The final hours of Kenya’s first President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta

By Kamau Mundia

Kenya’s founding Prime Minister and founding President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, passed away at 3.30 a.m. in the morning at State House Mombasa on Tuesday, 22nd August 1978. How were Jomo Kenyatta’s final hours though?

Mzee Kenyatta indeed remained a fighter and a warrior to the very end, and his departure on Tuesday, 22nd August 1978 could be described as the equivalent of a soldier or a warrior dieing in batlle or on the battlefield. For example, one day before Jomo Kenyatta passed away on 21st August 1978, at State House Mombasa, he hosted Kenyan ambassadors and high commissioners serving in different parts of world. They were led by then Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Munyua Waiyaki. There is a group photograph that was taken after the meeting that appears in e.g. “The day Kenyatta died” by Hilary Ng’weno.

That very same evening at State House Mombasa i.e. 21st August 1978, he hosted the Kenya Team to the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games. The overall Team Captain, Henry Rono, handed back Mzee Kenyatta the Kenyan flag hoisted on a long wooden pole, as is customary, a wooden pole that is not light.

A number of those at the occasion wanted someone else to receive the Kenyan flag hoisted on the wooden pole on behalf of Jomo, but Jomo insisted that he himself would receive it. Mzee Kenyatta staggered while receiving the Kenyan flag from Henry Rono, but regained his balance.

In between the ambassadors/high commissioners and the Kenya Team to the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games, Jomo had attended a function at Msambweni, Kwale, at Kenya’s neighbouring South Coast. He collapsed while urinating behind the podium, after addressing the gathering.

Amongst those who rushed to his assistance, were then Coast Provincial Commissioner Eliud Mahihu, and Mahihu, in 1998, said he would “reveal” how and why Mzee Kenyatta collapsed while at Msambweni, but Mahihu died before his “breaking news revelations.”

Those present at Msambweni say that they had never heard Mzee Kenyatta say “Harambee” (his trademark clarion call), so loudly, after he had finished addressing the gathering.

After Mzee Kenyatta collapsed at Msambweni, he was rushed back to State House Mombasa, his personal physician Dr. Eric Mngola was summoned, Mngola administered treatment, and Dr. Mngola told Mzee Kenyatta to rest until further notice. Mzee Kenyatta defied Dr. Mngola, and that evening, as mentioned, hosted the Kenya Team to the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games.

After receiving back the Kenya Team to the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games, it appears that Mzee Kenyatta went into a coma, Dr. Mngola was again speedily summoned, and was by Jomo’s side until he passed away at 3.30 a.m. the following morning, 22nd August 1978. Others who remained by Jomo’s side until he passed away were Mama Ngina Kenyatta and Provincial Commissioner Eliud Mahihu mentioned above.

Mzee Kenyatta was a larger than life figure who many had imagined would “live forever” and Dr. Mngola was naturally nervous and naturally hesitant to declare Mzee Kenyatta dead, but he gathered the courage and told Mama Ngina Kenyatta and Mahihu that Mzee Kenyatta was no more. Mahihu asked Dr. Mngola if he was sure and Dr. Mngola responded affirmatively.

It appears Jomo knew he was about to depart, and decided to depart “in style” i.e. to depart while still on the “battlefield,” given how Mzee Kenyatta attended to official duties and official functions to the very end.

It was not entirely “pretty” though. For example, Lee Njiru, Head of the Presidential Press Unit (PPU) in Daniel T. arap Moi ‘s Kenya, who worked for one year from 1977 to 1978 in President Jomo Kenyatta’s Presidential Press Unit (PPU), has stated in his memoirs how at one point during the function mentioned above of 21st August 1978 of Kenyan ambassadors and high commissioners serving abroad, Mzee Kenyatta began making incoherent utterances that left Njiru and others feeling embarrassed. It is unclear what the “incoherent utterances” were, though Njiru, in memoirs of his that were published 12 years ago in the “Sunday Nation” of 21st September 2008, states as below verbatim i.e. “Gradually, Mzee (Kenyatta) became incoherent, repetitive and forgetful.Sometime, early 1978, Kassim Bakari Mwamzandi, then an Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs brought a foreign envoy to present his credentials to Mzee Kenyatta in Nakuru.

After receiving the credentials, Mzee Kenyatta bellowed: “You are welcome to Kenya. If you have any problem do not hesitate to see me. If you don’t that’s your own business.”

And introducing Mbiyu (Koinange) and Mwamzandi, he said, pointing at the two, “This is my father and mother.”

I cringed and hoped the world would open up and swallow me.”

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