US college humbled Uhuru Kenyatta


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A quiet, reserved but attentive student. That is how classmates and professors of Uhuru Kenyatta remember him during his time as a university student in the United States more than three decades ago, multiple interviews with his classmates and lecturers show.

Mr Kenyatta attended Amherst College, a prestigious private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, from 1981 to 1985 and graduated with a degree in political science and economics.

What emerged from the Sunday Nation’s interviews is a sketch of a young reticent student perhaps painfully coming to terms with the spectre of overt racism in America where his privileged upbringing back home, perhaps, counted for little.

Mr Kenyatta’s name appears in 1985’s Olio, the college’s official yearbook which highlights key academic and sporting accomplishments during the academic year and contains the roll of students who graduated in that year.

Author Donald Loring Brown, 79, who started university education in his late 40s at Amherst, said he knew Mr Kenyatta as part of the group of black students who kept to themselves most of the time.

He said he met Mr Kenyatta in 1984. “He was kind of shy, but very kind. He was a good student. I cannot say he was popular but the people who knew him liked him. Black students weren’t favoured. They banded together, ate together. I ate meals with them four or five times a week. I first met him in a dining hall with other students,” he said.

He said Mr Kenyatta and him briefly worked at an art museum in college to earn extra pocket money. “It was then that we talked about his family and that is when I realised he was the son of a former president,” he said.

After Amherst, Mr Brown went to Harvard University to study law and met young Barack Obama who encouraged him to pursue his desire to go and teach in Africa. “I wrote to Uhuru about coming to Nairobi but I never got a reply,” he said.

Shubha Ghosh, a professor of law at Syracuse University, said though he was a year ahead of Mr Kenyatta, he often interacted with black students but had minimal contacts with Kenya’s future president.

“I remember that he used to stay in Pratt, a dormitory for first years,” said Prof Ghosh. “I had Ghanaian friends over there, but I don’t remember meeting him specifically during my visits.”
He said Amherst of the 1980s was not a diverse place.

“It was closeted and students were pampered. People weren’t that sensitive about other people’s cultures or sexual differences,” he said.

Amherst is a premium institution that attracts the sons and daughters of who-is-who from around the world. In 1981, the year Mr Kenyatta joined, Albert Grimaldi, later to be crowned Prince Albert II of Monaco, was graduating with a degree in political science and economics.

“It was a small college with interesting people,” said Fredrick Shepherd, a classmate of Mr Kenyatta’s.

“I didn’t know that his father was a president until much later. He was quite unassuming and never played up those connections. But that was Amherst: the person who sat next to you was related to world events in ways you did not even imagine,” he said.

Mr Shepherd said that at one point during his studies he lived in the same dormitory with Mr Kenyatta and bumped into each other often at the hallway, but we were never close. “He was friendly but a little bit aloof,” he said.

He said that at the time, there was a lot of noise about fraternities that did not allow black students to join. “This was a suburban white college for the wealthy and they looked down upon other people different from them,” he said.

Founded in 1821, the Amherst of Mr Kenyatta’s time was still steeped in the racial and sexist tones of the time. The college started admitting female students in 1975 but was still a formidably challenging place to be as a minority.

“I am sorry to say I have very few memories of my time at Amherst,” said Naomi Aberly, who does not also remember much about his quiet classmate.

Phylis Golden, another of Mr Kenyatta’s classmates, remembers Black students keeping to their own company. “As I remember, most African students lived together on campus at Charles Drew House.  Two or three football players (black) had bridged both worlds but mostly it remained segregated along racial lines. There was no support system for “different” students,” she said.

Steve Mead, who was in the same politics class as Mr Kenyatta, said that they enjoyed a nodding relationship. “We just said hello to each in passing.  At one point, he was my neighbour in campus when I was looking for a place to stay.  The only thing I remember about him is that he was very quiet, but a nice guy. He had his own company.”

Ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya in November 2015, a delegation from the US Congress paid a courtesy visit to President Kenyatta at State House.

Among them was Christopher Coons, the senator from Delaware, and another of Mr Kenyatta’s economics classmates.

Senator Coons, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations sub-committee on Africa, gave their graduation  commencement speech and spoke of the “insensitive and hostile environment which perpetuates racism on this campus.”

In the lead-up to the graduation, nearly 200 black, female as well as gay students had launched protests and even barricaded the office of university president Peter Pouncey demanding an end to discriminatory policies.

 Senator Coons had not responded to our requests for a comment by the time of going to press. But, in his speech, he added: “While Amherst has been a difficult place for some, it has been a privilege to all to go here.”

Brian Pearce, who was in the same politics class with Mr Kenyatta and who now works at the US department of justice, said he doesn’t remember him much but was close to Jide Zeitlin, one of the few black students to bridge the white-black divide. 

Adopted as a boy by a white couple working in Nigeria, Zeitlin went on to achieve business success and was an executive of the investment arm of Goldman Sachs bank for long. He is currently a trustee of Amherst.

“Jide wasn’t really fraternising with African students that much because he had been Americanised,” said Mr Pearce.

Other former classmates in high-profile careers include Ms Wei Sun Christianson, managing director of Morgan Stanley bank in Asia.

Others include Hajime Hayashi and Dr Mian Asad Hayaud Din, both senior officials in ministries of foreign affairs of the governments of Japan and Pakistan respectively.

Mr Kenyatta was probably influenced to join Amherst by his cousin Ngengi Muigai who graduated from the college in 1969 with a degree in economics. Ngengi succeeded President Jomo Kenyatta as Gatundu MP in 1979 following his death the previous year.

The two cousins had a bitter falling out in 1997 when Ngengi supported Moses Muihia over Mr Kenyatta for the Gatundu South seat.  Mr Muihia won by a landslide.

Many of his professors who are still at Amherst declined to comment because of the student-teacher confidentiality. Mr Austin Sarat, the associate dean of faculty and professor of political science, told the Sunday Nation in an email: “Sorry, but I can’t help you,” when we requested him for comment.

George Kateb, the emeritus professor of political science at Princeton University and Uhuru’s lecturer of history, said: “I have faint recollections of him – it’s been a long time ago.  But I recall a reserved and attentive student in a large class.”

Prof Frank Westhoff, who taught Mr Kenyatta micro-economics but has since retired, also said that he could not give a fair appraisal of his former student after so long.

Kipchumba Some is graduate student, Columbia Journalism School, the United States.

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