Biography of the Week: Jomo Kenyatta

Kenyan nationalist movements and the Emergence of Jomo Kenyatta

The first pan-Kenyan nationalist movement was led by Harry Thuku to protest against the white-settler dominance in the government. His party, the East African Association, traced its roots to the early Kikuyu political groups and was supported by several influential and militant Asians. Thuku was arrested by the colonial authorities in 1922 and was exiled for seven years. His arrest resulted in the massacre of twenty-three Africans outside Nairobi's Central police station. He was released only after agreeing to cooperate with the colonials, a decision that cost him the leadership of the Kikuyus. This incident united Kenya's African communities and set the stage for the entry of Jomo Kenyatta, a former water meter inspector with the Nairobi Municipal Council, who stepped in and filled the leadership vacuum after Thuku.

Jomo Kenyatta was born in Gatundu; the year of his birth is uncertain, but most scholars agree he was born in the 1890s. He was born into the Kikuyu ethnic group. Named Kamau wa Ngengi at birth, he later adopted the surname Kenyatta (from the Kikuyu word for a type of beaded belt he wore) and then the first name Jomo. Kenyatta was educated by Presbyterian missionaries and by 1921 had moved to the city of Nairobi. There he became involved in early African protest movements, joining the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) in 1924.

In 1928 he became editor of the movement's newspaper. In 1929 and 1931 Kenyatta visited England to present KCA demands for the return of African land lost to European settlers and for increased political and economic opportunity for Africans in Kenya, which had become a colony within British East Africa in 1920.

Kenyatta remained in Europe for almost 15 years, during which he attended various schools and universities, traveled extensively, and published numerous articles and pamphlets on Kenya and the plight of Kenyans under colonial rule. While attending the London School of Economics, Kenyatta studied under noted British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and published his seminal work, Facing Mount Kenya (1938).

Following World War II (1939-1945), Kenyatta became an outspoken nationalist, demanding Kenyan self-government and independence from Great Britain. With other African nationalists such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Kenyatta helped organize the fifth Pan-African Congress in Great Britain in 1945. The congress, modeled after the four congresses organized by black American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois between 1919 and 1927 and attended by black leaders and intellectuals from around the world, affirmed the goals of African nationalism and unity.

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