Friends salute Mboya’s American airlifts 50 years ago

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

Fundraising tour
To drum up further support for Airlift-Africa, and cash in on promises made by many wealthy Americans, Mboya set off on a fundraising tour of the United States in April 1959. In the US, Mboya was greeted as an African hero by African-Americans. He met with Dr Martin Luther King Jnr, who invited him to speak at a civil rights rally in Washington.

“You and ourselves are all engaged in the same struggle that can aptly be summarised in terms of a struggle for political freedom, economic opportunity and human dignity,” Mboya told the crowd. Dr King agreed to raise funds for Operation Airlift Africa and said he would find families to sponsor some of the students.

Impressed by Mboya, Dr King sent him an interesting letter. “There is no basic difference between colonialism and segregation,” Dr King wrote. “They are both based on a contempt for life and a tragic doctrine of white supremacy. So, our struggles are not only similar, they are in a real sense one.”

Popular with African-Americans, Mboya was popular, too, with American politicians who viewed the Kenyan as a practical, pro-capitalist who would be a good friend to the US if he became the President of Kenya one day.

Mboya met Richard Nixon, the then US vice president, the billionaire David Rockefeller, and Senator John F. Kennedy, the then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa, but none of them was ready, they said, to commit funds to the airlifts. It did not really matter though, as Mboya and his supporters managed to scrape together the money to fund the 1959 airlift. Mboya succeeded in convincing dozens of US colleges and universities and several wealthy philanthropists to bankroll the student scholarship scheme to the tune of $2m.

Indeed Mboya did not do it by himself. He had help from Bill Scheinman, a white businessman who was a member of the American Committee on Africa. Scheinman had made his money selling airplane parts, and even before he became involved in Mboya’s airlift scheme, he had helped several young Africans to attend university in the US and the UK.

It was Scheinman who convinced Mboya that they ought to charter planes to transport the students to the US as commercial airlines tickets were expensive and ate up much of the money intended for tuition.

Mboya also received help from the former African-American baseball player Jackie Robinson, who offered to pay the tuition and expenses of several of the students; and from the African-American singer, Harry Belafonte, who agreed to put on special concerts to raise money for the students.


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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