Retired cobbler Kamau wa Gathara’s contacts with Mzee Jomo Kenyatta date back to the early 1950s as the clamour for independence gathered momentum.
There was a near-decade-long loss of contact when Kenyatta and five other leading freedom fighters were jailed in Kapenguria.
The ties were, however, to be renewed and intensified when Kenyatta was released from Lodwar into a decent house in Maralal, where he could receive visitors. It was then that Kamau, who was born in 1920, was reunited with his old friend.
His initial mission to Maralal was to covertly deliver messages and letters and relay back information from Kenyatta to various political actors in Nakuru.
It was on one of his many missions to Maralal that he acquired another role; mending Kenyatta’s shoes.
Kamau, who had minimal formal education, took up shoemaking after his initiation at the age of 20. This was the trade that would later lead him to rub shoulders with the high and mighty far away from his ancestral home in Tetu, Nyeri.
At the same time, he socialised with politicians, ultimately becoming sucked into national politics, at the time advanced by Kenyatta, a frequent visitor to Nakuru.
“I remember how Kenyatta would pass through Nakuru on his way to Molo and other parts of Rift Valley for political rallies. Every time he was in town he would stay at Ngamini Hotel, which I also frequented,” recalls Kamau.
It was at a room at the hotel that Kenyatta consulted with his local confidants, such as Njenga Karume, who at the time was operating his own hotel in Nakuru, which was demolished by the colonial government allegedly for harbouring criminals.
Kamau says he would join Kenyatta and his close allies at Ngamini for refreshments in the evening as the old friends charted Kenya’s political future.
Kenyatta animatedly talked of a united Kenya where the oppressive whites no longer lorded it over the true owners of the land, envisioning a future where the power was vested in black people.
He recalls: “During these sessions, we at times took tea as beer drinking was strictly regulated; we did not want drunkards to carelessly give away the secrets of these serious deliberations. We discussed matters of utmost secrecy.“
When the crackdown on African political agitators started, Kamau fled Nakuru. But he returned after Kenyatta and his Kapenguria Six colleagues were released from Lodwar. It was then that Kamau was reunited with his old friend.
“At this time, I had returned to Nakuru and established my own shop again and I was a famous shoe designer. My shop near the boxing club became a popular meeting point for political operatives.”
To visit Kenyatta in Maralal, where only those with a special pass were allowed in, Kamau often boarded a lorry for Kshs12.
Francis Lekolol, who was later Nairobi Provincial Commissioner, explains that visitors to Maralal then could not stay there for more than three days, as the whole district was closed.
“All visitors to Samburu district had to show their passes at a barrier erected at Suguta Marmar. You were allowed to stay in Maralal town only for one full day and then you had to head back,” says Lekolol.
At Maralal, Kamau would head straight for the shop of another Kenyatta ally, Wanyiri Kimomori, in Maralal town. “Every other day, Kenyatta visited Kimomori’s shop. This is where we met,” he recalls
During these visits, Kamau was at times accompanied by Kibue wa Njururi. The duo would give detailed reports of the events in the Rift Valley to an attentive Kenyatta.
Thus updated, Kenyatta would also give messages to be delivered in Nakuru.
It was during those sessions that Kamau became a mender of Kenyatta’s sandals.
“Wanyiri Kimomori was also a shoemaker who mended Kenyatta’s shoes,” adds Kamau.
Says Kamau: “He (Kenyatta) preferred black size 10 leather sandals. I had the shoes delivered to Kimomori’s shop when I was not travelling to Maralal.”
In Kamau’s visits to Maralal, he forged a bond that afforded the uneducated cobbler a special social status, giving him access to State House Nakuru and Kenyatta’s home in Ichaweri.
Kenyatta loved traditional dances and was entertained every evening by groups of adults and schoolchildren.
President Kenyatta was different from the man Kamau used to meet at Ngamini for refreshments, as he rarely drunk beer.
He, however, had a soft spot for porridge and boiled meat, which he loved eating with his agemates as he traded stories.
Kamau, who after independence took over the Nakuru outlet of a leading leather shoes retailer, African Boot, drew curious crowds, especially whenever Kenyatta’s shoes were brought.
One day, the President had just hosted Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie when the stitches of one of his trademark black sandals’ became loose, necessitating the services of a cobbler.
“The PC, the DC and members of the Presidential Escort brought the size 10 sandal to my shop. It had been made in England and the PC had strict instructions that nobody else was to touch it except me,” Kamau recalls.
His association with the First Family also got him into trouble after a member of the Presidential Escort brought zebra and lion skins, and instructed Kamau to make some special bags.
Word spread within Nakuru that Kamau was dealing in prohibited skins and, within no time, game wardens raided his shop, handcuffed the owner, and were ready to take him to a police station.
“When the officer who had brought the skins came to check on the progress, he found me being led out. There was drama as he and his colleagues ordered the wardens to release me immediately.”
Kamau says that although he had been briefed that the two bags he was making were for the First Lady, he had no way of counter-checking as he never saw her with the animal skin bags.
Sands of times have eroded Kamau’s memories while natural attrition has claimed the majority of his contemporaries, such as Kimomori, whose shop in Maralal is still intact.
Kamau has since hung his cobbler’s implements and his ancient Singer sewing machine, and now whiles the time away in his botanical garden at Ahiti, Nyahururu.