- We realised Kenyatta had no money and that we’d have to pay for him.
- Kenyatta also liked to eat well, especially after his time in prison, often putting away three or four steaks for dinner.
- After meeting Bruce, however, Kenyatta was mysteriously never short of cash.
On August 14, 1961, came the momentous day: After nine years in detention, Jomo Kenyatta was free.
Around the globe, all eyes were on him as never before, waiting for him to make some decisive move. One of the first things we arranged was a delegation to London with James Gichuru, Tom Mboya and a few others.
Also with us was the white South African Bruce McKenzie. Bruce was something of an enigma, but, as we were to discover, he would prove very useful to Kenyatta. An RAF pilot during the Second World War, he had been shot down twice, the second time over the Mediterranean where he had drifted for two days with most of his face blown away.
Awarded the DFC bar, and with his jaw rebuilt, he came to Kenya in 1946 as a farmer.
By now in his early 40s, and about 10 years older than me, we had first met in Parliament as national members, he for the Europeans. Then suddenly, I discovered he was in Kanu and anti-European, saying emphatically we had to fight them. It didn’t make sense to me — why had this man suddenly changed sides?
I remembered in one of our first Kanu meetings, as Bruce was shouting against the whites, Jackson Angaine, an African who was sitting behind me, muttered: “This bastard, he was a torturer in the camps. He dislocated my thigh trying to get a confession.”
Although a good farmer, Bruce always seemed short of cash. Once when he was staying in a flat in Nairobi West, he asked me to lend him Sh300 for rent, which I did for three months.
On another occasion quite out of the blue he asked: “Fitz, do you like chicken?” I nodded, attaching no significance to the question. A couple of days later, my mother told me that a mzungu had come in a pick-up truck and delivered 70-odd chickens, plucked and cut up. Having no fridges then, I told my mother that she had better give the meat away.
Then one day, Bruce said to me: “You know Kenyatta. Can you introduce me?” Sure, I told him, and sent a request to Kenyatta, who invited us over to his farm in Gatundu at 5.30am. I was surprised to find him already dressed and down in the valley inspecting his crop.
He shook hands with Bruce and they talked about farming. Kenyatta seemed to take to him straightaway. Bruce then said: “You know Mzee, I don’t think this maize you’ve planted is the best variety. It’s the hybrid stuff you want. It’ll yield three or four times what you’re getting now.”
Kenyatta said he’d look into it. The next thing we knew, Bruce was replanting his maize for him.
The real intrigue though began when we got to London. We realised Kenyatta had no money and that we’d have to pay for him. The Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch was £3 a night, a week’s wages for many. Kenyatta also liked to eat well, especially after his time in prison, often putting away three or four steaks for dinner.
When we asked for the bill, the manager informed us that it had already been taken care of. “By whom?” I asked. “Mr Mackenzie.” Surprised, I told Bruce he was very kind, but knowing he was hard up, he must at least let me pay my share. It was then that he put me in the picture; Izzi Sommen, consul at the Israeli embassy, had arranged with Joe Lyons, who owned the hotel, to cover our expenses.
Lyons ran the large chain of ‘Corner Houses’, where in my student days in London, I had enjoyed many a cheap meal. He was also Jewish. Apparently the Israelis, mindful of their interests in a future independent Kenya, were anxious to forge a relationship with Kenyatta. Bruce it seemed had, behind the scenes, been the intermediary.
It would not be the only time he played such a part.
Previously, Kenyatta had always been broke. I remember when he came out of prison and found his house demolished by the British Government, he asked us if we could find some money to help him build a simple garage to live in. We had previously raised small amounts from donations, but things were always tight. After meeting Bruce, however, Kenyatta was mysteriously never short of cash.
London was also the backdrop for a more startling piece of drama. Kenyatta was addressing a public meeting in the hotel when suddenly something flew through the air towards him. It turned out to be the entrails of a chicken.
There was a gasp as we saw Kenyatta take up his walking stick, and drawing from it a gleaming blade, spring into the audience. I ran forward to restrain him, which was not easy. He was so strong, his anger immense. Grasping both his hands in mine, as he continued to shake with rage I said: “Jomo, think please, I cannot defend you against a charge of murder.”
After a few seconds, he calmed down and put away his swordstick. The man who threw the entrails had already fled.
When official meetings were finished, we talked over the day’s events, or socialised a little. Kenyatta, avoiding Tom Mboya and Njoroge Mungai, his personal physician, spent most evenings drinking on the veranda of his hotel room with Odinga. Kenyatta drank only VAT 69. He joked it was the Pope’s phone number.
They would sit and chat for hours, and being both older, I think felt they understood one another. It would transpire that Kenyatta wanted Odinga as his number two, as Finance Minister in the new government. When the British overruled this, he accepted their wishes, and it shocked us all that he gave in just like that. We realised Kenyatta was very fond of Odinga in a way, while at the same time he wanted to make sure he was the right man who would implement and support his policies.
There was only one other person close to Kenyatta during the Lancaster House conferences; anyone wishing to see the Kikuyu leader at his hotel had first to get past Achieng Oneko, who slept in the next room, barring the door with his bed. With the continued death threats against Kenyatta, it was the mild-mannered Oneko who was, literally, putting his life on the line for him.
As the discussions at Lancaster House wore on, it was clear that a major remaining stumbling block was the European settler community. The British Government told us plainly that the only way it could give us independence was if we promised the farmers that we would pay them for their land, buy them out in other words. They had calculated a value of £36 million. That sounds like nothing today but it was a fortune in 1962. I said: “But we don’t have the money.”
No, they said, we’ll give you the money. Good God, I said, we could never afford to pay it back. They said: “Who’s asking for it back? We don’t want it back. We want to give it to you, and every year we’ll write a bit off until the whole lot is written off. We don’t want the British here to say we called you Mau Mau, and now we’re giving you money! You must buy the land from the European farmers on a ‘willing buyer and willing seller’ basis. So when they are willing to sell, you buy.”
Thus would come into being the Land Settlement Board, under chairman Norman Feather of the Standard Bank, with the British Consular-General and Daniel Moi, appointed to the post by Kenyatta, as committee members.