Picking the winner

Keith Kyle

  • Tom Mboya: The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget by David Goldsworthy
    Heinemann/Africana, 308 pp, £13.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 435 96275 2

In December 1963 when Kenya at last achieved her uhuru – her freedom – two topics were most prominent in the gossip centres of Nairobi. How long would Mzee – Jomo Kenyatta, ‘The Old Man’ – last? And what was to be done about Tom Mboya? Kenya had emerged from the anti-colonial struggle with two leaders of world renown, one young, dynamic and immensely talented, the other old (no one was quite sure how old) and respected as much for what he had suffered as for what he had done: a mythical figure who until recently had been cut off from all political and virtually all social life by a decade of imprisonment and detention compounded by an extraordinary propaganda campaign – comparable only to the Stalinist attempt to eliminate any reference to Trotsky’s role in the Russian Revolution – aimed at reducing him to the status of a non-person. Everyone was by now agreed that Jomo Kenyatta should become the first President of Kenya, but it was widely thought that, aged and enfeebled by his harsh treatment, he would soon die or retire: many felt that, cost what it might, Mboya, for all his manifest ability, should never succeed him. Some who were both proud of Mboya’s celebrity and embarrassed by it dreamt up exotic careers for him: when the expected East African Federation came into existence he could become its Foreign Minister, or, better still because further away, he could be the first African Secretary-General of the United Nations – anything so long as he did not become the ruler of Kenya.

Tom Mboya had star quality. Of that there could be no conceivable doubt. He sprang, as it seemed, from nowhere: his father was an illiterate worker on a settler-owned sisal estate, and although Mboya stayed at secondary school until he was 17, he had no university education except for a year at Ruskin College, Oxford, when he was well launched on his career. Yet he astonished the world with his eloquence, his rational presentation – in fluent and faultless English – of the viewpoints of black Africa, with his quick intelligence and remarkable stamina, his business-like precision and efficiency. Dressed in a well-cut suit, never at a loss for words or for an attractive formulation of ideas, he was the perfect refutation of colonialist disdain.

David Goldsworthy, the Australian scholar who is Mboya’s second biographer – the first, Alan Rake, wrote his book in 1962 – has produced an efficient interim study of his career, which examines in a sensible way the main issues it presents. He never met his subject, but those who did will recognise the portrait he draws: the ability to operate with ease on many different planes, considerable charm but also a habit of switching off, an enviable range of talents but also the ruthlessness, calculation and arrogance that were to transform a long list of one-time collaborators into opponents. The author is candid about the material that he did not, and, in some cases, could not, see and expresses the hope that ‘materials yet unworked’ will provide the basis for a fuller biography.

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