He was a familiar presence on the streets of Holloway in London where he’d lived for a number of years, a distinguished looking gent who would cheerily hail people as he did the shopping with his many children in tow, or pop into the bookies on his way home from his job on the Underground.
But behind this apparently mundane existence lay the extraordinary story of Henry Muoria, a one-time illiterate herds boy turned journalist who’d proved such a scourge to the colonial authorities in Kenya that they forced him to live in exile in London in the 1950s.
A well used typewriter and a stream of academics visiting him at his house off the Holloway Rd, where he raised seven children with his wife, Ruth, were the only reminders of his former life.
It was only when he made his first trip back to his country some 20 years later that his children realised just how famous he was. “He was given a hero’s welcome and had dinner with President Kenyatta at State House,” recalls his eldest daughter Wangari.
“We were just ordinary cockney kids from London but suddenly we were treated like VIPS, too. We’d had no idea.”
Their father had been press secretary to Kenyatta, Kenya’s founding father, having set up the newspaper Mumenyereri – ‘The Guardian’ – that was to become a leading platform for the nationalist cause.
It became so popular that Muoria, who died in 1997 aged 83, was able to buy his own printing press. He also published a number of best selling books and pamphlets. In them, he not only railed against the injustices of colonial society but chided Kenyans for not doing enough to help themselves.
It was certainly something no one could accuse him of. While tending to the goats as a 10-year-old he met two children. “He asked them where they were going and they said school,” says Wangari. “When he asked them what school was they showed him a book and he knew there and then that that was where he wanted to go.”
After spending a few years at the mission school, he joined the East African Railways as a guardsman. “But he read anything he could get his hands on and also took a correspondence course in journalism, which he ordered from England.”
In 1945 he wrote his first book, What Shall We Do, Our People? and was soon living the life of a successful newspaper proprietor and writer. “It was Kenyatta who advised Dad to go to England to get a better printing press for the paper. But when he arrived in 1952 the Kenyan government declared the Emergency because of the Mau Mau uprising and warned him he would be arrested if he returned.”
Although Muoria was not a member of Mau Mau, the colonial authorities closed his newspaper down. Stuck in London, he sent for his wife, got work as a guard on the Underground and settled down to English life, learning how to sew to help out at home and becoming a governor of the local Tollington Park School, which his children attended.
But he never stopped writing and left 11 book-length manuscripts, which Wangari, who co-authored, Writing for Kenya, the Life and Works of Henry Muoria in 2009, would like to see published: “Outside of academic circles not many people have heard of him. Yet he was a remarkable man and I want everyone to know that.”
This article was first published in Camden New Journal, October 16, 2014
A talk, Who was Henry Muoria? is at Housmans bookshop, Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX, 7pm, on Oct 29