History of Mzee Simeon Nyachae
Former Moi era Chief Secretary Mzee Simeon Nyachae’s early years were spent with his mother. He was later to remark, “In a polygamous home the women tend to take hold of the children [especially when they are young], leaving the father nowhere.” As Nyachae grew up he became unusually close to his father, but in the years before his schooling he belonged to his mother. Pauline Bosibori had but two children, and James Oiruria was only two years older than Nyachae. The two brothers were very close.
Nyachae was brighter, more aggressive, and more talkative (like his mother), so that he tended to dominate Oiruria. But whatever conflicts they had were quickly compromised in their friendship. These earliest years included ones on the mission station while their mother was learning to read.
When Nyachae was about eight years old his father employed a teacher for several of his boys at his home. After a year or so, in 1941, Musa Nyandusi sent Nyachae and Oiruria to begin their formal education at Nyanchwa Primary School, which was run by the Seventh-Day.
Adventists. During these years the boys lived at home, and Pauline Bosibori watched over their education. She would punish them with a switch if they missed classes, and she drilled them on their arithmetic. The boys would cry if they got a sum wrong and laugh if it was right. Because they had a literate mother, Oiruria and Nyachae got more help at home with their education than was usual for those of their generation. Simeon Nyachae was the timekeeper at Nyanchwa, the one who hand rings the bell that signals the start and end of classes. There would be twenty to thirty children in a class at Nyanchwa. All writing was done with chalk on wood-frame slates. The first several years of primary education were in the local vernacular, after which teaching in Swahili (East Africa’s Bantu lingua franca) was begun. Instruction in English began in intermediate school. All the national examination hurdles through which Kenyan children pass were (and still are) taken in Swahili or English. A gift for languages therefore is a prerequisite to education in Kenya.
In 1947 the two brothers and two of Nyandusi’s other sons graduated to intermediate school and were sent to Kereri. It was too far away for the boys to stay at home, so Nyandusi arranged a place for them with Stephen Obure, an African Native Council employee whose son much later became a member of Parliament from Kisii. Nyachae left his brother behind at Kereri in 1949 and joined the Kisii government African High School, which was built on land donated by his father. This secondary school was not as cosmopolitan as those attended by Karanja, Mule, and Muriithi, for only 20 percent of its students came from outside Kisii District. Chief Nyandusi would visit the school regularly to check on his son’s progress, until Nyachae terminated his secondary education in 1953.
During his school years Nyachae excelled in athletics. He was first in Nyanza Province in the hurdles and the long jump, and his record in the latter stood for thirteen years. He ran the 100- and 440-yard dashes as well, but he did not play football (soccer). When he was young he had hit his head on a goalpost playing the game, and his father forbade his further participation in the sport.
Most of Musa Nyandusi’s sons did poorly in school. This was common for the children of chiefs, unlike the other African elites. The chiefs were more likely to be polygamous and to have illiterate wives. Their many children also suffered from being too visibly close to wealth and power, and so they often would be bossy, flash money around, and fail to apply themselves seriously to their studies. Given the extreme competitiveness of education in that generation, this lack of attention was fatal to their progress. Simeon Nyachae was different; he was bright, more serious about his studies, and less affected by his father’s status.
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Nyandusi’s first son, Ayako, had also done well in school, and the chief had hoped that he would succeed him in office, although the post was not hereditary. Ayako died in 1951, however, and Musa Nyandusi increasingly came to focus on Nyachae. He would take him in his car to meetings, send him round to collect the money from his several flour mills, and delegate him to report on coffee Cooperative Society meetings.
Although Nyachae did well in school, he was more of an all-rounder than a scholar. It appeared to his teachers that his maturity was ahead of his academic development. Thus some of them concurred with Musa Nyandusi when he withdrew Nyachae from the system in 1953 when he was a year shy of the secondary Ordinary Level School Certificate exam. Nyandusi felt that a higher education was unnecessary for the chief’s career that he wanted for his son.
In 1954 Nyachae began work as a district clerk, stationed in Nyaribari Location where his father was chief. In effect he was being apprenticed. During the time that he worked there he was sent for some basic administrative courses at Maseno Government Training Institute.
In 1954 the elders also helped him select a wife, Esther Nyaboke, who came from a prominent family in a neighboring clan, was sixteen years old, and had gone as far as Standard 4 in primary school. Later that year she bore him a daughter. She was ultimately to bear him several more children, including sons. But in the first years of the marriage the elders were concerned that the couple had not had a son. The elders and Musa Nyandusi put considerable pressure on Nyachae to take a second wife, which he did in 1955. This wife, Druscilla Kerubo, died three months after she gave birth to a daughter, who was then reared in her early years by her grandmother, Pauline Bosibori.
In 1957 Nyachae took as his wife Martha Mwango, who like Esther was sixteen at the time and had left school after Standard 4. She came from another prominent family and was the half-sister of Lawrence Sagini, who was a close friend and adviser to Nyachae and later became Kisii’s first member of Parliament. Sagini’s influence was important in gaining consent for the marriage, for Martha was to have the lower status of being a second wife. Between 1958 and 1975 Martha gave Nyachae several more children.
Both of these wives remained in Kisii when Nyachae moved to a national-level career in 1960. He himself feels that his polygamy was a mistake, that a father cannot give adequate attention to a family of this
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nature, and that there is a danger that his children will be emotionally lost to him. The marriages of these years reflected the image his father and the elders held of the type of wives that were appropriate to a chief. He himself would never say so, but these women clearly were not ideally suited to help him in the national arena in which he was to operate subsequently. Polygamy at least enabled him to marry more advantageously later without severing his responsibilities to his early wives through divorce.
By 1957 it was evident to both Nyachae and Musa Nyandusi that they had made a mistake in renouncing his higher education. Ghana won its independence from Great Britain in that year, and it was clear that able Africans could aspire to considerably higher offices than that of chief. His mother, Pauline Bosibori, dreamed that Nyachae would not become a chief, and he himself was quite upset when his friend and brother-in-law, Sagini, won a scholarship to pursue his B.A. in the United States.
With the help of the district commissioner and Robert LeVine, an American anthropologist, Nyachae found a place at South Devon Technical College at Torquay in the United Kingdom, where he could pursue a one-year Diploma in Public and Social Administration. To get him there Musa Nyandusi shrewdly insisted on raising assistance for his expenses through the African District Council (of which he was vice-chair) so that Nyachae and the Gusii would both feel that he had an obligation to serve them in administration.
Torquay was a relatively small and provincial college of three thousand in those days, and its public-administration program was designed for those who would serve in local governments and the middle levels of welfare administration. Those who were expected to hold the highest administrative posts in Great Britain and the colonies would have studied instead at Oxford or Cambridge. The particular program in which Nyachae participated was designed for students from the colonies; a group photo from the period shows Nyachae with students from Sarawak, Zambia, Borneo, and Malawi. (See plate 11.) The curriculum covered the geography of developing countries, community economics, social policy, law, government, and administration. The things that struck Nyachae about the program were the comparisons of administrative systems that it offered and the openness to criticism of British government. Visits to farms, local council debates, and central ministries were frequent. His “digs” were with a local family. The amount, quality, and breadth of Nyachae’s education were limited, compared with the other three managers and with most of those who achieved the most senior administrative (as opposed to political) positions in independent Kenya.
Upon his return to Kenya, Nyachae became a district assistant in the Provincial Administration. This position was the African equivalent of
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the district officer, the office that an Englishman first held on entry to this elite cadre, which was responsible for the general administration of the colony. Through Nyandusi’s influence Nyachae’s first posting was to Kisii. There his main duties were assisting the cooperative movement, supervising the traditional courts, and facilitating the expansion of education. More schools were needed as the political struggle for independence burst out of the strictures of the Emergency. But the missions, which were still the primary vehicle for education, had difficulty in getting land. Nyachae spent a great deal of time working with the District Education Board to get land set aside for the purpose. He also supervised Kisii’s four tribunal courts, making sure that their application of customary law did not contradict the Penal or Civil Procedure Codes. As a district assistant, he had the powers of a third-class magistrate and could overturn certain classes of cases. Others could be referred to the district commissioner in his capacity as a first-class magistrate. The colonial Provincial Administration combined aspects of the executive, legislative, and judicial functions in its governance of Africans. In Kisii, though adjustments to fines were common, it was rare for the Provincial Administration to have to overturn a tribunal court decision.
Nyachae wanted to move out from under his father’s wing and finally succeeded in getting transferred out of Kisii in 1960. He was posted to Ukwala in Siaya District, a Luo area. There was tension between the Luos and the Gusii at the time, and Nyachae did not feel comfortable administering the Luo; he resigned immediately. He became instead the labor and welfare officer and the first African in management of the East African Breweries. Musa Nyandusi’s shrewdness in asking council assistance for Nyachae’s studies in the U.K. became evident at this point. A delegation of eight Kisii chiefs, including Nyandusi, was sent to Nairobi, and Nyachae was summoned to the office of the chief native commissioner. Under great pressure Nyachae finally consented to rejoin the Provincial Administration, but only on condition that he not be sent back to Ukwala.
The Political Struggle for Independence
In November 1961 Nyachae was posted to Kangundo Division in Machakos District, where he served first as a district assistant and then as the district officer for the division. This was one of the more difficult Provincial Administration postings in Kenya at the time because it was a center of agitation against British rule.
The earliest forms of resistance to colonialism had been directed against the state itself. However, beginning with what are known as the Harry Thuku riots of 1922, protest turned to a demand for increased rights for Africans within the state. Jomo Kenyatta, a nationalist Kikuyu,
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was the leader of this struggle from the late 1920s, even during his extended stays in England. As the people most disrupted and changed by colonialism, the Kikuyu played a leading role in the accelerating progress of African nationalism, and it was among them that the Mau Mau uprising occurred. From the 1930s, however, Kenyatta had used the vehicle, first, of the Kikuyu Central Association, and second, of his Kenya African Union (KAU) to spread the nationalist gospel among the country’s other peoples. Although Kenyatta denied to his death that either he or the KAU had any involvement in Mau Mau, he and five other officers of the KAU were detained when the State of Emergency was declared. Among those so imprisoned without trial or sentence was Paul Ngei, a Kamba who would serve in the independent country’s cabinet into the 1980s. Kangundo, to which Nyachae was posted, was his home.
During the time of the Emergency, African politics were heavily restricted, especially in Central Province. Country wide African political parties were banned, for example, and the district-level parties that were permitted contributed to the fragmented, ethnic politics that were to trouble Kenya after independence. Men such as Tom Mboya used the labor movement and other vehicles to keep the struggle for African political rights alive with a momentum that accelerated through the 1950s despite (or perhaps because of) the Emergency. African demand for the vote and the end of colonialism became genuinely nationwide, and political participation was truly a mass movement. By the end of the decade it was evident that universal suffrage, majority rule, African governance, and independence were on the horizon. As a result of sustained pressure by the “legal” African nationalist parties, Jomo Kenyatta and the rest of the KAU executive were released from detention in August 1961. An African coalition government was formed in 1962 under the authority of the colonial governor.[*] With full internal self-government coming in 1963, the air was filled with excited anticipation on the part of Africans and with dread anxiety from Europeans and those who had supported their colonial endeavor.
Kangundo was Paul Ngei’s constituency as well as his home, and he did nothing to ease the task of the colonial administration during this difficult time of transition. People were expecting to be given land for free and therefore were refusing to cooperate in settlement schemes in which they would be expected to pay. Kenyatta had not yet given his “no free things” speech, and Ngei was encouraging people not to buy. The colonial chiefs were deeply unpopular and subject to constant harassment. A great deal of the antagonism was directed at the senior chief,
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Uku, who was taking a hard line in his insistence on order. Having a senior chief for a father himself, Nyachae was sympathetic to the chiefs and gave them public backing. But he also recognized the forces of change at work and tried to turn the uncompromising ones such as Uku from their self-destructive course. Even at this early stage in his career Nyachae seemed to have his characteristic ability to sort out the essential from the peripheral objectives and to be unbending in his pursuit of the former and flexible about the latter.
In these times it was imperative to be in close touch with the people, particularly as Nyachae was frustrated by Ngei’s unwillingness to listen to reason. “A leader is bound to be able to listen carefully to what other people are saying and [Nyachae] was of that caliber. He would think carefully before deciding.” Public meetings (barazas ) did not work as a means of communication. As Nyachae recalls:
It is extremely misleading to go to a public meeting and see people clapping. It doesn’t mean that they are convinced. . . . We traveled in the countryside and slept in tents to let them understand me and vice versa. . . . We had the best understanding when we walked. Though we have more administrators now, they do not understand the ordinary people the way we did. The most effective communication is to visit in their homes.
He remained in Kangundo Division for only six months, too short a period to have a real impact on it, but he considered the experience to be a seminal one in his career. From it he understood what field administration really means and that independence would bring problems as well as prospects.
Nyachae’s next assignment was to the Kenya Institute of Administration, where he took the district officer’s course. There he took the law exam and qualified as a first-class magistrate, a role which at the time was combined with that of district commissioner.
That course and the one on colonial administration to which he was sent in 1963 at Cambridge University were also designed to socialize the new recruits into their roles as their colonial predecessors had understood them.
In addition to training in the law and administrative practice, there was instruction in small arms, horseback riding, and table manners. These courses symbolized the kind of administrative and social role they were expected to play in Kenyan society. The socialization process was clearly rushed, and one would have expected its impact to be diminished as a result. For example, Nyachae was able to stay for only six of the nine required months at Cambridge because the Kenyan government needed him. But the instruction had its effect nonetheless. The law-and-order component of the role remained the primary concern of the Africans inducted into the Provincial Administration in this period, and they re-
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sisted attempts by a later generation of expatriate administrative trainers to shift the courses decisively toward the primacy of a developmental role by stressing economics, sociology, and planning. Although many of them were strong supporters of economic and social development, they firmly believed that it could be achieved only if law and order were maintained, and they considered the latter their first priority.
How were the British administrators able to socialize their successors into a law-and-order orientation when they failed to transmit many of the other values they held dear? First of all, this was the role to which they actually gave primacy, whatever their intentions. Actions speak louder than words, and the Provincial Administration had just emerged from a period of intense effort to suppress the Mau Mau rebellion. Second, the law-and-order role not only was the one their first superiors expected them to play, it also was the one they had been able to observe from afar as they were growing up.
It was a role in which many of their parents had assisted, and the public expected them to play it when they put on the Provincial Administration uniform. Third, the role met the requirements of the newly independent African state. Despite the sincere rhetoric of development which African politicians used, they were most concerned with the survival of the regime itself in the face of deep inter-ethnic conflicts and dangerously inflated expectations. They perceived the new state as needing security even more than it needed prosperity, and they rewarded careers accordingly. Thus the traditional role expectations of the Provincial Administration were reinforced from all directions.
Between the Kenya Institute of Administration and the Cambridge courses Nyachae also served briefly in Makweni Division of Machakos District. During this period Nyachae had a serious accident in his Land Rover, which left him with recurrent back troubles. When Nyachae returned to the Provincial Administration from Cambridge, England, in March 1964, he was to face the challenge of governing an independent, not a colonial, Kenya.
Nyachae’s entire upbringing aimed him toward the Provincial Administration and its law-and-order orientation. His father’s example and wishes so inclined him, and his early withdrawal from secondary school precluded more professional options.