The life and times of the freedom fighter and politician
Bildad M Kaggia (1921-2005)
Authors: Bildad M Kaggia, W de Leeuw, M Kaggia
Publ: Transafrica Press, 2012
Reviewer: John Sibi-Okumu
Such was my fascination with the subject matter of The Struggle for Freedom and Justice, an autobiography, that, as an author, I decided to write a play inspired by it, entitled Kaggia. Why the fascination? Because it seemed to me that in the protagonist, Bildad M. Kaggia, was a figure who embodied many of the contradictions which define modern day Kenya. Moreover, his was an example of a life which can be so led as to arrive at an ideological and idealistic standpoint, marked by an unshakeable integrity throughout, from which one never wavers. In short, Kaggia had the makings of a good, theatrical hero, at least.
The general understanding is that most of the people who form the pioneering élite in most African countries became so by using, or rather abusing their positions to amass huge fortunes through highly questionable means. It is they who can be accused of having sown the seeds of corruption, which grew to take pernicious root to this day, in all areas of social intercourse. It is they who can be accused of having brought about the ever widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. If so, then Bildad Kaggia was an exception that proved the rule. Doubtless, he was not the only such person. But, for the moment, let the focus be on him alone.
Bildad Mwaganu Kaggia, to give his name in full, was one of the ‘Kapenguria Six,’ a group of nationalists who were placed under restriction for up to ten years in the build-up to Kenya’s independence in 1963. Kapenguria is the small town in which they were hastily tried by the colonial government. Kaggia ended up spending arduous time, first in Lokitaung and then, slightly less uncomfortably, with his family, in Lodwar. Both outposts were in the arid and secluded Northern Frontier District, or ‘NFD,’ as it was known to all. Of the six- Jomo Kenyatta, Kung’u Karumba, Fred Kubai, Richard Achieng Oneko, Paul Ngei and Bildad Kaggia himself - only Kaggia was to write the story of his life. It was first published under the title Roots of Freedom in 1975. But such was the prevailing political climate that offending sections were simply edited out. The task of resurrection eventually fell to a Dutch historian, Wiegert de Leeuw and to Kaggia’s eldest son Mwaganu. They added chapters to take in the years beyond 1975 to Kaggia’s death in 2005, at the age of 84.
The Struggle for Freedom and Justice attests to how exposure to the world can lead to enlightenment and empowerment. Bildad Kaggia was a clever, little boy whose father was lucky enough to have had a menial yet paying job when he was born, in 1921. He went to primary school, won a scholarship to study further but his father was reluctant to make up the difference in fees. Heartbroken but still keen to make something of himself; Kaggia got a job as a clerk in a colonial government office. Seduced by the promise of travel, he signed up for the army and served in Egypt during the Second World War. He went on two visits to the Holy Land. Towards the end of the war, he was posted to England to work at a rehabilitation centre for African troops. He returned home, stripped of his uniform and his rank, courtesy of a ship which sailed across the Mediterranean, an overloaded train which traversed Egypt, the Sudan and Uganda and, finally, a truck ride into Kenya.
Throughout all these experiences Kaggia’s eyes remained, metaphorically, wide open; his ears were listening attentively to all around him and his mind was formulating an independent vision of the ideal society with the tenacity and discipline of an autodidact. He had questioned the teaching of Christianity to the point of now establishing his own church. He had fraternised sufficiently with white folk to conclude that they were in no way superior to him and that their subjugation of Africans must be ended, by violent means if necessary. Consequently, he became a pioneering trade unionist. He was a chief organiser of the Mau Mau uprising and it was on suspicion of this activity that he found himself in the dock in Kapenguria. Having spent ten years in restriction, he was released to witness the birth of an independent Kenya, with his fellow detainee, Jomo Kenyatta, as its first president. However, this did not prove to be the happy beginning of his dreams. Despite Kaggia’s pedigree, Kenyatta, already adept at playing tribal dominoes, only appointed him to the post of Assistant Minister. Ideological differences were to come to the fore with Kaggia questioning, above all, the creation of a new, landed gentry of darker hue, to the detriment of those who had fought for land to be restored to communities at large. He joined a newly formed opposition group and was briefly imprisoned for his renegade affiliation. He ran for re-election in 1974 and was the victim of well orchestrated, electoral rigging. So disgusted was he by this outcome, particularly after his attempts at legal redress came to naught, that he decided to quit politics altogether in 1975 and to return to his native Muranga in order to run a flour mill. He only came back to stay in the big city of Nairobi for any length of time during his final illness, being cared for by his only daughter.
These are the bare bones of the narrative which Kaggia and his posthumous scribes tell with self-serving detail. Of course, the most obvious line of criticism would be that much could be exaggerated or downright apocryphal. However, the Kaggia that emerges is a man who was as demanding of himself as he was of others and the charge of gross obfuscation seems unlikely. The trait of intransigence in his nature may well have proved a fatal flaw. Was there, is there no room for compromise? One also asks whether, in his constant quest for knowledge, Kaggia was not at all disillusioned by the appalling infringement of human rights in socialist experiments elsewhere, in places like Stalin’s Russia and Pol Pot’s Cambodia ? Or would the logical progression of his intellectual evolution have led him to take on the mantle of theorist for a unique, Post-Colonial African Way, in the manner of his acquaintance Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, which would have put paid to the inequities inherent in the capitalist system?
However, these considerations point to the loftier levels at which the book can be read. Before delving into such philosophical underpinnings The Struggle for Freedom and Justice serves an even more pressing and primordial purpose: Following the life of this one man leads t to a better understanding and acceptance of Kenya as it is today. Decisions had consequences and, as a line in my play Kaggia suggests, the book also leads us to the realisation that ‘our history books have to be rewritten.’ It is essential reading.
John Sibi Okumu