Tom Mboya, the forgotten visionary in the Barack Obama story.
In early 1960s, three students, beneficiaries of the US airlift programme, wrote a poignant thank-you letter published in the East Africa Standard.
The letter was directed at Thomas Joseph Mboya, Julius Gikonyo Kiano,
Kariuki Njiiri, William Scheinman, George Houser and a few other
individuals involved in assisting young Kenyan students secure
scholarships in American institutions of higher learning through the
African-American Scholarship Fund (AASF).
Dorcas Boit, Mungai Mbaya and Harrison Bwire Muyia wrote to the editor:
“History alone shall record the success of this project, which serves
as a model not only to our country, but to all the people of the African
“We who have been so lucky to get this chance look
forward with a determination to pursue and fulfill our intellectual
obligations; and happy will be the day when our country and our people
can enjoy the achievement of this whole exercise.”
History is now
recording the ultimate success of the airlift programme as Barack
Hussein Obama, a son of one of the beneficiaries of the airlifts, visits
the country as the President of the United States of America.
brainchild of the airlifts, Tom Mboya, remains in the background of
discussions about the historic visit. Yet, few appreciate the ingenuity;
adventurism and backlash that came with operating the programme which
saw hundreds of Kenyans attend US universities. In Airlifts to America;
How Barrack Obama Sr, John F Kennedy, Tom Mboya and 800 East African
Students Changed Their World and Ours, Tom Shachtman describes how
unpopular American universities were at the time.
In the book, Olara
Otunu, a former undersecretary of the UN, is quoted saying “all roads
led to the UK, and if you received a degree in the US you had to be
re-certified in Kenya. What was good and serious was the UK, what was
frivolous, fluffy, was the US.”
But Mboya, who had
no academic degree of his own, thought differently about the US and
embarked on the programme against British interests. He had himself
attended short courses in Soviet Union and Oxford and was passionate
about education and its role in post-independence period.
years of age in August 1956, Mboya had been on a speaking tour of the US
at the invitation of George Houser of the American Committee on Africa
to promote his publication, The Kenyan Question; An African Answer.
Shachtman writes that at every US college venue, Mboya would privately
talk with the college president about scholarship for East Africans. It
is also during this trip that he made acquaintances with Harry
Belafonte, Scheinman, Frank Montero and Peter Weiss, who later played
critical roles in the airlift programmeAfter convincing US donors and
foundation to fund the scholarships, Mboya, Kiano and Njiiri would
personally review the applications and interview the applicants.
Although Obama Snr missed out on the 1959 airlift after applying to more
than 30 US colleges, he somehow, with the assistance of other American
friends, made it to Hawaii University, the only college that admitted
“Some, like Barack Obama Sr, who was headed for Hawaii, did not
board the charter plane but were assisted in other ways once at
American colleges,” the book says.
The idea of sending young Africans from a British colony to American universities was opposed within and outside government.
Shachtman says Carey Francis, the headmaster of Obama Senior’s former
high school, Maseno, had a low opinion of the American universities and
“The frenzied thirst for and confidence in overseas
education was a major difficulty for Kenya. To many, the nature of the
course (of study) was immaterial so long as it was a course. I feared in
a few years many would return disillusioned and embittered, unfitted
for any useful work, with a fourth-rate degree from fifth-rate
Mboya also faced another
problem related to the airlifts - jealousy owing to his connections and
popularity in the West. The talk in town, propagated in part by Kwame
Nkrumah from Ghana, was that Mboya was leading an anti-Kenyatta
Grumbles from applicants who did not make it added to the
criticism of the programme which Mboya and his team pursued mindlessly.
And the students themselves set on to the task at hand — learning — as
well as other extracurricular activities. In the book, Philip Ochieng
talks of two surprises that struck him on arrival; seeing a white person
labouring in the snow and white women falling head over heels for black
“White girls readily chummed up to us suggestively. Soon we would partake of the forbidden