The Kenyan students airlifts to study in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s could as well been one of the most defining moments of Kenya at the cusp of new independent Kenya. The impact of the airlifts, which boost an incredible alumni pool, has had reverberations for Kenya for decades even after the programme ended. The foresight, dedication of the organizers catapulted Kenya to become one of the few African countries that was ready for post-independence Kenya.
The term ‘class of notables’ is thought to have famously been uttered by Carey Francis, in reference to Alliance High School class of 1945. They blazed the trail to what become one of the most consequential achieving alumni class of that time.
The spillover effect in terms of economic, political and social ramifications for Kenya and the region has been phenomenal to say the least. The airlifts helped Kenya prepare for what happened after independence in 1963. It laid the groundwork for Kenya’s political and economic take-off for the newly independent nation.
Most of them came back and took important positions in the newly formed government. the policies, and strategies put forward by majority of these men and women propelled Kenya to become a leader in the region and Africa as a whole.
It could as well have been Kenya’s finest ‘hour’ in terms quest for education and spearheaded by the late Tom Mboya. Though there were challenges shortly after independence especially with assassination of Tom Mboya and period of slower growth, corruption, ethnic divisions later on, Kenya still laid a firm foundation in terms of ability of Kenya’s to take over from the Brits in terms leadership and steering the country into the future. By 1965, there was a considerable number of people who had a university degree and were absorbed into government ministries and local universities as they came up later in the next decade. Educating the populace, and at a fast pace, was important ingredient to enable the African nations propel their own destiny after independence. DRC, at the time of independence, some studies show that only 16 people had a university education. In Kenya, between 1959-63 more than 500 students were part of the airlifts.
At the Centre of the Airlift was Tom Mboya, Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano and several others.
The period boosts men and women who went on to do great things. All those who went to study abroad during that period were not direct beneficiaries of the airlifts since some like Barack Obama snr went on their own but can be summed up as being part of the airlift generation:
Tom Mboya: Firebrand and main advocate for the programme. even met John F Kennedy, when he was senator who later became president. JFK gave a $100,000 grant. Mboya’s also looped in other key personalities to support the programme: Sidney Poitier, Jackie Robinson.
Julius Gikonyo Kiano (first kenyan to obtain a doctorate degree, 1956).
Prof Wangari Maathai: Left in the 1961 airlift. first African woman to win Nobel Prize. Also a lecturer at university of Nairobi and later assistant mister in Kibaki’s government in 2002.
Barack Obama Senior: made his own way to US not through the airlift but is considered to be part of period of high number of Kenyans seeking education abroad at the period.
Others who had early influence on African modern education:
Aggrey James: from Ghana, earned a PHd from Columbia university in 1898. Sometimes called, Booker T Washington of Africa or ‘Father of African education’.
Jaramogi also organized other programmes mainly from the Soviet Union.
At the time there was ideological differences about western American versus Soviet education.
‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it’-
Ability to foresee the new world developments and ensure the people anticipate and are ready is one of core pillars of advancements in modern world. I would marry this viewpoint with generational shift thinking. Either people can be optimistic or pessimistic about the future and they can plan for it or just roll by. When the future is deemed to be better than the present, there is more rigid planning for it and anticipation. There are also better frameworks, better politics and institutions. When the future seems bleak, there is a culture of taking shortcuts in order to get out as soon as possible before everything comes crumbling down. I think the period 1950s-1960s there was a lot of optimism, followed by pessimism period between 1970s through to early 1990s. The early 2000s were period of optimism leading up to Kibaki coming to power. This was again followed by period of pessimism post election violence and all. I think we might be still in that period but maybe not evenly distributed, i think many might disagree with this.
The organizers,benefactors of the Kenyan Airlift programme did what they deemed fit for themselves and their people. In the end their impact reverberated beyond themselves. We might not know it yet, but our actions now will be judged years to come as to whether we contributed to betterment of ourselves and our people or not. It’s good to have a longer term vision once in a while even if we might not achieve it, but we dared to dream: and that might just be enough.
ed. Note: Although i praise the efforts made to gain formal education, it by no means indicate that there was no education by Kenyans/Africans in general before the European colonisation. It would be very naive to assume/conclude that. Evidence exists to show the technological progress by many African regions prior, eg Ancient Benin City. But that’s a long story to cover in another post, maybe. However, the gist of this article is appreciating the need for people to harness new realities in order to survive in the modern world. The context is therefore based on and after the independence.
The title and overview is partly inspired by the book: Kenyan Airlifts to America 1959-1961 An educational odyssey. more here.