Murumbi’s Legacy Part Three: The Later Years
By KAREN ROTHMYER @thestarkenya
The third and last of a series drawn from Joseph Murumbi: A Legacy of Integrity, to be launched today.
Murumbi’s departure from Government at the end of 1966 passed without much comment. There were other, bigger political stories at the time, most particularly what was happening to Oginga Odinga and his new party, KPU. The Kenyatta Government had already reinstated detention without trial in mid-1966, and several KPU leaders were soon thereafter arrested and detained.
Murumbi remained a nominal Member of Parliament until the end of the session in 1969, but stayed completely out of active politics for the rest of his life. After serving as chairman of the Kenya subsidiary of Rothmans until it was sold, he became a director of a number of other corporations, and also a co-founder of African Heritage, whose Nairobi gallery became a must-see for visitors.
According to Alan Donovan, Murumbi’s partner in African Heritage, ‘It was his dream to have a Pan-African centre in Nairobi where artists from all over the world could come and have their works shown. And I was sort of the one to implement his dream.’
Perhaps, as some suggest, Murumbi’s interest in collecting African art and books can be seen as a manifestation of his search for identity. ‘Murumbi was like a convert: converts are always the most passionate about proving their allegiance,’ says Donovan. ‘When he “converted” to being Maasai he was extremely eager to prove the worth of being an African. Everything African was valuable to him.’
Dr. Joyce Nyairo, a Kenyan academic and writer on cultural issues, shares this perception. ‘He didn’t ever fit into an Indian identify because he was not an Indian; he was seen as black in India,’ Nyairo says. ‘He wasn’t Maasai either; he didn’t know Maasai culture because he grew up in India.’ Given these facts, she says, ‘Culture became for him a way of exploring identity, of pursuing the unseen, the unacknowledged.’
What Murumbi did through his support of African Heritage was to help make traditional art legitimate, Nyairo says. ‘I think African Heritage spoke to ordinary Kenyans mainly through fashion and music,’ she says. ‘The rest may have been chic among the elite but not ordinary people. But what they did at African Heritage was to make people feel they could do art.’ She adds, ‘You could argue that the Maasai Market is in a direct line from that. And young people go to Maasai Market.’
In the late 1970s, Murumbi decided it was time to dispose of his papers and most of his library and art collection. He held discussions with several institutions and in the end struck a deal with the Kenya National Archives, which he himself had been instrumental in setting up while he was Vice-President.
Professor Godfrey Muriuki was a member of the Kenya National Archives advisory committee that negotiated with Murumbi for much of his collection of books, art and papers. ‘When we were discussing the sale he said, “If I sold this overseas I would make more money,”’ Muriuki recalls. ‘But —and this is where I say he was very patriotic—he said, “No, I don’t want to sell it to America or Britain because it belongs to Kenya and I would like it to remain in Kenya, so long as you give me a little bit of money to cover the costs of collecting this material”.
Murumbi sold his Muthaiga house and plot to the Government in late 1977 on the understanding that a research centre would be established there. He also sold his library and much of his art collection to the Government. The total price for the house and the book and art collections would be equal to about Ksh 468 million in today’s terms.
In 1977, thanks to his Maasai heritage, Murumbi obtained about 2,000 acres for a farm and ranch in Trans Mara and built a 35-room mansion that was to be his and Sheila’s retirement home. His intention was to raise high-quality cattle and inspire the Maasai to do the same.
IN MURUMBI'S WORD
My father read a lot, but I don’t think he was a collector of books. After I read the two books he gave me about Kenya and India, I began to read other books and try to find other books. And when I went to England I started collecting more books.
One day Sheila was talking to a book dealer in London about books, and this book dealer was looking for a book called Through Maasailand by Joseph Thompson. Sheila said, ‘If I can get you the second edition, how much will you offer me?’ He said, ‘I’ll give you £2.10’. She knew that I had two copies of the second edition so she came home and said, ‘Look here, would you like to sell a copy of Through Maasailand?’ So I looked at my copies, and the copy without a map I had paid three shillings for, and the perfect copy with the map I had paid two shillings for, and the thought struck me that there was some money in this business.
We used to spend our weekends combing the south of England for books, and we were able to put out a catalogue every two months. And we found we were making some money on it and this helped me a great deal to buy more books for my own library.
My art collecting started toward the end of my stay in England. I happened to go to a junk shop near Camden Town where I found a small carved tusk which I liked very much, and the man sold it to me for about £2.10. Well, today I think it’s worth at least over a hundred pounds. He told me, ‘I’d rather sell it to you because you’re from Africa and it should go back to Africa.’ And from that one piece I began.
We used to go to Portobello Market in London, not that I had any money, but even looking at things gave me a lot of pleasure. And then when I had some money from dealing in books, I used to spend a little bit of this on buying pieces of African art.
Then later on, when I left Government and was in business, I had more money and I was able to spend on things which I found or when I went abroad. And then finally, of course, we opened African Heritage. And that gave me the opportunity to get some good pieces, because I had first choice when these things came to the shop.
The idea of African Heritage was to open a shop selling African art, good African art and crafts, in the hope that the people of Kenya would begin to realize the beauty of African art, and also collect it as an investment. We tried to encourage African artists as much as possible: we held exhibitions for them, bought items from them, and we imported a considerable amount of goods from many parts of Africa.
Why there are not more Africans interested in art, I don’t know. But I think it will come in the course of time. It’s rather an expensive hobby today if you want to start collecting really genuine pieces, which are extremely rare and very highly priced.
I prefer to spend my money on art, stamps, and things which give one pleasure. And besides that, it’s an investment which is appreciating much faster than money in a bank. I’ve never had money stashed away in a bank. If I have any money I spend it on buying art or books or stamps.
Culture is the life of a people, the habits of the people, the art of a people, the folklore of people. We were under colonial rule for many years. And during that time all our African values were denounced and we were told to accept whatever the European had to offer us.
We now live in the modern world and therefore we need to use the cultures, knowledge, and education of the Western world in order to keep up with the Western world, but we must not lose the sense that we are Africans, that we have our own identity, our own values, and some of those are very good.
You’ll find that although the West Africans are educated, they still believe in their local traditions: the dancing, the folklore, the art. The Japanese are a highly industrialised country today but they still maintain in their homes their own Japanese tradition and custom. That is what I’m saying is important: not to lose our African background, our African culture and the cultural values behind it.
I don’t say that in any sense to condemn European or other art—in my collection I have art from all over the world—but I’m talking about African culture and cultural values which we must not lose sight of. There is a contribution which we can make, as Africans, to the common pool of the world’s culture. But in the first place we must be proud of ourselves.
When I was thinking of going back to Maasailand a friend of mine told me, ‘Why don’t you go above the escarpment between Lolgorian and Kilgoris, you will find some beautiful land there.’ I was fascinated with the land, which was so beautiful—it was virgin land, unspoilt, with forests and rivers and open glades—that I fell in love with it immediately. And so did Sheila.
The next day the committee of the Olalui Group Ranch was meeting, and they invited me. Some of the members of the committee were elderly people who knew me when I was young and knew my mother, and my mother’s people, the Uasin Gishu Maasai. My cousin who was the Member of Parliament for the area, Mr. John Konchella, introduced me.
We eventually got our land. This area is called Intona. It’s rather peculiar because Intona is a Maasai word and it means ‘roots’ which is really the case; I have gone back to settle among my mother’s people.
By Alan Donovan’s account, the Murumbis were very happy at Intona. But within a few years Murumbi’s failing health—he suffered a stroke and later a fall at Intona in 1982 that left him in almost constant pain—forced the couple to return to Nairobi. In the years that followed, the Intona property, on which Murumbi had a substantial loan, became the source of endless fights between local residents, descendants on his mother’s side, and the lending institution. The house itself is now a ruin.
Meanwhile, back in Nairobi, the Murumbis’ Muthaiga house, after being sold to the Government, was first renovated and then, several years later, demolished. The Muthaiga property was then subdivided and sold for a suspiciously low price to well-connected individuals. ‘Halfway through the demolition,’ according to an article in the Daily Nation, ‘an unbelieving, ailing Murumbi went to see for himself what he was hearing. As he went around the plot in a wheel-chair, he could hardly believe what he was witnessing.’
In Donovan’s opinion, it was the shock of seeing what had happened that killed Murumbi. He died on 21 June, 1990, at the age of 79. Murumbi, along with his wife, who lived another ten years, is buried just outside the City Park Cemetery in Nairobi. In 2009, thanks to the efforts of Donovan and the Murumbi Trust, the graves became part of the Murumbi Peace Memorial, a garden containing sculptures by some of the artists Murumbi championed.
In his eulogy for Murumbi, William Ole Ntimama, at the time Minister for Local Government, praised Murumbi as ‘an outstanding figure who was fired by neither political power nor personal ambition’. Murumbi, he said, ‘always stood up for what he knew to be right. In this he never changed.’
Joseph Murumbi: A Legacy of Integrity will be launched as part of the Samosa Festival today at the Alchemist, beginning at 4pm. It will retail at Sh1,000 during the festival and at Sh1,200 after July 11. It will be available at Bookstop at Yaya Centre and other locations.