Written for the reprint of Ambu H. Patel (Ed): Struggle for ‘Release Jomo & Colleagues’. Nairobi: Vita Books (Forthcoming).
The book, Struggle for Release of Jomo and his Colleagues was published on December 12, 1963 — Kenya’s independence day. It is being reprinted by Vita Books in 2023. The book was published at the end of one phase of Kenya’s history of liberation as colonialism was forced out of the country after long battles which culminated in an armed struggle under the Kenya Land and Freedom Army — Mau Mau. It was also the beginning of a new phase which was expected to bring land and freedom to people who had suffered massacres, murders, concentration camps, land thefts and all forms of torture under colonialism. The hope naturally was that all this will end with the gaining of independence.
It was during this interim, hopeful period in the history of Kenya that Ambu H. Patel edited and published the book. It was no ordinary book. In days before the Internet, it carried the voice of 130 progressive personalities from Kenya and around the world. It was the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist voice of Kenya, as much as that of the progressive world. Their voice reflected the optimism that the previous rule of injustice had ended and that a new, prosperous Kenya was about to be born. The hope was that there would be justice for people whose land and livelihood had been stolen and taken over by colonial looters. Their hopes were pinned on Jomo Kenyatta and his colleagues, detained and imprisoned by colonialism. Surely their release was the key issue at the time. Surely that group of people would ensure justice for the people. It was at this time that Ambu H. Patel started the ‘Release’ campaign. But he had been active in the struggle in different ways even before started this campaign. He was an active supporter of the war of liberation. As Durrani, N. (p.50) says:
In 1952 when the armed struggle for freedom started, he would collect arms, food grains, clothes and money and send them to the Mau Mau freedom fighters. He often gave them shelter in his house or shop to keep them safe from the prying eyes of the British police and army. On many occasions, the British police raided his house and shop but he was careful enough not to leave any evidence for them.
Events proved such hopes as premature. A new world was not yet born. The struggle had to go on and the children of Mau Mau fighters would have to continue their parents’ struggle. But that was in the future. Now, at the dawn of independence, there was nothing but hope.
Ambu H. Patel, affectionally known as Ambubhai, records his efforts to carry out a global campaign for the release of the detainees. He records the writing and mailing a thousand circulars to ‘great men in over one hundred countries’ and travelling 4,500 miles all over East Africa. (pp.33-34). But he was not alone in the campaign. Besides the hundreds who responded by sending their messages of support, was a core group that did the hard work to wage a successful campaign. Many others contributed by donating funds. Durrani, N. (2017, p.51) summarises the ‘Release’ Campaign launched by Ambu Patel:
In 1960-61, Ambubhai started a new movement: a struggle for the release of thousands of Kenyan civilians imprisoned by the British government without a legal procedure. He raised funds for this from patriotic Asian Kenyans, wrote letters to world leaders requesting them to exert pressure on the British Government, displayed posters demanding the release of the prisoners, obtained thousands of signatures on the petition and organised protest marches.
Leelaben [Ambubhai’s wife] fully supported Ambubhai in all these activities. Their participation in this movement was selfless. Their aim was freedom of the country and welfare of its people. They had opportunities to make money and get rich, but they did not want to amass wealth at the cost of their principles and patriotic work. They refused to compromise and remained poor throughout their life.
What drove Ambubhai and the others to take up such a challenging campaign? His motive was simply to improve the lives of people of Kenya. He says (p.232):
I am happy that Baba Jomo Kenyatta is free to work out our nation’s destiny, people who suffered are now free to live as human beings and we can now all march forward in Harambee spirit to build a new society in Kenya.
But even as Ambu Patel saw Jomo Kenyatta as playing a ‘great roles in the history of Kenya and that his name would be permanently inscribed on the pages of Kenya’s history’ (p.31), he was careful to sound a note of caution, ‘the future is in God’s name’. His caution was proved correct by history.
Kenyatta, far from the benevolent father that Ambubhai and the many others hoped for turned out to be the one who changed the destiny of Kenya and turned its hopes for real independence into a personal tyranny. He reinforced capitalism and imperialism as Kenya’s official policies, denied land to those who had lost it under colonialism and instead started taking over land and resources for himself, his family and his close supporters. His rule was the betrayal of all that people had sacrifices over decades in Kenya for; he dashed the hopes of the international community which had supported Kenya’s war of independence.
Kenyatta’s rule was a tragedy for people of Kenya, and, ironically, for Ambu H. Patel also. Not only was it a betrayal of Ambubhai who led this important campaign at great personal loss, but also the person who supported Kenyatta’s family too. As Kiunguyu, Kylie (2017) says:
When Jomo Kenyatta was imprisoned at Maralal, Patel took his daughter Margaret to work with him in his bookbinding shop. Most significantly, at great risk to his life, he distributed medical supplies and foodstuffs to Mau Mau fighters.
The personal tragedy for Ambubhai was also a tragedy for Kenya and its history. Kenyatta, far from seeing those who stood by the principles of justice and equality as champions for `kenya’ freedom, saw them as his personal and political enemies. Thus the Mau Mau leader, General Baimunge, was killed on 26 January 1965 ‘at the hands of the Uhuru (independent) government’ of Jomo Kenyatta (Sicherman, p. 106). Others, such Bildad Kaggia, a central person behind Mau Mau, faced increasing isolation and hostility from Kenyatta. Makhan Singh, who laid the foundation for radical trade unionism, was also sidelined and kept out of politics by Kenyatta. Pio Gama Pinto, trade unionist, journalist and nationalist who was active in the Mau Mau liberation movement as well was assassinated on 24 February 1965 (Durrani, S., pp.23-26). Kenyatta saw Ambu Patel similarly as an enemy to be suppressed. Part of the reason for his hatred of Ambu Patel was that he had collected a large amount of information and photos of Mau Mau leaders and was planning to publish them. This was a step too far for Kenyatta who acted against any mention of Mau Mau, so worried was he of the legacy of the armed struggle which he had never supported. He thus kept Ambu Patel out of the political scene. Durrani, N (p.52) takes up the story:
In addition to his published works, Ambubhai had prepared biographies of M. A. Desai, A. M. Jeevanjee, Makhan Singh, Oginga Odinga and Tom Mboya for publication. He had also intended to print the album of the photographs of Mau Mau fighters which he had collected and preserved. But these plans did not materialise …
One of the main reasons that his plans did not materialise was that he found out from his many friends that Kenyatta aimed to destroy his collection of material he had carefully compiled and collected over the years. In order to safeguard it, he sent the material to India. However, over the years, the material was lost, presumably destroyed by those who did not see the significance of the history that Ambu Patel had collected.
And that then is also the story of the book, Struggle for ‘Release Jomo and his Colleagues’. It has been kept out of print as no published would take it on as it would be a direct challenge to Kenyatta and his government. The comprador governments which came to power after Kenyatta shared his ideological stand and were happy to let the history of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movements be buried. This book, like many others carrying a similar history, are no longer available to a new generation brought up on a capitalist diet. The attempt by the comprador government to bury all calls for socialism has largely succeeded.
In this environment, Vita Books has played a significant role in bringing the working class history to light. Its publications include the ones on Makhan Singh, Pio Gama Pinto and several with a working-class perspective on the war of independence. This reprint joins the list of such important titles. In addition, Vita Books plans two there important books, one on Makhan Singh and the other on Ambu Patel. The voice of Ambu H. Patel will not be silenced!
Durrani, Nazmi (2017): Liberating Minds, Restoring Kenyan History: Anti-Imperialist Resistance by Progressive South Asian Kenyans, 1884-1965 .With Additional Material By Naila Durrani and Benegal Pereira. Nairobi: Vita Books.
Durrani, Shiraz (2018): Pia Gama Pinto: Kenya’s Unsung Martyr 1927-1965. Nairobi: Vita Books,
Kiunguyu, Kylie (2017): Kenya’s Asian Community becomes the 44th Ethnic Group. Available at: https://thisisafrica.me/african-identities/kenyas-asian-community-becomes-44th-tribe/. [Accessed: 14-11-2023].
Sicherman C. (1990): Ngugi wa Thiong’o: the making of a rebel: a source book in Kenyan literature and resistance, Hans Zell, Documentary Research in African Literature, London, 1990.
Some Books by Ambu H. Patel
Ambu H. Patel set up the New Kenya Publishers which published his writings and books. This is an incomplete list of his publications which are all now of print.
Ambu H. Patel
New Kenya Publishers
P.O.Box 12336. Nairobi
Badge of Kenyatta.
“Jaramogi” Oginga Odinga: The Iron Man of Kenya. (Profusely illustrated).
Jomo the Great: A short pictorial story of the Great Patriot of Africa.
Ambu H. Patel translated into Gujarati Jomo Kenyatta’s My People of Gikuyu (in 1954-55 – Nazmi Durrani, Liberating Minds ,p.52).
Judgement of Kapenguria. 1953 Court of Kapenguria Trial Judgement.
Life of Jomo Kenyatta: A record of events in the life of our Prime Minister. (Profusely Illustrated).
M.A. Desai: A Brave Fighter for Human Rights for all in East Africa (Illustrated).
Mau Mau Generals: A Pictorial Record of Daring Bush Fighters of Kenya.
Odinga, ‘Jaramogi’ Oginga (1965): Two Months in India. Vice President of Republic of Kenya.
Release Jomo & His Colleagues: poems in Swahili and Kikuyu. (Ambu Patel, Struggle (pp. 228-229).
Struggle for ‘Release Jomo and his Colleagues’. Patel, Ambu H. (Editor). 1963. Nairobi: New Kenya Publishers.
Tom Mboya: the Rising Star of Africa (Profusely Illustrated).
વિનોબા સાથે બાળપણમાં – લેખક બારકોબા ભાવે વિનોબાજીના બચપણના જીવન પ્રસંગો [Vinōbā sāthē bāḷapaṇamāṁ – lēkhaka bārakōbā bhāvē vinōbājīnā bacapaṇanā jīvana prasaṅgō].
Shiraz Durrani is a Kenyan political exile living in London. He has worked at the University of Nairobi as well as various public libraries in Britain where he also lectured at the London Metropolitan University. Shiraz has written many articles and addressed conferences on aspects of Kenyan history and on politics of information in the context of colonialism and imperialism. His books include Kenya’s War of Independence: Mau Mau and its Legacy of Resistance to Colonialism and Imperialism, 1948-1990 (2018, Vita Books). He has also edited Makhan Singh – A Revolutionary Kenyan Trade Unionist (2017, Vita Books) and Pio Gama Pinto: Kenya’s Unsung Martyr,1927 – 1965 (2018, Vita Books). He is a co-editor of The Kenya Socialist. and edited Essays on Pan-Africanism (2022, Vita Books, Nairobi). His latest book (2023) is Two Paths Ahead: The Ideological Struggle between Capitalism and Socialism in Kenya, 1960-1990. Some of his articles are available at https://independent.academia.edu/DurraniShiraz and books at: https://www.africanbookscollective.com/search-results?form.keywords=vita+books