Joseph Murumbi, born from the union of a Goan trader and a Maasai woman, was Kenya’s second Vice President from May 1965-August 31, 1966.
He spent the first 16 years of his life in India. He could speak Goan long before his mother’s Maa tongue. He was educated there but came back to Kenya following news that a lion had mauled his mother. Although this was untrue, it brought him back and he chose to become African. His decision represented a brave and tough choice as at that time, native Africans were on the lowest rung of Kenya’s social structure. They were also the targets of the colonial government’s increasingly brutal attempts at coercing the people into accepting colonial rule.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, Joe went to Somalia as a clerk for the British army. It was during one visit back to Kenya that he attended an anti-British meeting addressed by a young and fiercely eloquent Indian who was becoming a leading anti-imperialist: Pio Da Gama Pinto. They became friends for life and Pinto brought Joe into the anti-colonial movement.
In October 1952 the top leaders of the Kenya African Union were detained during the Emergency crackdown and Murumbi was pushed into leading the party as its Secretary General. Together with Pinto they worked on the defence of the detainees as well as publicizing the brutal nature of imperial rule. This lasted until Kenyatta -from prison- tipped Murumbi on his imminent arrest and, in March 1953 he secretly left Kenya and went to India. He did not waste time there and he immediately met Prime Minister Pandit Nehru becoming a major advocate of the liberation conflict.
He was in India for 12 months while he liberally highlighted the on-going struggle for independence in Kenya. He then moved to England and, from the Moroccan Embassy, he continued to highlight Kenya’s anti imperialism fight. While in the UK, he befriended the likes of Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and Milton Obote, who were also lobbying for the African cause.
Once Kenyan independence was achieved he held a number of major public offices, including Minister of State and Foreign Affairs. He had strongly declined the offer to become the first Vice President as he thought it would side line Jaramogi Odinga who he thought was the rightful person for the post. He was a Pan-Africanist who somehow did not fit fully into Kenyan politics as his ideals were somewhat removed from the reality of the day-to-day politics. When Odinga was finally removed from office, Murumbi did accept the Vice President post.
He held the office for ovr one year and he resigned, giving poor health as the excuse although the apparent real reason was his deepening disappointment with politics. In particular, Murumbi was opposed to the budding corruption of the Kenyatta administration. The assassination of Pinto in 1965 was the final straw that accelerated his departure in August 31, 1966.
Murumbi was out of politics from then on and with his wife Sheila (nee Sheila Anne Keine). She was a former librarian in London with whom he shared not only his interest in cooking but also a great love for art collecting. In 1972 Joe co-founded (with Alan Donovan) African Heritage that became the largest African art gallery in the continent.
Together they collected African art, antiques and artefacts from all parts of Africa, as well as books, 50,000 historical documents on Africa, and a rare collection of African postage stamps. Murumbi turned down several huge bids from overseas bidders for his vast art collection and sold it instead to the Kenyan government at a concessionary rate on condition that it become part of the Murumbi Institute of African Studies.
He then decided to move to the Transmara, beyond the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where the Maasai people had given him a piece of land in recognition of his ancestry. He started cattle ranching there and built an amazing house. Regrettably when all was ready for Sheila and Joe to start enjoying a quiet retirement there his health deteriorated and he suffered a stroke. He took it with great courage for a while but the situation became untenable and they decided to move to Nairobi from where they travelled to Intona by plane. Eventually his health took a turn for the worse and his visits stopped. A highly temperamental man, he died on 22 June 1990, a short time after visiting his former house in Muthaiga (sold earlier to the Government of Kenya) and seeing its deterioration. His wife Sheila died ten years later in October 2000.
In 2003 the Murumbi Trust was set up with funding from the Ford Foundation and the “Murumbi Collections” were rehabilitated. In 2006 the collections were moved to the Kenya National Archives and displayed at the Murumbi Gallery.
The house in Intona still stands but it is derelict and it has been severely vandalized. The ranch is currently the subject of a legal dispute between the local community and the Agricultural Finance Cooperation.
The following is Joe’s Obituary from the Daily Nation newspaper:
NAIROBI, Kenya, June 23 — Joseph Murumbi, who served briefly as Kenya’s second Vice President in 1966, died on Friday after a long illness, Kenyan newspapers reported. He was 79 years old. Mr. Murumbi, who had been confined to a wheelchair since damaging a nerve in a fall eight years ago, died at his home, the papers said. The cause of death was not announced. Mr. Murumbi was Vice President under this former British colony’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, from March 1966 until November of that year, when he quit politics, citing health. Mr. Murumbi was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, who became President on Mr. Kenyatta’s death in 1978.