More often than not, we associate Geoffrey Griffin with Starehe Boys Centre and school, and to a lesser degree with the National Youth Service both being institutions which he founded in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Griffin embodied the virtues of discipline, sacrifice and excellence but he was much more than that.
In an article published on November 1,2016, Matthew Hilton argues that Griffin was an institution in himself representing the key issues of decolonisation, development and charity in post-colonial Kenya and Africa at large.
Geoffrey William Griffin was born on June 13, 1933 in Eldoret, the son of an English police officer who had come to serve in Kenya in 1919, and an English mother born in India. He was educated at Kitale Primary School and then proceeded to Prince of Wales School (current Nairobi School) in 1945.
At Prince of Wales, Griffin was a “stinker” (day boy) as his father had by then been transferred to Nairobi in the Railway Police and they lived in Railway quarters at Parklands. His school mates remember him as a good but not brilliant student who was inventive and single-minded of purpose. He was always willing to try out new things but was conscientious about doing it right and in an orderly manner. Towards the end of his school career he became a junior prefect and helped to re-establish the scout movement in the school for which he was honoured. Finding school not as rewarding as he would have wished, he left before completing his sixth year in 1950 to join the civil service at the Survey of Kenya.
When the State of Emergency was declared in October 1952, Griffin had just completed his National Service training with the Kenya Regiment and was serving in the Kenya Police Special Reserve. He was later commissioned into the 3rd Kings African Rifles as second lieutenant but after 14 months he was disillusioned by the brutality of the battle on both sides, increasingly sympathiwing with the justice of the rebels’ cause and did not renew his commission when it expired, going home, a soldier no more.
Early on in the Emergency, Tom Askwith, the colonial government Community Development Officer championed the idea that Mau Mau rebels could be “cured” through a process of re-education and rehabilitation in detention camps before release back into civilian life. Shortly after leaving the army Griffin and his friend Roger Owles took up posts, in 1955, as community development officers in Askwith’s new ministry and were posted to Manyani Detention Camp to identify underage boys who were being held inappropriately with adults and hardened Mau Mau rebels.
Although Griffin was viewed with suspicion by both the Special Branch and inmates, he nevertheless managed to identify over 1,000 children in 1955, of 16 years or less who were transferred to Wamumu Approved School and Youth Camp in Mwea Division where he was able to apply a more liberal form of rehabilitation. Wamumu has been described as “a paradise for young Mau Mau suspects” that stood out for its entirely exceptional approach.
Griffin reduced the armed personnel in the camp from 200 to 40, obtained a blanket pardon for the boys from the Attorney General and set to work to win their trust, turning them away from the ideology of Mau Mau and towards becoming useful colonial citizens. In practice this meant not only strong discipline but also the creation of educational classes, skills training, physical exercise and competitive sport. Griffin introduced rudimentary khaki uniforms, reveille, flag parades on Empire Day, a house system, prefects and a Boys Scout troop. He even introduced a motto “Truth and Loyalty” as well as barazas, which were informal public meetings where boys could relate their past experiences to the group and “cleanse” themselves of Mau Mau.
In 1959, while still a civil servant, Griffin conceived the idea of a home for boys and named it Starehe (place of comfort). The first buildings at Kariokor were two tin huts financed by Shell/BP. Griffin persuaded two former inmates of Wamumu, Geoffrey Getumo Gatama and Joseph Kamiru Gikubu to join him. Starehe became a curious mix of rehabilitation camp and English public school. School houses, scout troops, opportunities for social service and the famous marching band became pillars of the school’s ethos from the very beginning.
In his privileged position as Colonial Youth Officer, Griffin was able to marshal substantial funding for Starehe from international donor agencies. In 1962 he became the local administrator of Save the Children Fund, which was also one of the main benefactors of Starehe. Griffin provided the perfect link for the transition from a colonial to a post-colonial administration and the donors were confident that their funds would be put to a good humanitarian cause. Starehe held the key to a world of international funding which the very highest of the new Kenyan government officials were keen to access. After Independence Mzee Jomo Kenyatta appointed Griffin to establish the National Youth Service (NYS) where he was director from 1964 to 1988 when he retired from the civil service. Here, he established another sphere of influence with the same military discipline that was the hallmark of his management style. The Starehe Boys were often seen marching alongside the NYS cohorts and the school band played with the police at national celebrations underpinning Griffin’s proximity to the corridors of power. Choosing the renowned crime buster Patrick Shaw as his deputy at Starehe was a masterstroke.
Starehe fitted well with “Harambee” the rallying call of the new independent government, suggesting both a tradition of self-help that had marked the independent schools’ movement in Kenya and a means of securing western funds for social development programmes that the new regime could ill afford.
Griffin’s adept navigation through various competing interests allowed him to bring people round to his cause even at the cost of being duplicitous. He took advantage of his position as an official of a western charity, a civil servant in a colonial then post-colonial government and as a volunteer director in a public school.
Griffin died on June 28, 2005 and was buried inside the chapel of Starehe Boys School.