Njoroge Mungai – A Tribute to One of the Last Freedom Fighters

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A man whose role in the building of the modern Kenya can never be underestimated, a man who kept Kenya on a safe path when all around was falling down.

Njoroge-Mungai

“He had a dynamism about him that was typical of the Americans of the ’60s.”said Colin Forbes, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Nairobi whom Mungai recruited to Kenya some 40 years ago.

Who knew that this man who arrived in San Francisco with only three cents, would have his hands in the making of a whole nation?

Dr Njoroge Mungai was born in a hospital at a time when practically all Africans gave birth at home.

“My mother was among the first women to go to school and learn how to read and write. She and my father were members of the Church of Torch, Kikuyu where the records of my birth were preserved. The records are still intact at the Church and they show my birth attendant as one Dr John William Arthur.”

Mungai’s persona and character was an amalgamation of the great and the common ,the exact combination of grit and simplicity needed in a leader. He is the first cousin of the late Jomo Kenyatta, a leader of the Mau Mau rebellion and Kenya’s legendary first president. His father was a cook at the local Presbyterian mission in Nairobi and later opened a general merchandise store. Mungai’s parents encouraged him and his five siblings to get an education; because the young Mungai could read and write, he started doing odd jobs at the local hospital after being treated there for a leg infection. He had five brothers and one sister, Jemimah Gecaga, who was the first female (nominated) member of parliament in Kenya. His brother Ambassador Ngethe Njoroge was a diplomat of long standing. Truly a family of many firsts and path-breaking beginnings, Mungai did great things and that is what he was destined to.

Mungai’s journey as a future statesman began much earlier in his childhood when he studied with other Kenyan stalwarts like Kyale Mwendwa, Robert Matano, Julius Kiano and Munyua Waiyaki in Alliance High School.

He first met Kenyatta in 1946 at Dagoretti and he was so “fascinated” by the fly whisk wielding older man that he immediately decided he would like to one day work for “this man” who had just come from the UK. This great leader later became secretary to the Kenya African National Union, which was launched in 1960. It served as the country’s ruling party for the next 40 years. He also traveled to Britain in 1960 to take part in drafting the country’s new constitution, the same document that is the source of much political strife in Kenya today. Mungai served as the personal physician to Kenyatta, who was imprisoned by the British for seven years for his political activities. Mungai visited Kenyatta during his time in prison, where he found him to be suffering from malnutrition; Kenyatta recovered after his release.

When Mungai left Alliance in 1945 he worked locally for two years before joining Fort Hare University in South Africa. From South Africa, Mungai went to Stanford University where he obtained a BA degree in 1952 before joining Stanford Medical School. He furthered his medical studies at the Columbia University in the US. While Mungai was in California as a student, he used to go to Berkeley and other cities around the United States countering the widespread British propaganda about the Mau Mau through talks and demonstrations.

After his training, he returned to Kenya at the height of the conflict. His return to Kenya in late 1959 was followed by the setting up of a chain of medical clinics at Thika, Embu and Riruta. He also launched his mobile clinic to bring affordable medical care closer to the neglected African populations in these areas.Kenya was in a state of emergency, and he decided to be something more than a doctor,Mungai chose to be a patriot.He said,

“If you have to get independence, you have to soil your hands, dirty your hands in politics,” he says. “It’s not very clean, but you have to do it if you are going to get anything.”

Mungai’s role in the movement to free the East African nation from British rule in the early 1960s can never be forgotten.He was part of the government’s inner circle in the first decades of independence.Also as the colonial administrators prepared to leave Kenya, they encouraged the North Eastern province predominantly inhabited by people of the Somali origin to secede from Kenya which led to the Shifta War between the Kenyan government and the Somali rebels. It was under Dr Mungai’s watch that the Shifta war of the early to mid 1960s was prosecuted. Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda mediated in that war with the resultant Arusha Accord of 1967 that ushered peace in the region.

Mungai’s first political meeting in Kenya was at the Makadara Hall in Nairobi at the invitation of the late Tom Mboya in 1960. His second meeting was at Kanjeru stadium in Kikuyu at the invitation of the late Dr Gikonyo Kiano.At independence Dr Mungai became the minister for Health where he intended to ensure that the infrastructure was in place, by equipping the facilities to the medical centres and recruiting the necessary manpower wherever required.

To fulfill this mandate, he sought financial and technical support from the West and also played a key role in the establishment of a medical school in the country.He also established a national system of government-run hospitals in around 74 districts in the country.

Later as the substantive minister of Internal Security and Defence, he oversaw the equipping of the armed forces with modern rifles, armoured vehicles and other necessary tools, expansion of the army and the formation of the Kenya Air Force.

Dr Mungai became the first substantive Foreign Affairs minister at a time when some African countries notably South Africa and Mozambique were still under the yoke of colonialism.

In this capacity he moved a motion in Organization of African Unity (OAU) against the supply of arms to the Boer regime in South Africa and Portugal who were still oppressing Africans as the colonizers of South Africa and Mozambique respectively. Dr Mungai was also instrumental in bringing the United Nations Environmental Programme to Kenya.His role in bringing UNep headquarters to Kenya is commendable.

In 1960, Dr Mungai in the company of Drs Waiyaki, Likimani and Nesbitt visited and medically examined Kenyatta in detention. “Contrary to the propaganda that was being spread by the British, we found him physically and mentally fit to lead Kenya”.Mungai would later become the first president’s personal doctor, but when Kenyatta became president, a team of local specialists and those from Canada and the UK was put together. Mungai was the team coordinator.

The man who served briefly as Moi’s minister for Environment says his position on the 1976 ‘change the constitution’ crusade was to have a clause inserted in the constitution to limit the term of the president and not to bar Moi from ascending to power.
Mungai abandoned active politics in 1997, but briefly came back in 2002 to support the ‘Uhuru for president’ campaign. Mainly due to health reasons, he was not visible in the 2013 presidential election campaigns.

It is not astonishing that this great leader was revered by foreign nations equally. The embassy of France honoured him with the medal of the Commander of the National Order of Merit in the April of 2014.

Dr Mungai has been suffering from a bad back for a while that at times forced him to walk with two walking sticks. He underwent a corrective operation a few years ago in the United States and when he came back after several months of recuperating, he was able to walk more upright with the help of one walking stick. That notwithstanding, he continued to oversee and manage the day-to-day operations of his expansive Magana Holdings company.

Sources close to his family told the Star that his health deteriorated in the last two months and two months ago he was hospitalised at the Nairobi hospital where he remained until his death.

Few however knew of his hospitalisation and even fewer were able to see him there. Dr Mungai died on Saturday morning. He lives behind four children, one boy and three girls. Rest in peace Daktari.

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Let us remember and emphasize the peaceful times. Let us not see Kenya merely through the tainted glass of 2007. Let us see it through the clear glass of the other 49 years.Let us see Kenya and her future through the eyes of a man who never hesitated in voicing his strong opinions arguing the proposal to give one-third of parliamentary seats to women would bring more disagreement than unity — making women appear “inferior and weak,” unable to succeed in their own right, which has not been the case. The times when the defeat of the constitution has thrown Kenya’s government into disarray and threatened the presidency of Mwai Kibaki, who succeeded Moi, this was a man who believed in the nation’s potential despite the political turmoil, a man who was optimistic about Kenya’s future, predicting a return to a period of political and social stability in which the country’s primary industries — coffee, tea, floriculture and horticulture — can thrive.