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Mwangi Forsyth-Githahu
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10 December 2013, 09:47

By Mwangi Forsyth-Githahu in Cape Town

As the logistics of Nelson Mandela’s state funeral continue to make heads spin in their complexity and size, I couldn’t help but think back to 1978 and the state funeral of Kenya’s first president.

Like Mandela, Jomo Kenyatta emerged from a jail term and a situation where some thought he was no longer a factor in national politics, to be elected the first president of a newly independent Kenya.

Like Mandela, Kenyatta had been charged with leading a liberation movement, and like Mandela, Kenyatta came out of jail preaching a message of forgiveness to his nation’s opressors.

Unlike Mandela, Kenyatta remained in power for 15 years and died in office. But then again, in those days presidential term limits were not a big deal in Africa yet.

Kenyatta’s funeral was considered then to be Africa’s largest state funeral at the time.

Kenya’s first president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta died in State House Mombasa on August 22 1978.

Seemingly unable to handle the state funeral without help the Kenyan government brought in foreign specialists to advise on the state funeral which was held on August 31.

The gun carriage that carried the president’s body from State House Nairobi where it had lain in state for eight days and viewed by about 90,000 people everyday, was imported from Britain.

The US government provided a special consultant on state funerals to assist the Kenyan government with the planning of the event.

Mzee Kenyatta’s funeral was an open air affair at the plot next to Parliament Buildings where a wood and marble mausoleum had been erected in just an under a week.

The funeral was attended by princes, presidents, prime ministers and senior statesmen from around the world.

The day before the burial the body was driven 40km to Mzee’s rural home, Gatundu, to spend a final night before being returned to State House where it was placed on the gun carriage for the ceremonial walk to Parliament buildings.

In the run up to the funeral, special colour editions of national newspapers (in that era colour was unusual in newspaper publishing) and magazine supplements were published all tracing Kenyatta’s life and times.

At a time when Kenya had no private TV or radio stations, the state broadcaster suspended all radio and TV programming to play funeral music, and ‘patriotic songs’ by choirs. They also replayed Kenyatta’s old speeches including many from the immediate pre and post-independence era in the 1960s.

In some ways Mandela’s funeral is almost the same as Kenyatta’s but yet so completely different.


The writer is a Kenyan journalist now living in Cape Town where he is a freelance writer and editor always looking out for new opportunities to practice his craft

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