An official hunt for a beer mug, threatening the president, how to get your wife deported, and how to read the Budget Speech while drunk.
7. Njonjo’s Missing Beer Mug
This story is recorded in at least two memoirs, and it would be quirky if it wasn’t simply absurd. Charles Njonjo was known for his many eccentricities, the most famous of which were his pinstripe signature suits and his Machiavellian desire for power. But then there was the silver beer mug.
Njonjo would only drink beer from his own mug, which he carried around. One day, he attended a party at Njenga Karume’s palatial home in Cianda. Karume had gone to great lengths to find him his preferred beer, because when your boys are coming over for a house party, you have to at least try. Anyway, after the shenanigans ended, Njonjo left, most likely in a bit of a stupor. We know this because of all things inebriation can make you forget, he forgot the only thing he cared about. His beer mug.
Small matter? Yes? Absolutely not! Njonjo was the Attorney General, and you know what happens when the AG’s beer mug goes missing? Absolute chaos.
Njonjo called the PC of Central Province and told him to find the mug. I guess he also threatened his job if he didn’t find this treasured piece of crockery. So the PC called the DC, who then called the DO to personally go and turn the place upside down. An entire provincial administration holding its breath as the lower ranks launched the most serious ‘mug-hunt in Kenyan history.’
The missing mug was eventually found somewhere in Karume’s kitchen, where a diligent staff member had placed it after cleaning it. From one of his most recent interviews, we still know the nonagenarian enjoys the occasional beer, presumably shadowed by a cup-bearer lest it disappears again.
6. Moi’s Down Under Incident
In 1981, Moi dropped his treasured rungu in Australia. He was in Melbourne, Australia, attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. And everyone knows that you can’t be a Head of Government without your favorite stick.
The little we know of Moi’s rants is that he would at times hit people or tables with his rungu. It wasn’t just symbol; it was also weapon. He went through quite a few of those ivory sticks in his 24 years in office, one of which was the 1981 one.
While the story goes that he ‘accidentally’ dropped it, it is more likely he broke it. He was so disconcerted about not having his baton that his lackeys worked hard to fly a replacement to him. We don’t know how long it took, or even how much it cost, but at least he was happy. He was Baba wa Taifa after all, and it carrying a stick reminded us all.
In 1999, his home was burgled and a 20-kilo golden cockerel (black-market value of 2.5b) was stolen while the president was in Nigeria. There is a convincing theory that the entire story was fake.
5. The Deportation of Ernesteine Kiano
Ideally, marital issues are supposed to be solved at home. But in 1966, someone decided that we didn’t have a Ministry of Home Affairs for nothing. Or rather, an entire government decided to dive into a marital problem. Two entire arms of government for that matter.
The woman holding a passport in the photo above is Ernsteine Kiano. You might not know her now but in the early ‘60s, she was goals in Nairobi. Ernsteine was an African-American woman who married Dr. Gikonyo Kiano, the man next to her in the photo, in the mid-50s. She was the first black woman to hold a leadership position at the Kenya YWCA. She was a driven entrepreneur who’d fallen in love with a man and his country.
She is described by her friends as “Tall, heavy-browed, sometimes fierce in her approach to people and problems, she chaffed at the political and social restrictions under which she lived.” Most of those restrictions came from being married to a Cabinet Minister. In memoirs by her husband’s peers, she is infamously the woman who threw shoes at her husband at a members’ club. A few other public altercations are hinted at, but by 1966 it seems Kiano wanted out but didn’t have the guts to divorce her.
So his boys came up with a plan. In early June 1966, Ernsteine was deported by Moi, then the Minister for Home Affairs (This time literally it seems). The gazette notice said that she had shown herself “…in act and speech…disloyal and disaffected towards Kenya.” Never mind that she and Gikonyo had been married for 13 years and had several kids.
The month after she was deported, Parliament debated the issue of interracial marriages for more than one afternoon. On the afternoon of 13th July, for example, the question was mixed in with questions of loyalty (of the foreign spouse) and possible espionage.
4. The Boers Who Needed a Beer
The Boers who built Eldoret were an odd lot. Leaving South Africa after the British won the Anglo-Boer War, 280 of them arrived in Kenya in 1909. A few had made it as early as 1903, but the big migration of 1909 was the most treacherous. Everything was akin to The Great Trek, with all their possessions packed onto wagons which were hauled by oxen. A massive bank safe soon followed.
In Eldoret (at the time Farm 64 or ‘Sisibo’), where Standard Bank stands today, the safe fell off the wagon on the wrong side of the new mud and wooden bank building. Those around, probably just tired and angsty, decided they were too tired to lift it. The solution they came up with was to simply rebuild the bank around it. Hence Standard Bank Eldoret moved a bit, simply because a safe’s porters were tired.
Or perhaps they were thirsty. Right next to the bank was a bar called the Rat Pit (Eddy’s Bar), where legend has it people would drink and just leave money on the table. Once, two revelers found it closed and did the right thing. They removed the door and served themselves, then left their money on the table and walked out. The Rat Pit stayed doorless for years.
3. Fai Amario’s Entire LifeIn the original draft of this listicle, this entry was specifically about that time Fai Amario, in 2000, placed an ad in the dailies that he was searching for a wife. But every single story about this highly intelligent psychopath and brewer is just batshit crazy.
As a boy, he skipped three classes because he was too intelligent for his age, eventually joining Starehe. Later, he became a brewer and a reknown robber baron. He was convicted of everything from murder, carjacking and handling stolen goods. He once openly threatened a judge and cops, and had to be continuously moved from one prison to the next because he started his own smuggling rackets in each. He was jailed four times, so many that he even wrote a book titled ‘Fai Amario’s Kamiti Notebook: Prison Memoirs of a Kenyan Industrialist’, somewhere between the second and the third arrests.
About the marriage ad, I wonder why anyone would have wanted to be Amario’s wife after he was suspected of killing his first wife in 1996. His second left when he was imprisoned the second time. Still, it seems he got applications. The story goes that the lady who won the interviews tried to leave him when they got to the World Cup in Seoul, so he got her deported back, then divorced her.
2. The Gun Incident
Kiambu’s most infamous robber-baron (and it is a competitive pool) was undoubtedly a man named JK Mbugua or simply Kiarie wa Njoki or Kiarie Muiici. Legends abound about him, including how he acquired his vast land holdings which once included the parcel Jubilee House in Pangani stands on. Another, common about untouchable robber barons of his day, was that he had been given a ‘license to steal’ by Jomo Kenyatta after he stole one of his rings. Despite the obvious padding, the only true part was that the man was untouchable.
Once, presumably in the early 1980s when Moi was working to break the Kikuyu hold on the economy, Kiarie found himself hounded out of some of his land and properties. He asked for, and got, an audience with Moi. An elderly unassuming man until you crossed him, he was ushered into Moi’s State House office carrying a briefcase. Moi sat on his power seat, sipping a cup of coffee and waiting for the man to state his case.
So Kiarie opened his briefcase and calmly removed several title deeds to show he owned the properties. Then from the briefcase he removed a Ceska pistol, and placed it on the table. In Walking in Kenyatta’s Struggles, Duncan Ndegwa describes how Moi nearly choked on his coffee. He then rushed the meeting, telling the old man that he would look into. Kiarie was arrested and interrogated, but the gun hadn’t been loaded, and his story was that he had simply forgotten to remove his gun from the briefcase. He was released and never bothered again.
1. James Gichuru and the Bottle of Finance
James Gichuru is known in history for being the guy who warmed party seats for Jomo. To thank him, the old man appointed Kenya’s first Minister for Finance. You would think only the soberest minds would get such a sensitive job, but Gichuru wasn’t even close to that.
If you needed to find the man, you looked for him either at Munyu Bar on Luthuli Avenue, or at Karai Bar on Campos Ribeiro Road. He once left sensitive Treasury docs in a briefcase at Karai Bar and his office had to send a team to retrieve them.
Legend has it that Gichuru always had a crate of beer in the boot of his car. If true, then that must have been after 1969 when Parliament had to go on a break during the budget speech because he started shaking and fumbling. During the break, he was rushed to Karai Bar for an emergency top up, after which he came back and finished the speech. Just three years earlier, he had blacked out the morning before the official opening of Central Bank, and missed out on the entire thing!
Getting into a bar brawl with the man could be expensive as a journalist called Muhia Gitau learnt one day at the Pan Africa Hotel. Pissed off with the minister for insulting him, he threw beer onto Gichuru’s face. The fight was stopped after a while, and Muhia thought that was that. Only to be fired from his job at the Standard and never be employed as a journalist in Nairobi again.
Although the man who succeeded Gichuru, Mwai Kibaki, was mostly sober on the job, it was when he clocked out that he went on the rave. He and Paul Ngei were nicknamed fagia dunia, because when they hit happy hour, there was no stopping them. They were polar opposites; Kibaki was a calm and frugal drunk while Ngei was a riot even when he was sober. But both were smooth with the ladies, which is what the fagia dunia title was mostly about.
Another Minister in the same docket, Francis Masakhalia (1999) always had a bottle of Johnnie Walker around him, even in his briefcase. During his only Budget Reading, while police dispersed protestors outside Parliament, he gobbled up 15 glasses of water, ostensibly trying to sober up. I wonder how many other Budget Speeches have been made by drunk men…
Read the first listicle on other absurd stories from Kenyan History [Link]
One Story is Good,
till Another is told.