The meeting with Jomo Kenyatta was to be held in the morning at State House, Nakuru.
James Gichuru, then Defence minister, had accompanied his Permanent Secretary Jeremiah Kiereini and Deputy Secretary Philip Gitonga to brief mzee, as Kenyatta was fondly referred, on certain issues concerning the country’s defence.
Then First Lady Mama Ngina welcomed the guests and asked them what they would like to drink. They all settled for tea apart from Gichuru who asked for a beer! Gichuru was known within the Cabinet as the minister who loved his drink. When the President arrived, he asked Mr Gichuru why he was taking beer in the morning.
Gichuru responded: “What did you want me to drink and we have been waiting for you for so long.” “Can’t you take tea like the others,” Mzee questioned.
“Who me? Drink tea? No!,” Gichuru exclaimed in Kikuyu. “I can’t take tea,” he added.
This and other stories are now part of a new book, From Kitchen toto to Ambassador, which has been written by Phillip Gitonga, Gichuru’s former Under Secretary and a man who later became an ambassador to India, Japan, South Korea, West Germany and later Netherlands.
It was while in India that he realised many Indians, with previous links to Kenya, wanted to return and settle in the country. They wanted to take up positions that could be taken by Kenyans. This was during the early years of the Moi rule.
“I soon discovered that thousands of such individuals were buying their way back,” he writes about the corruption that was rife in the Immigration Department. Mr Gitonga wrote a memorandum to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs thinking he was promoting the country’s interests. The reply he got shocked him.
“I received a sharp rebuke, not from my principals at the ministry of Foreign Affairs as protocol required, but from the Principal Immigration Office. I was told to keep out of matters which did not concern me,” Mr Gitonga says. Without going into details, the former Lari MP narrates how he bumped into some coup plotters in 1971 who were having a “goat-eating session” at Army Commander General JM Ndolo’s home. Those present included Chief Justice Kitili Mwendwa, Yatta MP Gideon Mutiso “and a lady who was introduced to me as Mrs Obote.”
Mr Gitonga, then Defence Under Secretary, had apparently detoured Gen Ndolo’s residence and felt himself “unwelcome” at the event. However, he does not say whether he reported this incident or not.
Mutiso was jailed while Ndolo and Mwendwa were retired in public interest.
The author thinks Gen Ndolo got the idea of staging a coup from Yakub Gowon, then Nigerian military leader. In one meeting, when Gen Gowon visited Kenyatta, the author claims, Ndolo treated him (Gen Gowon) “very casually, as an equal rather than as a Head of State and this did not go down well with the President.”
He also tells of an incident when Kenyatta was set to visit the PC’s residence in Embu. According to the author, former minister for Defence Dr Njoroge Mungai smashed the photograph of Eastern PC because it was hanging on the same level with that of Kenyatta. “He then told the PC to get a broom and sweep the broken glasses away.”
Dr Mungai, a flamboyant doctor-turned politician was one of the mavericks within Kenyatta’s Cabinet. He was also Kenyatta’s personal physician.
“Dr Mungai would give me instructions directly, instead of going through the established protocol,” says Mr Gitonga. Rising from a kitchen toto, a househelp, in the house of Nelly Grant, the mother of Elspeth Huxley – author of Flame Trees of Thika – Gitonga’s story illuminates the colonial and post-colonial Kenya from a personal perspective.