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Kenyatta was born Kamau wa Ngengi in Mitumi, Kenya, and assisted his medicine man grandfather as a child after his parents’ death. He went to school in the Scottish Mission Centre at Thogoto and was converted to Christianity in 1914 with the name John Peter, which he later changed to Johnstone Kamau. He moved to Nairobi. During the First World War he lived with Maasai relatives in Narok and worked as a clerk.
In 1920 he married Grace Wahu and worked in the Nairobi City Council water department. His son Peter Muigai was born on November 20. He entered politics in 1924 when he joined the Kikuyu Central Association. In 1928 he worked on Kikuyu land problems before the Hilton Young Commission in Nairobi. In 1928 he began to edit the newspaper Muigwithania (Reconciler).
In 1929 the KCA sent Kenyatta to London to lobby for their views on Kikuyu tribal land affairs. He wrote articles to British newspapers about the matter. He returned to Kenya in 1930 to lobby against female circumcision. In 1931 he went back to London and ended up enrolling in Woodbrooke Quaker College in Birmingham.
In 1932-1933 he briefly studied economics in Moscow before his sponsor, the Trinidadian radical George Padmore, fell out with his Soviet hosts, and he was forced to move back to London. In 1934 he enrolled at University College London and in 1937 studied anthropology at the London School of Economics. During all this time he lobbied on Kikuyu land affairs. He wrote Facing Mount Kenya in 1938 under his new name Jomo Kenyatta.
During World War II, he worked in a British farm and as a film actor. He married Englishwoman Edna Clarke who gave birth to his son Peter Magana in 1943. He later left her.
In 1946 Kenyatta founded the Pan-African Federation with Kwame Nkrumah. In the same year he returned to Kenya and was married for the third time, to Grace Wanjiku. He became a principal of Kenya Teachers College. In 1947 he became a president of the Kenya African Union (KAU). He begun to receive death threats from white settlers.
Grace Wanjiku died in childbirth in 1950 when she gave birth to daughter Jane Wambui. In 1951 Kenyatta married Ngina Muhoho.
His reputation with the British government was marred by his assumed involvement with the Mau Mau Rebellion. He was arrested in October 1952, accused of organizing the Mau Mau and on April 8, 1953 was sentenced to seven years in prison and hard labour. Contemporary opinion linked him with the Mau Mau but later research claims otherwise. Kenyatta was in prison until 1959. He was then sent into exile on probation in Lodwar, a remote part of Kenya.
The state of emergency was lifted in December 1960. In 1961, both successors of the former KAU party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU} and the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) demanded his release. On May 14, 1960 Kenyatta was elected KANU president in absentia. He was fully released on August 21, 1961. He was admitted into the Legislative Counsil the next year when one member handed over his seat, and contributed to the creation of a new constitution. His initial attempt to reunify KAU failed.
In elections in May 1963 Kenyatta’s KANU won 83 seats out of 124. On June 1 Kenyatta became prime minister of the autonomous Kenyan government, and was known as mzee (old man, elder). At this stage he asked white settlers not to leave Kenya and supported reconciliation. He retained the role of prime minister after independence was declared on December 12, 1963. In 1964 he became president of the country.
Kenyatta’s policy was conciliatory and he kept many colonial civil servants in their old jobs. He had to ask British troops’ help against Somali revolts in the north-east and an army mutiny in Nairobi (January 1964). Some British troops remained in the country. On November 10, 1964, KADU’s representatives joined the ranks of KANU, forming a single party.
Kenyatta instituted relatively peaceful land reform, oversaw Kenya’s joining the United Nations, and concluded trade agreements with Milton Obote's Uganda and Julius Nyerere's Tanzania. He pusued a non-aligned foreign policy. Stability attracted foreign investment and he was an influential figure everywhere in Africa. However, his authoritarian policies drew criticism and caused dissent.
Kenyatta was re-elected in 1966 and the next year gained extended powers. This term brought border conflicts with Somalia and more political opposition. He made the Kikuyu-led KANU practically the only political party of Kenya. His security forces harassed dissidents and were linked in public to various murders of opposition figures. He was re-elected again in 1974. He died on August 22, 1978 in Mombasa and was buried on August 31 in Nairobi.
Kenyatta was a colorful and controversial figure. His death left the Kenyan republic once more at risk from tribal rivalries. He was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi.