Kenya’s first President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP NATION MEDIA GROUP
The untold stories of Kenyatta’s private Bamburi posh residence
Very little is known about Mzee Kenyatta’s Bamburi home – only that this was his escape away from the power trappings of State House, Mombasa, when he was on a tour of the coast.
As an archival file on Bamburi beach cottage now shows, the late President Kenyatta could relax here and enjoy the Ocean breeze with minimal security around him.
The new archival file allows us to peep into the private life of President Kenyatta: His love for Njahi, citrus fruits, coconut trees, flowers and goats! All these were brought to Bamburi.
The file also brings out an issue that few Kenyans would believe: Government officials always refused — and in writing — to pay Kenyatta’s private bills and billed him for any service rendered to him. That would be surprising for a man whose private life has been thought to be mixed with his public one.
But the most hilarious story is that of Kenyatta’s goat herdsman who was left to take care of the President’s new swimming pool.
But by the time Mzee returned to the coast, he found that the water had turned green with algae.
Mzee complained and senior government officials had to seek a solution with samples sent to Nairobi to establish the problem.
It would later emerge that the herdsman only turned on the circulation system when he heard that Kenyatta was on the way!
The swimming pool issue would lead to some war of words between Defence Minister, Dr Njoroge Mungai, and Kenyatta’s private secretary, Eliud Mathu. This was after Dr Mungai had decided — without consulting Mr Mathu — to order some lime from Smith Mackenzie & Company to clean the pool. Since there was no Local Purchase Order, the company thought they should bill State House, Mombasa and the bill ended up on Mr Mathu’s desk.
Mr Mathu and Dr Mungai were not the best of friends, anyway, and the Comptroller refused to pay for the lime: “As I gave no authority for this expenditure, I suggest that correspondence should be carried out between yourselves, Smith Mackenzie & Company and the person who placed the order,” he wrote.
REFUSED TO PAY BILL
The company then tried to bill the office of the Provincial Commissioner, then under Isaiah Mathenge but the accountant, Mr A.O. Achoki, also refused to pay Kenyatta’s bill. He wrote: “I also decline to be party to this order. Since instructions (to order the lime) came neither from my office nor his Excellency’s office, I suggest you contact Ministry of Defence whose minister (Dr Njoroge Mungai) did in fact place the order.”
One of the many correspondences on Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s Bamburi cottage property. PHOTO | FILE
Since there was no further correspondence on this — and most likely Kenyatta was never informed of the lime — perhaps Dr Mungai had to foot the bill.
What we know from the file is that the District Hydraulic Engineer, Mr B.P. Grover, wrote a letter to Mathenge (to advise the goat herder) that the circula “even when the pool is not being used.” He also asked Kenyatta to pay £50 per year and the water department would maintain the swimming pool for him.
A month later Mr Grover told Mr Mathenge’s deputy Mr Isaiah K. Cheluget: “We cannot undertake continued maintenance of this pool unless funds are provided (by Kenyatta).”
Contrary to the believe that Kenyatta did not purchase this particular property, the evidence on the file indicates that, indeed, the property was purchased by “the President and some ministers.”
This is according to a letter from Kenyatta’s Private Secretary and State House Comptroller Mr Eliud Mathu dated October 13 1965. It tells a Dr A. J. Kassam (most likely, the previous owner) that arrangements should be made also “to ensure that the purchasers will be responsible in future for electricity and water supply statements.”
The idea was that State House could not meet any of Kenyatta’s bills on his private life. That would surprise those who think that there was a thin line between Kenyatta’s private life and presidency. It was also a tricky balance by the civil servants on what to do with such a private residence.
The keys to the house were usually kept by Kenyatta’s private secretary and in one letter Mr Mathenge reminds him to “bring with you the keys to the house next time you come to Mombasa so that the telephone installation can be carried out.”
The Minister for Agriculture Mr Bruce MacKenzie — the ex-Mossad man with classic mutton-chop whiskers — took it upon himself to make sure there were trees, grass and flowers in the compound and he gave the instructions to the agricultural department to do so. It would later bill Kenyatta for this apart from the soil which was received from the Municipal Council of Mombasa.
After the soil, worth Sh1,176, was delivered by the Municipal Engineer’s office, Mr Mahihu was sent the bill to hand over to Mzee. Perhaps knowing that there was no way Kenyatta would pay for soil, he sent a letter indicating the soil was a donation by the Town Clerk! “I believe that it was initially agreed that the Municipal Council would donate the soil in honour of the great service rendered to the nation by his Excellency Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. I trust you will now discuss the matter with the Town Clerk and His Worship the Mayor, with a view to waiving the charges raised.”
This request was granted by the town clerk Mr N.M. Adembesa, in a letter dated December 22, 1966 but had to be approved by the Minister for Local Government, Mr Lawrence Sagini. The matter had also been tabled at the council for approval during the December 6, 1966 meeting and recorded under Special Finance Minute No 1917/66.
When an electricity account was created, it was in the name of Mr Charles Njonjo, the Attorney-General, perhaps an indicator of how close the two were – or that Mr Njonjo co-owned the property. Actually, initial purchases for the house were billed to Mr Njonjo.
The acquisition of the private plot also left the provincial engineer handling a new problem — access and security. This was because there were private plots next to Kenyatta’s and State House wanted the security of the President guaranteed.
Mathu had also wanted a wall constructed “to provide privacy rather than security” and was not to be 2 feet 6 inches above ground level. He said: “This will afford an uninterrupted view of the beach and the sea from within the grounds of the cottage.”
The problem, according to Mr James H Omolo, then coast engineer, was that the fairly loose sand extended to a depth of 17 feet below the ground level of the plot. The engineers had found that the wall could only be built with pillars and the space between filled with honey-comb brick work. “I cannot think of an alternative without getting upto my ears in sand,” said the engineer.
The work on the wall was given to Bamburi Portland Cement – and every day, some of the senior officials would be stopped at the gate for hours until they had to seek Mr Mathenge’s intervention. “Yesterday, I was twice delayed quite considerably,” wrote I.R Roberts, the Bamburi Cement general manager who was going to inspect the works in a letter dated September 30, 1966.
This was because Defence Minister Dr Njoroge Mungai had on September 9, 1966 gazetted the beach house and adjoining premises as a Protected Area.
“No person shall be in such protected area without the permission of the President, Minister for Defence, Minister for Home Affairs and Attorney General,” read the Order.
Bamburi Cement would later use that opportunity of access, when advising Kenyatta on the colour schemes of the house, to tell him of the problems that Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere had brought to the firm after he nationalised the banks. Mr Roberts told Mr Kenyatta that Tanzanians owed the company £130,000 and “we have not yet received payments for the cement supplied”.
Whether this letter was a clever way of asking Kenyatta to pay for the work done is not clear. But the letter ends with: “I look forward to seeing you in Bamburi soon.”
Work on this property would go slow because at times, Kenyatta would have to be on the ground to make inspections on what tree was to be removed. Again, it was taking time before bills reached Mr Mathu. This is because most contractors were writing bills to whichever ministry they thought would handle the matter.
For instance, when some improvements were carried out by the Ministry of Works in 1966, they had charged a State House account. The comptroller wrote back a telegraph No T.71 saying that any improvements on the beach house “would be paid from a private account.”
When Mr R. Da Gama Rose of the Kwale District Agricultural Officer invoiced Sh10 for some 20 coconut seedlings from the Msambweni Nursery, the PC Mr Mahihu wrote back: “Let me know whether the 20 coconut seedlings were supplied to State House or the president’s cottage at Bamburi.” It then turned out they belonged to State House and Mahihu wrote that the bill should be invoiced to State House.
There were frustrations too. President Kenyatta wanted a borehole at the compound to provide water for his gardens. But the government chemist reported that it could not be used because it was “excessively hard, salty, and organically unsatisfactory. Unless an alternative supply is available the supply should be softened, filtered and sterilised before use for domestic purposes.”
Further analysis of this well showed that the water was not even suitable for agriculture. By then, Mr Kenyatta had told his inner circle of his desire to have fruits on the farm.
With this failure, the Department of Water sent a consumer’s agreement to Kenyatta to sign and this was again diverted to Mr Njonjo by the Provincial Commissioner.
“Please sign it as the applicant and return the form to me so that I can send it to the officer in charge,” wrote Mathenge.
Another interest Mr Kenyatta had were citrus fruits and pineapple suckers and some 2,000 were planted by Shah Virn.
Due to bureaucracy and nature of Kenyatta’s job, some invoices would go long before they were paid. At times, the State House Comptroller, Mr Mathu, had to be reminded by Mr Mathenge to “let the President look at these invoices for his information and whatever action he considers fit”. That happened after Messrs Lalji Kurji – who was doing the joinery work- complained to Mr Mathenge that his suppliers of timber were “pressing (him) for payments for the timber which he has already used.”
At one point, Mamujee Brothers Limited had wrongly invoiced the Provincial Accountant for work done in Bamburi. “Any correspondence in connection with the above outstanding account (Sh5,163) should be addressed to the Private Secretary…I have nothing to look into… I am sorry for the inconvenience but I have no alternative,” wrote Mr A. O. Achoki while refusing to pay any bills from government coffers for the President.
Any time that Mr Kenyatta would see a tree that he had an interest in, he would call Mathu and ask him to have the same delivered to Bamburi. At one point, some nine Ficus Benjamina had to be railed from Nairobi to Mombasa.
Some of the requests were interesting though. There was a time the Maize and Produce Board was asked to send black Njahi to Bamburi for a planting experiment that Kenyatta wanted to embark on. The General Manager E.M. Gaitho dispatched the same to Bamburi. Some more cow peas were bought from Shah Virchand Karamshi. We don’t know whether they ever germinated.
Keeping goats at Bamburi was also a challenge because they would often get sick. The coast veterinary officer Mr G.R. Duncanson would normally visit the plot, administer drugs and send the invoice to Kenyatta’s private secretary.
Once Kenyatta finished building some villas here too, he rented some to his friends and they had to use a side entrance to the Bamburi Farm from Ocean View Hotel. Some of these were Joseph Murumbi and Mr J Bambridge who leased the property from 21 August 1966 to 20 August 1967.
Both Murumbi and Bambridge were business partners and had founded the real estate company, Bambridge, Murumbi and Tyson together with George Tyson and Viscount Mandeville.
There were other cottages in the compound rented by companies for the managers. But they always had problems with State House sentries and once Dr Njuguna Gakuo, the East African Railways and Harbours General Manager and father of First Lady Margaret Kenyatta — had once been refused entry when he was taken to view the cottage rented by the railways for his use.
But there was one rule for all those who rented these other villas: “Occupants of the rented house should not make the president’s lawn a picnic spot!”
And that was life in Bamburi.