Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi - a Prolific Art Collector of Maasai and Indian-Goan Cultural Heritage
A young Goan man by the name Peter Zuzarte, migrated to the British Protectorate of East Africa in 1897 from India, about four years after Mohandas Gandhi had chosen to migrate to South Africa. Goa is India’s smallest and richest state. It had been colonized by the Portuguese in 1510, after the defeat of the reigning sultan. The native inhabitants had thereafter been Christianized in the Catholic doctrine, as the Portuguese created a permament settlement in Velha Goa. The Konkani-speaking Goans acquired distictly Portuguese names from their colonizers.
In the year of Peter Zuzarte’s arrival in East Africa, the Maasai a pastoralist community with whom his life would be intertwined had lost many animals to pleuro-pneumonia. This was a terrible economic blow when one takes into consideration that cattle keeping was their mainstay. It is not clear whether Peter Zuzarte’s migration to East Africa had anything to do with the construction of the Uganda Railway that had only gone 23 miles (ca. 37 km) inland from Mombasa by December 1896, the previous year. The construction of the railway had necessitated the recruitment of hundreds of Indian Coolies from India. In February 1897, Ronald O. Preston had brought in 300 more with him from the Mombasa port on the Indian Ocean to reinforce the Railway workforce that had been depleted by disease. What is not in doubt is that Peter would later be an accomplished shopkeeper among many other Indians who chose to settle in the then Kenya Colony.
Peter Zuzarte meets a young Maasai Girl and the rest is history
Sometime soon after Peter’s arrival, he met a young Maasai girl with whom, against unacceptable racial interactions of the times, they had a liaison. The white Kenyan settlers had been molding the colony in line with the policies that were later to be entrenched in South Africa as Apartheid. Europeans, Asians and Africans were expected to live in strictly designated areas and perform tasks that had been assigned according to race. Marriages between them were not encouraged. In any case, the Indians already followed a caste system which, if applied in the colony would have put Africans even lower than their untouchables. When the matter of Zuzarte’s fleeting romance with a Maasai girl was out in the open, it must have placed him in a difficult position with his own people and especially after it resulted in a pregnancy.
The early years of Joseph Murumbi
Joseph Zuzarte Murumbi was born in 1911, During the Governorship of Sir Percy Cranwill. Cranwill had replaced Sir James Hayes Sadler two years earlier. The young Murumbi was, right from the beginning torn between his mother’s people, the Uasin Gishu branch of the Maasai, and his father’s Goan people.
Around the time of Murumbi’s birth, the Maasai people’s woes were on an upward steep incline. The railway line had just been completed from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria at enormous cost. In a bid to make the railway line pay for its construction, the British Colonial Government made a great effort to encourage more settlers from Britain and South Africa with promises of huge tracts of subsidized agricultural land; land that had been owned communally by the Maasai, Kikuyu, Nandi and other native communities. A section of the Maasai had been ordered to move from their Laikipia ancestral lands to a strip of land that was barely enough to sustain their surviving herds of cattle and sheep. Stauffacher, a white missionary living among the Maasai at the time was to write that:
“…Bright intelligent people caged up like a lot of animals that a few Englishmen may add to their already useless wealth. The injury that the English Government has brought to this country cannot be overbalanced in many years to come.”
By 1913, the Maasai had accepted to move from Laikipia. The Elders had reasoned that it was better safer to be “beaten with a sword in the sheath” than with one that had already been drawn out. Their spritual leaders, among them the famous Chief Lenana had been duped to put signatures to a document written in English to signify they had willingly given away their lands. However, seeing the futility fighting the British war machine, even Lenana talked his people against armed resistance.
Murumbi’s education in India
About 1918, when the boy was seven years old, Murumbi was shipped out to India by his father ostensibly to get an education. Two years later, while he was away, the protectorate would be declared a British Colony. A fellow tribesman, Molonket ole Sempele had been the first Kenyan African to go abroad for further education in 1909. Molonket had joined The Stauffachers in Illinois in the United States.
It is more likely that Murumbi’s father had used the pursuit of education as a good excuse to inculcate in Murumbi an Indian culture in the hope that he would in future discard his Maasai mother’s roots and identify more with his father’s Indian origins. Indian achievements in architecture, art and infrastructure were no doubt awe-inspiring to the young Murumbi when compared to the simple life that his mother’s people lived, herding cattle. In any case, while Murumbi was in India, someone started a rumor that a lion had killed his mother. The rumor did reach Murumbi as intended causing, as can be imagined, much distress.
Back to Kenya and on to employment
After an absence of about 15 years, Murumbi returned to Kenya in 1933 to find Sir Joseph Aloysius Byrne as the governor. He immediately sought details of his mother’s demise only to find her alive and well. The practical joke probably served to endear Murumbi to the Maasai, which was the opposite of what had been intended. The Maasai in general had however suffered a devastating food crisis which they called “famine of the cowhide.” The requirement that all African Natives should carry the infamous kipande, a hated pass that was suspended around the neck, was yet another development that had happened in Murumbi’s absence.
When it finally dawned on Peter Zuzarte that his son’s racial identity had not quite cristalized in India, he asked him to choose between his father’s people (Asians) and his mother’s people (Africans). Murumbi could have chosen his father’s people and a life with the priveleges set aside for second-class citizens. Africans at the time were treated as third class citizens with the white minority at the top of the pyramid. Africans in urban centres and setller farms were housed in appalling conditions. Besides having to carry the hated Kipande, their movements were strictly conrolled, and they could not enter in hotels and other institutions that had been reserved for whites only. Schools and hospitals were also segregated for the three races – White, Asian and African. Africans had a curriculum specially designed to give them just enough knowledge to serve as farm laborers, house servants, soldiers and policemen.
Murumbi must have shocked his father when he chose to be classified as Maasai. His father, Peter Zuzarte, was by then married to Ezalda Clara Albuquerque whose son, John Dias (stepson to Peter Zuzarte) was killed by an enraged white settler for daring to fall in love with his daughter. The settler was jailed for 10 years for the crime, thanks to Clara and Peter’s and ceaseless efforts.
Armed struggle and the State of Emergency
In 1948, the nonviolent agitators made some progress when the government accepted that the Kipande pass ought to be extended to all races. This was an effort to appease the restless disgruntled Africans. However, a few Africans were not satisfied with peaceful forms of protest. They wanted faster results thorough an armed conflict. When they were ready to move with their plans, they stole what arms they could from the settlers and went into the forest for a protracted war of hit-and-run. They referred to themselves as the Kenya Land Freedom Army, but the name that would send chills in settler mind was Mau Mau.
On 30 September 1952, Sir Evelyn Baring arrived in Kenya to take over as the new Governor. Soon after, the Mau Mau escalated their activities by eliminating several white settlers and their African collaborators - on 9 October, Senior Chief Waruhiu had been shot in his car. Having lost a staunch supporter, Baring had a good excuse to declare war on the Mau Mau. His predecessor, Sir Philip Mitchel had equated the Mau Mau with Communism as “contemporary revivals of paganism.” Despite warnings from District Officers and Settlers that an uprising was in the offing, Mitchel had dismissed the Mau Mau as “just a religious cult” with nothing nationalist about it.
On October 20, 1952, Sir Evelyn Barring declared a state of Emergency, with wide sweeping repressive powers. In an effort to crash the Mau Mau, the Kikuyu Embu and Meru were singled out for punishment as supporters of the patrons of the movement, yet 85 percent of the Maasai in the Melili, Mau and the flat plains had also taken the Mau Mau oath! The Mau Mau was now an illegal society. A few days after the burial of Waruhiu, scores of so called Mau Mau leaders and members of KAU were arrested, including the Kapenguria six, Jomo Kenyatta, Bildad Kagia, Paul Ngei, Achieng Oneko, Kungu Karumba and Fred Kubai. The loss of so many leaders thrust Murumbi into sudden leadership as Secretary General of KAU. Together with Pinto, they put up a team of lawyers for the detainees and broadcast their plight to the whole world through the Indian press. In 1954, even Pinto was put behind bars in Manda Island on the Indian Ocean, only four months after his marriage to Emma Dias. He was to remain restricted for another four years. In the meantime, the settlers were considering allowing two good natives to represent the interests of their people in the Legislative Council.
Murumbi flees to Britain where he finds a bride
In 1948 the settler-controlled Legislative Council increased the number of African representatives from 2 to 4 and in 1956 a suggestion was made to increase them further to six with one African in the Executive. This was too little too late to stem the tide of discontent among the non-European population.
It wasn’t long before Murumbi also fled into exile to avoid arrest. Ironically, political fugitives from Kenya felt safer in Britain. While in the UK, Murumbi worked as a clerk for the Moroccan Embassy. Following his stepbrother’s example, Murumbi was to fall in love with a white girl but luckily, for him, British society was more liberal than the settler community he had left behind in Kenya. Kenyatta, who had been in England years before him, had a white wife, Edna who had remained behind with her son when Kenyatta had returned to Kenya to continue the fight for freedom.
Birds of a feather collect together
Murumbi met Sheila Anne Keine in London where she was a Librarian. The two lovers had similar habits – he collected artefacts from all over the world and Africa in particular, while she collected stamps. Later her collection would be stated as “Second only to the Queen’s.” Besides collecting artifacts, both Murumbi and Sheila loved dogs, gardening and classical music.
In London, Murumbi continued to serve the interests of his people. He kept in touch with freedom fighters up to the time of Kenyatta’s release and the constitutional activities that preceded independence in 1963. Murumbi’s assistance in London culminated in the Lancaster House Conference which gave Kenya an Independence Constitution that had a lower house and an upper house (the Senate). The current new Kenyan constitution was similar to the Lancaster in several aspects, among them the position of Governors in charge of Counties.
Murumbi in Independent Kenya and his growing international collection
Murumbi returned to Kenya in 1963 to work for the new Government led by Jomo Kenyatta. He became Kenya’s first Foreign Minister. Later he replaced Jaramogi Oginga Odinga as the second Vice President of Kenya. During his tour as Foreign Minister, Murumbi increased his collection of artifacts from wherever his Call of Duty landed him. Murumbi helped to establish many of Kenya’s embassies.
Unfortunately on 24th of February 1965, Murumbi’s friend and mentor, Pio Gama Pinto was shot dead outside his house in Nairobi West as his daughter watched. This was too much to bear for Murumbi who had been close to Pinto since the KAU days. It would appear that this assassination and the direction that the new government took in governance played a big role in his decision to resign and quit politics in 1966. Some quarters also believe that the British government released a lot of funds for the purchase of settler farms to re-settle squatters after independence. However, those close to power instead acquired the lands. Murumbi Kept away from politics for the rest of his life.
Having left the murky world of politics to politicians, Murumbi redoubled his collecting efforts. After all, without children of their own, Murumbi and Sheilla were not bogged down by the intricacies of family life. By 1970, Murumbi’s large collection had to be stored in basement rooms and proper storage had to be sought.
Alan Donavan, an American who would later team up with the Murumbis was running an African Heritage Jewelry workshop from Mathare. In 1971, Joseph Murumbi visited an exhibition by Donavan where he saw a Nimba Fertility Mask, made by the Baga of Guinea. The Mask had already been purchased, awaiting collection by its new owner. Murumbis interest in the mask as a personal collection was so great that Donavan had to step in and prevail upon the Asian who had bought it to accept his money back. Murumbi the collector had just met Donavan the art marketer. The two would be friends and business partners to the very end.
The video below was taken before the Murumbi Collection was moved to Nairobi Gallery, next to Nyayo House Nairobi.
Murumbi teams up with Donavan to register the African Heritage
Murumbi and Donavan soon recognised that they could form a formidable team. They mooted the idea of starting a shop to purchase African artefacts locally and sell them internationally with an outlet in Nairobi. The shop would be known as The African Heritage. The Nimba fertility mask that Murumbi had bought from Donavan became the African Heritage symbol. With Murumbis collection and Donavan’s knack for planning festivals and mounting exhibitions the two struck a chord with the sky as the limit. The African Heritage opened its doors for business on Kenyatta Avenue in January 1973. Margaret Kenyatta, the Mayor of Nairobi and daughter of the founding father of the nation by his first wife, opened the building officially. With time, The African Heritage had 51 outlets around the world.
To stock their establishment with fresh artifacts for sale, they started buying from craftsmen and women every Tuesday. Naturally, a Tuesday market developed on the pavements of Kenyatta Avenue, opposite Nyayo House. It was known as the Maasai market, a name that has stuck to this day in spite of several relocations. The majority who sold artifacts to the African Heritage were Maasai traders with their colorful bead work, hence the term Maasai Market. The Business grew in leaps and bounds, boasting about 500 staff members at its peak. Thousands more earned directly from selling their art products to the African Heritage. The company organized international tours around the world – the African Heritage Festival - with a retinue of models, musicians, chefs of African cuisine, African hair stylists, acrobats and dancers.
The Maasai Market on the pavement of Kenyatta Avenue grew bigger than the demands of African Heritage. Every curio shop owner now bought from the market which had taken over the bus stage opposite the Old PC’s building. When it started to obstruct traffic on the busy Kenyatta Avenue, it was relocated to a space around the Moi Avenue Primary School. This Tuesday market exists to this day but is now located behind Kijabe Street, next to the Nairobi River. A similar market takes place every Saturday at a space next to the High Court.
Murumbi had big plans for his collection
Murumbi had a house in Muthaiga which he had planned to turn into “the Murumbi Institute of African Studies.” UNESCO had even offered to fund his project but this was never to be when catastrophe struck. A fire caused by an electrical fault gutted the African Heritage building on Kenyatta Avenue causing damage to some collections. The American Embassy sent trucks to rescue many of the artifacts. The Americans also helped with storage while Murumbi and his business partner, Donavan, found their bearing. Murumbi’s attachment to his collection was profound. To ensure that his collection did not find its way out of the country, he found it prudent to sell part of the rescued collection and his Muthaiga home to the Kenya Government. He expected the Government to retain the house for a public display of the collection. Probably if he had known that the government would demolish the Muthaiga house to pave way for development of the land, he would have found a way to retain it. The Murumbi collection was moved to the National Archives on Moi Avenue, near the Ambassador Hotel on December 6, 2006, with a $50,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.
The rest of the Murumbi and Sheila Collection story
Needless to say, Donavan was devastated by the loss of their enterprise and had wanted to go back to his home country but was prevailed upon by Joseph Murumbi to stay on. After remaining in the same location for 25 years, the African Heritage had to close down at the Kenyatta Avenue location to pave way for the construction of the high-rise “I&M building.
When he was still alive, Murumbi had suggested to the Government that the Old PC’s building would be an ideal location for a Pan African Art Gallery. According to Donavan, the National Museums of Kenya, probably in honor of Murumbi’s wish, offered the Old PC’s building as a new home for African Heritage but this did not happen immediately. The Old PC’s building was renamed The Nairobi Gallery and was used for temporary exhibitions of National value by the Museum. In the meantime, the African Heritage moved to a location on Mombasa Road.
Murumbi’s Intona (roots) farm and mansion
Murumbi’s Maasai elders gave had given him land at a place called Intona which means ‘roots’ in the Maasai language. There he practiced beekeeping and cattle ranching. He built a permanent “30 roomed” house at Intona and lived there for a while with his wife Sheila with part of his collection adorning the walls. Unfortunately, an accident in the bathroom led to his evacuation to Nairobi. After the mishap, Murumbi was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, never to return to Intona. It is claimed that the Intona mansion has been vandalized.
Heirs to the Murumbi Estate and the loss of more art objects
Without heirs, a decision had to be made about the Murumbi Estate. This left the onus of making the decision to the courts which ruled that Sheila’s closest relatives be sought to inherit her collection, including the substantive artifacts she had inherited from her husband. Justine and Annabel Darlow were identified in the UK as Sheila’s cousins and to their surprise, they inherited priceless treasures of the Swahili furnishings among other artifacts and art objects from Africa and the rest of the world. They must have known about the enormous intrinsic and national value of the consignment and perhaps Murumbi’s wish that nothing should leave the country. To them it was a windfall that had to be secretly shipped out without further delay. If it weren’t for a tenacious Donavan who got wind of their activities and blew the whistle, the country would have lost irreparably. Luckily, the government took notice and intervened. Further movement of the objects was halted, resulting in a legal tussle between the “heirs” and the Government. This lasted well over a decade. Eventually the intervention paid off, saving most of the collection except for a large part of the Swahili furnishings that had already been shipped out and lost forever. When the Darlow’s formerly relinquished all further claims, the objects were transferred the Murumbi Trust, with Donavan as the custodian. Sheila had desired that the collection be available to the public at all times, a wish that the trust endeavored to fulfill. This surviving Murumbi Collection, including Sheila’s stamp collection was transferred to the Kenya National Museums, at the Heritage Department.
The passing away of a great son of Kenya
Murumbi died on June 22, 1990, at the age of 79 from a heart attack, leaving his estate to his wife Sheila. In his will, he had requested to be buried near his old friend Pio Gama pinto at the City Park Cemetery. At the time of Murumbi’s death, the cemetery was full but the Government was intent on fulfilling his wishes. Arrangements were made to bury him outside the perimeter of the Cemetery.
10 years after the death of Murumbi, his dear wife Sheila died in October 2000 without a will. She was buried next to her husband at City Park. Unknown persons later vandalized the graves. To add to the woes, private developers threatened to take over the park. This was halted in good time by a public outcry. The Murumbi trust, incorporated in 2003 stepped in to restore the graves with funds from the Ford Foundation and the park was renamed “the Nairobi Peace Memorial Park.”
The old PC’s building is now home to the Murumbi Collection
In 2012, under the Directorship of Dr. Idle Farrah, the National Museums of Kenya offered the Old PC’s Building to the Murumbi Trust. Previously, the gallery was used by the Museum to host temporary exhibitions. Using a grant from the Stanbic Bank, the Gallery has been renovated with a new public access gate from Uhuru Highway. Previously, the gallery shared an entrance with Nyayo House. The biggest room within the building has been reserved for temporary exhibitions.
A little about Alan Donavan
Donovan was a Graduate of UCLA. His first experience of Africa was in 1967 when he worked for USAID in Nigeria. This exposure opened his eyes to the quality and enormous potential of African Art and culture. He was particularly enchanted by body adornments such as earrings and pendants made from beads and malleable metals. To immerse himself in the marketing of African products, resigned from his job and toured Africa in his Volkswagen van, buying as much indigenous art and crafts as he could along the way. Eventually he landed in Lake Turkana area where he paid the Turkana people to fashion jewelry for use by the Western market. He eventually learned the art of making artifacts himself and made stunning jewelry. He travelled to museums and galleries in the US, expressly to create interest in African jewelry with much success. On his US tour, he met the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Aretha Franklin among many other black luminaries. This, coupled with talks on radio and Television shows in more than seven American Cities gave his nascent collection enormous publicity.
- Murumbi Peace Memorial pamphlet by the National Museums of KenyaThe Daily Nation, 27th 02, 2013
- Visionary Leadership in the Arts in Africa - PDF interview of Alan Donovan
- Sad ode to a fallen fighter - Cyprian Fernandes - http://cyprianfernandes.blogspot.com/2011/07/murumbi-sad-ode-to-fallen-freedom.html
- Kenya Historical Biographies, edited by Kenneth King and Ahmed Salim, East African Publishing House.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Emmanuel Kariuki