Facing Mt. Kenya: A Tour of Kenyatta House, Maralal

The road trip from Nairobi to Maralal is an unforgettable drive through the Great Rift Valley and the Aberdare Ranges. The 348 km scenic drive to the small hillside market town lying east of the Loroghi Plateau within Samburu takes about 6 hours, and is home to the little known Kenyatta House. I recently toured this county and decided to visit and see it for myself.

Kenyatta House is under the management of the National Museums of Kenya.

Built in 1959, the three-bedroom bungalow sits on a 28-acre piece of land on the sides of a hill near Maralal and is under the management of the National Museums of Kenya.

Historical records show that Kenya’s founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was detained in different jails in the harsh districts of Northern Kenya namely Kapenguria, Lokitaung, and Lodwar.

However, the most memorable is his house arrest stint in Maralal where he was allowed the freedom of living with family, moving freely within the town, and interacting with locals. This is where he was partly detained by the British colonial government (more of this in a sec).

A senior colonial administrator working in Samburu area at the time initially used the house, according to the curator. Kenyatta was the second person to live in it between April and August 1961. This was after he was transferred from Lodwar where he had been detained by the colonial government alleged involvement with the Mau Mau movement in 1953.

Mzee Kenyatta was the second person to live in the house between April and August 1961. 

In the sitting room, there is a wooden couch with canvas pillows and a dining table. The curator warns me not to sit on the chairs citing the need for preservation.

There were many reasons that compelled the British colonial government to take Mzee Kenyatta to Maralal and allow him enjoy more freedom than in Lokitaung and Lodwar.

At that point in history in the late 1950s, the tide against the British colonial empire in Africa had started turning.

A timeline of the events preceding Mzee Kenyatta’s transfer to Maralal shows that it came shortly after the stalemate created by KANU’s insistence that his release should precede Kenya’s independence.

In 1958, a letter about the inhumane conditions of the Lokitaung prison where Mzee was imprisoned, together with the infamous Kapenguria Six, was leaked to the media, leading to international uproar and protests in the country. Kapenguria Six included Mzee Kenyatta, Kungu Karumba, Achieng Oneko, Paul Ngei, Bildad Kaggia and Fred Kubai, and are immortalised in Kenya’s history after being accused and detained by the British for organizing the Mau Mau war for Kenya’s freedom.

Following local and international pressure, the British transferred Mzee Kenyatta and his colleagues to Lodwar in 1959 where they were held under house arrest.

Even though they were held in separate houses, the conditions in Lodwar were equally deplorable as Mzee Kenyatta narrated in 1959 to President Daniel arap Moi, the then the Rift Valley LEGCO (Legislative Council) Representative who was allowed to visit the six in an official capacity.

An antique phone with Mzee Kenyatta’s name.

The British chose Maralal as a halfway house where they would keep him during his last months in detention after the KANU stalemate.

Kenya’s first Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who, together with Tom Mboya and Mbiyu Koinange was at the helm of KANU, led calls for delaying Kenya’s independence until Kenyatta was freed.

“By that time, the British had realised that Mzee Kenyatta was going to be Kenya’s leader despite their plans to entice other leaders to form a government in his absence,” the presidential museum records. A white settler, the late Sir Michael Blundell, who was acting as liaison between colonial government and Kenyatta recommended and facilitated Kenyatta’s move from Lodwar to Maralal.

“In preparation for Mzee Kenyatta’s transfer, the British hurriedly constructed a three-bedroom house in Maralal. A doctor was also posted to the town and assigned to serve Mzee Kenyatta,” records indicate. As it happened, it is during his period that his exploits in incarceration were most documented.

Mzee Kenyatta’s detention in Maralal was markedly different from the other long stints he served in Lokitaung and Lodwar for a reason. Is was here that he was allowed the freedom of living with his family, moving freely within the town and interacting with locals but not exceeding in groups of ten people.

The children’s bedroom.

Also while in Maralal, his family; Mama Ngina and her two children, Christina Wambui, (now Christina Pratt), and Jenny Njeri came to live with him.

Soon after, the two daughters started schooling at Maralal DEB School, and Uhuru Kenyatta, who is now the President of Kenya, was born in 1961. The house soon became known as Kenyatta House.

Many delegations from Kenya and other countries visited Mzee Kenyatta in this Northern Kenya town. His first interview with the media since his arrest in October 20th 1952 was in Maralal, with his daughter Margaret Kenyatta with him at the press conference.

On this bed slept some of the most influential leaders who shaped Kenya’s future. (N.B. It is a replica as the original fell apart over time).

After getting most of the story in the sitting room, I move to the guest room, which has a bed where his visitors spent their nights.

The curator leads the way into the master bedroom where there’s a study desk facing the window. Looking through it, one sees a green hilly landscape, and the faraway silhouette of a mountain.

Looking through the window, one sees a green hilly landscape, and the faraway silhouette of a mountain.

Facing Mount Kenya, the famous book by the founding father was also authored in the house, with the title *said to have been* inspired by the location of the house from where one can see the tip of the mountain on clear days. Especially during morning and evening hours.

It also has a metallic bed with springs and a mattress made of sisal fibres, and chest drawers, and a charcoal iron box that Mzee used to press his clothes before meeting visitors.

Facing Mount Kenya, the famous book by the founding father was also authored in the house, with the title said to have been inspired by the location of the house from where one can see the tip of the mountain on clear days. Especially during morning and evening hours.

Mzee Kentatta made many friends in Maralal, which in the 1950s was already cosmopolitan. Residents of Maralal, who were young during that period, still recall his time in the town.

According to Samburu elders, among his close friends were John Chiefly Cardovillis (a Greek businessman), Mzee Issa (a Somali businessman), Mzee Lekalja whose butchery he often visited and Mzee Wanyeri Kimomoru (a cobbler hailing from Nyeri whose stall Kenyatta frequently visited to fix his shoes). Lekalja is reputed to have been Mzee Kenyatta’s personal post office as he used to deliver his correspondences.

In the kitchen, there’s small firewood oven that could bake breads, cook and at the same time heat bathroom water.

On August 14, 1961, the colonial government moved Kenyatta to his Gatundu home where he was put under watch and barred from making political statements. A week later, on August 21, Kenyatta was finally given his full freedom.

Now 57 years old, the house – that is privy to the greatest secret-agreement of land signed between Kenyatta and colonialists – is still very strong.

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