year was even more dramatic. Kenya’s so-called White Highlands had been settled by the English aristocracy after World War I. This area, the interior highland, was said to be cool and fertile. The colonial English planted coffee and created tea plantations, often uprooting local tribes who did not have formal titles to the land. This colonization was immortalized in films like White Mischief about the “Happy Valley” near Naivasha. Of course, only a few of the white settlers were hard-drinking, wife-swapping, swinging partiers, and most of them worked hard at farming.
The Mau Mau Guerrilla War, from 1952 to 1956, was against the English settlers and the Kikuyu, who collaborated with them. There were vicious killings by the Mau Mau, followed by even more vicious reprisals from the colonial police. We were taught in school that Kenya would not have achieved its Independence in 1963 without the actions of the Mau Mau and that the English settlers had hoped to keep Kenya for themselves.
However, the tide was turning all over the world, and the colonial government in London wanted to let Kenya go as its other colonies. India had become independent in 1947, a shift that inspired the African colonies. Many Africans fought in World War II against the Germans in Europe and in Africa, and they came back politicized by their years abroad. The momentum kept building up for freedom from the white overseers.
The British Government offered to buy out the white settlers, and many of them left Kenya after 1963. The ones who stayed kept farming and ran businesses. Some of the Indians kept their British passports, rather than take Kenyan citizenship. Many still stayed in Kenya. Often in one family, half the brothers got Kenyan passports, and half kept their British passports, hedging their bets. Indians had never been allowed to buy farmland, and could only run businesses or work for the Government to make a living.
My entire family, the whole clan, opted to get Kenyan citizenship, throwing caution to the winds. We had moved to Kenya from India a hundred years ago, and this had been our home for generations. We chose to be a part of the new Kenya. We were going to stay here and build a new country; we were wanainchi, part of the people. Mum told me how they all went to parties the night Kenya became independent. There were parades and galas the whole weekend; everyone was so excited and happy. “Kenya for Kenyans,” they said. We had finally won independence, Uhuru. Freedom. Only the sky was the limit to what an Independent Kenya could achieve.
Our first president was Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, Simba Wa Africa, the Lion of Africa. He had been accused of being part of the Mau Mau Guerilla War and was sent to prison from 1953 to 1961. Kenyatta always denied that he was part of the Mau Mau, and after 1961, he preached racial tolerance reaching out to the whites and Indians. His most famous oration called “The Settlers Speech,” invited the English settlers to stay in Kenya and use their skills to build the new country.
His message of racial reconciliation gave the English, and Indian minorities hope for the future. We called him “Mzee Kenyatta,” meaning “old man” as a form of respect. He wasn’t bitter even after years of prison, and we felt that with him leading Kenya, the country would accomplish so much.
In the 1960s, Mzee Kenyatta often drove by our road in his presidential motorcade on his way to the Airport or Statehouse. When that happened, the gardener would shout to Ma to come and see him, revved up motorcycles would come a few minutes before to clear the road.
Mzee Kenyatta would sit in an open car, waving his Kikuyu fly whisk and smiling. He was tall and well-built with an elegant beard. Next to him, would be Mama Ngina, his glamorous, young wife in her thirties. She wore traditional kitenge robes with a matching turban. We would wave madly and shout, “Harambee! Harambee! Kenyatta juu! Kenya juu! Harambee!” Harambee means to build together.
Ma would smile and wave, “He is such a good man; he looks after us.”
I always hoped Mzee Kenyatta would stop and talk to us. Then we could invite him inside for tea and Ma’s coconut biscuits; I was sure even State House didn’t have biscuits like Ma’s.
Dad talked about those heady days in the ’60s when all the racial barriers were lifted. Now they could go to all the fanciest hotels and restaurants in town to have a cup of coffee. The waiters would not stop them from entering, and signs saying “COLOUREDS AND DOGS NOT ALLOWED” had been taken down.
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