By the 1930s, several monoracial members social clubs had been established in Kenya for Europeans and Asians in a society that was segregated with the Europeans at the apex, Asians somewhere in the middle and Africans a long way down at the bottom rank.
Even within the same-race clubs there was segregation. For example, Nairobi Club was associated with senior British soldiers and civil servants while Muthaiga Club was the preserve of aristocrat settlers, Goan Gymkhana Club was reserved for professionals like doctors, lawyers and civil servants while the Goan Institute was for tradesmen, and membership of Mombasa Club was restricted to European businessmen.
It was not until the end of World War 11 that Africans formed their own social club known as Pumwani Social Club. Ability to speak English was the main consideration and one did not have to go through the rigorous process of vetting as in the established members’ clubs. The club was founded by African civil servants and employees of the Nairobi Municipal Council and welcomed members of all races. Tom Kay, the secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association(YMCA) and Richard Frost, a representative of the British Council in Kenya, were Europeans who frequented the club.
Various economic and social issues affecting the lives of Kenyans were discussed informally at Pumwani Social Club. Some of the resolutions passed in these meetings found their way to the Legislative Council (LEGCO) as some members of the club were also members of LEGCO.
After World War 11, the colonial government became increasingly aware of the rise in African nationalism not only through the activities of the existing Kenya African Union (KAU) but also through other emerging ethnic nationalist movements in the country. A new crop of Africans who had studied in universities overseas such as Eliud Mathu, Mbiyu Koinange, James Gichuru and Jomo Kenyatta had recently returned and had joined KAU.
Returning African soldiers who had participated in the war and were exposed to the outside world presented a formidable challenge to the established order and the notion of European supremacy. Hotels, clubs, buses, railway coaches, schools, hospitals, churches and employment were all segregated. Sir Philip Mitchell, Governor of Kenya from 1944 to 1952, proposed the need to introduce multiracialism in Kenya in order to counter the wave of nationalism.
In 1946, Mitchell in collaboration with a few civil servants attempted, unsuccessfully, to launch a multiracial Institute of African Race Relations. Mitchell was well known for his unflattering view of the African and his concept of a multiracial society was one where several races lived together under the common leadership of one race, in this case the European race.
Tom Askwith, a career civil servant who had come to Kenya in 1936, was gravely aware of the fomenting tensions amongst the Africans and Asians caused by the racial segregation policy. Mr Askwith, with a group of other men of goodwill decided that something needed to be done to bring people of the three races together socially and make them realise how little there was dividing them.
The United Kenya Club was founded on October 29, 1946 by the following: Europeans, Tom Askwith, Bill Kirkaldy-Lewis, Charles Mortimer, Ernest Vasey, T.C. Colchester, H. Earnshaw, Meredith Hyde-Clarke, P. Phillips, Shirley V. Cooke and Geoffrey Northcote. Asians, Hassan Nathoo, K.V. Adalja, Eboo Pirbhai, J. Ahmed, R.G. Datoo, K.S. Benawra, A.R. Dhanji and R.G. Gautama. Africans, Walter Odede, Francis Khamisi, Eliud Mathu, Musa Amalemba, E.K. Binns, Bethwell Gecaga, John Muchura, Muchohi Gikonyo and Dedan Githegi.
The plan was to gather once a week for lunch and once a week in the evening for a formal discussion.
To Governor Mitchell, the formation of the club was a godsend. He ensured that the government’s influence was in the background to give the impression that the initiative by the club was a positive step to help liberal individuals in the colony to achieve the goal of a multiracial society. He hoped that the club would become a centre where African elites would be socialised into European culture and later assimilated into the European political camp.
The first premises of the club were in an old wood and iron building on Whitehouse Road (now Haile Selassie Avenue), the present site of the Central Bank of Kenya.
A constitution called the “Rules of the United Club of Kenya” was promulgated specifying that “The objects of the club shall be the association of persons of all races inhabiting Kenya interested in providing a common meeting ground for social, cultural and recreational activities………The Club shall be non-political”.
The rest of the constitution described how members were to be elected, what they should pay (Sh5 entry fee and Sh20 annual subscription), what committees should exist and how the club should be governed. Chairmanship of the club was to rotate among the three races and Mr Askwith became the first chairman and was succeeded by Bethwell Gecaga.
The club brought together people who influenced the development of Kenya. In 1949, John Karmali, a member of the club started the first multiracial school, Hospital Hill School. By 1952 the club had grown to 325 members. Unfortunately, membership was badly affected by the Mau Mau insurgency that followed with many African members being threatened by the adherents for their perceived closeness with the Europeans.
European members also left in large numbers because the club appeared to be critical of the colonial government. By 1955, the club had no African members largely because of the curfew imposed on them during the State of Emergency. However, the remaining members, mainly Asians and a few hardcore Europeans continued to advocate for inclusivity in all spheres of life for all three races during the weekly lunch talks on Wednesdays.
The club moved to the present site on State House Road in 1953 after the government provided a plot of land.
There is a lot more to be said about United Kenya Club but for now it is clear that the club played a pivotal role in our journey to independence.