Julius Kiano Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Once you got your degree, you were involved in something called the "student airlift." Explain that to us, what it was and what that meant for the future of your country.
As soon as I got my degree in 1956, I returned home almost immediately. I got my degree in June and by the beginning of September, I was in Kenya. I was employed by the only post-secondary college in the country, called the Royal Technical College, which is now the University of Nairobi. Then elections for African members of the legislature were approved by the British government, although very few of us were to go in. But it became very clear to those in leadership positions that independence was going to come to Kenya, that it was only a matter of years, and not so many years. We knew that if independence comes and we become ministers and so on, but we don't have the personnel, then this kind of independence would be very weak. So some of us began writing to our friends in the United States colleges and universities, a fellow like Mr. Tom Mboya began also writing to American political leaders and trade unionists and the response was really astounding. We were offered a lot of college scholarships. And then, one foundation, the Kennedy Foundation with their friends, agreed that while you may get a scholarship, you also need the money to buy the tickets to come. And so we were offered a whole aircraft to carry students from Nairobi to the United States. It was the most magnificent thing that really started the close relations between America and Kenya in the field of education. That was in 1959, then another airlift in 1960, another airlift in 1961. So we had three airlifts that formed the hard core of our public service, their personnel, our future chief executives, and, although we have continued to send more and more students to this country, that was the time when we needed those students most, and American universities and colleges gave them to us.
It was the American private sector that was helping you. It wasn't just government to government.
No, it wasn't government at all but individual families, right here in the Bay Area and elsewhere, who actually said, "All right, we have an extra room in our house so you can put one of your students there. We'll give you free room and free food but, about his school fees, you work it out with the college." Now that kind of sacrifice from people of different economic status, it was private American colleges and some state colleges of course, but it was not a government affair because we were not yet a government. We were actually fighting for independence. We were the future government but at that time we were considered the rebels.
And was this a kind of activity and support that only America could have offered at that time, because many of the European countries were former colonial powers and, at that time, we were not.
The largest group came here but, at the same time, even Britain which was negotiating with us for the kind of constitution that we were going to have for independence, was also beginning to see the need for exactly what we were doing. So they gave a number of scholarships also to British universities. One or two went to France. The Soviet Union also gave us quite a number. One of the difficulties of course was, you have to spend so much time, first of all, learning the Russian language before you can actually graduate. But the largest number at that crucial moment came from the United States.
Was it inevitable that you would then enter politics, because this was such a creative time in the history of your country?
Not really, I wouldn't put it that way. Let me say that when I did return home, I got this nice job as a lecturer in constitutional law and economics at the Royal Technical College. Very comfortable, but I could not feel comfortable when the struggle for independence was all surrounding me. The state of emergency was with us, you couldn't be out of your house after 7:00, racial discrimination was there, we even had difficulties about where to put me as a lecturer because I was the first black lecturer at this college. With so much injustice in colonialism, it would have been impossible for me to watch from afar. So I could not keep my teaching job; I just went and resigned and said, "I am going in too."
Did what you learned in the university help in practical matters as you entered politics?
Oh yes, because by early 1960 the British government agreed to sit down with us to work out a program for the independence of Kenya and to begin identifying the main issues, and also the nature of the constitution that would come out. Now I had done quite a bit of that when I was here in Berkeley, and so I could feel that my studies in the University of California at Berkeley were coming up. And, incidentally, we were very practical people, we said that we needed another expert so we wrote to Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was then not at the Supreme Court, I think he was then still at NAACP.
He had been the attorney in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case.
Yes, correct. He readily agreed to come to Nairobi and then to come with us to London to be one of our constitutional advisors, in fact, the main constitutional advisor. And one of his major contributions was to insist that, "You've got to have a Bill of Rights in that constitution." And so that was wonderful assistance that we got from him.
Your career is a long and distinguished one. We mentioned 30 years of service in the government, in your party, as a local political leader, as a national political leader. What skills have proved most important in that long and distinguished career?
I would put it differently because, you see, it's a question of realizing where the problem lies. Just at independence, if you simplify the situation, commercial agriculture for export was mainly in the hands of British settlers, with the Africans only as the agricultural laborers there. The commercial sector, the trade sector of the economy, was largely in the hands of the Asian community. So we seemed to have the monopoly of labor only. Now it became evident to me and to my colleagues -- to everybody I'm sure -- that even if we became independent and the structure of the economy remained like that, then this independence would be hollow, and the people would not agree to be called independent and at the same time be the fourth on the economic structure of the economy.
So you had to take control.
We had to find ways which would be within equity and justice, but at the same time give opportunities to the African people so that they could feel that they also had a major share in the economy of the country. The British government was quite cooperative in this respect, if I may say so, although they were in the opposition at that time. We said that we required to compensate the British farmers who had these plantations, instead of just going and confiscating them. We went to the British government and said, "We want a loan to buy these guys out." And we got a good loan, and we were able to settle African farmers in those areas. So today, in the field of agriculture, the African farmer is playing a very key role. Then, we had to create national institutions to enable African industrialists who wanted to come up to get loans and to get skills, and we had also to assist in bringing up the African in the commercial sector also so that in no field of economic activity were the old issues of racial discrimination and segregation evident. And even in the schools, which had been separate for separate races, we also said that we don't understand that -- every school is for every child. And so, with those changes, we were able to enjoy our independence in peace, with relative cooperation from all the people in the country.
So you had to understand the problem of realizing your country's own sovereignty, and then shape it and help your people understand what the problems were, and then negotiate with the people who were outside.
And in doing so, not rock the boat.
Because either you negotiate effectively, until you make the other guy see your point, or you use the hard stick and spoil everything. We had an economy to salvage and to develop. At the same time, our people had to feel like participants in that development. At the same time, we had Asian and British citizens also who had to be made to feel that they are not being segregated because of their color just as we had been segregated ourselves in the colonial era. It was a matter of tactics and approach, and thank God we had leaders with those kind of tactics to do it.
Shaping a revolution in a pragmatic, nuanced, sophisticated way.
You used the right word, "pragmatism," how to deploy your resources as realistically as possible.
It must have been very exciting to go from these books at Berkeley, advanced degrees, and then to go back to your own country and really make a difference, to write this chapter for your country.
Well, we were excited for a while, not only myself. For example, in the first election only eight were allowed to go into the legislature. And the second batch, which came in '58, I was included in that one. But by 1963, it was one man, one vote. And of the people who got in, under the leadership of then-President Kenyatta, and then-Vice President Daniel arap Moi, who is now the President. These were all people with experience, either as teachers or as businessmen or as long-time politicians, Kenyatta had been a politician since the '20s. And the most important thing which I think was helping us was that there was constant mutual consultation among the members of the cabinet -- not only among the members of the cabinet, but also leaders in various aspects of the country. In fact, at one time we organized a seminar known as "The Kenya We Want," where we got all of the brains in different areas to come and give papers. That kind of consultation, that feeling that nobody had the monopoly of all knowledge, and the readiness to listen even to a guy you think you don't agree with, helped us a lot to shape the Kenya we have.
Next page: Kiano's Leadership
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