In 1964, President Jomo Kenyatta convened a meeting in Nakuru to convince the large-scale settler farmers not to flee the country but instead stay and help develop the economy of the young nation. With him was James Samuel Gichuru, a Cabinet minister.
Jeremiah Kiereini in his book, A Daunting Journey wrote, “James Gichuru was a realist and a moderate. At this time some of his colleagues were extreme radicals to whom even the thought of Europeans remaining in Kenya seemed anathema.”
Kiereini, who was the Permanent Secretary for Defence when Gichuru was the minister, further described Gichuru as a cordial and humane individual that he enjoyed working with and who allowed his PS “a liberal atmosphere in which to formulate policies… We consulted extensively before arriving at our conclusions”.
Gichuru did not involve himself in petty tribal politics and commanded respect from leaders and the general public. It therefore surprised many that he was one of the senior government ministers and Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association (GEMA) officials who attended a rally in Nakuru in 1976 to call for a change to the constitution to bar the Vice President, Daniel arap Moi, from automatically taking over on the demise of the President.
Attorney General Charles Njonjo legally put a stop to the change the Constitution meetings, which were seen as a scheme to block Moi from stepping into Kenyatta’s shoes. The assumption was that since Gichuru had attended at least one of these meetings, he did not support Moi and so when Moi assumed the presidency he would automatically be side-lined.
That did not happen. When Moi became President in August 1978, he kept Gichuru on as a Minister of State in the Office of the President in the Defence portfolio. Despite his failing health, Gichuru successfully defended his Limuru parliamentary seat in the first General Election under Moi in 1979. When the President constituted his Cabinet after the elections, Gichuru remained a Minister of State. In return, Gichuru gave Moi unqualified loyalty.
Born in 1914, Gichuru was the first of nine children. His 90-year-old sister, Hannah Wanjiku, said that from a young age, he led a life different from other boys his age, mostly because his parents were religious and put education ahead of traditional cultural activities.
“While tradition dictated that boys look after livestock, my parents, who were among the very first Christians in Thogoto (in Kikuyu District), insisted that Gichuru and my brothers and sisters attend school instead. Gichuru was a very obedient young man,” Wanjiku recalled.
Because of the relationship between his parents and missionaries, he went to school at the Church of Scotland Mission School, Kikuyu. He completed his primary education and went on to Alliance High School then proceeded to Makerere College in Uganda for a diploma in teaching. He returned to teach at Alliance, where the teaching staff was then exclusively white, between 1935 and 1940. He then became the headmaster of the Church of Scotland School in Dagoretti. The other pioneer African teacher at Alliance was J.D. Otiende, who became a minister in independent Kenya’s first Cabinet.
“Gichuru was head-hunted to encourage more Africans to take up studies at the school,” his sister recalled. His students included Charles Njonjo.
Gichuru married Rahab Wambui Ndatha in 1936, while he was teaching at Alliance. It was also during his time here that he fought against discrimination. His first protest was against a rule that African teachers should wear shorts similar to the students’ uniform, while their white counterparts could wear long trousers.
Wanjiru recalled: “Alliance was a white man’s island and the Africans who worked there copied their habits and acted like Europeans. Gichuru was no exception and his first and second children were never carried on their mother’s back. Instead, they were pushed around in a pram, like European children. Gichuru also interacted with other educated Africans, especially those involved in the struggle for freedom. As a teacher, he encouraged his students to read newspapers and follow the progress of the struggle.”
He became involved in active politics in 1940 and travelled long distances on his bicycle to meet other political leaders. He was elected the first President of the Kenya African Union (KAU) party in 1944, but vacated the seat for Jomo Kenyatta when he returned from Britain in 1946.
History was to repeat itself years later, in 1961, when Gichuru stepped down from the presidency of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) for Kenyatta, who had just been released from detention, to take over and eventually lead the country to independence.
In the late 1940s, Gichuru left his teaching job in Kikuyu to become a full-time politician. However, the colonial government appointed him a chief (his father had been a headman, the equivalent of an assistant chief) in the early 1950s. According to his sister, he used his position to further the cause of the struggle and encourage oath taking. This displeased the colonial authorities and he was relieved of his public job, arrested and put under restriction in 1953. This happened when he told a public baraza at Dagoretti Market that he was not scared of the white man.
“Women have given birth to many men but the one who gave birth to me gave birth to a warrior,” he used to say.
Two days later he was arrested at his home in Thogoto by the District Commissioner and a squad of Administration Police officers. Gichuru was restricted in Githunguri, Kiambu, but when the colonialists realised that he had relatives and friends who looked after him there, they pushed him farther to Gatamaiyu, which bordered a forest.
His daughter recounted: “To kill boredom, my father volunteered to teach at nearby schools. But he suffered because food was little and he was not allowed any visitors. In fact, my mother wished he were in prison or a detention camp where prisoners were at least given food.”
However, the people of Gatamaiyu took it upon themselves to feed him and they even smuggled the meals his wife made from Kikuyu to Githunguri in a sack of charcoal.
He attracted the attention of Catholic priests in Gatamaiyu due to his volunteer teaching. One priest told the colonial authorities that Gichuru had a sharp brain and asked them not to waste it but let him make use of it. The government allowed the priests to place Gichuru at Kilimambogo Teachers’ Training College, where he taught for several years. J. Kioni, the first Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) Secretary General was his colleague.
“The priests built him a house and, though he would not come home, we visited him during the school holidays,” Gichuru’s daughter recalled.
However, as it became obvious that Kenya would become independent, the colonial authorities took Gichuru back to restriction in Githunguri in the late 1950s. Later, Munyua Waiyaki and Njoroge Mungai asked him to accept the presidency of KANU and hold it in trust for Kenyatta. He was released from restriction in 1961.
Those who remember him say he was trusting and allowed people to work independently if they convinced him they were able. His daughter remembered a loving, doting and accommodating father who, however, would not compromise on hard work.
“My father, the teacher, had in his heart a special place for education. He helped many people access education, but he also insisted that people live off the sweat of their brow and not wait for free things.”
As many who knew Gichuru testified, he was a man of the people. Although at one time he saved the Sigona Golf Club from being sub-divided to settle the landless, he often socialised with athuri a macuka (old uneducated men clad in sheets).
He was trusting and allowed people to work independently if they convinced him they were able
“People approached him and he helped them on the spot or sent them where they would get assistance. At one point, he had guaranteed so many people’s loans at the Bank of Baroda that it politely stopped him.”
Kenyatta, who was taught by Gichuru’s mother at the mission school in Thogoto, referred to his minister as muthuri wa kanitha (church elder). He would tell anybody who cared to listen that Gichuru was the only one he trusted to tell the truth in any circumstances.
During the struggle for independence, he was considered an extremist. After independence, a British newspaper described him as “gentle, tolerant, often humorous, but always confident”, adding: “Only the most rabid white racist could detect in James Gichuru the stuff of the political fanatic.”
As independent Kenya’s first Minister for Finance, Gichuru presided over budgets that were friendly to the poor and as such, the effect of taxation changes was minimal on the cost of living. He was instrumental in bringing bills to the House of Representatives that led to Kenya joining the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the International Finance Corporation and the International Development Association.
“The decision to join the four had been taken by the Cabinet more as a matter of policy than for financial gain,” he told Parliament in November 1963.
In 1964, he presented a Bill for the House of Representatives to ratify the provision to establish the African Development Bank. After independence, Gichuru was also at the centre of talks between Kenyan and British officials on the take-over of one million acres of mixed farmland owned by Europeans to resettle landless Africans. Towards the end of the Kenyatta rule, Gichuru was the Minister for Defence. When Moi took over from Kenyatta, Gichuru retained the position.
The minister developed health problems from the early 1970s and died in August 1982. In a letter to the editor of the Daily Nation on 27 August 1982, Eric Kimeli Sugut of Moi’s Bridge wrote: “Gichuru was a prominent personality who participated in all aspects of the struggle for uhuru (freedom). He played a heroic role and its significance in the history of this country will be remembered by all.”
Henry Kasasati described him as a “real patriot and a gentleman of rare breed”. He said if Kenyans emulated Gichuru’s leadership style, the country would be guaranteed its place as an island of peace in Africa.