Casually dressed and on his head a mat of grey hair, the aging Dr Munyua Waiyaki looks a pale shadow of the high flying diplomat who traversed the world in the 1970s, trying to persuade world leaders to end apartheid in South Africa and the remnants of colonialism in Africa.
A gentleman who could lose his cool, Waiyaki was so passionate about freedom from the Boers’ grip that he once candidly told off a colleague and friend, Attorney-General Charles Njonjo, when the latter suggested that Kenya normalise relations with apartheid South Africa. “Over my dead body”, he declared.
In the 1970s, Waiyaki was called the Kissinger of Africa because, as Kenya’s Foreign Minister, he armtwisted US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger into authorising sale of F5 fighter jets to Kenya.
Waiyaki was born in 1926 at Kiawariua (“place of the hot sun”) at Muthiga, Kikuyu, to Tirus Waiyaki and Elizabeth Wairimu. His mother is more than 120 years old. The father, the first African police chief inspector, was stationed at Nairobi’s Central Police Station and among Muslims at Pumwani, near the mosque.
“Over the holidays, my brother Kimani and I would be shipped from our rural home to the city where my father would tutor us especially in English. I was, therefore, a child of two worlds — I was born among, went to school with and was surrounded at home by Christians of the Church of Scotland Mission, but in the city most of my playmates were Muslim youth,” he said.
His grandfather was a priest, with whom Waiyaki stayed occasionally. He recalls that the house at Pumwani, before his father built his own (Pumwani 490) near Solidarity Building, had an indoor pit latrine for Muslims. He says: “I do not know how this was managed, but there was no bad smell.” Apart from his Muslim friends, Waiyaki mingled with children from Murang’a and Nyeri whose parents worked and lived in Nairobi. “At that time, there were no primary schools for Africans in the city and most fathers brought their children to the city to tutor them,” he says.
Of his friends from Pangani and Pumwani, Waiyaki remembers one Mutisya, a hustler, who decades later campaigned for Waiyaki when he contested the Mathare (now Kasarani) parliamentary seat. One other thing Waiyaki remembers was how soldiers from the Gold Coast (Ghana) who had been recruited by the British to fight in the Second World War would pick up fights with locals, especially over women. “As with soldiers everywhere, especially in times of war, the Ghanaians, whose military camp was where the Central Bank of Kenya stands today, were aggressive and occasionally engaged our people in fights,” he remembers.
At Alliance High School, where Waiyaki went in 1942, his classmates included Paul Ngei, Jean-Marie Seroney, Mbiti Mate and Kyale Mwendwa. Unlike many former Alliance students of his generation, he does not remember school principal and mathematician Carey Francis with much favour. He recalls a “huge, bad tempered bachelor”, who, when angry, menacingly stamped his feet, took repeated long strides and puffed his cheeks.
Apparently Waiyaki was not one of Carey Francis’ favourites and, at the end of the first term, the teacher told him to his face that he would never master algebra. Luckily for Waiyaki, someone else, J. M. Ojal, another teacher of mathematics, took Waiyaki’s side. “Ojal gave me extra classes in his house in the evenings five days a week until I became as good as anybody else in algebra,” he says. According to Waiyaki, the only boy who could outwit the principal was Ngei. Even without authority, Ngei would take the principal’s bicycle and ride from the office to the principal’s house undetected.
Discipline was taken so seriously at Alliance that, Waiyaki recalls how students were literally hanged on window frames for one hour. “I will, however, always remember the punishment I one day got from my botany teacher, James Stephen Smith. We had been asked to put a plant stem in the microscope, but I instead put a strand of my hair in it. Smith slapped me so hard that I saw stars. I can never forget that slap,” he recalls.
After Alliance, Waiyaki spent a year of high school at Adams College, Natal, South Africa, and then joined Fort Hare University. He met a Kenyan, Jonah Kinuthia, who worked in the laboratory at the McCord Zulu Hospital and through him got to do elementary clinical work at the hospital for a year.
At Fort Hare, where he read physics, chemistry and botany for three years, he met Njoroge Mungai, who was studying physiology, Kyale Mwendwa, Mbiti Mati and the later PCEA Moderator, the Rt Rev Chrispus Kiongo, among others. “We met the first crop of African professors who included Z. K. Mathews and Mukwena from Botswana,” Waiyaki recalls.
To go to South Africa in 1946, Waiyaki had sailed in an Indian ship, the SSS Kalagola, through Beira and Lorenzo Marques (Maputo) to Durban. When he returned in 1951, he was met at the Port of Mombasa by his retired father, a senior policeman in uniform and ululating women, among them Nguvu Mombasa, whose real name was Wanjiru from Nyeri. Waiyaki explains the importance of his return: “She was a Mau Mau leader at the Coast and her ululation meant that the Mau Mau were welcoming one of their own, while the police officer who had saluted me and in whose house my father and I stayed for two days before travelling to Nairobi was a Mau Mau mole in the force.”
In April, 1951, in defiance of the colonial government, which refused to clear him, Waiyaki and others, including Dr Jason Likimani, renowned lawyer Sammy Waruhiu, two Asian boys from Mombasa and a “brilliant” mathematician Minjo from Luhyaland, boarded a ship for Britain. “For 28 days, we travelled through the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, then through Gibraltar to the English Channel and finally landed at the Albert Docks in the east side of London,” Waiyaki remembers.
In Britain, it was a struggle for Waiyaki. The Director of Colonial Scholars had denied him a place at universities, insisting that instead of going to Britain, he should have taken a course at Makerere. If he had gone to Makerere, he would have graduated as an African assistant medical officer instead of a full medical doctor. That was why he travelled to Britain without the blessings of the colonial government.
In London, Waiyaki met Mungai, who had gone there before him. Mungai, an older man from Ndeiya in Kikuyu, worked with the Ministry of Education. Later Njonjo tried to help Waiyaki get a placed in British universities. Njonjo was a friend of the leader of Ghanaian students and the two conspired to put me on the Ghanaian list of students so that I could be admitted. But the Director of Colonial Scholars found out.
Waiyaki spent a year seeking admission to a university, and most of the time was at the “affordable, yet classy”, East African Students Club at the Marble Arch. He lived in nearby apartments where at one time he stayed with Achieng’ Oneko who was on Kanu business in London with Mbiyu Koinange.
One day, he travelled overnight to St Andrew’s University in Scotland and begged the Dean of Students, whose daughter was a doctor in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), to admit him. He explained his association with and influence by the Scottish missionaries through education and religion and begged him to spare a place if one of the students did not show up. He had gone to the college two weeks before it opened.
Two days after Waiyaki’s trip to Scotland, Njonjo sought him out and told him the colonial director, a Mr Anderson, was looking for him. When Waiyaki met Anderson, he was told of his admission to St Andrew’s Medical School. His joy knew no bounds: “That was in 1952 and even before I set foot on he campus, I felt that I was now a medical doctor.” He graduated in general surgery, neuro-surgery and psychiatry in 1957, and was interned for a year.
In 1958, he returned to Kenya, leaving his brother Kimani and Njonjo in London. In Kenya, the Director of Medial Services offered him a job at the Murang’a District Hospital. He declined the offer because he did not like the house he was given. He later took up a surgeon’s job at the Machakos District Hospital, where, apart from performing up to seven surgeries a day, he doubled up as a psychiatrist.
Waiyaki left government employment a year later and started a clinic at the Rajab Manzil Building on Victoria (now Tom Mboya) Street. He later moved to the more convenient Mfangano Street, where “there was an underground car park and I could exchange patients with another doctor in the same building”.
Waiyaki, who became politically active in 1959 through Tom Mboya’s People’s Conventional Party (PCP), abandoned competitive politics in 1983, when Andrew Ngumba beat him for the Mathare parliamentary seat. He then taught diplomacy at a university in the US, worked for the World Population Council, engaged in underground politics during Kanu’s iron-grip and practised medicine for a while. But now, in his twilight years, he has become a real estate developer, farmer and owner of a tertiary institution. “We have put up villas on my Kathini farm, known as Rosslyn Heights Estate. On another part of the farm, we are building other houses in an estate that will bear the name Rosslyn Gardens,” Waiyaki said in a recent interview at his home near Gachie in Kiambu.
When the Waiyaki family left their ancestral home in Muthiga to settle at Kathini, most of the 250-acre farm was under coffee. But when the coffee prices plummeted, the bushes were uprooted and the land was sub-divided and most of it sold. What is left now comprises the two classy residential estates, the family home and farm.
Waiyaki was Kenya’s unequivocal voice in the 1970s on the local and international scenes. He clearly articulated the country’s position, especially on two contentious international issues — apartheid and colonialism. Credited with bringing pride and recognition to the Foreign Ministry, Waiyaki valiantly fought the apartheid regime and even publicly disagreed with Njonjo, his friend and former college-mate.
Career diplomat Ochieng Adala recalls: “When Njonjo made overtures to the apartheid regime, Dr Waiyaki was outside the country. But on arrival, he clearly articulated the non-engagement policy of Kenya and the OAU on apartheid South Africa, asserting that this could only happen ‘over my dead body’.”
Waiyaki adds: “Njonjo believed we could talk with the Boers without jeopardising the position of Nelson Mandela and the ANC. But I reminded him how we (as students in South Africa) had suffered under the apartheid rule. Despite our friendship, I categorically refused to entertain the notion of normalising relations with South Africa and even refused to talk to Roelof (“Pik”) Botha (South Africa’s Foreign Minister at the time). I told him to instead talk to Mandela and (Steve) Biko.”
Waiyaki and Njonjo had been students at Fort Hare in South Africa, had carried the “pass” that identified black people in that era and could not forget how the Boers persecuted Africans. “They used to chase us like dogs and even let their fierce dogs loose on us. In my college days, I met a man whom I remember only as Khumalo. I can never forget his eyes when he asked me not to forget South Africa when I went back home,” he remembers
The only pleasant encounter with a Boer that Waiyaki recalls was when he and Mungai, a classmate in medicine, went to a Boer farm in search of a rabbit to dissect. He explains: “We wanted to buy the rabbit, but we approached the farm owner in fear as we were afraid he would let his dogs loose on us even before we told him what we wanted. There was no incident, Mungai was given drinking water when he asked for it and the farmer gave us a rabbit each for free! That was the only good Boer I ever met.”
In 2007, Bethuel Kiplagat, a former diplomat and now the chairman of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, described Waiyaki as “a committed Pan-African, a great and outstanding Foreign Minister and a pleasant individual”.
“He provided a no-nonsense leadership, was courageous and spoke his mind. He was brilliant, wise and did not throw his weight around,” says Kiplagat.
Adala says it was difficult, for example, to brief Mungai who had occupied the same office before, “but it was so easy to brief Waiyaki and where he allowed you five minutes, you ended up spending half an hour with him.”
Adala, who was then the head of the African Division in the ministry, travelled often to international and continental meetings with Waiyaki and recalls that his stature overcame the perception that Kenya was a “conservative” country compared to the likes of Tanzania. To Adala, the only other person who could be compared with Waiyaki was Murumbi, who served as the first Foreign Minister for barely a year.
Says Adala: “Ouko was good, but he was a technocrat who would be sent to meetings by the President with a specific brief. He was not a politician. Waiyaki, like Murumbi before him, was a man of his own, a man who developed ideas and initiatives. He was able to handle situations that arose outside the prepared text and make impromptu decisions.”
Adala recalls an instance at the height of post-independence chaos in Angola when Africa was divided vis-a-vis two warring parties — Jonas Savimbi’s Unita and Agostinho Neto’s MPLA. “At a Council of Ministers meeting in Addis Ababa, there was a proposal that the OAU support one of the movements. But Dr Waiyaki opposed the proposal, saying Kenya would support one party only if it would unite Angola, which was not the case at that time,” Adala remembers. Kenya had in vain held two reconciliation meetings in Mombasa and Nakuru for the warring parties.
Waiyaki was also keen on South-South cooperation and a believer in the Non-Aligned Movement, but “not much of a friend of the West”. US voluble Secretary of State Henry Kissinger liked to talk to Waiyaki apparently to understand his strong feelings against apartheid South Africa.
“There was this time Mzee (Jomo Kenyatta) had sent me to America to try to persuade the government to sell us F5 jet fighters and an aircraft simulator (the arms were apparently to be used to deter Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who was claiming huge chunks of Kenyan territory and had seized Kenyan assets in Uganda, from attacking Kenya), but the US government was not giving me much attention,” recalls Waiyaki.
His alternative was to lobby senators to whom he took a “scary” message from President Kenyatta: “Kenyatta had told me to tell them that if they did not give us the F5 fighter jets, we could seek military assistance from the Communist bloc,” Waiyaki says. This was during the Cold War.
Waiyaki told Kissinger the same thing when they met. The Secretary of State wondered: “You would change your allegiance just like that?”
“Yes, that is what Mzee told me,” Waiyaki replied.
Kissinger, who had earlier received a Turkana spear from Kenyatta as a gift, eventually persuaded his government to sell the jets to Kenya and to train those who would man them. He, however, told Waiyaki that the simulator would be too expensive. Waiyaki adds: “I am not sure whether the Kenya Air Force ever got to buy an aircraft simulator.”
The minister was also at the forefront in the fight against the Law of the Sea that would have given developed countries the right to mine 200 miles offshore. As one writer recently put it, Waiyaki brought to the fore “effective, colourful and moral Kenyan diplomacy”.
Though he rebelled against Kenyatta’s inner circle after the fallout between the President and Odinga, Waiyaki remained loyal to Kenyatta, who later made him Foreign Minister. In his own words: “I liked Mzee too much”. He first met Kenyatta at the Green Hotel Restaurant on Latema Road, Nairobi, in 1951 after Waiyaki’s graduation in South Africa. His father took him to the restaurant for lunch and they found Kenyatta and Mbiyu Koinange at one of the cubicles. Waiyaki suspects his father knew Kenyatta would be there and purposely took him there to meet him.
“I knew Mbiyu as he was my father’s age-mate. I was introduced to Kenyatta, a man who was interested in young educated men as the struggle for independence intensified,” Waiyaki says. His attachment to Kenyatta went back to the old man’s detention and the colonial government started propaganda that the old man was not medically fit to become the Kenya’s leader. “When Dr Mungai, Dr John Nesbitt, Dr Jason Likimani and myself went to see Mzee in Maralal to make nonsense of the contention by the Mzungu that he was not fit, we found a jolly, intelligent and fantastic man who not only was fit medically but had a very sharp brain,” Waiyaki recalls.
Before Kenyatta was released from detention in 1961, young leaders in Kanu identified the party as the vehicle he would use to seek political leadership. But because he could not be elected in absentia, they asked James Gichuru to take up the party’s presidency and hold it for Kenyatta. “I remember Dr Mungai and I driving in my old Citroen car in heavy rain on muddy roads to Gichuru’s restriction house in Githiga to urge him to take up the presidency of the party on condition that he would vacate it for Mzee once he was released,” he explains.
When Kenyatta became Prime Minister in 1963, Waiyaki had been elected MP for North-Eastern Nairobi (Kasarani) and he became the Parliamentary Secretary (Assistant Minister) in the PM’s office in charge of Internal Security and Defence. He spent a lot of time with Kenyatta discussing the answers he (Waiyaki) would give on the PM’s behalf in the House of Representatives.
“These were the days of the Shifta War and Mzee keenly followed what was going on. Most of the time, he asked me to brief him on what I would tell the House. I was also handling the Mau Mau issue to ensure that freedom fighters left the forest now that we were independent, an assignment Mzee followed keenly,” he says. He also recalls visiting Kenyatta’s Gatundu home, where they would sit on the grass and Kenyatta would tell stories about nature and history even as they briefed him about happenings across the country.
At independence, in 1963, Waiyaki was elected MP for Nairobi North-East on a Kanu ticket. With Kenyatta as Prime Minister, Waiyaki, who was an in-law, “as Mama Ngina is related to my mum”, was elevated to the position of Assistant Minister. He was re-elected in 1969, 1974 and 1979. In 1974, the constituency was renamed Mathare and in 1997 Kasarani.
Waiyaki visited Kenyatta’s home in Gatundu regularly. “I got on very well with Mzee and had free access to his home. When I became Foreign Minister, he allowed me to be accompanied by my wife on official duties outside the country,” a grateful Waiyaki says.
But earlier, he had fallen out briefly with the President and left his government when “Mboya put a wedge between Kenyatta and Odinga” in 1966. Waiyaki was eventually rehabilitated as a member of the Parliamentary Remuneration Committee, “to ensure that MPs were eating good food”. This became a butt of jokes by his friends. Njonjo would tease him: “Muitu [thug, nickname the two had used during their days in South Africa], niwakiona niwaheo wira wa biu” (hey man, you have been given the real job). “A few months later Charlie [Njonjo] told me that Kenyatta wanted Fred Mati and myself to go to State House immediately. I asked him what it was all about, but he told me he did not know and not to worry,” he says.
The two apprehensively went to State House and sat in an outer office where they were joined by Vice-President Moi. When Kenyatta came in he asked Moi: “Have they signed?” The two were given forms to sign and become Speaker (Mati) and Deputy Speaker (Waiyaki) of the National Assembly. Parliament rubber-stamped the appointments.
As Deputy Speaker, Waiyaki chaired the parliamentary session when Martin Shikuku (Butere) declared that Kanu was dead and Jean Seroney (Tinderet), the Speaker pro tem, agreed, and when Shikuku talked of planting maize on Kenyatta’s grave, “I was not amused and I called on Shikuku to maintain order in the House. Furiously, Koinange left the chamber and when Shikuku and Seroney left the House, it was straight to detention,” Waiyaki explains about those tumultuous political times in the 1970s. Waiyaki remembers Kenyatta as a no-nonsense President and one who would “never rethink his decisions though he never made decisions unless he had been properly briefed and was certain they were right.
When Kenyatta died, Waiyaki was the Foreign Minister and was in Mombasa with Kenyan diplomats during their annual retreat. He was among the first people to see Kenyatta’s body. Waiyaki was summoned by Kenyatta’s son, Peter Muigai, from the comfort of his Nyali Beach Hotel bed at 3am to State House Mombasa to confirm the death.
Kenyatta’s successor Daniel Moi moved Waiyaki from the Foreign docket to a “lesser” ministry, signalling the beginning of the end of the Mathare MP’s political career.
Waiyaki lost his wife a few years ago after a devastating battle with cancer. “In 2003, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent surgery, and we were convinced that the disease had been controlled. But it spread to her kidney eight weeks later,” an agonised Waiyaki recalls.
Today, Waiyaki spends part of his day at construction sites, a mineral water bottling plant and looking after his dairy cows and sheep in his farm.
“I enjoy visits to the animal kingdom in a valley on the farm. It doubles up as part of my daily exercise routine as I walk downhill and up for about 500 metres,” he says. Waiyaki also owns the Global Institute College at Muthiga and has a lot of interest in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA).
“Though I donated the plot on which the nearby Loresho PCEA Church is built, I am keen on my original Kihumo Church at Muthiga and that is where I attend most Sunday services,” Waiyaki says. He is a keen reader of medical journals and books that interpret the Bible. He also spends time at meetings and casual discussions with wazee (fellow old men) and visitors.