It is a common misconception that Senior Chief Koinange Mbiyu was a loyalist British administrator. Unlike many other chiefs during pre-independent Kenya, the administrator, albeit clandestinely, was an integral cog in the Mau Mau movement. He had mastered the art of dual allegiance – and spoke his mind freely.
His early life is not widely known but he shone to the limelight in his adult years when he became an administrator. The chief’s childhood has, and continues to be, a topic of great speculation. It is said that he witnessed the arrival of count Teleki around 1868 in Kiambu.
We, however, know that he was appointed headman of Kiambu District in 1905 and promoted to Senior Chief in 1938. The position of a senior Chief was the most coveted position for Africans, since the British did not allow Africans to be in charge of administrative Divisions or Districts. Those who were appointed paid homage to the empire and hardly questioned the colonial system.
But, not Senior Chief Koinange. Actually, Koinange’s appointment to the position of a senior chief did not make him suspend his allegiance to pan Africanism. He believed in independence from the British or mutual respectable coexistence.
That is why he fought hard to be listened over the transfer of villagers from Tigoni. He also made strong presentation at the Kenya Land Commission. The Chief also spoke strongly for the restoration of the alienated lands, greater investment in African education, and for inclusion of Africans in the legislative Council. He also spoke out against the Hut Tax, the Registration of the Ordinance and on the expropriation of land in the reserves.
He would also test the law which prohibited Africans from growing coffee and he became the first African to have a coffee farm. But that was after a bitter fight which had seen him hire a British lawyer. In yet another act of defiance, the chief travelled by sea to Europe in 1931 as part of an African delegation on a mission to present grievances against the colonial establishment. His intention was to present his case at the House of Commons.
Upon arrival, Chief Koinange and his colleagues were given a cold reception. This meant that the whites were not willing to listen to Africans. But this never demoralized the chief and his team.
In 1926 he had surprised many by sending his eldest son Mbiyu Koinange to America’s Hampton College, He later joined Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware for a bachelor’s degree and became the first Kenyan to get a master’s degree after graduating from Columbia University.
By the time his son was returning to Kenya, Senior Chief Koinange had led the community in setting up Kenya Teachers Training College in Githunguri, another form of defiance. It was in this school that Jomo Kenyatta was employed after returning from Europe and it became the training ground for Mau Mau nationalism.
Koinange’s involvement in the Mau Mau war makes him an interesting figure in the freedom struggle. Chief Koinange’s leadership is steeped in a paradox; on one hand he was a government employee who convinced his employer to keep him at his job. But on the other hand, he never shied away from calling out the British government for injustices against the Africans.
The chief was a man of his words and his action backed up his beliefs in the cause he was fighting for; He pushed for a government high school in Kiambu District and when the government did not commit to it, he became a key figure in setting up the Kikuyu Independent Schools.
For his continued defiance, the government sacked him but ironically allowed him to retain his title of Senior Chief.
In 1945, he started mobilizing Kikuyus to raise funds and collect war weapons. That is how his home in Kiambaa became a Mau Mau war nerve and where many war leaders congregated for strategy meetings. Due to its proximity to Nairobi, Koinange’s home was akin to Kiburi House and was widely known as the oath centre.
After recruiting Mau Mau members in Nairobi, the war leaders took many recruits to the Chief’s house for oath.
It was therefore not surprising that 1953, the chief was sent to arrested and detention in Marsabit. He was later be moved to Kabarnet as age and illness took a toll on him. Koinange was finally released in 1959, sickly and near-death. The administration did not want him to die in their custody. The chief passed away nine days after his release.
The famous Koinange Street is named in his honor. Indeed Kenya’s independence struggle could not be possible without such audacious leaders.