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The Mboya airlifts

mboya AIRLIFTS

The late Tom Mboya. The famous airlifts of the 1950s and early 1960s were a result of scholarship for Kenyan students to study in the USA sought by Mboya

  • The scholarship for Kenyan students to study in the USA sought by Tom Mboya in later 1950s and early 1960s, was one of the major contributions the former Constitutional Affairs minister rendered to the country.
  • On September 11, 1959, 81 students from East Africa arrived in New York City on a chartered flight, to study at various US universities.
  • They included Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Prof Wangari Maathai and Barack Obama Sr, among the best known personalities.
  • The airlifts to America were conceived by Mboya and William X Scheinman, Jackie Robinson, musician Harry Belafonte, actor Sidney Poitier and Martin Luther King Jr, all of whom were central in the success of the project.

The scholarship for Kenyan students to study in the USA sought by Tom Mboya in later 1950s and early 1960s, was one of the major contributions the former Constitutional Affairs minister rendered to the country.

Most of them later became prominent members of society and contributed immensely to a country that had just achieved independence and needed educated technocrats to steer key sectors of the economy.

On September 11, 1959, 81 students from East Africa arrived in New York City on a chartered flight, to study at various US universities.

They included Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Prof Wangari Maathai and Barack Obama Sr, among the best known personalities.

By 1963, over 250 young East African men and women had been flown to the US.

In 1960 the Kennedy Foundation agreed to underwrite the airlift, after Mboya visited Senator Jack Kennedy to ask for assistance, and the project was extended to include Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and Nyasaland (Malawi).

AIRLIFTS

The airlifts to America were conceived by Mboya and William X Scheinman, Jackie Robinson, musician Harry Belafonte, actor Sidney Poitier and Martin Luther King Jr, all of whom were central in the success of the project.

They created the African American Students Foundation (AASF), which raised funds for travel and living expenses from various groups in America and Africa.

But the programme that started in 1959 faced challenges of financing and appealed to the Department of State for help with transportation, but was not successful.

It forced Mboya to return to the US in 1960 to further appeal to Senator John F. Kennedy in the company of William Scheinman and Frank Montero, president of AASF.

Kennedy, who was later to become US president, agreed  to private funding and promised a donation of $5,000 from the Joseph P.

Kennedy Jr Foundation  but on condition that his involvement was not made public to keep the project out of politics.

KENNEDY FOUNDATION

He further recommended that Kennedy Foundation contributes the entire amount needed for the 1960 airlift, and besides the initial $100,000 contribution, the foundation would pledge up to $100,000 more to assist students with basic living expenses in the United States.

Thus, Mboya’s personal efforts secured dozens of scholarships from American and Canadian institutions.

Many of these beneficiaries attended elite universities in America before returning to Kenya after independence to help develop the country.

But Mboya had great help from Dr Gikonyo Kiano, the first Kenyan to earn a PhD, who had returned to Kenya in 1956 after studies in the US.

MBOYA AND KIANO

The combination of Mboya and Dr Kiano transformed many lives through the airlifts, which formed the foundation of the young country’s political and economic take-off. More than 5,000 Kenyan students went to Europe, India, Israel and the US.

The main objective was to train the African students for the jobs that awaited them once Kenya attained its independence from the British.

The airlift contributed in laying a good foundation of relations between the US and Kenya, further cementing Kenya’s Western-leaning that had been put in place by the British.

But then, Mboya and Kennedy had a political dimension to the airlift.

Kennedy used the airlift to raise his profile within the civil rights movement that was being led by Martin Luther King Jr  and saw it as a major boost in getting the support of  black voters in the forthcoming presidential election in 1960, which he won.

On the other hand, Mboya who was lining himself politically to succeed President Jomo Kenyatta used the airlift to raise his profile locally, as well as portraying his international image as a Pan Africanist.

KENYATTA SUCCESSION

These events forced Mboya’s main rival in the Kenyatta succession, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, to also organise several airlifts of his own to the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries.

Jaramogi secured thousands of scholarships from the Soviet Union, where the Patrice Lumumba University had just been established.

Other scholarships came from Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, India and other eastern countries. Among the beneficiaries were Mr Joseph Kamotho, Dr Odongo Omamo, Mr S.M. Otieno, Mr Johanna Seroney and Mr John Gatuguta.

Notably, Kamotho first went to the Soviet Union but later returned to Kenya to be given a scholarship to Syracuse University in the US.

Jaramogi followed up the students’ education programme by building the Lumumba Institute in Nairobi in 1964, which was similarly funded by socialist countries.

-KENYA@50

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