Rise, fall of Harry Thuku


During my days in high school, one of the ways of dealing with students who continuously fell foul of school rules was to promote them to the role of prefects. The new sense of responsibility and power seemed to have a moderating influence on these errant students not to mention the privileges and fringe benefits which the elevated position bestowed.

Harry Thuku, a pioneer African nationalist in Kenya, was born in 1895 in Kambui area of Kiambu District. Born into one of the most influential clans at the time, Mbari ya Gathirimu, Thuku lost his father in 1897, leaving him under the care of his mother and elder brother.

In 1902, the clan donated 100 acres of land to the Gospel Mission Society (GMS) for the establishment of Kambui Mission. Subsequently, in 1907 Thuku was employed as a herd’s boy and houseboy at the GMS mission where he learnt how to read and write through his interaction with the missionaries.

In 1911, he left Kambui Mission to seek employment in Nairobi but soon landed in trouble for cheque forgery at Standard Bank where he was working as a sweeper and messenger. After serving a jail sentence of two years for the offence, Thuku secured gainful employment as a typesetter with the European settler newspaper the Leader.

Through the newspaper, Thuku kept up to date with current affairs in the world and in particular the political maelstrom surrounding land in Kenya and the battles taking place between settlers and Indians regarding the future of Kenya. He increased his network of politically inclined friends when he was employed as a telephone operator at the colonial treasury in 1918.

Following the Soldier Settlement Scheme of 1919, an influx of World War 1 veterans was given large swathes of land in various parts of Kenya but had neither the manpower nor the resources to farm it. They appealed to the government for help and, in the usual knee-jerk reaction, hut taxes were raised to encourage Africans seek wage employment.

Chiefs were ordered to “exercise every possible lawful influence to induce able-bodied natives into the labour field”. This in effect meant forced labour for Africans. Already there was a shortage of men because many had migrated to townships fleeing the punitive hut taxes and others had been recruited to participate in the war as Carrier Corps and soldiers where the casualty rate was appalling. In the event, many women and children were forced to work on settler plantations for reduced pay. The colonial administration was also using women to build roads and dig trenches. Many women returned home raped and pregnant.

Harry Thuku’s new job at the treasury afforded him living quarters at Pangani where he interacted with Africans drawn from different East African tribes. He also kept in touch with prominent African Americans, such as Marcus Garvey who greatly influenced African nationalism.

Thuku toured Central Kenya, Nyanza and Ukambani where he witnessed first-hand the pathetic conditions Africans were experiencing. He denounced the colonial government for its neglect of African welfare. In particular, he encouraged women not to participate in the reviled soil conservation projects, popular at the time. Women were so impressed with his support that they named him Thuku Munene wa Nyacing’a (leader of women).

The large crowds attending Thuku’s meetings alarmed the government, chiefs, missionaries and settlers. He was asked to chose between his job at the treasury or politics; he chose politics and quit his job to join the Kikuyu Association. The Kikuyu Association had been formed in 1920 to articulate their grievances, especially concerning land issues.

Eventually, chiefs and missionaries swore affidavits in order to create the legal grounds for Thuku’s arrest and deportation. He was arrested on 14 March 1922 and detained at Central Police Station.

The following day Thuku’s supporters numbering about 7,000 staged a protest outside the police Station demanding his immediate release. They returned on March 16, 1922 in even larger numbers. Agitated by a woman leader, Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru from Weithaga in Murang’a, the crowd surged forward. Nyanjiru had challenged the men who were walking away by lifting her calico dress above her shoulders shouting “Take my dress and give me your trousers! You men are cowards! What are you waiting for? Our leader is in there! Let’s go get him!”

The police panicked and shot into the crowd. Official government figures claimed there were 21 fatalities, but it is believed that close to 200 people died in the melee.

Thuku was immediately exiled to Kismayu where he was held from 1922 to 1925. In 1926, he was moved to Lamu, Witu and Marsabit. In Marsabit, he struck a rapport with the district commissioner Major Sharpe, and with his assistance was able to while away time in minor farming activities, which proved to be quite lucrative such that Thuku was able to accumulate some funds by the time he was released in 1930.

In 1932, Thuku became the President of the Kikuyu Central Association but internal wrangling over policy matters led him to leave and form his own Kikuyu Provincial Association (KPA).

He distanced himself from the independent churches and schools’ movement that was sweeping through central Kenya and the constitution of KPA pledged its loyalty to the British crown and vigorously supported colonial policies such as soil conservation which was an anathema to many rural folks.

By 1938, Thuku had built himself a stone dwelling house at Kambui, the first of its kind by an African and people did not understand how he could afford to live such a comfortable lifestyle from his farming activities. He was the first African to be allowed to grow coffee in the area. These events quickly earned Thuku a pariah status within the community.

Thuku reconciled with his nemesis the hated Senior Chief Waruhiu, the pillar of colonial administration in Kiambu District. On December 12, 1952 he publicly denounced Mau Mau on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation radio. Harry Thuku died in 1970.

This firebrand of nationalism in Kenya had been broken irretrievably in mind and spirit. All that reminds us of him today is the road named after him past the Central Police Station.