Myths and Truths Jomo Kenyatta's Hollow Legacy

Jomo Kenyatta may be remembered as a prominent Kenyan nationalist and a leader of the Kenyan independence movement. However, his actual contributions to Kenya's independence fail to live up to his legacy.

Amongst a population of older Kenyans, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, retains a hero status. This generation, which recalls the grim days of colonialism, views Kenyatta as a saviour, a luminary who fought against malevolent white colonialists and ushered in a new age of black rule and independence in Kenya. In some ways, this is true. Life under colonialism was harsh for black Africans, who could not vote, and often lived in conditions akin to slavery in service to a racially segregated system. The indignities of life under this system were not only physical but also had a strong social and mental element; being Black meant being backward and atavistic, and ‘blackness’ carried with it a sense of inherent otherness and limitation. Kenya was a White man’s country, and a Black person’s only conceivable role in such a system was in service to a hierarchy that negated their very sense of being.

Independence, therefore, meant an end to a rigid colour bar. The physical barriers to integration were withdrawn, and high-end restaurants like the Norfolk and the Stanley, long markers for the high status of Whites, became ‘open’ to Africans. Religious institutions such as the whites-only All Saints Cathedral Church also opened their doors to blacks, and a progressive ‘Africanization’ policy meant that wealth, status and mobility became achievable for a people that had long known a racial glass ceiling. Jomo Kenyatta, portrayed as the man who led the effort to destroy the racial barriers and put Africans in power, therefore assumed the protagonist’s role in the popular narrative.

A popular narrative is, however, not always an accurate one. Various accounts have challenged Kenyatta’s perceived role in the militant struggle, his pan-Africanist ideology and his portrayal as a unifying leader. While Kenyatta’s prominent positioning in the independence movement is not in question, his actual contributions to the struggle require closer scrutiny. A portrayal of his legacy is hence incomplete without an analysis of the various myths surrounding it.

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