Henry Muoria-Self & Community.(1914-1997)

Henry Muoria (1914-1997).

mt-kenya-flagMuoria was an active journalist, a friend and press secretary of Kenya’s future president Jomo Kenyatta and, from 1945 to 1952, the editor of a nationalist newspaper Mumenyereri, written in Gikuyu, one of Kenya’s major languages. In October 1952, when the British declared the Emergency in Kenya in order to quell the Mau Mau rebellion, Muoria was visiting London. He stayed there for the rest of his life, but continued pursuing his writing career. He finished more than ten full-length autobiographical, philosophical and political manuscripts, but not one was published. East African Educational Publishers in Nairobi brought out his I, the Gikuyu and the White Fury in 1994. This book and his unpublished autobiography from 1982, The British and My Kikuyu Tribe, are used in discussing Muoria’s debt to his ethnic community, the Gikuyu, his successful attempts to contribute to the creation of a nationalist public sphere in colonial Kenya, and his authorship in exile. The declaration of the Emergency put a stop to Muoria’s hopes for the recognition of his work, based as it was on a desired continuum between self, community and nation.

For several years during Britain’s late colonialism, from 1946 onwards, administrators in Kenya were in a panic over how to control the African press of the colony. African and Asian businessmen, politicians, editors and journalists had managed to create a public realm in which members of the various colonised communities debated pressing problems of everyday life, as well as the larger political questions of colonialism, racism, self-determination and independence. Colonial information officers asked advice from their colleagues in other British territories in East and West Africa on what measures might be taken to regulate and suppress the local press, and urged on the Colonial Office in London the need for sharper instruments than those already available. Samples of ‘near-seditious’ newspaper pieces, translated into English from the various Kenyan languages, were sent to London.

This activity was an acceleration of ongoing endeavours within Kenya. The non-European press had been under surveillance for as long as it had existed. Officials had kept a worried eye on Muigwithania, the organ of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) from its inception in 1926. It was edited for a period by Kenya’s future president, Jomo Kenyatta. In a letter, the Governor, Sir Edward Grigg, warned the Secretary of State for the Colonies in London that the political tone of the newspaper gave grounds for worry. In particular laments over the injustices the Kenyan people had suffered under colonialism, couched in Old Testament idiom, might have serious consequences: “There is a danger that this emotional and semi-religious propaganda may spread very rapidly among excitable and ignorant natives, and it is clearly desirable that means should be devised to protect the natives themselves … from such an insidious menace” (Grigg 1926).

The authorities closed down Muigwithania in 1940, along with the KCA. Four years later the self-taught journalist and intellectual Henry Muoria launched its successor, Mumenyereri (The Guardian). He addressed it to the same community that had constituted Muigwithania’s readership–a community that was being created by access to reading matter in their own language, among other influences (Lonsdale 1996). The first issue of the paper was in Gikuyu and English, but those following were restricted to Gikuyu in order to use all the available space for the enlightenment of the Gikuyu community who did not have a great deal of writing available in their own language (Muoria 1982:17).

Henry Muoria was born in 1914 in Kiambu in Kenya’s Central Province (Berman & Lonsdale 1992:414-416, Pugliese 2003, Frederiksen 2006). His parents were land-owning peasants and did not know how to read and write. The young Henry managed to get himself into an infant and primary school run by the Church Mission Society. His formal schooling lasted for seven years altogether. He taught himself enough English to be able to enter the Railway Training School of East African Railways, and became employed as a railway guard and later an assistant stationmaster. As a trainee he experienced the discrimination and brakes put on the development of business and enterprise for the African population that was characteristic of the policies of the colonial regime. Being African, he was paid less than his European and Asian colleagues both as a trainee and later as an employee. This experience contributed to his disgust with colonialism and racism and prompted him to join the existing African political organisations. As a young man he was a member of Kikuyu Central Association–an oppositional nationalist organisation based on the community that was most affected by British colonialism, the Gikuyu. The organisation was banned in 1940.

In his life and works Henry Muoria brought together many worlds–sometimes in ways that were paradoxical. He was born into a Kikuyu traditionalist family and made use of Christianity. He grew up in the countryside, but chose the city as his place of work. He invested in both urban and rural property and cultivated a large plot of land in his home area with the assistance of his wives. He was a wealthy man who came to know poverty in London. He loved his country, detested racism and was cosmopolitan in his outlook and knowledge of the world but was sometimes accused of being a Gikuyu chauvinist. He fought for independence, but independence did not need him after it had been consolidated.

The declaration of the Emergency in 1952 by the British constituted the caesura in Muoria’s personal life and in the social and political fortunes of Gikuyus and Africans in Kenya. The event disrupted the continuity between self, community and nation that Muoria devoted his working life to uphold. After October 1952, the colonial government sought to isolate the Gikuyu from the rest of African nationalist opposition by undermining the credibility of their leaders and spokesmen, and cancelling their access to public debate. Large numbers found themselves in protected villages and detention camps. All his life Muoria fought for a democratic space to be kept open to all communities in Kenya. He insisted by his example that Africans in Kenya should be partners in debate on self-determination and the end of colonialism. For a while he was successful.

In exile he kept writing. When he tried to keep up his claim and his efforts to educate a new public by the combined moves of turning inwards and documenting his own life, and turning outwards and documenting the shifting political debates and events in Kenya, he was not heard. He had great hopes following the publication in 1994 of his autobiography and a selection of his political essays from the 1940s and 1950s in I, the Gikuyu and the White Fury. The volume attracted some attention in Kenya where Muoria was by now recognised as an important figure in the nation’s history, but little internationally. His writings deserve to be better known.

by Bodil Folke Frederiksen published in Current Wrting, October 2006, Vol. 18 no 2.

Happy Easter

3 thoughts on “Henry Muoria-Self & Community.(1914-1997)

  1. hi,am a kenyan hv gone through ur autobiography ‘n’ i know how much u meant 2 our history,got dis info dat u died, let it be known dat is a great misfortune 2 hv loss such national figure lyk u,got dis info 4m ma folks if any 1 is getting dis mail plz replay.

  2. Thanks for contributing to bringing one of the important figures in Kenyan national history into the light. The life and works of the nationalist journalist Henry Muoria certainly deserve to be better known.

  3. Dear Bodil,
    Thank you for your posting of my wonderful grandfather. It was great to see you in California a few years ago. will you be back soon?
    Please stay in touch.

    what ever happened to thanking the nyeuthis on this blog for digging up the article and posting it here on muigwithania -Teresia.we have a long way to go.

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