How Tom Mboya’s Airlifts changed the World
The Late Tom Mboya

How Tom Mboya’s Airlifts changed the World

By James Odhiambo

In 1959, Wangari, an intelligent young girl from Nyeri, passionate about her community and the environment, had just graduated from the Catholic Loreto High School Limuru. Her father worked at a white plantation near Nakuru, while her mother and brothers had been relocated to a reserve camp as part of the Colonial government’s efforts to root out MauMau insurgents. So as she left school to go into the world, the brilliant girl’s life appeared to have reached a dead end.

Across the country, Barack, a young luo man, had recently graduated from the Maseno national school and had gone ahead to marry a young beautiful Lady named Kezia. He had reached the height of a black man’s education in Colonial Kenya, and the only thing left for him to do was to start a family. So the man and his wife had two children; Malik and Auma, and life settled into the colorless cycle it was expected to settle into.

Halfway across the world, Kennedy, a young, brilliant and charismatic senator was vying for the American presidency. He was locked in a fiercely close campaign against the incumbent vice president. Though his chances did not look too good, the senator had a silver bullet. As the civil rights movement started to reach a fever pitch, it became increasingly clear the election could well be won by whichever candidate aligned correctly with the black cause.

In Nairobi’s effervescent political scene, a senior luo politician was at the helm of the national political outfit KAU. He was holding the position in trust for the detained de facto leader, Jomo Kenyatta, convinced that once Kenyatta was released, he would hold the number two position in his government, in preparation for his own presidency after the Kenyatta regime.

None of these people knew just how significant a role one enigmatic rising star would play in their lives. His name was Tom Joseph Mboya.

Having graduated from Raskin College, Oxford in 1955, Mboya understood the importance of cultivating an educated Kenyan elite so that the country would move into safe hands once self-rule was attained. Therefore, in 1959, Mboya flew to the United States on a speaking tour in an attempt to enlist the help of civil rights groups to help push his idea for an American scholarship program for bright needy Africans. During the trip, Mboya met some highly influential people. Actors, Musicians, Sportsmen and Activists were all awed by the young man’s brilliance. The rising star spoke at a Civil rights Rally in DC, at Dr. King’s invitation, where he likened their struggle against segregation to our battle against colonialism. His oratory prowess made him a darling of the movement. Tom would maintain a cordial acquaintance with Dr. King, exchanging letters and pleasantries, till Dr.King’s assassination. Thanks to this trip, Mboya managed to secure enough funding for his first airlift. He also became the first African man to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine, an achievement that would make government operatives deeply suspicious of him.

On the 9th of September 1959, 81 of Kenya’s brightest young students flew on a chartered plane to New York, most for the first time in their lives. Among those on this flagship airlift was the young lady from Nyeri. Wangar had won a scholarship to Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas, where she would major in biology and minor in chemistry and German.

Back home, Barack was inspired by Tom Mboya’s airlift and it sparked in him a hunger for something new. So he started vigorously pushing for an opportunity of his own. His grades were too low for Mboya’s airlift, but against all odds, he personally applied for, and personally received a scholarship to study Economics at the University of Hawaii. He would then get in contact with Mboya’s men, who agreed to support him throughout his stay in Hawaii, even though he was not officially registered under the Mboya airlift.

But although it had initially been a success, as the 1960/61 education cycle began, Tom Mboya’s airlift program was facing serious troubles. On one front was the British colonial government. On another front was the immense financial burden. And on the last front, Mboya’s political enemies.

The British colonial government was not happy with what it considered ‘American meddling’ in her colony’s affairs. Douglas Williams, the British attaché in Washington attacked the Americans, claiming it was his government’s position that education in Kenya need not be expanded, that Kenyans were ‘very happy’ with the status quo, and that, if anything, Britain was already providing sufficient higher learning opportunities for deserving locals. In truth, only 23 Kenyans were studying in Britain that year!

In Nairobi, the senior luo politician at the helm of National politics was not impressed by Mboya’s exploits. He felt Mboya was only trying to gain political mileage by presenting himself as Kenya’s ablest leader to the west. In response, he decided to arrange a counter airlift of his own. His name was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Odinga would go on to airlift hundreds of Kenyan students to the USSR. Among the beneficiaries were his son Raila Odinga, and future leaders like SM Otieno and Joseph Kamotho.

With the program still at the brink of financial collapse, Tom Mboya flew back to the US in 1960 in a desperate attempt to save it. A meeting was set up between him and the Vice President Richard Nixon. Nixon’s response was lukewarm, and when Mboya was sure help from him would not come, he instead approached Nixon’s presidential rival, the young, charismatic senator, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Kennedy was touched by Mboya’s appeal. However, he knew publicly supporting such a cause at such an advanced stage of his campaign could either help or backfire on him, and his campaign was not publicly willing to take such a risk. So when he pledged 100,000 dollars for the chartering of four planes to fly the more than 265 students to the US, and an additional 100,000 dollars for the students’ upkeep, he pleaded with Mboya for it to be kept a secret. But word inevitably got out, and the gamble played perfectly well for the campaign. His support for the Africans endeared him to the civil rights movement. Nixon attempted to counter Kennedy’s gains by counter pledging 100,000 dollars, but it was a classic case of too little too late. At the ballot in November, Senator Kennedy clinched 68% of the black vote, 7% higher than previous Democratic candidates, helping him grab a narrow victory over Vice President Nixon.

After completing her biology degree, the lady from Nyeri won more scholarships and would go on to become the first woman in East and Central Africa to obtain a Doctorate degree. In 2004, Wangari Maathai became Africa’s first female Nobel Laureate.

In 1961, the young Luo man at the University of Hawaii, married a Miss Stanley Ann Dunham, a beautiful half Hawaiian half American who had become pregnant for him during their courtship. In August of the same year, Miss Dunham and Mr Barack Obama Sr were blessed with a son, Barrack Hussein Obama.

Back home, the Odinga-Mboya battle for supremacy would play on for years. Odinga viewing Mboya as an intellectual snob and a ‘rabid dog’. Mboya viewing Odinga as a tribal demagogue unfit for national leadership. The men would spend years fighting for Kenyatta’s favor, both hoping to block the other’s lines of succession, both hoping to clear their own. In the end, both found themselves stripped of their influence and alienated from Mr. Kenyatta. Mboya would be gunned down in the streets of Government road. Odinga would leave government and spend the rest of his life on the political periphery. Neither would ever touch the presidency.

That is how a random flight in 1959 changed the world for good.

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