How Jomo’s Caribbean buddies entered Kenya’s hall of fame

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[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Kamau Ngotho (The Nation) explains why, in Nairobi, one may come across roads with names like George Padmore, Marcus Garvey, Ralph Bunche, and Du Bois. Here are excerpts:

Moving around the capital Nairobi, one comes across roads and lanes with names George Padmore, Marcus Garvey, Ralph Bunche and Du Bois. They are named after four nationals of Caribbean descent who Jomo Kenyatta met and closely associated with during his stay in Europe in the 1930s to mid 1940s.

In the case of two other friends with origins in the State of Guyana, Ras Makonnen and Cecil Miller, President Jomo Kenyatta gave them Kenyan citizenship, jobs and facilitated their permanent settlement in the country, where he wanted them laid to rest when the time finally came.

How and why did the Kenyan President come to have a soft spot for the six gentlemen from the Caribbean?

We begin the story at the beginning. Jomo Kenyatta didn’t start off a politician. In his youthful days, he was a happy-go-lucky man about town with zero passion for politics. After all, he was one of the very few Africans with a decent and well-paying job as a water-meter reader with then Nairobi town council. He was also the only African moving around on a personal motorbike. He also ran a successful business in Dagoretti. His biographer, Jeremy Murray-Brown, captures the Kenyatta of those days in the following words: “He enjoyed the jazz life of the twenties (1920s). He walked with a swagger…He could afford to lend money to European clerks in offices and offer cigarettes all around. At weekends, he and his friends danced versions of the latest European steps … and followed the rage…dressing up in clothes stocked from Birmingham.

[. . .] Much as he didn’t have a taste for politics as yet, the adventurous spirit in him found the chance to travel to Britain irresistible and jumped at it.

In London, Kenyatta met with the motley group that saw his quick transformation to a political agitator. It included left-wing British politicians sympathetic to the plight of blacks, as well as an array of black activists from British colonies in the Caribbean (then called West Indies) and from Africa. Closest among his new friends was Padmore, whose parents hailed from western African but were sold as slaves in Barbados. It is Padmore who eventually would bring together Kenyatta with other black liberation crusaders – Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Bunche and Makonnen.

Towards the tail-end of his stay in England, Makonnen would bring together Kenyatta and a youthful countryman from Guyana called Cecil Henry Ethelwood Miller, who had just been discharged as pilot with the Royal Air Force and enrolled to study law in Britain.

While Kenyatta’s relationship with his London contacts was business-like and impersonal, that between him and Makonnen acquired a personal dimension. Makonnen was an avowed communist but, ironically, a most successful entrepreneur and perhaps the richest black in the United Kingdom (UK) at the time, running a chain of lodges and hotels in London and Manchester. But Makonnen was also a selfless man who committed almost his entire fortune to the cause of black liberation.

Jobless in London and with support from home running dry, Kenyatta found himself living on Makonnen’s generosity. Besides occasional handouts, the latter got a publisher to handsomely pay for Kenyatta’s published works, but also secured him temporary jobs in his own restaurants and those of his friends. In a memoir years later, Makonnen would write of the impression he got of Kenyatta in London: “He was more obviously marked for leadership. Something natural singled him out in a crowd…who simply wanted to talk to a seasoned revolutionary.”

[. . .] Like Makonnen, Miller was born in Georgetown, the capital of then-British colony Guyana. At the outbreak of the World War, he was enlisted in the Royal Air Force and trained as a pilot. On discharge from the military, he was employed as welfare office at the London Commonwealth office in charge of the colonies. At the same time he enrolled for law studies. Makonnen had introduced Miller to Kenyatta “as a young man from home who we can trust to be our safe communication line”. Kenyatta and young Miller immediately hit it off. In his spare time, the latter would be at London’s Hyde Park listening to Kenyatta’s fiery speeches, which had become a magnet to impressionable African students in London. [. . .]

It is Makonnen and young Miller in his capacity as welfare officer for immigrants from the colonies, working in liaison with Kenyatta’s buddy, Mbiyu Koinange, in Kenya, who quietly worked on Kenyatta’s grand return to Kenya after 17 years of stay in Europe.

The two Caribbean friends escorted Kenyatta from Manchester to London, then to Plymouth and waved him bye as he boarded the ship, Alcantara, back home. For a take-off gift, they packed for Kenyatta a carton of revolutionary literature as donation to Kenya Teachers College in Githunguri, and gave him 1,000 British pounds as seed money to launch a political career back home.

The two Caribbean nationals would clandestinely come back to Kenyatta’s life during the Kapenguria Trial. The prosecution side was desperate to prove a communist link in the trial and use it to scuttle the defence case by lead Kenyatta lawyer, Dennis Pritt, a world-renowned Queens Counsel suspected to be pro-communist.

Highly suspicious of Makonnen to be the London link between Kenyatta and Pritt, three agents from the British intelligence arm, M15, confronted him one morning with a search warrant to find out whether there was anything that could adversely be used on Kenyatta at the trial. They found none.

Years later, Makonnen would reckon in his memoir that British investigators found no evidence to implicate Kenyatta or his lawyer because communication between him and Team Kenyatta in Kapenguria was through “bush drum”.

The “bush drum” was the secret communication channel Makonnen and other liberation crusaders in London had opened with Kenyatta’s defence lawyers through a lawyer of Caribbean extraction who practiced in Dar es Salaam, one Dudley Thompson, and youthful Miller in London. [. . .]

Read the full article at https://www.nation.co.ke/dailynation/news/politics/how-jomo-s-caribbean-buddies-entered-kenya-s-hall-of-fame-306372

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