Karisa Maitha – The coastal hurricane

From humble beginnings in his native Mombasa County where he was born in 1954, Karisa rose from a dedicated Clinical Officer to a leader of note and a Cabinet Minister, packing a full life and career into the 50 years that turned out to be his lifespan.

Historically, leaders who are larger than life have earned themselves a variety of nicknames, while conversely, no one bothers nicknaming a colourless fellow who blends into the background. In Kenya politician’s nicknames like ‘Baba’ ‘Hustler’ and ‘Baba Yao’ are quickly identified with their owners. Around the world, nicknames of leaders who have stood out in either a positive or negative way are also quite common―Mahatma Gandhi was commonly called ‘Bapu’ (Papa); Margaret Thatcher was ‘The Iron Lady,’ as is Kenya’s Martha Karua, and Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa is known as ‘The Crocodile.’

Maitha earned himself both a nickname―’The Hurricane,’ and a title―’Mugogo’. But to understand the relevance of either, we must go back to the beginning of his career.

Man of the people

They say true leadership is action, not position. Maitha started his career as a Clinical Officer. To qualify as a Clinical Officer one must complete a four or five-year professional diploma or degree programme accredited by the Clinical Officers Council, which enables the officer to provide medical services within the full scope of family and emergency medicine or within their narrower area of specialisation. They may practice in a public or private medical institution, or independently as a private practitioner. It was in this position that Maitha began to distinguish himself, by serving the underprivileged, even when they could not afford to pay. His service of the vulnerable endeared him to the people. As a Clinical Officer, Maitha’s ability to prioritize the health of his patients over financial gain was a hint at his heart for helping the less fortunate in the community, a theme that would be repeated throughout his life.

Maitha’s political career began in 1979 as a Councilor of Mwakirunge Ward in Kisauni Constituency, a position he maintained until 1992 when he was elected Member of Parliament for Kisauni. As a politician, just as he had been as a healthcare professional, he remained an advocate for the dispossessed.

Maitha lobbied for the legalization of mnazi, upon which many coastal palm tapers and traders depend for a livelihood. Mnazi, a traditional palm wine brewed at the coast, is made from the sap extracted from palm fruits. It is not a simple task. The tapper must climb the tall tree carrying with him a knife and a gourd, make an incision between the kernels which are deep inside the palm fruit, and tie the gourd in place to collect the sap. After a couple of days he will return to collect his fresh palm juice, which is then fermented to make mnazi.

Mnazi is more than just a source of income however. It has been touted as a healthy drink, taken in moderation, due to its iron and Vitamin B content. But more than that, it has age-old traditional value and holds a special place in celebrations and ceremonies such as weddings and funerals in the coastal region. In 2015, the Kilifi County Assembly unanimously passed a Bill that legalizes Mnazi, completing the job that Maitha started more than a decade ago when he championed the rights of Mombasa and Kilifi mnazi tapers and sellers.

Then there was his penchant for the youth. Himself a family man and the father of many children, he took every opportunity to help young people, even taking the details of their academic qualifications at the end of his political rallies to help them get job opportunities. It was therefore not surprising that college and university students came to his home by the busload to pay their respects at his funeral.

Nationally, Maitha’s concern extended to the most disenfranchised in Kenyan society―the street families. He was responsible for the establishment of the Street Families Rehabilitation Trust Fund (SFRTF) when he was Minister for Local Government in 2003 after he started a project to help street children. He established the SFRTF to address the concerns of all homeless, destitute and vulnerable people in urban areas.

It is Maitha’s heart for the people and his fearless drive to solve their issues that earned him the title of ‘Mugogo wa Pwani,’ the Coast kingpin.

A Kingpin and a Hurricane

If you’ve ever been bowling or watched the game, you’re familiar with the arrangement of bowling pins that stand at the end of the bowling lanes in a triangle formation. The point of the triangle, the single pin in the front row, faces the bowler. Behind it is a row with two pins then a third row with three pins and a fourth row with four pins―ten pins altogether. The kingpin is the fifth pin, the one in the very centre. In a vehicle, the kingpin is also the large bolt that was used to connect wheels to a vehicle’s axle in the past.

A person referred to as the kingpin is the one at the centre of things, the one in charge, the one who holds it all together. So for Maitha to earn the title of Kingpin of the Coast was no small feat. He had obviously earned the trust of the people right from the start. Only one person had held that title, conferred by the costal people on a leader who, in their estimation, has earned it. The first Kingpin had been a man with big shoes to fill―Cabinet Minister Ronald Ngala, one of the country’s foremost nationalists after whom Ronald Ngala Street in downtown Nairobi is named.

But while at the coast he was Mugogo, as Minister for Local Government he quickly earned the nickname ‘Hurricane Maitha.’

The speciality of a hurricane is its sped. A Category 1 hurricane, the lowest category, has winds moving at 74 mph (119 km/h). Below this it is merely a tropical storm. A Category 5 hurricane has wind speed exceeding 156 mph (256 km/h), which literally blow the roofs of almost any building. Hurricane Maitha’s category may never have been specified by those who nicknamed him thus, but a hurricane of any category is nonetheless nothing to be trifled with, and neither was Maitha. He was appointed Minister for Local Government in Kibaki’s cabinet in 2003, a job he did with great zeal, sometimes with the result of causing quite a stir―hence the nickname. Like a hurricane, he came unbidden and left behind him a trail of dismissed senior officials before he was transferred to the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.

The Likoni Massacre

It was August 1997, and Kenya’s general elections were due to be held in a few months, at the end of December; the second general elections since the introduction of multiparty politics. Something was stirring at the coast, specifically at Likoni, the site of the southern terminus of the Likoni Ferry, which carries both road and pedestrian traffic across the Kilindini Harbour, between the Likoni mainland side and Mombasa Island. The travel activity aside, Likoni is normally a quiet resort area.

But on the night of August 13th, unprecedented violence broke out. About 100 raiders armed with guns and bows, arrows and machetes attacked Likoni Police Station, as well as a police post at the ferry. They killed at least six police officers, stole guns and set the police station and nearby offices and homes on fire. Then they turned on civilians, killing and maiming those they identified as non-locals and burning down kiosks and buildings. Their dirty handiwork was done in the cover of night, and once the security forces began to arrive in the morning, the raiders retreated into the nearby Kaya Bombo forest and Similani caves, where some of them remained for months and continued to launch attacks.

Testimony from various parties to the Akiwumi Commission of Inquiry later revealed that the attacks were politically instigated in a bid by some KANU politicians to retain their political dominance at the coast in the face of competition from other political parties by getting rid of non-locals whose votes might be against them. It was against this background that Karisa Maitha was running for election as Member of Parliament for Kisauni, having served as a Councilor for three terms. He was himself implicated and investigated, but denied any involvement. Following the Likoni clashes, Maitha decamped from KANU, joined Mwai Kibaki’s DP party, and won the elections. His victory marked the beginning of an opening up of the coast to multiparty politics.

Cabinet Appointment

The DP presidential candidate, Mwai Kibaki, lost to KANU and the sitting president, Daniel Arap Moi, in 1997. But Kibaki’s time would come in 2002, and when it did, Maitha was his point man at the coast. This time round, DP had affiliated with several other parties to form the NARC coalition. It was on this ticket that Kibaki was elected as President and it was on the same ticket that Maitha was re-elected as Member of Parliament for Kisauni.

And in early 2003 when Kibaki announced his first cabinet, Maitha was on it as Minister for Local Government, forming a team with Assistant Minister Shaaban Ali Isaack. During his brief time at the helm of Local Government, some of Maitha’s passion for helping the underprivileged bore fruit. The Ministry’s immediately embarked on a programme to rehabilitate street families, which also involved training in vocational institutions for some. Under Maitha, the Ministry also began the resettlement of hawkers from the streets of Nairobi’s CBD, which over time culminated in their resettlement in markets on the outskirts such as Ngara and Muthurwa. But as we have seen, this appointment was short-lived.

Still, Kibaki’s faith in Maitha persisted, and he was appointed Minister for Tourism & Wildlife, teaming up with Assistant Minister Fred Gumo, who would later become a Minister for Regional Development Authorities. The Ministry was brand new, carved from the Ministry of Tourism and Information. Tourism is Kenya’s second largest foreign exchange earner, and the country’s spectacular wildlife plays a large role in this, so this was an important portfolio. Besides, the coastal beaches and historical and heritage sites such as the Vasco Da Gama Pillar, ruin of Gedi and the Fort Jesus are major tourist attractions. Certainly this was an important and high profile portfolio, and Maitha, in typical form took it on with enthusiasm, even promising to take on a more genteel manner in his politics so as not to scare away tourists. Indeed he died on the job on August 26th 2004, while on an official visit to Germany to market Kenya as a top tourism destination. Just a few days before his death, he had remarked on the growing popularity of Kenya as a tourist destination, noting that the number of tourists who had visited the country in the first half of 2004 had already surpassed the previous year’s arrivals during the same period.

Maitha had been one of 20 people who formed the team that was Kibaki’s first cabinet, but the two men shared a deeper connection. Describing him as “a friend and a comrade,” Kibaki traveled to the coast for Maitha’s burial. Newspaper reports said that the evening before the funeral, he viewed his friend’s body, condoled with the family, then viewed the body a second time―a final farewell.

Rather appropriately, Maitha was laid to rest at his home in Mtwapa at the foot of a Kapok tree, in a spot which he himself had chosen. Kapok trees, also known as cotton seed trees, are gigantic. They easily grow up to 70m in height and their trunks about 3m in breadth. This is not a tree to plant in a small backyard. The fruits of a Kapok tree produce a silky cotton fibre used for stuffing pillows or mattresses or to make yarn. Amazingly, a single kapok tree can produce between 500 and 4,000 fruits at one time, with each fruit containing 200 seeds.

How fitting then, that Maitha, a man with a larger-than-life personality, who had impacted so many lives, would be buried there. The seeds of his life’s work are many, and some continue to bear fruit, such as the protection of mnazi palm wine tapers and vendors, and the of course the careers of many young people that he impacted. Then of course there’s the Karisa Maitha Grounds and stadium in Kilifi, and the title of ‘Mugogo’ that has yet to find a new owner close to two decades later.


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