Director, Institute of Global Cultural Studies
Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities
State University of New York at Binghamton, New York, USA
Chancellor, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology
Albert Luthuli Professor-at-Large
University of Jos, Jos, Nigeria
Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large Emeritus
and Senior Scholar in Africana Studies
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA
Written for a special commemorative event entitled “AN EVENING WITH TOM MBOYA”, Nairobi, Kenya, October 14, 2004, sponsored by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) and the family of the late Tom Mboya.
Perhaps the most honoured Black man after his death is Martin Luther King, Jr.. One of the least honoured Black heroes of the twentieth century is Tom Mboya. In spite of all the racism of American society, the United States has risen to salute its fallen son, King. In spite of Kenya’s appreciation of the fruits of independence and freedom, we have not risen to salute our most brilliant campaigner for uhuru – Mboya.
Let me first reminisce about Mboya and King before I focus upon Africa’s short memory of heroism.
In my own memory these two particular Black leaders have been inextricably linked – our late Tom Mboya and our late Martin Luther King, Jr. I first met Tom Mboya when I was an undergraduate student in England in the 1950s. I first met Martin Luther King when I was a graduate student the United States in the 1960s. In my young and imaginative years I thought of Martin King as the nearest thing to a Black President of the United States. If America had been a less racist society, King would have stood a chance of becoming President – just as reverend Jesse Jackson later attempted to be.
I also thought of Tom Mboya as a possible future President of post-colonial Kenya. Impediments in Tom Mboya’s way were, firstly, the British – who still colonized Kenya. In those early years I also thought of Jomo Kenyatta as a probable future rival to Tom Mboya.
Tom Mboya’s skills helped to remove the British impediments to Kenya’s independence. On the international and diplomatic front of Kenya’s struggle for uhuru, Tom Mboya played a bigger role than Mzee Kenyatta. Jomo Kenyatta was, after all, behind bars during most of the final decade of British colonial rule. Tom Mboya fought hard for Kenyatta’s release, as well as for Kenya’s independence.
Contrary to my youthful expectation that Mboya and Kenyatta would become adversaries for the office of President or Prime Minister after independence, the two leaders became partners rather than rivals. The real divisive issue was the prospect of political succession after Kenyatta’s death or retirement. Tom Mboya was killed partly because he was going to be a truly outstanding candidate for the Presidency when the time was ripe.
Coincidentally, the main topic which Martin Luther King raised in 1961, when he was told I was a Kenyan, was the topic of Tom Mboya as a leader. Dr. King knew Tom Mboya personally and the two leaders seemed to admire each other as comrades-in-arms in the struggle for Black dignity.
Their success was seen as a threat to others. They subsequently paid the supreme price. They were assassinated within a couple of years of each other. King was killed in 1968, Mboya was shot in 1969.
But a major difference occurred after their death. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was seen as a martyr, and he rose higher and higher in the esteem of his fellow Americans. A Museum in his honour was established in Memphis, where he was killed. Congress passed a law declaring his birthday as a federal national holiday every year in perpetuity. Every January his famous speech “I have a dream” is repeated on television, radio and at ceremonies to mark his achievements. Many Americans who might have resented or hated Dr. King at the time he gave his speech became King’s admirers after his death.
Martin Luther King did not become President of the United States, but he has been honoured much more than most Presidents of that country. Apart from Abraham Lincoln, no former President has been honoured with a separate national public holiday in America. Dr. King also won the Nobel Prize for Peace.
What a difference between King’s posthumous rise to prominence and Mboya’s descent to oblivion. King’s country knew how to thank him after death. Mboya’s country drifted into amnesia.
Three Kenyans were crucial in the struggle for uhuru. Jomo Kenyatta as a martyr in prison, Dedan Kimathi as a warrior in the forest and Tom Mboya as the eloquent voice of freedom and as political organizer. We honoured Kenyatta for more than a decade as our President after independence, and continue to honour his image on our currency and as our founding father.
We never talked much about Dedan Kimathi for the first fifty years after his death, but we are beginning to recall his contribution. The memory of Tom Mboya has been allowed to sink into oblivion.
It is time we honoured both Tom Mboya and Dedan Kimathi with their images on our currency and on our postage stamps. Perhaps we should have the face of Mboya on our twenty-shilling note and of Dedan Kimathi on our fifty-shilling note – or vice-versa. The United States has the face of George Washington on the one-dollar bill – a particularly great honour since it is the most widely used bill. We could also choose an appropriate note for the face of our founding President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
In addition to having the faces of Mboya, Kimathi and Kenyatta on Kenya’s currency and postage stamps, there should be a whole section of the National Museum of Kenya devoted to Kenya’s struggle for independence. In this section of the museum there should be special emphasis on Mboya and Kimathi, as well as Kenyatta. The voices of Mboya and Kenyatta should constantly be played on tape, alongside any suitable videos of these three heroes.
John Drinkwater once wrote a play entitled ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Drinkwater reminded us that appreciation of greatness in others may be a sign of some kind of greatness in ourselves:
When the high heart we magnify,
And the sure vision celebrate,
And worship greatness passing by,
Ourselves are great.
Like Tom Mboya and Martin Luther King, Jr. Abraham Lincoln was also assassinated. Dedan Kimathi was executed. Such martyrs now belong to the ages. Let us learn how to salute them.