This is where Jomo used to hold secret meetings - Mama Gathoni Koinange

President Uhuru Kenyatta, newlyinstalled as Kenya’s fourth leader, is known to be a jovial man. Unknown to many, however, the man may well have taken after his father, Kenya’s founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.

Long before he became Kenya’s president, Kenyatta used to spend many nights in secret night meetings with other freedom fighters at the Kiambu home of colonial Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu, who would become his father-in-law.

Mama Elizabeth (Nyakanini) Gathoni, aged 112 and the only surviving of Koinange’s six wives, recalls how she used to serve meals to Kenyatta and his compatriots as her husband left them indoors planning how to topple the colonial government.

In the same way that Jomo’s son Uhuru teamed up with his friend William Ruto, now the Deputy President, to plan how to form the government after the constitutional retirement of President Mwai Kibaki, Jomo also had a team: the older Kenyatta used to meet with Koinange’s son Mbiyu, Kung’u Karumba and Fred Kubai to strategise how to oust the colonial government. And ousting it they did, with Kenya gaining its independence on December 12, 1963.


Key strategist

Mama Gathoni says that although she never sat at any of their meetings, Kenyatta seemed the key figure. “Kenyatta tiwe wakiri githegethi kia uhoro (Kenyatta was the key strategist),” she told the Metro at her Kiambaa home.

Kenyatta and his team, she says, would work in a room during the day and convert it into a bedroom at night, where they would sleep on the concrete floor. “The room was everything... the office, dining as well as bedroom. Those who could not travel back home, including Kenyatta, would spread matharara (dry banana straws) on the floor and sleep there. In the morning the room would be an office once again,” says Mama Gathoni.

Her husband was illiterate and so, together with other elders from Nyeri and Murang’a, had shopped around for educated young men to help them write documents and petitions to the British colonial government protesting land alienation as well as discrimination of Africans. Kenyatta, she says, had been introduced to Koinange by the young man’s father Ngengi.

The elders, she says, had looked for educated young men who “could not reveal secrets.” Koinange would present the documents to the colonial regime, a move that saw him demoted for being disloyal to his employers. He was arrested and detained in connection with the murder of loyalist Senior Chief Waruhiu wa Kung’u.

Mama Gathoni’s modest stone house stands just metres from the main house Kenyatta and company had converted into a secret meeting place. She says Koinange used to leave Team Kenyatta in the house, where their meetings regularly extended late into the night.

“My role was to feed them,” Mama Gathoni says, adding she would do so tactfully to avoid raising suspicion. “I would first deliver tea in a sufuria as a kettle would have raised suspicion. I would use a sufuria so that even someone who may be hiding in the hedges would not get suspicious.

“I would return to the kitchen, delay for some minutes and then take the cups, still hidden in another sufuria. The guests would ask me to leave and they would serve themselves,” she says, adding that Kenyatta and his comrades were so secretive that they would stop talking the moment she entered the room

“Those people were so secretive that I would not know anything of their discussions, “ she says. However, Kenyatta would exchange pleasantries with her. “Kenyatta was the only one with the courage to talk to me, calling me mundu wakwa (my person), she says. And with her husband Koinange having originated from the Maina clan in Murang’a, Kenyatta would refer to Mama Gathoni as “Maina’s wife”.

“Kenyatta would ask me lightheartedly, ‘Mutumia wa Maina, ni woka?’” (So you, Maina’s wife, have come?) I would answer in the affirmative and we would laugh. Kenyatta was a jovial person.”

“There was a lot of work of preparing food for all guests. Sometimes they would be about 20 of them at a go. I would not sleep until the guests had finished their work and eaten. And then early in the morning, I would be there again preparing their breakfast. Sometimes I used to fry eggs in advance so in the morning I would only warm them.”

Mama Gathoni says the office the Kenyatta group used to work from had been a small single room. But as the number of members grew, the wall separating two rooms was demolished to create one bigger room. The room has remained that way to date.

Mama Gathoni was Koinange’s fifth wife. The first was Mariamu Wambui, who was the mother of Kenyatta’s third wife Grace Mitundu, the mother of Jane, Uhuru’s stepsister (see photo on page 2). Wambui was also the mother of Mbiyu, who would become Kiambaa MP and an influential minister in the Kenyatta government. Koinange’s second wife was Julia Njeri, followed by Joyce Wanjiru and Phylis Wambui, while the last and youngest was Beatrice Gataa.

Apart from Kenyatta, Kubai, and Karumba, Koinange’s many guests included chiefs and senior chiefs from Kiambaa, Murang’a and Kiambu. Those from Kiambu were Senior Chief Waruhiu wa Kung’u (whose daylight murder on October 7, 1952 forced the colonial government to declare a State of Emergency on October 20), Makimei wa Kuria, Waruiru wa Mukui and Mbira Githehu. Others included Njiriri wa Karanja and Muriranja from Murang’a, Wambugu Mathangani and Muhoya Kagumba from Nyeri.

Koinange Street

The old woman believes Mzee Kenyatta became the president partly due to the early leadership grooming he received from Koinange. And as if to reward the Koinange family for the role the patriarch played in helping him rise to power, Kenyatta appointed his brother-in-law Mbiyu Minister of State, where he would become a powerful member of the Kenyatta kitchen Cabinet.

President Kenyatta would also appoint Koinange’s son Charles Karuga to the Civil Service, where he became a provincial commissioner. Mama Gathoni’s last-born daughter Grace Wanjiru would also recruited into the police force and attached to the presidential guard.

In addition, a road in Nairobi’s central business district was named Koinange Street (below) in honour of the ex-senior chief.