By Muriithi Mutiga
Kenya’s second Vice-President, Joseph Murumbi, has been subjected to the ultimate indignity.
The late Murumbi
The target of thugs.
In a shocking night-time incursion, a gang of thieves and fortune hunters recently raided his grave in Nairobi, stealing the brass plaque marking the spot where he was buried.
They further attempted to dig into his grave and that of his late wife, Sheila, who was buried by his side, in a vain attempt to steal any treasure that may have been buried aground alongside the two, who were renowned art collectors.
Two white marble tablets on which were inscribed the names of the distinguished couple buried at the site are now missing from the graveyard.
The gruesome discovery was made by Murumbi’s long-time friend, and business associate, the veteran art collector Alan Donovan, on a random visit to the spot, which he has unsuccessfully lobbied the government to either fence off, or allow relocation of the graves to the proposed heroes’ corner.
Reaction by veteran freedom fighters and associates to Mr Murumbi when informed of the outrage by The Sunday Standard yesterday was one of indignation and disappointment.
Trade unionist Dennis Akumu, who knew Murumbi since the late 1950s, said the desecration of the Murumbis’ graves was an indictment of government neglect of war veterans.
"There could have been fewer people who were more honest, more unswervingly principled and more selflessly generous in their contribution to the fight for independence and the building of a new Kenya than Murumbi. Why should he be allowed to suffer such humiliation?" he posed.
Veteran lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee, a member of the Murumbi Trust, which is striving to preserve his legacy, said the incursion illustrated the nation’s collective habit of neglecting its heroes.
"The values for which Murumbi and the other figures who objected to the direction the nation took after independence are the same values we cry out for today. It is a slur on their memory that things like this should be allowed to happen."
Joseph Murumbi was Kenya’s second Vice-President. He rose to prominence in the defining stage of the independence struggle following the wave of arrests that followed the announcement of a state of emergency by the colonial authorities on October 20, 1952. The arrests left him as the most visible leader of the political struggle for African majority rule and the end of colonialism, becoming acting secretary general of the main pro-reform political party.
He was instrumental in getting a legal defence for the Kapenguria six, the key political leaders incarcerated in Northern Kenya for their alleged role in agitating for independence.
After holding a series of ministerial positions following independence, he was appointed vice-president following the sidelining of Jaramogi Odinga, Kenya’s first Vice-President in May 1966.
Murumbi himself resigned from the position only a year and a half later, embittered, by the assassination of his political mentor, the crusading left wing freedom fighter, Pio da Gama Pinto.
Speaking to The Sunday Standard this week, Alan Donovan, who for many years served as a key associate to Murumbi in their shared passion of art collection, explained that it had long been Murumbi’s wish to be buried at the City Park cemetery, as near as possible to the spot where Pinto was interred.
A lack of space inside the cemetery forced Murumbi’s friends to bury him just outside the fenced confines of the cemetery, less than ten metres from the spot where Pinto is buried.
Mr. Donovan and others were however unable to obtain planning permission for a new fence to be erected outside the cemetery where Murumbi was buried in 1990.
A flurry of letters to members of the new government, including Vice President Moody Awori and Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Kiraitu Murungi expressing concern over the state of the grave site from the Murumbi Trust members have gone without reply.
Although the Local Government ministry has made moves in recent times to maintain the main cemetery which was previously wildly overgrown, nothing has been done about the two graves right outside the cemetery’s un-gated entrance.
A tour of the cemetery by The Sunday Standard, however, revealed the former Vice President’s final resting place to be a troublingly desolate patchwork, almost embarrassingly Spartan in its drabness.
In place of the dignified brass plaques and marble head stones that had once marked the spot, huge, mildewed, oblong-shaped boulders lay atop the two graves, ringed by towering bougainvillea trees with overhanging tendrils snaking their way to the ground.
There was no visitor to the close to one hundred graves at the site. A lone worker at one corner of the grounds said she had no idea who was interred in the two graves outside, and added that the city council workers at the site did not consider the graves to fall under their purview, because of their location outside the graveyard.
The latest twist is yet another chapter in the life of a man who dedicated most of his early life to the struggle for independence, but led an existence marked by tortured disappointment following the achievement of African majority rule.
A row over the ownership of his art collection, reputed to have been one of the most valuable on the continent, is still not entirely resolved to date (see separate story) amidst controversy over whether it should be shipped out to distant relatives of his late wife, Sheila, or held within the country.
Donovan, however, insists that the main priority in the short term is to preserve the dignity of the twin graves.
"We plan very soon to put up a hedge and landscape around the graves which can be protected. This time, we will not use any expensive material like brass, but will make it as simple as possible, hoping the thieves will stay away."