The only woman to serve President Kenyatta as Social Secretary throughout his tenure as Prime Minister and President never sought the job that many would kill for. It was the job that came to her.
The script of Elizabeth Madoka’s life leads one to the inexorable conclusion that she was destined to work in the presidential household – even serving Daniel arap Moi, Kenyatta’s successor, in the same capacity until her retirement. As a little girl growing up in Kiambu, Elizabeth, then simply Mumbi, was the coy child who played with Kenyatta’s quaintly shaped walking stick as he dropped in on her father, a noted flower and exotic tree farmer in the area. Kenyatta was then involved with the Githunguri Teachers College and, on his way there, a stop at her father’s home was routine.
She remembers: “My father used to grow trees and flower seedlings and he had a long and distinguished list of customers, including white settlers. I don’t remember Kenyatta so much as a customer but just as my father’s friend who dropped in on him and, after chatting for a while, would proceed to Githunguri.
“I became fascinated by his fimbo (walking stick), which he curiously left at the door before entering to chat up my father. I thought it was nicely shaped and played with it as they talked. But, at that time, the future President showed no more than a passing interest in me. I was just a child in his friend’s home.”
But that was fate’s introductory act for a life-long and fulfilling association. Mumbi went to Alliance Girls, known then as the African Girls High School, after which she got herself a job at Barclays Bank of Kenya in Nairobi. Kenyatta’s niece, Beth Mugo, was her schoolmate. But that was just incidental – or so it appeared.
It was at Barclays that things began to happen. On the eve of Independence in 1963, the Daily Nation organised a beauty pageant whose winner would be crowned Miss Uhuru. It was open to any African girl.
“I wasn’t even aware of it, leave alone interested,” Mumbi remembers with a laugh. “It was one of my colleagues at work who drew my attention to it. I sent my photograph. The next thing I knew was that the Nation had invited me to join the other girls for the pageant, on December 14, 1963 – two days after independence.
“The ceremony was at Doonholm Road now City Stadium and there were very many people. President Kenyatta came accompanied by Mama Ngina, whose duty it was to crown Miss Uhuru. Many political heavyweights of the time also attended. There was so much excitement. In the end, the unbelievable happened. I was crowned Miss Uhuru! Mama Ngina put the crown on my head and I was in the clouds. Part of the perks of the new title was an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan. After that, I returned to my job at Barclays.”
Still, as part of the celebrations to mark independence, the Governor-General held a function at New Stanley Hotel. The newly-crowned Miss Uhuru found herself invited by none less than the Governor himself. To her surprise, the function was attended by the country’s who’s who at the time, beginning with the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers. Mingling with the distinguished guests, Mumbi felt a strong urge to go up to the Prime Minister, whom she had last interacted with as a child at her father’s house.
The opportunity presented itself and Kenyatta showed a great interest in her story. When it was over, Mumbi felt good – and thought that was it. But back at work, a call came and a man with a very heavy, authoritative, albeit polite, voice, asked to speak to Elizabeth Mumbi. The senior manager of the branch, a no-nonsense Goan man, picked up the call and abrasively told the caller that Mumbi was too busy to take the call and hung up.
The man on the other end promptly called again. The manager testily reminded him that Mumbi was very busy and was about to slam the phone again when the man asked him: “Do you know who is calling?” The manager didn’t know or care.
“This is the Prime Minister of Kenya,” Kenyatta identified himself. “Can I speak to her?” The manager all but fainted. He profusely apologised and immediately handed the call to Mumbi. Kenyatta asked Mumbi if she could go and see him in his Harambee House office.
Who could say “no” to the Prime Minister?
At Harambee House, Kenyatta put Mumbi through an interview which began with the question: “How do you know us?” By this, he meant his family. Mumbi went over everything she had told him in the New Stanley encounter.
Kenyatta shortly called Mr Duncan Ndegwa, the new Head of the Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, with the news that he had found the person they were looking for. He explained to Mumbi that they were looking for somebody to take care of his social affairs, both State and personal. This person was going to work closely with Mama Ngina and her job included taking care of the children.
Kenyatta told Ndegwa all about Mumbi’s background and qualifications and Ndegwa evidently agreed that she was eminently qualified for the job of Social Secretary to the Prime Minister. He undertook to hire her immediately. That afternoon, she returned to work and asked to resign so as to join the Prime Minister’s Office, a request that was granted immediately.
On reporting to the Prime Minister’s Office, the first thing Kenyatta did was introduce Mumbi to the Government Receptionist, an English woman she remembers as Mrs Trit. It was Mrs Trit who started showing her the ropes of the job, even as the Prime Minister had her sent to the Government Secretarial College for a course in administration. As December 12, 1964, approached, he dispatched her to State House, which became her home until she retired — to understudy the Governor-General’s staff.
“Among the Governor-General’s staff, I was attached to the Social Secretary and it was with this staff that we prepared for the first Jamhuri Day in 1964,” she recalls. “And then, after this occasion, Governor McDonald said his goodbyes and Prime Minister Kenyatta became the first President of the Republic of Kenya. He moved his office from Harambee House to State House.” But only office, not home.
Says Mumbi: “Kenyatta never ever spent a night at Nairobi State House. It was a trip to Gatundu every evening and from there every morning, except when he was out of Nairobi.”
Mumbi was quickly getting to know the man that the President was. His food, for instance. “Obviously because of his long stay in England, Kenyatta had a taste for things Western,” she recalls. “He always ate four-course meals. He started with soup, then fish, which he particularly liked, then the main course, and then a dessert. His caterer knew his tastes perfectly well and never once did I hear him complain.”
And he also did not want to hear his driver complain. Before he sat down for his meals, it was routine for Kenyatta to ask whether his driver, one Njenga, had eaten.
Says Mumbi: “His bodyguards, under Wanyoike Thungu, ensured that Njenga was well taken care of and Kenyatta was content. But he extended the same care to us all, his personal staff. When there was no pressure from matters of State, we used to eat together with him. He loved sharing his meal times with his staff.”
Kenyans of the Independence generation know that the President was always immaculately turned out. Mumbi had a primary role in this. She remembers: “Kenyatta loved roses very much. James Mwaura, the Superintendent of Gardens at State House, had to make sure there were fresh buds all year round from which we could cull to affix on his lapel. I was the one who pinned them on his jackets.
“But I worked very closely with Mama Ngina when it came to deciding what he was going to wear. As people know, Mzee didn’t like travelling much; in fact, he ever made only one State visit, and that was to his friend Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. But Mama Ngina travelled a lot and I was always with her. We bought the President’s suits mainly from Simpson’s in London. He had lived there for a long time, so he knew all those shops.
“We obtained his shirts locally. At that time, there were a few shops that were selling very high quality clothes. They had been serving the white settler community. Mzee loved cream things. He also had to have a red somewhere – and I think that was because of the party. His ties had to have a spot of red.”
A key member of the team that outfitted the President was Mrs Mwathi, wife of the famous Dr Samson Mwathi, the pioneering chairman of the Family Planning Association of Kenya. She was the State House Housekeeper at the time.
The President was a strict but never overbearing employer. For a person with such a commanding personality, it was remarkable how harmonious an environment he created among his staff. Perhaps it was because of his aversion to gossip. Mumbi recalls: “If you made the mistake of saying bad things about somebody else, he would listen and bide his time. And then, quite unexpectedly, he would summon you and you would find the person you were bad-mouthing seated with him and that was when he would tell you: ‘All right, now, tell me all those things you were telling me about this one now.’ For those caught in that web, it was a harrowing moment.”
Mumbi recalls the first years at Kenyatta’s State House as being almost entirely taken up with team building. The foreign staff quickly departed and a steady stream of Africans took their places. For the most part, many stayed on until their retirement. But a few had very short stints. One such was George Githii, Kenyatta’s first Private Secretary. His personality didn’t seem to gel with the President’s and he was very soon on his way, replaced by Eliud Mathu, who also doubled up as Comptroller of State Houses.
And on matters State House, it fell upon Mumbi very early in his premiership to go to Mombasa and establish the State Lodge there. This was at a time when the Government did not have State lodges around the country and, according to Mumbi, “we used to put up in the residences of the Provincial Commissioners (PCs). Kenyatta and we, his personal staff, slept in so many places while on official duty – PC Mahihu’s residence in Embu, Minister Jackson Angaine’s home in Meru and Vice-President Jaramogi Odinga’s home in Kisumu.
“The President sent me and an English lady called Margaret Smith to Mombasa to see how we could establish a State House there. The PC at the time, Isaiah Mathenge, received us. It was still the majimbo system and the Government House then was run by Ronald Ngala, who was the head of the Regional Government. It was in a horrible condition. The building itself was very old. We had to organise how it was to be repainted and refurbished.
“It was after this that Mzee started travelling to Mombasa, a place that became a favourite abode of his presidency and where, in the end, he died.”
Mumbi’s story is remarkably corroborated by Duncan Ndegwa in his book Walking in Kenyatta Struggles. He writes: “Ronald Ngala, the Kadu President and de facto leader of Kenya’s coastal people, was clearly a man of considerable personal ambition and perhaps little else. He will be remembered for converting the present Mombasa State House into the headquarters of the Coastal Regional Government. Strapped of cash, he used carton boxes to partition the offices. He also used to fly a small flag he had specially fashioned for his car, which Tom Mboya forcibly plucked off during a visit to the Coast by Kenyatta in 1963.”
Life in President Kenyatta’s State House was generally busy for Mumbi but mainly routine. Kenyatta was a man of contained emotions and he generally kept his worries and fears to himself. In moments of national crisis, he did his best to keep his anxieties from his staff.
And, to be honest, he berated his Cabinet Ministers in their meetings. But that was out of Mumbi’s hearing. When he came out, he was the same calm and collected man. But one incident caused Kenyatta’s interior to crack.
It was when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin made claims on a large chunk of Kenyan territory. “I have never seen Kenyatta so angry. He seemed to have felt personally affronted by Amin and he was besides himself with fury. Then he suddenly called for a public rally at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. All of us went there. He made a thundering speech and warned anybody trying to claim an inch of Kenya to try and he would face the consequences. Amin must have got the message and didn’t follow through on his claims. Personally, I think Kenyatta felt a sense of deep loathing for the dictator because the Kenyan leader maintained a generally good relationship with President Obote after Amin had overthrown him. Whenever, they met, I noticed they got along very well.”
If Kenyatta never showed his fears, Mumbi did, especially when Tom Mboya was killed and riots broke out in Nairobi and Kisumu.
“When Mboya was killed, I think Mzee was in Gatundu. Somebody warned me that things were not very good in the streets of Nairobi. I made my own decision to go and fetch Uhuru from school. I decided not use a Government car because I wasn’t sure that it wasn’t going to get stoned. Instead, I used my own mini. Uhuru seemed very surprised and asked me what was going on. I explained to him as best as I could and drove him to the private residence in Caledonia.
“Meanwhile, his father calmly attended Tom Mboya’s mass at the Holy Family Basilica but with a very grave demeanour. I am sure he grieved for Mboya because if he had a favourite minister, it was that one.”
The other incident that seemed to have a noticeable effect on the President was the assassination of J. M. Kariuki in 1975. During this time, he addressed a rally in downtown Nairobi, capped with a flypast of the Kenya Air Force. But the riots that erupted around the country and the political fallout after that left him with a brooding that was evident to all and sundry.
Mumbi says she was wholly immersed in social affairs and minded Mama Ngina to the total exclusion of all political activities.
She does not recall any time that they went through an emergency on account of his health. In fact, they seemed to live as though he was immortal. Thus, schedules went on as a matter of routine.
“We started noticing that he was having trouble reading and got him glasses. But he didn’t like wearing glasses. We started typing his speeches in big letters. However, the President was such that he never liked to show that he was not feeling well. Because of the heavy chains he had worn in detention at Kapenguria, his legs hurt and we had to massage him using sand to ease his pain.
“He was accompanied by a nurse wherever he went and she did a very good job of relieving the discomfort in his legs. He also swam a lot, especially in Mombasa, both in the sea and in his private swimming pool. He ate well, with a particular taste for European food and nyama choma. He didn’t drink alcohol, although he told us that he used to but stopped when he became Prime Minister. He loved ginger ale. Apparently, this was known to his Head of State colleagues. Once, he was talking with (Zambia’s) President Kenneth Kaunda and suddenly Kaunda called me and said, ‘Mumbi, could you please get him a ginger ale!’ I never knew why it had become urgent.”
For a man of his age, he seemed in perfectly good health when Mumbi left for a Girl Guides conference in Iran sometime in mid-August, 1978. She was passing through Scotland when she noticed somebody reading a newspaper that proclaimed that Kenya’s President Kenyatta had died in his sleep. Nobody had told her about it. Stunned, she cut short her business and boarded the next flight to Nairobi. All through the flight, the person constantly on her mind was Mama Ngina. How was she taking this? Mumbi wondered.
From the airport, she headed straight for State House, where the President’s body lay in state.
She went upstairs and there was Mama Ngina sitting in dignified sorrow. “I couldn’t contain myself,” she remembers. “On seeing her, I just started crying. But Mama told me ‘no, no, let’s not cry. Let’s just accept that this is the way it is.’ However, I must say it was very hard.”
Mumbi took an active part in the transition and caught the incoming President Moi’s eye. He requested her to stay on. It was emotionally very difficult to separate Mama Ngina from her children.
“I had become part of the family and Uhuru and the children could not understand why ‘Auntie Mumbi’ remained at State House. It was impossible to explain to them that I was a civil servant available to work wherever the Government wanted me to. I never really parted with the Kenyatta family; we have remained close to this day. But the President’s death changed my role.”
She worked for President Moi for eight years before finally retiring in 1986.
But she left State House with memories other than service to Kenya’s first two presidents; she left with the prize of her life. “In 1966, there arose a need for an aide de camp to President Kenyatta. The President himself decided to conduct the interviews. He kept sending his interviewees away, unsatisfied with what the Army was giving him.
“Then one young man came along. Mzee interviewed him in the presence of Attorney-General Charles Njonjo. I was standing outside Mzee’s office when all that was taking place. Finally, the man came out. He turned out to be the successful candidate.
“Mzee liked him very much. He had his quarter’s at State House and so did I. Slowly by slowly, we got to know each other. He started teaching me things that I didn’t know, like swimming. Then, when we were free, he would take me to the movies. My sister, Wanjiku, went to school at Limuru Girls and he used to help me drive my small car there. It went on like this and finally I went and told Mzee that I wanted to get married to him.
“Mzee asked me, ‘are you in love with him or with his uniform?’ I told him I was in love with him. He told me he thought I was making the right decision.
“In fact, he regaled us with stories about life in Britain’s royal palaces, saying the staff there always ended up marrying one another because they were near one another. He told us these stories as we shared meals with him. To him, we were his children. That was how I got married to my partner for life, Major Marsden Madoka, President Kenyatta’s aide de camp.”
Mumbi has dedicated a lot of time to church work, both in Nairobi and Taita, and charity work mainly with the Tesia Kisanga Organisation in Taita which cares for HIV/Aids orphans and grows drought-resistant crops.