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Joseph Murumbi A pioneer collector

Joseph Murumbi A pioneer collector
  • PublishedOctober 29, 2013

Murumbi’s mission in life was to collect and preserve African culture in all its forms. His collection of artefacts was so numerous that it would have had an entire museum of its own, had it not been for the shameful neglect of the Kenyan government. Wanjiru Ndungu has the story.

Joseph Murumbi was born Joseph Anthony Zuzurate in 1911, to a Goan (people from the Goa state in India) father and Maasai mother. When just seven years old, he was taken by his father to India to study and he stayed there until 1931, when his father asked him to return to Kenya and stay with him as he had fallen on hard times.

On coming back to Kenya his father asked him, instead of looking for a formal job, to get land and live among his mother’s people as they needed him more than his father’s people.

He went to the then provincial commissioner to purchase a piece of land but was denied approval because under the law his nationality was Asian, and the colonial government would not allow him to get the land among the Maasai as this might “disturb” them.

This led Murumbi to a crossroads but he went on to make the conscious decision to renounce his Asian nationality, which gave him superior rights and privileges to Africans, but meant he was not allowed to own land among his mother’s people. Thus, he was probably the first African who actually chose to be an African, and from that day forward he took the name of his Maasai Laibon (spiritual leader) grandfather: Murumbi.

Another factor that influenced Murumbi’s decision to adopt African nationality was that when he was at school, the Anglo-Indians, who were half Indian and half European, used to call the Indians “niggers”, and the fact that they thought themselves better used to annoy him very much.

This memory, with his father’s prompting, made him determined not to think of himself as anything different, but to feel, think and act as an African.

It was a decision he never changed or regretted.

Becoming a collector
“He who could penetrate the interior of Africa, might not improbably discover negro arts and polity, which could bear little analogy to the ignorance and grossness of slaves in the sugar islands, expatriated in their infancy and brutalised under the whip and the task master”: Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho – published in 1738

Ignatius Sancho, whose work the above quote is from, was one of the first ex-slaves to learn to read and write. Enslaved and brought to the Spanish West Indies, Ignatius also became the first African known to vote in Britain and the first one to get his obituary printed in the British press in 1780.

His very rare volume, Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, is one of the first books known to have been written by a formerslave, and is on display at the Nairobi Gallery: Murumbi African Heritage Collections, situated at the old Provincial Commissioner’s office, now preparing for its centennial celebrations in the epicentre of Nairobi. It is the second permanent exhibit set up in Kenya in honour of this pioneer African art collector, and his wife Sheila Murumbi.

How Murumbi became a collector is a story in itself, but he had a disappointing start. In 1941, Murumbi got a job in Somalia with the British Military Administration. He left his collection of 600 books with a friend but when he returned to Kenya in 1952, they had all disappeared. However this did not deter him and once he settled back in Kenya he started collecting again.

It was also 1952 when Murumbi met his lifelong mentor Pio Gama Pinto, who was a member of the Kenya African Union (KAU) and in the course of time he joined KAU after Jomo Kenyatta insisted that he do so. Not long after this, a State of Emergency was declared by the colonial government in Kenya and it is during this period that Murumbi was thrown to the forefront of politics by being obliged to become the acting-secretary of KAU after most of its leaders, including Jomo Kenyatta, were arrested.

Murumbi put all his energy into the trial of the leaders who had been detained and helped in raising money for their defence. Jomo Kenyatta, while still in detention, suggested that Murumbi should travel abroad and talk about what was happening in Kenya. It was then he planned to travel to India, Britain, Cairo, the USA and West Africa – but by the time he got to Britain he was banned from the USA as KAU had been banned in Kenya and he was gazetted as “wanted”, thus he was unable to go back home. By the time Murumbi left for London his new library consisted of 300 books.

Murumbi ended up staying in London for nine years. Together with the help of the “Congress of People’s Against Imperialism” (CPAI) and “Movement for Colonial Freedom” (MCF), which organised a series of area councils and meetings in all major cities of Britain, Murumbi was able to speak about what was happening in Kenya. This helped the struggle a great deal.

During his stay in Britain, he happened to go to a junk shop near Camden Town in north London where he found a small carved ivory tusk from the Congo. He liked it very much and the shopkeeper sold it to him cheaply because he thought it should go back to Africa.

From then on, he would be a frequent visitor to the Portobello Market (in west London) where he could find odd pieces. After the emergency was lifted in Kenya and Kenyatta and his fellow leaders were released from detention, Kenyatta joined Murumbi in London together with a KANU delegation (KANU was an outgrowth of KAU), where the Lancaster House conference was arranged to declare Kenya to be ruled by African rule.

Murumbi had already arranged with the Moroccan Embassy, where he worked as a clerk at the time, to allocate premises to the Kenyan delegation in the embassy and he was instrumental in organising the conference and the first constitution of Kenya.

After the Lancaster House conference, Kenyatta got the ban on Murumbi waived and he was able to come back to Kenya. He came back from London with 35 cases of books totalling 3,000 volumes but some were confiscated and burned by the customs officials at Mombasa, as they were on the banned list.

Murumbi was first appointed as Kenyatta’s personal assistant and afterwards, Kenyatta became newly independent Kenya’s Head of State as Kenya’s first president, when Murumbi was first promoted to Minister of State: Foreign Affairs and then to Foreign Minister.

In May 1965 he was appointed the second vice-president of Kenya. In that same year his best friend and mentor, Pio Gama Pinto, who was lobbying for land rights for Africans, was assassinated.

In December 1966 he resigned from the post and from political life. The only post he held in the government after that was as Chairman and advisor to the Kenya National Archives, where he was instrumental in getting a law passed that would demand for collections such as his own to be vetted by the Kenya National Archives and the National Museums of Kenya before they could be exported.

He said his resignation was due to health reasons, but it was the personal interests of individuals which he held paramount, and he did not want to let people down. In 1970 Murumbi met another African art enthusiast and cultural preserver, Alan Donovan, one of the people who now goes to great lengths to keep the memory of Murumbi alive, and told him his dream of setting up a Pan-African Centre to show arts from all parts of Africa, where artists from different African countries could meet.

As Donovan was already involved to a pan-African trade fair where he exhibited African jewellery and textiles, they bonded easily. Together the two art connoisseurs opened the first Pan-African gallery in Africa: African Heritage.

African Heritage, located in Nairobi, is credited with opening doors for some of the top artists from Africa. Pioneer African artists such as Lady Magdalene Odundo, Francis Nnaagenda, Elkana Ongésa, John Odochomeny, Expedito Mwembe, Bruce Onobrakpeya Accent Soi and Niki Seven Seven were some whose work was exhibited at the African Heritage Gallery on Kenyatta Avenue (where the I&M building stands today).

In 1976 Murumbi, after amassing quite a collection of artefacts and books, felt that the time had come when his library and personal papers and some of his artefacts should go to the Kenyan government and be preserved, despite huge demand overseas.

After a fire completely devastated the African Heritage galleries, workshops, restaurant, garden cafe and stores, Murumbi approached the University of Nairobi and told them his library was up for sale, they were interested but they did not pursue the matter any further. He then approached the national museums in Kenya.

The Kenya National Archives got to know about his intention to sell works, and negotiations began. They finally agreed upon a price for the library, approximately 12,000 books and 50,000 historical documents, artefacts and his personal papers. The Kenya National Archives said they were interested in his house as well, and as Murumbi wanted to display his collection in situ to show Africans how to “live” with African art, they agreed a price and he sold it in 1977. In total he sold his collection for a not so generous KSh.4.1m (nearly $50,000).

Murumbi’s only condition was that his Muthaiga house be turned into the Murumbi Institute of African Studies, and UNESCO agreed to fund a kitchen, hostel and library on the premises.

But this never happened. More than a decade after the sale, Murumbi’s house was allowed to deteriorate and was finally demolished to make way for a vice-presidential mansion. This however, did not materialise; instead the property was sub-divided and allocated to private developers.

Among the beneficiaries was the then commissioner of lands and permanent secretary in the ministry of home affairs and national heritage, ideal custodians.

The collection had to be taken to the basement of the present day Kenya National Archives and stored. It took three decades before his collections were properly displayed at the Kenya National Archives, opening in December 2006 as the Murumbi Gallery. This was 30 years after he had sold them to the government.

Returning to Nairobi from his new home near the Maasai Mara game preserve, where he had suffered a fall in his bathroom, the poor and ailing Murumbi, strapped onto a wheelchair, went to see the disgraceful act which was also the death of his dream of the Murumbi Institute of African Studies.

It is said he never recovered from the shock he experienced after watching his favourite indigenous trees being cut down while the developers turned the land into private real estate. He was distraught and not long after this, in 1990, he suffered a stroke and died.

Murumbi wanted to be buried next to his mentor, Pio Gama Pinto at the Nairobi City Park Cemetery, but he was only allowed a grave of his own outside the cemetery. Murumbi’s wife Sheila died in 2000. She was buried next to her husband.

The plot is now gazetted as a national monument and will be part of the rehabilitation in the Nairobi City Park being undertaken by the Aga Khan Foundation.

Having died intestate, Sheila Murumbi’s properties were to go to her next of kin, who were her distant cousins in the UK. A huge uproar arose in Kenya after the intention to move the collection out of the country was announced. The Kenyan government came in and aided the Murumbi Trust to stop the collection from leaving the country.

The collection was then divided up between the National Museum of Kenya and the Kenya National Archives through a gift deed to the Kenya nation in 2010 signed by Sheila Murumbi’s heirs.

Murumbi’s collection is unique in that it includes everything African, i.e. art, crafts, textiles, fashion, jewellery, weaponry, books, artefacts, stamps, documents and other memorabilia. He also had a collection of artefacts that came down to Kenya during the “dhow” trade that lasted over 1,000 years from Persia, Middle East, Arabia, India and even China and Europe. The collection was put together and paid for by Murumbi and Sheila without any grant, or outside help, except for African Heritage, the Pan African gallery of which Murumbi and Sheila were directors along with Alan Donovan.

There is simply no other collection of its kind in Africa. There was also no other collector of Murumbi’s stature in sub-Saharan Africa with such a huge personal collection of African arts.

Written By
New African

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