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Jomo Kenyatta

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Jomo Kenyatta

Kenyatta was the leader of Kenya from independence in 1963 to his death in 1978, serving first as Prime Minister (1963–64) and then as President (1964–78). He is considered the founding father of the Kenyan nation.

Kenyatta was a well-educated intellectual who authored several books, and is remembered as a Pan-Africanist.


Jomo Kenyatta was born in Ngenda, Kenya in 1891. A member of the Kikuyu tribe, he was named Kamau wa Ngengi and later christened Johnstone Kamau by Scottish missionaries. He adopted the name of Jomo Kenyatta in the 1920’s taking his first named from the Kikuyu word for “burning spear” and his last name from the beared belt that he often wore.

Younger Years

Kenyatta became active in Keynan politics in the early 1920’s as a member of the nationalist Kikuyu Centrant Association. By the end of the 1920’s be became the nation’s most infulential spokesman for freedom from colonial rule against Great Britian. Sent to England and Europe to study and garner support for his cause, he spend most of the 1930’s at universities in England and the USSR. Although he remained in the UK during World War II, he kept in close contact with his followers back home. In 1946, Kenyatta returned to Kenya and was elected chairman of the Kenya African Union, the successor to the banned Kikuyu Association.

Thus when Kenyatta returned to Kenya in September 1946, he was generally recognized by politically conscious Africans as the most effective leader for their new moves toward greater freedom. Many Europeans reacted also by regarding him as a potentially effective threat to their position of privilege. Kenyatta immediately began organizing a political movement which would be represented all over Kenya. In June 1947 he became president of the most effective African political movement to that time, the Kenya African Union. His efforts to encourage non-kikuyu to join the movement were successful and membership in the Kenyan African Union increased by over 100,000.

In 1947 Kenyatta also accepted the position of principal of the independent Teachers’ Training College at Githanguri, thus bringing another facet of Kenyan protest under his influence. But despite his considerable success, the European settler dominated government of Kenya managed to keep control of the country’s evolution. Many Africans therefore became increasingly frustrated by their lack of progress, and extremist groups began to prepare for a direct challenge to European domination

Kenyatta was unable to control the extremists, and by 1952 the violence had risen to such a level, particularly in the so-called Mau Movement, that the British reacted by declaring a state of emergency. Kenyatta was arrested on October 20, the government considering that if the leader of the Kenya African Union were removed from political life the Mau Mau crisis, which had claimed nearly 200 European and 12,000 Mau Mau lives, would cease. They planned no reforms to meet African aspirations.

A world-famous trial for Kenyatta was held at the remote location of Kapenguria in November. In conditions of intense military security, the government aimed to prove that Mau Mau was a part of the Kenya African Union and Kenyatta its leader. The judgment of the court in April 1953 gave Kenyatta and five other defendants the maximum sentence of 7 years at hard labor, but the trial was conducted in such a manner that many doubted the justice of the sentence

Kenyatta was freed from the desert prison of Lokitaung in northwestern Kenya in 1959 but was restricted to house arrest for two years in the Northern Frontier District town of Lodwar. In March 1960 the Kenya African National Union was formed and elected Kenyatta as its president in absentia. On August 14, 1961, after nine years of detention, Kenyatta assumed the presidency of the Kenya African National Union party.

On January 12, 1962, Kenyatta was elected to the Kenyan Legislative Assembly to represent the constituency of Fort Hall. On April 10, he agreed to serve in a coalition government as minister of state for constitutional affairs and economic planning. In the May 28, 1963 elections Kenyatta led his African National Union party to victory. Kenyatta was invited to form a government and became self-governing Kenya’s first prime minister on June 1. He took steps to reassure the European farmers about their future and also appealed to the freedom fighters and members of the Mau Mau to lay down their arms and join the new nation.

On December 12, 1963 Kenya became the 34th African state to gain independence. The duke of Edinburgh was in attendance as the colonial flag was lowered at midnight and the new Kenyan flag raised.

Kenyatta followed a nonaligned, but pro-western, foreign policy and pursued an orthodox African policy towards the apartheid tactics of Rhodesia and South Africa. In 1971 he became the unmitigated leader in East Africa and achieved his greatest foreign policy success when he helped to settle a border dispute between Uganda and Tanzania.

Kenyatta died peacefully in Mombassa on August 22, 1978

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