Kenya Airlift

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Among the beneficiaries to the Odinga airlifts was Cabinet Minister Joseph Kamotho. Kamotho studied both in the East and West. He went to the Soviet Union then returned to be given a scholarship to Syracuse University in the US...."

Kiano remembers: Airlifts, politics and all that

Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano not only played a major role in Kenya’s post-independence politics but also helped organize the largest academic exodus ever, the so-called airlifts. Caleb Atemi tells the story of the man who became the first Kenyan to obtain a PhD.

It was a cold, chilly night. Frosty winds blew - almost violently - whistling into the dark sky. A young man, with a suitcase in his hand, stumbled through an animated crowd. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he bade farewell to relatives and friends. Hugs, kisses, and more hugs. Ululation - song and dance - rent the air as he made his way to the departure lounge. The multitude rushed to the waving bay. Despite the darkness, they waved and waved. They waved and waved and waved until the plane carrying their son was swallowed by the distant clouds. The be spectacled 22-year-old was embarking on a journey of a lifetime - a historic odyssey.

On that February night of 1948, Julius Gikonyo Kiano started an eventful academic journey, to a tiny commercial college in Philadelphia, USA. The voyage took him to Antioch College, Ohio, where he emerged with a BA degree in Economics four years later. By 1953, Kiano had earned an MA degree in Political Science from Stanford University, California.

His burning urge for knowledge then took him to the University of California, where he studied until 1956.

From Stanford at Palo Alto, California, Kiano became the first Kenyan to earn a PhD degree. The ambitious lad from Waithaka flew back, in September 1956, not just as a qualified political scientist, but with the doctorate title. He proceeded to the Royal Technical College (now the University of Nairobi) to become its first African lecturer. In March of 1958, Dr Kiano was elected to the Legislative Council as a member for Central Province.

return from the US. Armed with degrees and burning with the desire to save Kenya from the colonial yoke, Kiano joined forces with the charismatic labour leader Tom Mboya. The two embarked on an ambitious and historic educational programme which involved literally airlifting of students to the US.

Between 1958 and 1962 the airlifts became the largest exodus of Kenyan men and women. Approximately 5,000 were airlifted to American universities. While Kiano taught at the university, Mboya served as secretary-general of the Kenya Federation of Labour (KFL).

During his labour flights to the US, Mboya became friends with the late William Scheinman, a friendship that can only be described as extraordinarily warm and generous.

Bill Scheinman, a millionaire white Jew, took Mboya to Port Hyannis, Massachusetts, to introduce the Kenyan labour leader to a charming young senator, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Kennedy and Mboya immediately struck a cord.

Kennedy, who later became the first Roman Catholic to be elected American President, agreed to participate in the programme of educating Africans. While Bill spearheaded the collection of funds with which to defray the costs of the first two airlifts (1958 and 1959), Kiano and Mboya were busy selecting students for various scholarships.

“When I returned from the US, politics was getting very warm. It was only a matter of time before we became free. We needed educated people, technicians and university graduates. The Mau Mau movement had broken the backbone of the white supremacy. Having been helped so much to go to America, it was my duty to help others get university education. And I used my contacts to help arrange for scholarships,” says Kiano as he sips a cup of tea.

Kiano recalls with nostalgia how in 1959 he was invited by the American Society of African Culture (ASAC) to discuss the future of Africa. ASAC was then headed by Horace Mann, President of Lincoln University and Black Educators. Kiano shared the platform with Senator Kennedy and Congressman ****s of Minnesota.

“My address was entitled Africa Shall be Free. It was at that meeting that I appealed to American families to make available their homes for our boys and girls to stay while studying in their high schools and colleges.

“I also appealed to Senator Kennedy to do whatever he could to help the African education. Mboya and I had already began working together on these scholarships and when I returned I reported to him about this meeting. He also succeeded in seeing Kennedy who with the help of friends organized finances for the airlifts,” says Kiano, pausing to smile into the distant past.

The former minister recalls telling Kennedy that despite the major response by Americans in accommodating Kenyan students, the acquisition of air tickets was still a headache. In early 1960, the Director of admissions at Harvard University organized the African Scholarships Programme for American Universities. His efforts got 200 American colleges and universities to offer free tuition to African students.

Between 1959 and 1961, President Kennedy, the African American Student Foundation and Phillip Randolph, an American trade union leader, enabled the chartering of a plane to fly Kenyans to America. This became the highlight of the exodus of those seeking higher education.

“Scheinman, a millionaire who sold aircraft parts, together with Frank Montero and a group known as the African American Students Foundation and the African American Institute played a key role in the airlifts,” remarks Kiano adding: “Kennedy tried to keep his contribution to the airlifts private but together with his friends he was central to its success.”

While in New York City in 1959, Kiano visited his friend, the legendary African American leader Dr Martin Luther King, whose wife Colleta was his college-mate. Soon, the black civil rights leader was also supporting the airlifts.

Kiano emphasises that contrary to some views, he worked very closely with Mboya on the airlift programme. There was no rivalry whatsoever. He recalls Mboya’s letter to the African Review number 4 of April 1958. He wrote that: “Dr Kiano’s house was constantly full of young men and women of all tribes seeking advice on further education.”

But where did Kiano begin his eventful life? Twelve years after he was born Kiano was admitted to the Kagumo African Primary School. His daily challenge was the twelve mile trip to and from school. His youthful days were full of anxiety and fear. These were the days of the Second World War and there were fears that Italian forces might attack Kenya.

“We were warned that Italian forces which for a short time occupied Moyale may drop bombs in Nyeri. This created fear” Kiano recalls adding: “Our principal began drilling us on how we could hide in the bush should they attack.” Kiano says that this was not the best way of being introduced to boarding school. “It was at this time that I joined the scouts movement,” he remembers.

After the Italians had been kicked out, and his elder brother had joined the army as a medical personnel, Kiano began nursing interest in politics. His brother and other military friends kept him informed about the British and the American liberation wars.

When he eventually joined Alliance High School, KianoÂ’s political ambitions burst. It is while at Alliance that he witnessed Eliud MathuÂ’s election as the First African representative in the Legislative Council. Kiano then knew it was only a matter of time before Kenya would gain independence.

Open expression of views at Alliance was difficult. The constant presence of disciplinarian Mr Carey Francis ensured that students kept to their books. But the youth always have their way. In 1945 the studentsÂ’ body at Alliance started the Saturday Evening paper, a hand written journalistic work. Its editor was Nicholas Otieno who was later to become a Professor of Science at the University of Nairobi. It is this paper that intensified further KianoÂ’s interest in public affairs.

“We were originally 52 at Alliance but only 15 of us were allowed to go to Form Three and then Form Four in 1945. We all wanted to acquire university education to become better public servants. There was Makerere where one could get a diploma but even those who went to Makerere later sought university education overseas,” says Kiano, pausing to whisper something to his wife Jane.

My interview has interrupted their romantic evening. Dr Kiano is currently the chair of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) having retired from active politics. The 75-year-old loves reading, and attending public and private functions with his wife Jane.

He has also put his mental and physical energies in the writing of his memoirs, a humongous but exhilarating task considering the experiences to be captured from his life and times.

Kiano married Jane on June 19, 1966 in a colourful wedding ceremony that captured the attention of many Kenyans because here was a prominent scholar and cabinet minister tying the knot with an elegant beauty.

Their union gave them two daughters - Dr Joy Kiano, a PhD holder in Molecular Biology, currently in the United Kingdom and Wanja Kiano, the Director of Halisi Mineral Water Limited. While Joy, who received her PhD this year, was born in 1967, Wanja followed in January of 1969.

Jane meanwhile managed to grow out of her husbandÂ’s influential shadow to curve a niche for herself among the who is who in KenyaÂ’s public life. She was for many years the chairperson Maendeleo ya Wanawake before joining the National Council of Women of Kenya which she heads today. The Kianos spend most of their evenings at their home in Langata.

Some of KianoÂ’s schoolmates at Alliance include Dr Njoroge Mungai, Dr Munyua Waiyaki, Kyale Mwendwa, Henry Muli, former Cabinet Minister Robert Matano, former Speaker of the National Assembly Fred Mati, Maurice Alala, who was a professor of Mathematics at the University of Nairobi. All the 15 eventually managed to get university education.

Kiano had a brief stint at Makerere between 1946and 1947. It was a very restless period for him because his heart was set in getting a degree overseas. He wrote very many letters to various American colleges. The Crisis Magazine, published by the National Association of the Advancement of Coloured People, was his main source of information on these institutions. Towards the end of 1947, Kiano was admitted to Pioneer Business Institute in Philadelphia.

Nothing could hold him back now! While at home he got in touch with some elders namely Jesse Kariuki, James Beauttah and Waiganjo Wandotono, father of former Nairobi PC the late Fred Waiganjo. Many of these elders were previously involved in the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). They raised money to pay for KianoÂ’s ticket to Philadelphia.

“Before going to Makerere I taught for a short time at the Teacher Training College in Githunguri under Mbiu Koinange who was the first Kenyan to get an MA from America. While in the US, I was able to earn a scholarship and also to work for my pocket money,” says Kiano, standing up to usher in his daughter Wanja who has just entered with a bunch of essays and seminar papers. It is at this point that he reveals he is trying to put together his memoirs.

Among the first people to benefit from the Kiano-Mboya programme was Mr Francis Githaiga wa Cioma, whose father was at the forefront of organising KianoÂ’s trip. Githaiga later became one of the first Kenyan graduates in criminology.

“I do remember Hilary Ng’weno coming to see me for advice. He came to my apartment at the University of Nairobi. He was a very brilliant student and he got a scholarship to study in Harvard. He was also admitted at Makerere. I advised him he should go to Harvard.

“I remember even advising Mr Mwangi Maathai, husband to Prof Wangari Maathai. We also got a scholarship for the late Dr Zachary Onyonka to go to Puerto Rico,” recalls Kiano.

In 1952, Kiano travelled to the Bay area in San Francisco to visit his PhD supervisor, Dr Robert Scalapino, and his wife Dee. Soon, the Scalipanos were interested in looking for homes for Kenyan students to study in San Francisco. Within three years Mrs Scalapino had helped more than 45 students get homes in Northern California.

“She even took me round to various churches and groups and we were able to get pledges for homes. Margaret Waithera, the long serving Principal of Kenya High School, and Mr Evans Gichuki, the first Registrar of the University of Nairobi, benefited from the Scalapinos’ efforts.”

Kiano’s main inspiration to assist in getting students to America stemmed from the fact that Kenyans were fighting for independence and would soon require educated Africans to take over jobs in both public and private sectors: “I believed then, and I still believed when I was a Cabinet Minister that Africanisation of the Public Service and that of the commercial, agriculture and industrial sectors was an essential element of self governance.”

Kiano says that the airlifts were a real drama, with relatives, friends and onlookers jamming the airport. There were anxious moments of tears and joy. They created a lot of interest even in American colleges and universities.

Even after 1961, Kiano and Mboya continued working for more airlifts. He is extremely proud to have played a key role in the historic event. The airlifts played a major role in the achievement of manpower for both the public service and the private sector.

Then Kiano and President Moi, got involved in another crucial programme. Kiano was the Minister for Commerce and Industry while Moi was in charge of Home Affairs. This was the Africanisation programme.

“I believed that unless Africans felt that they had a stake in the economy, you could not guarantee stability,” Kiano speaks of his plan then. “So we felt that all certified citizens whether natural or naturalised, had equal rights to run businesses and invest in the country.”

He explains: “The Government also felt that small and medium businesses which did not require much investment, should be left to Africans. We wanted to make Africans, not just labourers but also owners and investors.”

His goes on to say: “I was authorised by the Government together with Moi, who was then Minister for Home Affairs, to scrutinise businesses in Nairobi and other urban centres as well as rural and trading centres and give notice to non-citizens owning small and medium commercial enterprises that within six months, or when their current licences expired, that no new licences would be issued.”

Kiano’s ministry organized committees under the Nairobi Provincial Commissioner to identify possible applicants from among the African communities for the shops and other businesses. Moi, who was in charge of citizenship, had the job of ensuring that non-citizens “did not hang around”.

Kiano reminds me that Africanisation was outside our interview mandate so we revert to education and the airlifts. He says that although Kenya has come a long way, with six public universities, we still require more institutions of higher learning.

The Government, he says, should keep negotiating with other countries to set aside scholarships both at the post graduate and undergraduate levels. The governments of Japan and Germany among others, have played a major role in supporting our local universities.

Kenyans, says Kiano, can magnify university education opportunities: “We are beginning to see the presence of private, non-commercial universities like the United States International University (USIU), Daystar, Catholic University, Methodist University in Meru and other religious institutions,” Kiano remarks.

“This is a challenge for us Kenyans to establish and increase the number of private universities. In this respect I recall with pride the colleges and institutes of science and technology that were established in various provinces on harambee basis and some are still functioning today. It is possible to uplift some of them to university status.”

Apart from the flights to America, MboyaÂ’s political nemesis, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, organized several airlifts to Eastern countries like the Soviet Union.

Kiano says he personally played a part in selecting students to India and Israel. He was a member of the India Government’s Scholarship Committee in the 1960s: “My colleague Oginga Odinga was able to obtain thousands of scholarships from the Eastern countries particularly the Soviet Union where the Patrice Lumumba University had just been established. He also obtained scholarships from Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and other countries. While Mboya and I were doing the American trips, Odinga was also travelling East.”

Among the beneficiaries to the Odinga airlifts was Cabinet Minister Joseph Kamotho. Kamotho studied both in the East and West. He went to the Soviet Union then returned to be given a scholarship to Syracuse University in the US.

Dr Odongo Omamo, MP for Muhoroni and former Cabinet Minister studied in India with OdingaÂ’s assistance. The Indian government, recalls Kiano, gave many scholarships. Some of the Indian beneficiaries were the late prominent lawyer S. M. Otieno, Johanna Seroney and John Gatuguta.

Kiano says that the criteria for student selection depended on university qualifications required. The applications would be scrutinised to ensure they satisfied the requirements.

Kiano was among the 14 elected members who thrice went to Lancaster House.

During their first trip to Lancaster House they were united because they wanted the African majority in the legislature, the return of the highlands, end of the emergency and release of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and his colleagues.

They got official declaration that Kenya shall be governed by the majority of its people who were Africans. This was the first public abandonment of white supremacy. This was in 1960, the first Lancaster House conference.

The Wazungu, says Kiano, felt betrayed by the first Lancaster conference. They saw it as victory for the Mau Mau. In 1962, Kiano returned to Lancaster House. This time, however, they went as two political parties. The meeting came up with the current Constitution under review.

Kiano argues that although a new constitution is good for Kenya and can define more clearly the powers of the Legislative, Judiciary and Executive, the country must rededicate itself to good governance with principles of integrity and merit.

“We must not be corrupt. We must not lose sight of the fact that the last analysis is how we govern ourselves. You can have a very democratic constitution like they do in America but end up having coups and coups,” Kiano advises adding: “It is respect of law and commitment to efficiency and integrity that matters. The Government, political parties, churches, and the civil society must come together regularly to talk about how to run this country,” he explains of the political status.

It is wrong for Kenyans to talk of Young Turks and Old Guards he says: “Where do you place the age limit for Young Turks. Is it 40, 50 or 60 years? No! We want good governance irrespective of the age of those in power.”

He goes on to add: “It is wrong to bring in the issue of the conflict and age. Age is not a determining factor for good leadership, it is the level of dedication,” he says in conclusion.