Episode 5

Trade Unionist

You've arrived in the Happy Valley. You're in the Kaloleni Valley, between Shauri Moyo and Pumwani, not far from the old Nairobi railway station. Some call this place a "waste land"—it's by the river, you can't build here, it's dirty and polluted. It's sort of empty, a sad piece of land. It's a no-man's land.

But right now, in this particular moment in May 1950, it is not a no-man's land. Rather, the Happy Valley is an "every-man's" land. The place is filled with people. Thousands. There’s dancing, singing, chanting, speakers with megaphones. What's going on?

A huge bonfire burns in the centre of the Happy Valley. It has burned for days—day and night, never extinguishing. Every so often, men refuel it with engine oil from railway workshops nearby. The bonfire is a signal. But of what?

You see a young man speaking through a megaphone. "We will not be treated like children," he says. "We will continue for one year if we have to." The crowd cheers. You think to yourself, there could be three thousand, four thousand, maybe even five thousand people here. You see young people, old people. Women and men.

Some groups of youths walk from community to community, telling people to join. Join your brothers and sisters. Join in solidarity. Join us as we strike against the government.

We spoke before on this show about how some chapters of history are erased. This is one of them. Did you know about the fire that burned in the Happy Valley of Kaloleni for days and days? Did you know about the time that workers from all sectors, from all tribes, came together and brought the city to a grinding halt? Did you know about the General Strike of Nairobi?

While the General Strike was organized by trade union leaders, most of the people who took part in it—who gathered by the bonfire and raised their fists in the air—they weren't cardholding members of official unions at all. They were unemployed youths. People employed in casual labor. Landless ahoi who were pushed out of reserves. Sex workers. Petty thieves. Criminals, even. They were outcasts.

I don't need to tell you all that there are two Nairobis. Us in Mathare understand that there is one Nairobi for the rich and another for the poor. Our Nairobi is "outcast Nairobi." Like us here in Mathare, the people who don't have jobs, who don't get water, who grow up around trash and not trees. Where we live, the Constitution doesn't work.

The heart of the Nairobi General Strike in 1950, was right here in Outcast Nairobi. In Kaloleni Valley. In Eastlands. And that's because the foundation of this strike was people like us: "Outcast Nairobi."

You've seen workers' strikes before: teachers' strikes, nurses' strikes. But a general strike is when workers from across different sectors all come together and demand big changes, not just better conditions for one single factory.

In the Nairobi General Strike, people were striking for better conditions for Africans, especially the poor. They were demanding better sanitation in the black informal settlements, they were demanding water be provided, they were demanding for jobs.

But they were asking for much more too. They were asking for something that scared the colonial administration.


The strikers saw the connection between the bad conditions that Africans in Nairobi lived in and worked in...and colonization.

The Nairobi General Strike was an important point on the path to independence for Kenya. The sight of thousands of people, gathered together, singing and dancing and demanding for their freedom, this was an image that struck fear into the hearts of the colonial government. Seeing people united. Seeing that people recognized who their true enemy was. The colonizers knew that, if they wanted to stop this movement from growing, they could not just do small small things. They needed to extinguish this movement completely.

[THEME] In 1965, only two years after Kenya gained its independence, Pio Gama Pinto was shot and killed on his driveway in Nairobi. This was Kenya’s first political assassination.

My name is Stoneface, host of Until Everyone Is Free. In this series, me and our producer April Zhu will tell the story of Pio Gama Pinto, a Kenyan freedom fighter. But we tell the story of Pinto to answer a very important question: How did the country of Kenya become free…. Without the people of Kenya becoming free?

Pinto was an ally of the Mau Mau. He was an advocate for land justice. He was a radical journalist. He was a political mastermind. But among his most important work was the work he did as a trade union supporter.

A lot of people know about how the Mau Mau helped Kenya get its independence. But not so many people know about how the trade unions helped Kenya get to independence. Not so many people know about the Nairobi General Strike of 1950, which was one of the first moments where Africans and Asians came together to say: the colonizers must go.

From 1939 until the year of the strike, 1950, the population of Nairobi doubled. It was overcrowded, and the African settlements were in bad shape. Unemployment was everywhere. World War II had just ended, the economy was bad. Britain was in debt and leaned on its colonies to help out. Things were getting more expensive quickly, even as wages remained the same. Farms were pressured to produce and produce and produce, in ways that degraded the soil and made it less fertile over time. Plus, a lot of the European settler farmers were now using machinery to farm, so they didn't need to employ as many Africans.

So a lot of landless squatters (ahoi) who never had land to begin with and were now kicked off their reserves came to Nairobi to try to find work. At that time, where you stayed in Nairobi depended on the color of your skin. Africans stayed in places like Eastlands which were located on bad soil. Here, no public water was piped in, there was poor sewage. Mabati houses, impermanent structures. Not too different to what Mathare looks like today.

Outcast Nairobi. Discontent among Outcast Nairobi was brewing, but what brought all of Outcast Nairobi together...were trade unions.

[April] The first trade unions in Kenya began in the 1920s, with Asian railway workers. But those unions were not only limited to Asian workers, they were limited to just the railway industry and only focused on negotiating wages and working conditions. There was one Indian-Kenyan man who would change this.

[Stoneface] Pio Gama Pinto?

[April] No, not Pinto. We'll get to Pinto later. This man was among the most important figures in Kenya's history of labor organizing, someone who helped Kenyans recognize that their enemies were not workers of another race, or workers of another tribe, but rather the people at the top—the people who were profiting from their poverty.

This man was called Makhan Singh.

[April] Many Africans resented Asians, believing that Asians were taking away jobs that could be for Africans, or that Asians enjoyed special privileges over Africans. But Singh believed that our similarities as working people were greater than our differences in race and culture. He understood that, if we stand side by side, we could be powerful enough to confront the real enemies: those exploiting all of us.

But this doesn’t work if only a few workers stand together. Or only the most exploited workers stand together. Or even if it excludes unemployed people. No, it is powerful only when everyone stands together. And how do you organize everyone to stand together? You need a union.

This is why, in 1934, Singh founded the Labour Trade Union of East Africa (LTUEA). It was the first labor union that united both Asian and African workers. Change was in the air. Progress was in the air.

In the years after World War II, the spirit of workers' strikes was in the air, all over Africa. First, Uganda and Nigeria in 1945. After that, Tanganyika. Then Zanzibar. Dakar and Dar es Salaam. South Africa, Gold Coast, and Mozambique.

Around that time, there was a big general strike in Mombasa, organized by the African Workers Federation. Workers in Nairobi heard about the Mombasa Strike. They heard how the entire port, the entire city came to a standstill for days. They heard that Asian and African workers stood together. Over 6000 workers. They heard how the striking workers were not only making union demands, but actually calling for an end to colonial rule. They heard that striking workers gathered every day under a large tree, and that they called this place Ofisi ya Maskini.

They thought, maybe we could do this too. The strike in Mombasa radicalized the workers in Nairobi.

[April] But, first, let’s slow down. What does it mean to be radicalized? So, Stoneface.

[Stoneface] Yeah yeah?

[April] Who or what radicalised you?

[Stoneface] So when I joined the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), I joined as a musical artist, so that I could do what I needed to get a bigger platform. But after some time, especially getting involved with the Mathare Green Movement,  JJ (a community organizer in Mathare) encouraged me to also start coming to the MSJC Saturday meetings.

So I prepared myself, got some lines ready, boom boom cha boom boom cha. Wrote them down in a notebook and put it in my bag. Got to the meeting on time and waited.

The 2pm meeting started. After a while, I heard... “Comrades, power! POWER! Long live the spirit of Thomas Sankara! LONG LIVE! Long live the spirit of Pio Gama Pinto! LONG LIVE!” I asked myself, where does my music come in, into this “long live” stuff?

So I thought, well let me stay a bit so I can understand what this is all about. After staying longer, I understood. Here, we were saying “long live” because of the struggle that we go through in the ghetto. The youths who have been killed, many who were murdered on the streets died ultimately because of joblessness. 

I could relate to this, to the struggle that we all face in the ghetto. I thought, ok I’m an artist, so I can speak on what’s happening in the community through art. So I eventually became the coordinator for Art for Social Change at MSJC. Later, I also realized, children need to be liberated too. So I also then became a coordinator for the MSJC Kids Club. On that note, I started to develop political consciousness.

Eventually, it was me who was also saying, “Viva! Long live the spirit, long live! Let’s go, let’s move!” So this was my moment of radicalisation.

[April] Political consciousness. That’s key. No one just emerges from the womb as a revolutionary. It’s kind of like this. All children, whether rich or poor, think that their life is normal. Then, people, when they get older, realize that not everyone grew up like them; they realize that life is not fair. But then, some people go beyond that. They see that life is not fair, but they also see who is causing this to happen. Who is oppressing them, their brothers and sisters, and causing them all to suffer. Causing them all to not be free. When they see this, they cannot unsee it.

Not only can they not unsee it, these people then decide to do something about it. When they decide to do something about it, AND when doing something about it automatically puts them in opposition to those in power—that is called becoming radicalized.

[Stoneface] The “brothers and sisters” part is important. It’s not like you’re sitting in your house alone in the dark reading about the government of Kenya, then you feel mad and that is called being radicalized. No. Radicalization is a social process. Radicalization requires that you find unity with your brothers and sisters—in a common oppressor. You understand that, in fighting a common enemy, you have more in common.

[April] Right, so I see how this connects now to the strikes in Mombasa and Nairobi. Asian railroad workers, unemployed petty thieves, taxi drivers, sex workers, even higher-paid public workers—they are so different, but they made the connection that their common oppressor were the rich white men calling the shots. Making money from their labor. Keeping them poor.

[Stoneface] —and when they saw the poor coming together like in the Mombasa strike, they realized they too could come together . They were radicalized.

[April] Wow. ….Do we know what radicalized Pinto?

[Stoneface] We don't know very much about what Pinto was thinking when he first got back to Kenya. But we do know that he did not immediately join the liberation struggle. In fact, when he got back to Kenya, he worked in Magadi as a clerk. Just, you know, writing stuff down, taking notes. Not anything very....revolutionary.

Pinto had just been kicked out of India. He fled. Because you remember, at the time, he was working with freedom fighters in Goa, so much that both the British and the Portuguese colonizers issued warrants for his arrest, and threatened to detain him and send him to Cabo Verde.

So, I don't know, we can only imagine what it was like for him. What was he thinking when he returned home to Kenya for the first time since he was 8? He had been so involved in the Indian freedom struggle, and all of that organizing, for what? Now he was starting over, in a place that should feel like home to him—he was born in Nairobi, after all—and yet, seemed so new. So different.

[April] Maybe, during that year in Magadi, he wondered if he should just...lead a "normal" life. He was educated, after all. Perhaps he should just hold on to a stable job, maybe marry and raise a family. The things that his parents would have wanted him to do anyways. Being a freedom fighter in Goa had almost gotten him killed. Maybe this was the right time to start anew.

[Stoneface] Well. One day, in 1949, Pinto went to town. Traveled from Magadi to Nairobi, on an outing. And it was there in Nairobi that he met none other....than Makhan Singh.

[April] Ah hah. Okay. Okay.

[Stoneface] They spoke only briefly, because Pinto had somewhere else to go after that. But they did speak. Pinto had some questions for Singh, who was older and had been involved in the trade union movement for longer. Singh saw some flecks of himself in the young Pinto—he could see even then that Pinto was a “freedom-loving man"—and at the same time, perhaps Pinto saw in the older Makhan Singh a glimpse of his potential future. An Indian-Kenyan who brought together the poor, workers, Africans and Asians, to all march side by side and demand freedom, together. Freedom from colonization. And freedom from poverty.

When Pinto was a young boy studying in India, the union that Makhan Singh established—the one we mentioned earlier, the first union where African and Asian workers joined hands—organized a strike that lasted for 62 days.

Our worker comrades! Come forward! March ahead! If you do not march ahead today, then remember that you will be crushed under the heels of capitalists tomorrow. Workers should have a united stand and should stand up strongly against the capitalists so that they should not ever have the courage to attempt to exploit workers again, nor to take away workers’ rights from them.

They got a 8-hr work day and a wage increase of 15% to 25%. After that, the union gained many members in both Kenya and Uganda. By the time Pinto and Singh met in Nairobi, the LTUEA had grown to over 10,000 workers!

Just months prior, Makhan Singh and Fred Kubai, another important leader in the trade union movement, founded the East African Trades Union Congress (EATUC). The EATUC—they were the ones who would organize the Nairobi General Strike the following year, 1950.

So that day in Nairobi, Pinto asked Singh what a young man like him would need to do if he wanted to get involved in the liberation struggle.

Singh told him he should get a certificate of permanent residence in Kenya, or else the government might deport him if he got in trouble.

And that was that. Pinto had to go, he thanked Makhan Singh, and left him with some political magazines.

The next time Makhan Singh would hear from Pinto, it would be in the form of a letter. A letter that Makhan Singh would receive while in detention in Lokitaung. Where Makhan Singh would be held for ten long years.

Even before the Nairobi General Strike, the British colonial government saw the general strike in Mombasa.

What they saw happen there frightened them, so the colonizers already began preparing to extinguish it. They decided to act before the strike would even happen. On Monday 15 May 1950, in the very early morning hours, the government arrested Makhan Singh and Fred Kubai.

What the government didn't know is that, by doing this, they would actually set the strike into motion.

The next day after Kubai and Singh were arrested, organizers announced that the general strike would begin the next day. They demanded the release of Kubai and Singh. They demanded 100 KSH minimum wage in the entire city. But they also had more general demands, like better water and sanitation in the settlements where Africans lived in Nairobi. And one important overall demand: “freedom for all workers and all the East African territories.”

This was a turning point for many of Nairobi's workers. And, perhaps, this was Pinto's moment of radicalization: seeing Makhan Singh and Fred Kubai arrested by the police and jailed for organizing workers.

Not long after the arrest, Pinto did all the things that Makhan Singh told him he would need to do if he wanted to be a part of Kenya's struggle for freedom. Pinto left his job in Magadi, he came to Nairobi, he got his certificate of permanent residence, and plunged into the freedom struggle. From this moment until the day of his assassination, Pinto never turned back.

Tuesday, 16 May. Loudspeaker vans drove around the African settlements in Nairobi, spreading the word about the strike. Youths called "flying pickets" were going around, convincing people to join the strike by explaining what it was about. The bonfire in Kaloleni Valley was set and became the heart of the movement.

The government responded in the same way it does today. Police shot teargas at the strikers at the Happy Valley. Police beat strikers and arrested many. But the bonfire kept burning, and the strike didn't just continue. It grew.

Wednesday, 17 May. The workers at many bakeries, hotels, petrol stations in Nairobi also joined the strike, leaving those businesses at a standstill. City Council workers from the road, sewers, and other departments also joined. So did workers from East African Power and Lighting. So did workers from the Public Works Department. Workers were now also striking in Nakuru, Mombasa, Thika, Nyeri, and Nanyuki.

Thursday, 18 May. Maize production control staff were out. Even though they were offered double pay, only 44 out of 700 showed up for work. The African staff at oil companies also joined the strike. Staff at the European boys schools. Many of the skilled workers and those essential to the functioning of the government—they were all on strike.

Nairobi was brought to a screeching halt. The running battles between police and the strikers intensified. More tear gas. The government deployed an airplane to fly constantly over Happy Valley, sometimes flying very low, just skimming over the crowd.

Still, the bonfire did not die. Strikers danced around the fire, they chanted. Organizers with loudspeakers spoke to the huge crowds at Happy Valley. One, called Maina Kabiru, was the one who shouted to the crowd, "We will not be treated like children! We will strike for a year if necessary!" The crowd roared in agreement. Later on, Kabiru was snatched from the crowd by police and detained.

Friday, 19 May. The strike had now reached even Kisumu, Kakamega, and Kisii. In Nairobi, a 20-year-old Indian worker called Jarnial Singh Liddar, had gone to the rail yard and addressed a few hundred Africans during the lunch hour. He told them to return at 4pm. They did. Over 1000 railway workers had gathered. But by then, Liddar had been arrested.

The next day, the rail yard workers went on strike. Saturday, 20 May. They downed tools in Nairobi's rail yards, maintenance workshops, and engineering depot. The government really began to panic "since the strike was now beginning to paralyse the infrastructure." At the airport in Eastleigh, many workers also striked, and this immobilized the entire airport too. Workers in military establishments also joined the strike.

It was clear to the government by this point that the general strike was not just about higher minimum wage, not just about 14 days of leave per year. No, this strike was political. It was an uprising of Africans against an oppressive SYSTEM. Most of those striking didn’t even have jobs. It wasn’t about just better hours or salary raise, it was Africans saying, this system is chewing us up. We are not free in this system. We want to get free.

And it was becoming obvious to everyone in Kenya that, when all workers came together in solidarity, the government looked very, very weak. And there was very little it could do besides shoot tear gas. But the tear gas would fade away with the wind. The bonfire did not fade away.

Sunday, 21 May. The government was afraid that everything would turn upside-down and order would collapse in Nairobi. They decided that it was too dangerous to keep Makhan Singh in Nairobi. At 4:30am, they transferred him to Nyeri.

Monday, 22 May. A new week. The strike was still on. Over 300 people had been arrested during this first week of the strike, but instead of frightening people off, it seemed to make them more angry. At the Bata Shoe Factory in Limuru, one thousand workers walked out.

By Wednesday, 24 May, the strike was in full force in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Kakamega, Kisii, Nakuru, Thika, Nyeri, and Nanyuki.

The government had never looked weaker. The people had never looked stronger. This could have been the end of colonial rule. But it wasn’t. And maybe that’s why so few of us have even heard about the Nairobi General Strike of 1950.

[Stoneface] Why did the general strike fail? Or, even more general: why is it that living conditions in Nairobi today—poverty, poor sanitation, unemployment—is not so different to what people in 1950 rose up against? To understand this, we called on our friend Fello.

[Felix] Hi, my name is Felix Omondi.

[Stoneface] At the peak of the general strike in 1950, the government looked so weak and so scared. People power was so strong. What happened?

[Felix] Well, as you know, the two key leaders of the EATUC, Fred Kubai and Makhan Singh, were already in detention. That’s what triggered the strike in the first place. But the strike organizers who took their place, they made a big mistake.

[Stoneface] And what was that?

[Felix] Well, the short answer is that they negotiated for some small gains, but they did not shift the balance of power between the poor and the rich. In the end, the people in power were still in power. They still owned all the land, all the money, all the companies. The strike was like pouring water over a hot pan, but the pan is still sitting on the jiko. It’ll still get hot again.

[Stoneface] What do you mean by “the balance of power?”

[Felix] To understand that, first we need to talk about the C-word.

[Stoneface] Sea World, like the water thing? Or—

[Felix] Capitalism.

[Stoneface] Ahh....

[Felix] And no one understands capitalism better than a worker who is being exploited by it.

[Felix] So let’s start with your name. What do you do, and for how long?

[Eunice] I’m Eunice Akoth, I work as house help. I began in 2005.

Eunice and I met in Mathare. She is currently unemployed, but before she worked at a place where she wasn’t paid fairly or on time.

[Eunice] I started by cooking for a school where I was paid 4500 KES (~$45/month), but we were reaching almost one month where I was owed payment and the boss was not paying me. So I had to leave.

If the workers’ strike was an example of what it looks like when workers are empowered, then Eunice’s case is what it looks like when workers have zero power. When their employers can do basically whatever they want.

[Eunice] Sometimes you leave for work in the morning in the rain, then leave at 5pm again in the rain, you don’t even have bus fare, and your children are waiting for you at home, but you’re stranded. Sometimes there’s no money you can even send them so they can eat because you haven’t been paid.

If Eunice is being treated so badly though, why doesn’t she just choose to do something else? No one has forced her to be a mamafua. Of course we know that’s a stupid question. She can work under bad conditions, or her children can starve—what “choice” does she really have? If she doesn’t accept bad working conditions, someone who is even more desperate than her will accept it.

Generally speaking, in a capitalist system, the boss will only pay their workers the bare minimum. Any more will cut into their profits, unless there is something like laws, unions, or morals to make them pay more.

But this is also why, left unchecked, there will always be mass unemployment. It is a necessary feature of capitalism. Because workers will always have to accept low wages when there are always ten other workers even more desperate than they are, ready to replace them at their job.

The only way to get around this is to unionize. When the boss realizes they can’t just replace one worker with another one, only then will conditions improve. But, right now in Kenya, unions are more comfy with bosses than with workers, so they don’t do anything. Technically there are labor laws in Kenya. There is a minimum wage in Nairobi. It’s something like 10,000 to 13,000 per month. But, of course, that doesn’t matter. For househelps who work in Eastleigh, their pay is some of the lowest in the city.

Eunice told me there were times when people from the Ministry of Labor would come around Eastleigh and Pangani to ask around how much they were being paid, if it met the minimum wage, and if the working conditions were favorable. You know, like sick days and leave. But their employers would bribe the askaris with like 200 bob to not allow the guys from the Ministry into their compound and interview the women.

[Stoneface] Ok, yeah yeah. This all makes sense. What I still don’t understand though is… what do these working conditions have to do with political power?

[Felix] Yeah, good question. So, to understand that, we need to understand: who owns the means of production? 

To explain this, I spoke to another worker.

[Jemo] All my names or just one?

[Felix] Whatever you feel comfortable with.

[Jemo] Ok let me just give one then. My name is Jemo, and I work at a hotel/bar in Westlands. (Because of the pandemic, Jemo was let go from work and has not found a stable job since then.)
[Felix] Jemo is a bartender, which means that the working hours are irregular and long. On peak days like Thursday through Saturday, sometimes he works for 15 to 18 hours. No breaks for food. If he needs to use the bathroom, he has to kubaliana na co-worker to cover him while he's out.

He works and works—obviously he works very, very hard—but he can barely cover his costs. And we're not talking about a lavish lifestyle, Jemo lives right here in Mathare. But the hotel where he works? That hotel is profiting. The owner of that hotel is profiting.

[Stoneface] I mean, si the point of a business is to make a profit?

[Felix] Yes. And that's the point. The worker will never get back the full value of their labor in wages, because if they did, the company they work for would not make a profit. The whole point of capitalism is to take advantage of the vulnerability of workers. Turning them into slaves to wage labor.

[Stoneface] What do you mean slaves to wage labor?

[Felix] Think about it like this. Jemo is paid barely enough to cover his fare. After food, after bills at home for basic things, there is hardly any money left. He's trapped in a cycle where he can’t not work. But even if he works so, so hard, 18 hour days, he can barely survive. He’s working, the business is thriving, but Jemo remains as poor, as vulnerable, as ever. He’s not free. This is because Jemo does not own the means of production. If he and his fellow workers owned the hotel, then the profits would be shared; that’s a co-operative. But he is a wage worker. He has a choice which is not really a choice at all: work like a dog, or starve. Is that freedom? Or slavery?

[Stoneface] Freedom... I've not thought about wages and exploitation in terms of "freedom." This is reminding me of the first "salaries" or the first wages in Kenya. It reminds me of how, before the colonizers came to Kenya, there were different ways to make a living and live on the land. But then, the colonizers needed to figure out a way to get cheap labor for the farms on the land they just stole. So how did they do that? They created a hut tax. In some ways, they invented this idea of "bills." In order to pay this hut tax with money, Africans had to find a job.

[Felix] Yes, you've made the most important connection. That's the connection between colonization and capitalism.

[Stoneface] —and because the farms were of course meant to make money, make tons of profit for the owners of the farm, not the workers who tilled the fields, of course those workers would be paid as little as possible.

[Felix] Exactly.

[Stoneface] And they were trapped in the same cycle that Jemo finds himself trapped in today. Working day in and day out, on his feet all day with barely enough time to eat, yet can barely cover his costs. All while the boss makes profits.

[Felix] Yes. Colonization is a capitalist project. In the beginning of the episode, you'd mentioned that at the end of World War II, Britain needed money because it was in debt after fighting an expensive war. Where did it extract that from? Well, first, from British workers. But once it extracted everything it could from them, it turned to colonies, like Kenya, who could produce for every cheaper than British workers would.

At the end of the day, if colonies did not help Britain make money, if colonies were not strategically located to help Britain maintain political and economic power, then there would be no point in having the colonies.

[Stoneface (unrecorded)] Makhan Singh understood this. Fred Kubai understood this. They understood that what workers in Nairobi were striking against—poor sanitation, no water in African settlements, poverty, unemployment, disease—that all of these "economic" conditions could not be separated from "politics." Could not be separated from who is in power and who owns the means of production. If workers wanted to improve those conditions, they needed to get rid of the colonizers. The colonizers who owned the companies that exploited African workers. The colonizers who owned farmed that employed Africans who had no choice because they had to pay hut and poll tax. The colonizers who created those taxes. 

That’s why Makhan Singh and Fred Kubai said:

The real solution to the problem is not this or that small reform but the complete independence and sovereignty of the East African territories and the establishment of all these territories of democratic government elected by the people and responsible to the people of those territories only.

Africans needed economic freedom. Africans needed political freedom. The two cannot be separated.

This is the reason why you see some of the same faces in the trade union movement and the radical wing of the new Kenyan Government after independence. People like Pinto, Bildad Kaggia, Fred Kubai, J.D. Kali.  

This is what Pinto told dockworkers at Mombasa, after he had been released from detention. They had gathered to hear him speak, because they admired his role in the struggle. Both before and after independence, Pinto would be deeply involved in the trade union movement. For him, the rights of the working poor and unemployed, would be central. Until everyone was free from poverty, no one was free.

Africans needed economic freedom. Africans needed political freedom. The two cannot be separated.

But, back to 1950. The General Strike. Unfortunately, the other strike organizers did not understand this. They got some “small reforms” and accepted those. They did not recognize that Outcast Nairobi, the people who had been on the frontlines of this strike—the jobless, the landless, the people driven into lives of crime to make a living—did not get what they striked for.

Outcast Nairobi wasn’t satisfied. This outcome wasn’t going to help them. Some of these people decided that the only way forward would be joining the Mau Mau. The only way forward would have to be violence.

[Stoneface (unrecorded)] What do you think of when you hear this sentence: “Poverty is violence.”

[April] Hm. Are you talking about physical violence, like police beating people in the ghetto?

[Stoneface] There’s that. Obviously people who are poor see more physical violence. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about: Poverty itself is a form of violence. Someone here in Mathare is born into a life of disease, no education, sexual assault, precarity. A life of dead ends. What ends up killing you might be HIV/AIDS, or a fire. Or a small injury but you can’t treat it but now you can’t work. Or other poor relatives, whom you have to support. Even though no one person is physically hurting them, this person has been beaten down by the entire system. Every day they go hungry, every day they live as slaves to wage labor, they are being struck by the system. Their poverty is breaking down their body, killing them. Leave alone the police bullet.

You’ve heard people say, violence is not the answer. But what about the violence of poverty. The violence of poverty that poor people go through every single day, for all of their lives.

“Violence is not the answer.” That’s easy to say when you don’t live in Mathare. When you don’t live a life of everyday violence. When you are not attacked by the violence of poverty. It’s hard to tell someone who is not free to say that they can only use nonviolence to get free.

The Trinidadian-American civil rights organizer Kwame Ture once said this: “Nonviolence only works when your oppressor has a conscience.”

In 1958, when the Kapenguria Six were convicted, they were taken to the prison at Lokitaung.

They looked across a wide valley and, in the distance, they saw an Asian man waving his hands at them. They thought, that must be Makhan Singh. By that time, Makhan Singh had already been imprisoned for 8 years. Since the Nairobi General Strike.

Makhan Singh would serve the longest detention sentence of anyone in Kenya’s liberation struggle. Ten and a half years, many of those years completely alone. Singh went on three hunger strikes, each one longer than the one before. His last hunger strike lasted 21 days.

One day—when he was in Lokitaung I think—Singh received a book. It was An Outline History of the World by H.G. Wells. It was from Pinto, written “from your Nairobi friends.” On it also written two lines, something like “It is the man who not only shows the way to others but also to himself walks over the same.”

Singh thought, this was how Pinto thought and acted too. The gift reminded him that the fight was still going on, beyond the walls of his desert detention camp. That his comrades in Nairobi were fighting the fight that he had begun years before. That he was not forgotten. A luta continua.

In 1961, Makhan Singh was released. By that time, Kenya was well on its way to independence. It was a beautiful moment for the new country. It was a victory not only for the Mau Mau forest fighters, but also those who had spent years in detention. It was a victory for those who had participated in the strikes that paved the way for independence. There was not one single group that could claim responsibility for Kenya’s independence. This fight required unity and solidarity and sacrifice.

But. The very things that paved the way for Kenya’s independence—unity and solidarity and sacrifice—would soon be replaced by others. Greed, tribal divisions, individualism. Even though colonizers left the country, many Kenyans got poorer. Unemployment increased.

Kenyans began demanding, “wapi uhuru?” We are still not free. Independence was not decolonization.


De Souza, Fitzval. Forward to Independence: My Memoirs. 2018.

Durrani, Shiraz, editor. Pio Gama Pinto: Kenya’s Unsung Martyr. Vita Books, 2018.

Durrani, Shiraz. Kenya’s War of Independence: Mau Mau and Its Legacy of Resistance to Colonialism and Imperialism, 1948-1990. Vita Books, 2018.

---, editor. Makhan Singh: A Revolutionary Kenyan Trade Unionist. Vita Books, 2015.

---. People’s Resistance to Colonialism and Imperialism in Kenya and Reflections on Resistance. Vita Books, 2018.

Lubembe, Clement K. Trade Unions in Kenya’s War of Independence. Vita Books, 2018. The Inside of Labour Movement in Kenya. Equatorial Publishers, 1968.

Stichter, Sharon B. “Workers, Trade Unions, and the Mau Mau Rebellion.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines, vol. 9, no. 2, 1975, p. 259. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.2307/484083.

Episode 1. Wapi Uhuru?
Episode 2. Mau Mau Ally
Episode 3. Land Justice Advocate

Episode 4. Radical Journalist
Episode 5. Trade Unionist
Episode 6. Political Mastermind

Episode 7. Martyr

“Kenya’s uhuru must not be transformed into freedom to exploit, or freedom to be hungry and live in ignorance. Uhuru must be uhuru for the masses—uhuru from exploitation, from ignorance, disease and poverty.”

Pio Gama Pinto