Kenya’s Lady Of Grace

Kenya’s Lady Of Grace
  • PublishedJanuary 25, 2012

In Africa’s rich list, you will not find her. Yet she is fabulously wealthy. Few Kenyan women enjoy her status. Her name is Mama Ngina Kenyatta, Kenya’s first First Lady. From Nairobi, Wanjohi Kabukuru reports on the exploits of the “no ordinary woman” of Kenya.

Kenya’s founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, married Ngina Muhoho in 1951. Now 78, Ngina came from a privileged family as her father was the famous Chief Muhoho wa Gatheca of Kiambu.

In her 27-year marriage to Jomo, and 33 years as a widow, Mama Ngina has steadfastly defended the memory of the founding father and survived tumultuous moments.

Though she leads a quiet, almost reclusive, life away from the public glare (and especially from the media), her defence of her family’s wealth and promotion of the Kenyatta family’s business interests is what has gained her respect in the public eye.

While many expected Mama Ngina to have succumbed to the temptations of power and public life by seeking an elective post after the passing of Jomo, or a jet-set lifestyle as a diplomat, she did neither and jealously guarded her family and kept them away from competitive politics and general public life. Her presence was only visible during her husband’s memorials and public holidays. Even in business, though her family has solid investments in real estate, insurance, education, banking, manufacturing, farming, and hospitality, she has managed to successfully keep a low profile.

This has in turn given her family a huge bonus as the respect of her husband’s reign has been maintained.

Mama Ngina is no ordinary woman. Though she came from a strict Catholic family, she married Kenyatta at age 18 as his fourth wife when the founding father was 57 years old. Kenyatta’s religious inclinations had little Catholic persuasion but strong Gikuyu indigenous roots. But she stuck with him throughout his detention by the British colonial government. This held the family together when Kenyatta passed away on 22 August 1978.

Under Ngina’s stewardship today are well-known commercial brands and blue chip identities such as Brookside Dairies (known as “East Africa’s leading dairy”), with full operational tentacles in Uganda and Tanzania. It has market share all over the Indian Ocean islands, and also in Rwanda, Burundi, North Africa and the Middle East. Another of the family’s businesses is in the form of Timsales Timber, which is also dubbed as “East Africa’s largest timber dealers”.

Another is the Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA), “the largest privately-owned Kenyan bank,” and the upmarket and chic hotel chain, Heritage Hotels East Africa.

There is also the well-to-do media conglomerate, Media Max company, which owns K24TV, Kameme Radio, and The People paper, to name but a few channels.

As the matriarch in charge of the family’s vast business empire, Mama Ngina presides over the latest jewel in the crown – the construction of the 500-acre Northlands City, expected to be the largest upmarket gated community in East Africa.

Her philanthropic activities are well-known, which includes one of the oldest and largest orphanages in East Africa, the Mama Ngina Kenyatta Children’s Home in Nairobi South “C”.

Of her four children – Kristina, Uhuru, Nyokabi and Muhoho – only Uhuru has followed their father into politics, and currently holds the dual positions of deputy prime minister and finance minister.

The first African governor of the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), Duncan Ndegwa, is the only person who has revealed some hidden snippets about this famous Kenyan family. Until then, very little was known of Mama Ngina.

Ndegwa writes about Ngina’s resolve to become a graceful First Lady in his book entitled Walking in Kenyatta Struggles.

“Mama Ngina had literally gone from the village to State House and the onus of grooming the First Lady initially fell in the hands of Nyiva Mwendwa, wife of the first African chief justice and later woman cabinet minister,” Ndegwa recoutns.

“Ngina’s learning curve – into a lady of culture and elegance – was steep, but we all admired her resolve. On the occasion of Kenyatta’s inauguration and the Kenya Air Force ceremonial function organised for it, Mama Ngina was supposed to accompany him as usual. She emerged from the house dressed in long pants and a sleeveless tunic. Mzee [Jomo Kenyatta] had never seen his wife dressed in trousers, or otherwise so loudly deviating from her norms of dress. It was a tense journey to the ceremony.”

Ndegwa also captures snippets of Mama Ngina’s business inclination, which apparently did not start after her husband’s passing.

“At a breakfast meeting at Gatundu one day,” Ndegwa writes, “Mama Ngina maintained a dignified silence, hardly answering questions put to her by Kenyatta regarding a number of missing documents. One businessman confided in me, ‘Mama Ngina did not want me or Mzee to know about her participation in the business. She was forced to tell Mzee how she had been shortchanged in an illegal coffee sale deal.’ Suffice it to say that Mzee forced the partners to make remedies on pain of dire consequences.”

In her first ever interview in 2010, Ngina revealed her business style and what made her venture into entrepreneurship.

“Mzee had no money but I sold some land to help educate the children. I realised education was the only thing I could give them since with education and hard work, even without wealth one can succeed.”

Before becoming CBK governor, Ndegwa was the secretary to the cabinet and head of the civil service, a position that gave him unfettered access to Kenyatta’s family. He continues: “In the fullness of time, Mama Ngina’s image blossomed in the eyes of the public as Mzee became prime minister and then president. She knew better than to be involved in Mzee’s political work.

“However every once in a while she would appeal to Mzee’s forgiving nature by occasionally requesting him to reduce jail sentences under the constitutional device of the Prerogative of Mercy, something he would do as part of National Day celebrations.”

Her name is not complete without the title “Mama” earned at independence in 1963, denoting “Mother of the Nation”. She has kept this title and the attendant respect that comes with it to this day. High-end streets in both Mombasa and Nairobi bear her name.

Kenya’s founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, married Ngina’s astute financial skills and her penchant for privacy are neatly expounded in Ndegwa’s book.

“Mama Ngina was, of course, an insider in Jomo Kenyatta’s court, though she was rarely discussed by analysts and political wags. She, however, was never on the payroll of any institution linked to the court.

“Wambui (now Mrs Madoka) [an advisor] managed her affairs in a very discreet manner. Mrs Nyiva Kitili Mwendwa was known to give advice on matters of fashion and dress.”

In both haute couture and high finance, Mama Ngina came out tops, but to this day she has never revealed the full inventory of her investments. Her humility about learning and keeping a tight lid on her family has paid off handsomely. Her fashion sense remains dignified to this day. Ngina personifies the neat symbolic view of the non-controversial Kenyan lady of grace.

“Many moments of [Kenyatta’s] failing health, some of which we knew about or even witnessed, were to follow. Mama Ngina knew most of them but kept dutifully mum. Agikuyu women of her generation were trained midwives, so often nobody else witnessed Mama Ngina’s efficacy at massaging Mzee back to a semblance of good health.

Written By
New African

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