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Friends salute Mboya’s American airlifts 50 years ago

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

When JFK went on board
A year after the first airlift, Mboya came to the US again to raise funds for Operation Airlift Africa. This time John Kennedy, who was running for president, invited him to his home, where he agreed to donate $100,000 of Kennedy Foundation money. The funds would be for the charter of four BOAC airplanes. In addition, Kennedy donated a further $100,000, to be used for whatever the 295 students coming on the 1960 airlift needed.

Kennedy was no fool. He knew his generosity would win him African-American votes in the presidential election and help to convince Kenya, when it became independent, to be pro-American and anti-Russian.

“Education, in truth, is the only key to genuine African independence and progress,” Kennedy said at a conference in the USA attended by Mboya. “If these new states and emerging peoples turn bitter in their taste of independence, the reason will be that the Western powers … have failed to see that it is their own future that is also at stake.”

But Vice President Nixon was furious when he heard that his rival for the presidency, Kennedy, had pledged money to Airlift Africa. Worried that he had been outflanked by Kennedy, Nixon pressed the US government to make money available to Mboya. But it was too late.

Kennedy’s airlift pledge, it appeared, won him the black vote and the election in 1960. In the following years, the US government made sure it was the chief funder of the Airlift Africa programme.

This led to charges from Mboya’s critics that he was a puppet of the US government and big business, and would assist the US in becoming the new colonial master in Africa. Mboya’s airlift programme, according to his detractors, was making Americans out of Africans.

Much of the criticism came from the camp of Mboya’s chief political rival, Oginga Odinga, who, like Mboya, hoped to one day become the president of Kenya. Odinga was as close to the Soviet Union as Mboya was to the United States. As a counter, Odinga arranged for the USSR to provide scholarships for thousands of Kenyans to study at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow or elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc.

For an African student on a very tight budget, the Soviet scholarships were very tempting, coming as they did with tuition and all expenses paid for by Moscow’s “Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia”.

Several well-known Kenyans attended Eastern Bloc universities on special scholarships. Among them are Joseph Kamotho, a former minister of education; Dr Odongo Omamo, a former minister of agriculture; and S.M. Otieno, who became a leading criminal attorney in Kenya.

Apart from the criticisms of being pro-American, Mboya was also criticised for filling the airlifts with Kikuyu and Luo students. Mboya himself was a Luo. Masinde Muliro, the deputy head of the Kenyan African Democratic Union, and a member of the Bukusu ethnic group, even claimed that the airlifts were a “political swindle” and that his party would send a delegation to the US to ensure that students from all Kenya’s ethnic groups received airlift scholarships.

Mboya was also accused of nepotism. His opponents claimed that he arranged scholarships for family members and friends who had not properly qualified for the airlifts. They pointed to his fiancée, the then Pamela Odede, who went on the 1959 airlift to study at the Western College for Women in Ohio as proof of nepotism.

“Asomi”, or “American elites”, is what some Kenyans dismissively called the Airlift Africa students, pricking their pretensions and acquired American accent. But life in America between 1959 and 1963, the height of the civil rights period, was not as easy as some thought. Many of the students who found themselves at colleges in the American South complained of being racially abused. Many transferred to schools in the North, fearing for their lives.

Cora Weiss, who worked for an organisation that provided support for the airlift students, confirmed that life was not easy for the young Africans. “The saddest moment for me was when a darling guy was getting off a bus one day and was run down by a car,” Weiss explained. “It was a racist murder and the local police refused to investigate.”

It was Weiss’ job to ship the student’s body back to Kenya. “We were attacked for bringing bunches of Africans from the bush to our country. It’s racism. It’s America. It’s the 50s and 60s.”

To protect themselves, many of the students would don traditional dress in the hope of convincing racists that they were not African-Americans. “Our hosts always told us: ‘Wear your national dress when you go out to restaurants and public places’”, revealed the Ugandan Mahmood Mamdani, who was on the final airlift in 1963.

Mamdani went home briefly to Uganda but returned to the US, where he works as a university professor in New York. “We realised that the national dress differentiated us from Americans of colour; [and] we came to realise that discrimination was less about colour than about the history of slavery and subordination.”

In all, 770 young men and women from Kenya and nine other East, Central, and Southern African countries were airlifted to the USA between 1959 and 1963 as part of Operation Airlift-America. Sadly, Mboya did not live long enough to witness how the returning students helped to shape Kenya and other countries. A contender for the Kenyan presidency, Mboya was assassinated in 1969, six years after the final airlift to America.

“Nothing constitutes a greater contribution to the struggle against poverty, disease and political subjection in Africa than that made towards our peoples’ educational advancement,” said Mboya, who was described, memorably, by a Kenyan newspaper as “the greatest president Kenya never had”.

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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