• Caleb Atemi

Kiano and the African Renaissance

Updated: May 5, 2019

Kiano and the Africa Renaissance

One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching”-Gerard Way

The year was 2001. The year I had the privilege of spending time with a Kenyan icon, Dr. Julius Gikonyo Kiano. Every Sunday, running for months, Kiano would invite me to his Karen residence for lunch and an afternoon of deliberations.

We would sit in his living room on one of the Victorian sofa seats and discuss various topics while sipping tea. At times he would throw me a knowing smile and a wink as he sneaked a spoonful of sugar into his cup. “I will be in trouble if my wife or daughter Wanja find out that am taking sugar but am tired of this healthy eating slavery” He would say in jest as we began our deliberations.

“Today, let us discuss environmental issues,” Dr. Kiano would suggest and soon we would plunge deep into matters environment. Other Sundays we would meet in his library or under the canopy of beautiful trees that dotted his lovely home next to the historical Bomas of Kenya. Each day had its own topic; we talked about politics, education, economics, science, health and even love and human relationships.

Then one Sunday he stunned me with a question:”Bwana Atemi why do you think you are the right person to write my memoir?” I was bewildered by the question and for a few seconds I was tongue tied: “Sir because I believe am the best. I will give your book a journalistic flair. You have to decide whether you want a detailed academic book that will be read only by researchers and the university community or one that captures your rich history but reads like a thriller novel”

There was a long silence. I could hear my heart beat and the sound of my own lips as I took the tea and the loud gulp as it descended down my throat. Then he spoke, “Next Sunday make sure you come. I will have an important announcement to make”

That Sunday, I sat quietly listening to the chatter of the numerous invited guests. Prominent businessmen especially from the Kikuyu community and politicians were among them. Kiano softly knocked a spoon against the glass of water he was holding, cleared his throat then said, “I would like to announce today that this young man, Mr. Caleb Atemi, who has since become my friend, is now my official biographer”. A huge silence descended upon the home. Then thunderous clapping followed.

It is then that it downed on me that all the days I visited Kiano, I was undergoing a thorough interviewing process. I had passed. I had been found fit, for the job of documenting the story of the man who became the first Kenyan to earn a PhD. I silently thanked Sunday Standard Managing Editor Mundia Muchiri who had commissioned me to write Kiano’s profile for the newspapers African Example series.

Embarking on the Task

From there on things moved rapidly. We scheduled daily meetings for detailed interviews. He transformed his garage into our book writing center. On two or three occasions, I joined him in his Mercedes Benz for a ride to Muranga his rural home to enrich my creativity and imagination and capture the rich description I would need when I embarked on the writing task.

I recall spending the whole day of February 14 2003 at the Kiano residence. On that Valentines night I bade farewell to Mr. and Mrs. Jane Kiano. The couple was off to their Valentines dinner. It was also time for me to intensify my work on the memoir of one of Kenya's and Africa's most revered leaders. For one year, the old man of politics had taken me through a vigorous exercise of scrutiny and testing to assess whether I qualified to be his biographer.

Apart from the Sunday lunches, there were dinners or simply tea meetings. He would unleash topic after topic. I thank God I had read some books to cover my mental track in every discussion. His age had placed him into the bracket of techno phobia. He dreaded using a computer, a silent fear that his daughter Wanja constantly teased him about. He insisted on writing his own autobiography using the old fashion long hand and then asking his secretary to transfer the same to the computer.

"That Mzee" I told him on several occasions," Will take you a lifetime". After many months of arguments, and diplomatic cajoling, he agreed to sit down with me with my recorder and notebook to document his momentous life.

Ours became a father and son relationship; a teacher and student friendship. We spent many hours, mornings, evenings and nights going through his eventful life.

To make our work easy and to reduce interruptions of his family life, he turned his garage into an office for the completion of his book. It was a project that excited him.

“My son, as soon as this book goes to the publishers, I want you to help me write the biography of my old friend Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s Second Vice President. I have plenty of collected works on him and I will feel proud authoring his life.” Said Dr. Kiano.

When the light dimmed

We strategized and mapped out our trips to Murang’a, western Kenya, the coast and the United States of America. We planned to visit his former schools and universities in the US. We prepared our budget and were ready to set sail then…one evening, while taking my children home from school, I stopped by a gas station to fuel my car when I received a call from Wanja:” Mzee collapsed and we have rushed him to hospital. He does not look good.”

I hastened to join the family at Nairobi Hospital. What followed were the longest days of my life. For days and nights we sat at his bedside. We sang his favourite songs and played his best music. We teased him and cried. His old friends such as Daniel arap Moi paid him a visit and also sat at his bedside. Daktari never recovered. His doctor had warned that he had suffered a massive stroke and lost a good amount of oxygen flow to the brain. He was therefore brain dead.

Eventually, on August 8th 2003, the family watched, helpless and in tears as the doctors removed his lifeless body from the life support machine. The curtain had fallen on one great life. For me, I was thrown into total confusion. I had to start reconstructing his story afresh without his voice. The story of a great man. A man many have described as a gentleman, a good man and a statesman.

A mixture of numerous events made it difficult for me to complete his book. His widow, Jane Kiano passed the mantle to another worthy writer. Today I still hold onto my manuscript. I still have so many untold tales of this great man.

I am yet to tell the world about Kiano’s life with his first wife Earnestine, the African American beauty that he met while pursuing his studies in the US in the 1940 and 50s.

Earnestine told me during an interview in Nairobi that:” Kiano was a great man, a lovely husband and an amazingly brilliant man. He had enough brain power to transform the Kenyan economy.” She told me that her deportation in 1966 had been occasioned by orders from Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. That before her deportation, she had come by crucial information about plans to assassinate her husband Julius Gikonyo Kiano, Lawyer Argwins Kodhek and Tom Mboya. The planned killings were all part of the Kenyatta succession wars.

“I later met Mboya in the US after I had spent seven months in no-man’s land as I struggled to regain US citizenship. I warned him that his life was in danger. He laughed and said: “Madam Kiano if they want me, I am just a sitting duck”

Kiano harboured ambitions of setting up an African university, based on esoteric and indigenous knowledge of African communities. This ambition took him to the peak of Mount Kenya where he spent 40 days with Kikuyu sages who let him into the mystical world of African reconnaissance. They told him why the Black race was a superior race; why it was a dream of most Caucasians to become black. They told him why Mt. Kenya was a holy mountain not just to the Kenyan communities but also to Egyptians. The mountain, they said to Kiano has Biblical linkages: “Because it is in Mount Kenya that the Ark of the Covenant is buried”.

I will have the chance of telling the world, about Kiano’s moment of love when he knelt down to propose to the late Coretta Scott Kings, the widow of the American Civil Rights Crusader Martin Luther King Jnr. Kiano met Coretta during his undergraduate studies at University of California in the US: “She turned down my offer by saying that she was not ready to marry a famous man. In those days my friend Dr. Njoroge Mungai and I would appear on radio shows to discuss the Mau Mau struggle. She was later to marry an even more famous man than myself.” Mzee Kiano would recall with a smile. The two dated for five years.

Mzee Kiano taught me a lot. To be a good biographer, one must read and read widely. You must have the confidence that inspires trust in your client. You will encounter many frustrating moments but you must maintain your focus on the subject.

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