Startled, the driver hooted and screeched to a halt. At the wheel of the black Hudson, Gichiri Mbatia barely had time to brake, stopping just short of driving into the car in front. The brown Ford Consul had appeared from nowhere, then reversed back into the narrow path.
From the front passenger side of the Consul, a tall skinny man in a brown jacket and a scarf got out. He walked straight to the rear left passenger window of the Hudson. Then he leaned slightly and asked the man seated there “Chief Waruhiu?” Before the older man could finish his answer, the questioner deftly pulled a pistol from his jacket pocket.
Then he shot the man in the back left seat. Once through the mouth. Thrice through the chest.
Then once, for good measure, into the front left tyre of his Hudson.
Without looking at the other three people in the car, he turned back and walked into his car. Whoever was driving it then hit the accelerator, turned sharply right towards Nairobi, and disappeared.
It was October 7th, 1952. At 12:48pm, the most senior Kenyan administrator in Kiambu District had just been shot. His body now lay with his head thrust back on his headrest and his right foot on the front seat. His eyes were closed and his mouth open, bleeding onto his dapper white shirt and pants. His beige hat was still intact.
Less than a minute before this daylight assassination, Waruhiu’s driver noticed another car closely following him. The other driver seemed impatient, hooting repeatedly and trying to force him to give way. But the dusty, potholed road was too narrow for two cars to fit. Then the road forked and Gichiri turned right. The other car turned left, the rougher patch, and sped away.
In the car, as he stared at the other car, the chief joked “this is why I don’t let you drive my car alone.”
Other than his chauffer, there were two other men in the car with the chief that afternoon. As the shots rang out, the one seated shotgun, Kiburi Thumbi, reached across and opened the driver’s door. He kicked the shell-shocked driver out. They both ran and hid in the bushes.
The man seated at the back with the chief, Kirichu, unsuccessfully tried to open his door. Then he resigned to his fate and fell to the floor. When the Consul sped away, Kirichu got out of the car and found himself alone. He walked all the way back home, to Githunguri, and only showed up at the police station the next day. At the crime scene, the two men hiding in the bushes walked back to find Chief Waruhiu dead.
The only three people who had just witnessed the murder that would change everything, had seen little of it.
The murder of Waruhiu Kung’u made international news just hours after it happened. It was covered by numerous papers, and discussed at Westminster. Waruhiu, ‘a great citizen of Kenya’ was ‘a victim of his own people.’ It made the main topic in a flurry of secret telegrams between Nairobi and London, capturing a nation’s bubbling social mess.
Detective Gerald Heine, a young, capable but disquietingly ambitious cop, was tasked by with finding out who had done it. In a country that had witnessed a few assassinations and attempts in the previous four years, it was a difficult yet easy job. There was mostly just one suspect worth considering. The Mau Mau.
Whatever had happened here, they knew who had done it. Or at least so the detective thought as he stared at the chief’s body later that Tuesday afternoon.
The morning after, Heine had a brown Ford Consul (KBM 902) towed from a garage to Kingsway Police Station-the current Central Police Station on Harry Thuku Road. How he connected the car to the crime that fast was never explained, as none of the witnesses had seen the getaway car’s plates. They had all been busy saving their lives.
Two days later, a man called Waweru Kamundia walked in to the police station to enquire about the car. Born in Othaya, Nyeri, Waweru was employed to operate the car as a taxi. He was promptly arrested and would, a few months later, be charged with murder as the getaway driver. If he didn’t have motive, he had provided means.
Two days after that, on October 11th, Heine and his colleague, Coleman, drove to Kabete. They arrested a shop owner called Gathuku Migwi from Uthiru. Gathuku stocked clothes and other wares in his shop. In this story, Gathuku was about to become the villain.
The two detectives drove Gathuku to Ndeiya, to the home of Chief James Gichuru. They left him there for an hour and then arrested him, formally this time. What happened next, on the way back, is still unclear. Gathuku ended up in hospital on suicide watch with serious injuries. He had jumped from the back of the police truck, the detectives claimed. He had been shackled and manned by two constables the whole time.
Although it didn’t matter at the time, this was not the first time the chief had been targeted. In fact, he had survived several assassination and arson attempts, one of which killed one of his sons.
A spear had been thrown into his bedroom window as he slept just a few months before. It got stuck in the mesh, and he made verbal threats about shooting his attackers to scare them away. Only it was a bluff because he wasn’t armed at the time.
In 1939, someone had torched the houses of two of his wives (he had five). Neither of them was at home at the time. In the early 1940s, two assassins set upon one of his sons with pangas in the darkness outside his family home. They severely injured the young lad but he survived. For a time at least. A few months later, he headed the ball during a football match. Then he fell down in agony and died right there on the pitch.
Then, just two months before he was killed, another of Waruhiu’s wives’ houses was torched. The wily chief seemed unconventionally lucky, but then he was a man with many enemies.
It was the August 1952 arson attack, followed by a cryptic letter from the Mau Mau, which finally startled wily chief. Even though he had a bodyguard, he still sought help from his bosses, who set him up with a .38 Smith & Wesson pistol, ammunition, and rudimentary training. That should have been enough to save his life on that deserted road from Gachie.
But as he was dying in the back seat, that gun was in the glove compartment. The ammunition was in his pocket. The man who should have protected him was cycling on the other side of the hill.
Waruhiu died at the peak of a three-decade career built on luck, manipulation, scheming, and loyalty. Most of his life was built on improbabilities and cycles of fortune and misfortune.
Born in Kimathi, a small village between Ruiru and Githunguri, Waruhiu’s childhood was one of poverty and hunger. His father, Kung’u, had abandoned his first two wives in his home in Gatanga, Murang’a, to find a new home. He settled in Kimathi because his elder sister was married to one of its sons, and she gladly hosted him as he found something else to do.
The last two decades of the 19thCentury were, to say the least, tough. There were cyclical epidemics striking both man and beast, leaving nothing but death and hunger in their wake. Then there were wars for the little resources that remained. Add on to that droughts and famine.
With little to offer, men like Kung’u became frontiersmen, venturing out into the unknown to try find new places to settle. And settle he did.
In his new home in Ruiru, Kung’u met someone else and promptly married her. Her name was Njoki. Of the five children they had over the next nine years, only two survived. The first was nicknamed Toro (sleep, in Kikuyu), because of his love for slumber. His real name was Kimani.
The second child was Waruhiu, the boy on whose fate the future of this family would rest.
In 1899, another famine struck. Kung’u tagged along his younger son to head back to Gatanga. Perhaps in these lands he had abandoned a decade before, he could remake a home. Only he never got there. Somewhere past Gatundu, the older man fell and died of starvation. His young son had to leave his corpse where it lay and find his way back home alone. He was only ten at the time.
Now alone and in charge of two young boys, Njoki found a home in the new missionary unit at Kambui. Toro quickly set himself apart due to his diligence, and Waruhiu had an eagerness to learn everything he could. In this new home, the family thrived.
In 1910, when he had just turned 20, Waruhiu got married to a woman called Wanjiru Gathenge. His life seemed set for missionary work, but what the next decade had for him would change that. Three years later, his elder brother Toro fell sick and died. Njoki only had one son left now, and even he fell sick with elephantiasis just two short years later. Quick thinking and efficient healthcare had him in hospital for three months.
Then he was out and in no time, contributing to the World War I effort by working in a military hospital in Mazeras.
That war would shape the rest of Waruhiu’s life in many ways. But the trigger itself was a war at home, after he cheated on his wife. The church suspended him for the affair up to 1919. [PDF]
Before the war, the church and mission had been Waruhiu’s life and bread. It employed him and gave him social standing. Being ostracized from it should have beaten him into shape but it achieved something else.
To while away the time and feed his young family, Waruhiu became a farm clerk. On the side he clerked for a chief called Waweru Kanja, his uncle on his maternal side. A man representing a generation of colonial chiefs that was on its way out as the world healed from World War I, Waweru had become chief in 1903 because his elder brother was too old. Unprepared, disinterested, and a heavy drinker, he outlived his usefulness during the war. The men of his generation, illiterate and handpicked at the start of the occupation, couldn’t sustain the goals of the British Empire anymore. A few younger men caught on to this, and Waruhiu was one of them.
Waruhiu realized that the only way to gain power was to usurp his uncle. How he went about it was genius and sadistic, and would end up in several deaths and lifelong rivalries.
First, Waruhiu joined a small cabal of mostly younger men jostling to replace the older chiefs. Calling themselves the Kikuyu Association (not to be confused with the formal Young Kikuyu Association of June 1921), they had the support of missionaries and some older chiefs alike. They included future household names like Koinange Mbiyu, Josiah Njonjo, and James Gichuru. Although Koinange, a former porter, was older than then, he set himself apart in the group.
Together, these men launched targeted campaigns, such as one in 1919 to make burials mandatory. They hadn’t been upto that point, although it was customary to pick out one place to use as burial grounds. While his mates were using diplomacy and mild strategy alone, Waruhiu ran a campaign of internal sabotage.
As Waweru Kanja’s PA, clerk and interpreter, Waruhiu played with facts and appointments, making him look even more inefficient then he already was. Then in 1921, the bubonic plague gave Waruhiu the perfect opportunity. He rounded up people to kill rats, and routinely cycled tall the way to the district headquarters to show the District Commissioner the results, a bunch of rat tails tied together. The message was clear, he was willing to do whatever it took to get the job done.
But kicking out Kanja was the easy part, replacing him was harder if not at first impossible.
The problem was parentage. In custom, children belong to their father’s clan. That meant Waruhiu belonged to Kung’u’s clan back in Gatanga, not his in-laws’ in Ruiru, the Gathirimus. In fact, they had a proposal of their own to replace Kanja, a man called Makimei Mugwe. But he was also illiterate and considered a terrible leader.
There were other options, but the next most appealing one was Waruhiu’s maternal cousin Harry Thuku, a man already on his way to becoming a legend. Thuku and Waruhiu almost matched strength for strength, but for the part where the former was a known rebel with a prior two-year conviction for cheque forgery. The clincher though was that Thuku belonged, and Waruhiu didn’t.
Cognizant of the opportunity, Thuku launched a propaganda war against Waruhiu. He had a paper run with the story and organized a fundraiser to sue the government. In turn Waruhiu lurched onto a concerted effort to cut Thuku to size by having him deported.
The campaign against Harry Thuku had many players when it began on 13th February 1922, of which Waruhiu was only one. They demanded his deportation, eventually gaining ground with his arrest on 14th March 1922. That triggered the events that led to the massacre at Kingsway (Central) Police Station, and the death of Muthoni Nyanjiru.
Only then, at 32 years, did Waruhiu formally replace his uncle. He was now the leader of 1, 663 people, earning a salary of 50 shillings.
If he had been opportunistic and ruthless so far, Waruhiu was just about to raise the bar. As his power grew, he married four other wives, two within ten days of each other.
A teetotaler throughout his life, Waruhiu’s only thirst seemed to be for power and wealth. A simple suspension over cheating on his wife had set the young man on the path to power, and he would never stop until he had it all. He would, by the time he died, be divisional chief and a locational chief, on top of being the senior chief, something no one before him or after would ever achieve.
When Waruhiu was about 12, a man on the other side of the world published a book titled Up From Slavery. The book, by Booker T. Washington, traces the American’s journey against the color bar. In many ways, modern critics (and even critics at the time) view his book as unnecessarily conciliatory, and unlikely to achieve much. It’s mild, compared to the things that came after, as its solution to racial problems was mostly the education and economic uplifting of black people.
On Waruhiu’s book shelf, prominently right next to the bible, lay a tattered paperback copy of the book. It in many ways captured the leadership philosophy with which the young chief would govern over the next three decades. He, like Booker T. Washington, saw no need for a radical solution. But not everyone in his circles agreed.
Over the first eight years of his rule, he expanded the borders of his location and power. His hosts in his home in Ngenia gave him 10 days to leave after he engineered a merger of their locations in 1926. But he now had more power, and a bigger salary of 65 shillings. He bought his own land and built a home, still showing he would stop at nothing.
In 1930, one of his friends from the 1919 power grab, Koinange Mbiyu, was appointed Senior Chief. Their friendship collapsed over the next two decades. Their main fight was ideological-Waruhiu’s view of a future for Kenya was one of continued subjugation, while Koinange grew increasingly militant. The divide would be so bad that within three years of Waruhiu replacing Koinange in the Senior Chief’s seat in 1949, one of them would be in a coffin and the other in the docks for the murder.
L to R: James Gichuru, Harry Thuku, Snr. Chief Koinange, Eliud Mathu, Jomo Kenyatta, Senior Chief Waruhiu,and Chief Josiah Njonjo. At the rally, they denounced Mau Mau and suggested a conciliatory approach. August 1952, Kirigiti Stadium in Kiambu.
these are the Uncle Toms and should have been lynched soon after independence.