Between 1959 and 1963, Tom Mboya, the Kenyan politician and presidential aspirant, organised the airlifting of 770 young men and women from Kenya and nine other East, Central, and Southern countries to go and study in the USA and come back to shape the future of their countries. Fifty years on, the friends of Mboya pay homage to his patriotic work, reports Leslie Goffe from New York.
Kenya would have struggled to run itself in the early days, after the British lowered their Union Jack and left 50 years ago, had Tom Mboya, the Kenyan politician, not convinced US charities to give hundreds of young Africans – among them President Barack Obama’s father – scholarships to study at American universities as part of an educational initiative that became known as “Operation Airlift Africa”.
“These are men and women who will help build our nation,” Tom Mboya said of the students chosen to participate in the Airlift Africa initiative, which began in 1959 and ended as Kenya became independent in 1963. “My efforts to help African students to study overseas are based on my conviction that our people need higher education.”
Airlifted to America aboard specially chartered BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) airplanes, the students were trained in the US to become everything from engineers and economists to agronomists and civil servants. They were really preparing, though, to become the future leaders of Kenya and fill positions in government and industry the British would soon vacate.
According to a University of Nairobi study, more than half of the parliamentarians, top civil servants, and leaders of industry in post-independence Kenya were Airlift Africa alumni.
Among the best-known was George Saitoti, who became the vice-president of Kenya and died on 10 June 2012; Florence Mwangi, the first African woman physician in Kenya; Joe Barrage ‘Joe B’ Wanjui, an industrialist and CEO of East African Industries (Unilever); and Wangari Maathai, the environmentalist and political activist who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.
President Obama’s father, Barack Obama (Senior), also received funding from Tom Mboya’s Airlift Africa. But he was not among those airlifted to America. Obama Snr had applied to the programme but was rejected because his grades were too low.
He made his own way to the United States with funding from a wealthy American family. But once Obama Snr was at a university in Hawaii, where he met and married Stanley Ann Dunham and had the future President of the United States, Tom Mboya agreed to assist him with tuition money and living expenses.
President Obama is proud of the part his father played in Airlift Africa. In books and speeches, he has spoken of how grateful he was to the Kennedy family for contributing money to bring African students to America – otherwise his mother and father would not have met and he would not have become America’s first black president. “The Kennedys decided we’re going to do an airlift,” President Obama said in a 2008 speech. “We are going to go out to Africa and we are going to start bringing young Africans over to this country… And this young man named Barack Obama got one of those tickets and came over to this country.”
There is no doubting that Tom Mboya’s airlifts were an important initiative, both for the future of the USA and the future of Africa. Thanks to Mboya, Kenya did not have to depend entirely on white expatriates to run the country’s Civil Service when it became independent in 1963, as Ghana had to endure when it became independent in 1957.