Joseph Murumbi is known as Kenya’s second Vice President. The man is more popular for his political career than for his more memorable and lasting legacy; that of being an art collector of renown.
Who was the man?
Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi was born in Kenya in 1911, from a Goan father and Maasai mother. His father who was a trader by profession and had arrived from India in 1897, just at the time that the railway was passing the area that he was born in.
His mother meanwhile, was the daughter of Murumbi, the Maasai Laibon for the Uasin Gishu Maasai. Murumbi would spend the first 16 years of his life matriculating in India.
Joseph struggled early on as neither the Indians nor Africans accepted him as one of their own.
During his time in India, Anglo Indians used to call anyone darker than them “niggers” and this annoyed him very much. He then decided to be called by his mother’s name after his father asked him what name he wanted to be known by.
At 16 he returned to India after hearing that his mother had been killed by a lion but decided to stay in the country for good working in the family business.
Marriage and politics
Joseph married Shelia, a Librarian he met while on political exile from Kenya in England in the late 1950s.
Later on, he worked as a translator for the Moroccan Embassy in London and then joined politics after coming back to Kenya, by joining Kenya African Union(KAU) political party.
He later ascended to the role of Secretary-General in 1952, where he played a key role in securing legal counsel for the detainees arrested in the emergency crackdown.
After Kenya became independent of British imperial rule in 1963, he became Kenya’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1964 to 1966, touring the globe and setting set up numerous ambassadorial offices in foreign capitals.
Murumbi once recounted that the oft-told story of how Kenyatta would beat his own ministers, saying,
“He threatened to beat me one day. But I walked out of his office and banged the door and disagreed with him. And I went to my office and was just waiting for a call: ‘Joe, you are sacked.’
But it never happened, perhaps showing another side of Kenyatta.”
Murumbi apparently later apologised after that episode to Kenyatta who warned him never to do that again or he would beat him!
He then served as Kenya’s second VP in 1966 for nine months. The reason for his short stint was the unease with what he felt as Kenyatta’s style of leadership in dealing with dissidents and the increasing corruption.
He resigned from political office in November 1966, even though he had delivered his resignation letter in July, with the reason being stated as ill health.
He then went into his other passion and the one he would become a legendary for; art collecting. He became the Acting-Chairman of the Kenyan National Archives and later co-founded ‘African Heritage’ with Alan Donovan, which went on to become the largest Pan-African art gallery on the continent.
Joseph Murumbi was also an ardent supporter of the pioneer artists of East Africa. There is even a story of him appealing to Margaret Kenyatta, the then mayor of Nairobi, to support these artists, especially Francis Nnaggenda, who was teaching at the University of Nairobi at that time.
He challenged her to buy one of his artworks but the appeal fell on deaf ears. But Murumbi would not forget Francis Nnaggend, commissioning one of his greatest works; “Mother and Child” which stands in front of the National Museums of Kenya.
While the man lived in Muthaiga he also had an escape from the busy city life; his 35-room mansion in Intona Ranch, Trans Mara, to while away time and collect his art.
The house is now dilapidated and a lesson in entropy.
He died on 22 June 1990 in his 79th year. Murumbi’s body was buried in Nairobi City Park. His wife Sheila died in 2002.
Sadly the man who had done more for Kenya’s art world was buried in an unmarked grave. And the grave would have been lost to history had it not been protected with a memorial garden named after him.
Joseph left the country with one of the largest art collections ever assembled. It is estimated that he collected over 50,000 books(8000 being rare; that is, they were published before 1900)
Sources: The East African Standard, NY Times, Friends of City Park, The Nation.
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