Friends salute Mboya’s American airlifts 50 years ago

Friends salute Mboya’s American airlifts 50 years ago
  • PublishedJanuary 28, 2014

Returning students
Kenya’s returning airlift students filled many of the key posts in the Civil Service and industry, thus giving the country a big head start at independence. Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, praised Mboya’s vision. “Kenya’s independence would have been seriously compromised, were it not for the courage and steadfastness of Tom Mboya,” Kenyatta said.

Most of the airlift students came from Kenya, but others came, too, from Uganda, and what would later become Tanzania, Malawi and Zimbabwe. The first airlift, with 79 Kenyans, one Ugandan and one Tanganyikan, arrived in New York from Nairobi on 9 September 1959.

Waiting to meet them at New York’s Idlewild Airport were members of a support organisation, the African-American Students Foundation. Also there was a key backer of the airlift initiative, Jackie Robinson, the African-American who had integrated the segregated world of American professional baseball. “I couldn’t help but feel that here was a whole group of potential Tom Mboyas, Kwame Nkrumahs, and Nnamdi Azikwes,” said Robinson as he shook hands with the young Africans.

Also waiting to meet the students at the airport were reporters from The New York Times and the African-American newspaper, New York Amsterdam News.

The students had been warned not to say anything about racial segregation in the US or about British colonial rule in Kenya. Saying the wrong thing, they were told, might lose them their scholarships or ruin the chances of other Africans coming to the United States to study.

But Fred Egambi Dalizu, an airlift student who would go on to become a professor at the University of Nairobi, ignored the warnings. He told the reporters he was eager for the day when Kenya would achieve independence and he could return home and join with other Kenyans in “watching the British sun set behind our beloved Mount Kilimanjaro”.  

Intrigued by the young Africans, The New York Times reporter asked the 24-year-old Frank Nabutete, why on earth he had chosen to attend college in the segregated American South, in the notorious town of Little Rock, Arkansas, where armed soldiers had been sent two years previously to stop nine black teenagers from integrating their local high school.

Nabutete had a good answer to the question. He said in Kenya Africans were treated much the same way African-Americans were treated in the United States. Surviving American racism, he said, would teach him how to survive, and defeat, British racism and colonialism at home. “Troubles are not in Little Rock alone,” said Nabutete, assured and articulate. “The trouble in Little Rock might give me better experience for when I return to Kenya.”

Encouraging pan-African cooperation, the New York Amsterdam News began a campaign in its pages to get its readers to help the airlift students in whatever way they could. Tom Mboya was eager for American support for his initiative. He knew the British colonial authorities were against him and had done everything they could to see his plan fail.

The British colonial attaché in Washington DC, Douglas Williams, wrote a letter to The New York Times denying that education needed to be expanded in Kenya and claiming that Kenyans were happy with the way things were.

Mboya rejected this. In an article, he pointed out that only a tiny percentage of the Kenyan African population was receiving higher education and technical training at Makerere University in Uganda. In 1959, for example, only 23 Kenyans were selected to study in Britain compared with the 79 Kenyans who went on the airlift to America.

Mboya also pointed out that only £10 to £20 was allotted by the British authorities to educate Africans, while five times as much, £60 to £90, was allotted for the education of whites in Kenya. Naturally enough, Mboya turned to the Americans, who were eager to enhance their standing in Africa now the British were preparing to leave.


Written By
New African

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1 Commentaire

  • This was a nice piece by NAM. I enjoyed reading from the beginning to the end. It is an appetizing history of education and pan-africanism in the Cold War era. That time Malawi was under Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Access to education (primary, secondary and tertiary) is still very essential in solving the socio-economic challenges in SSA. I urge public-private partnerships to invest more in education particularly in sectors or disciplines that will spur economic growth in a more efficient and faster way. Suffice to say, it pays bigger dividends to educate a girl child in Malawi!

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