A traditional Kikuyu house similar to that in which Kenyatta would have lived in Nginda.
A member of the Kikuyu people, Kenyatta was born in the village of Nginda. Birth records were not then kept among the Kikuyu, and Kenyatta's date of birth is not known. One biographer, Jules Archer, suggested he was likely born in 1890, although a fuller analysis by Jeremy Murray-Brown suggested a birth circa 1897 or 1898. Kenyatta's father was named Muigai, and his mother Wambui. They lived in a homestead near the
River Thiririka, where they raised crops and bred sheep and goats. Muigai was sufficiently wealthy that he could afford to keep several wives, each living in a separate nyūmba (woman's hut).
Kenyatta was raised according to traditional Kikuyu custom and belief, and was taught the skills needed to herd the family flock. When he was ten, his earlobes were pierced to mark his transition from childhood. Wambui subsequently bore another son, Kongo, shortly before Muigai died. In keeping with Kikuyu tradition, Wambui then married her late husband's younger brother, Ngengi. Kenyatta then took the name of Kamau wa Ngengi ("Kamau, son of Ngengi"). Wambui bore her new husband a son, whom they also named Muigai. Ngengi was harsh and resentful toward the three boys, and Wambui decided to take her youngest son to live with her parental family further north. It was there that she died, and Kenyatta—who was very fond of the younger Muigai—travelled to collect his infant half-brother. Kenyatta then moved in with his grandfather, Kongo wa Magana, and assisted the latter in his role as a traditional healer.
Missionaries have done a lot of good work because it was through the missionary that many of the Kikuyu got their first education... and were able to learn how to read and write ... Also, the medical side of it: the missionary did very well. At the same time I think the missionaries ... did not understand the value of the African custom, and many of them tried to stamp out some of the customs without knowing the part they play in the life of the Kikuyu ... They upset the life of the people.
— Kenyatta, in a BBC interview, 1963
In November 1909, Kenyatta left home and enrolled as a pupil at the Church of Scotland Mission (CSM) at
Thogoto. The missionaries were zealous Christians who believed that bringing Christianity to the indigenous peoples of Eastern Africa was part of Britain's civilising mission. While there, Kenyatta stayed at the small boarding school, where he learnt stories from the Bible, and was taught to read and write in English. He also performed chores for the mission, including washing the dishes and weeding the gardens. He was soon joined at the mission dormitory by his brother Kongo. The longer the pupils stayed, the more they came to resent the patronising way many of the British missionaries treated them.
Kenyatta's academic progress was unremarkable, and in July 1912 he became an apprentice to the mission's carpenter. That year, he professed his dedication to Christianity and began undergoing catechism. In 1913, he underwent the Kikuyu circumcision ritual; the missionaries generally disapproved of this custom, but it was an important aspect of Kikuyu tradition, allowing Kenyatta to be recognised as an adult. Asked to take a Christian name for his upcoming baptism, he first chose both John and Peter after Jesus' apostles. Forced by the missionaries to choose just one, he chose Johnstone, the -stone chosen as a reference to Peter. Accordingly, he was baptised as Johnstone Kamau in August 1914. After his baptism, Kenyatta moved out of the mission dormitory and lived with friends. Having completed his apprenticeship to the carpenter, Kenyatta requested that the mission allow him to be an apprentice stonemason, but they refused. He then requested that the mission recommend him for employment, but the head missionary refused because of an allegation of minor dishonesty.
Kenyatta moved to Thika, where he worked for an engineering firm run by Briton John Cook. In this position, he was tasked with fetching the company wages from a bank in Nairobi, 25 miles away. Kenyatta left the job when he became seriously ill; he recuperated at a friend's house in the Tumutumu Presbyterian mission. At the time, the British Empire was engaged in the First World War, and the British Army had recruited many Kikuyu. One of those who joined was Kongo, who disappeared during the conflict; his family never learned of his fate. Kenyatta did not join the armed forces, and like other Kikuyu he moved to live among the Maasai, who had refused to fight for the British. Kenyatta lived with the family of an aunt who had married a Maasai chief, adopting Maasai customs and wearing Maasai jewellery, including a beaded belt known as kinyata in the Kikuyu language. At some point, he took to calling himself "Kinyata" or "Kenyatta" after this garment.
In 1917, Kenyatta moved to Narok, where he was involved in transporting livestock to Nairobi, before relocating to Nairobi to work in a store selling farming and engineering equipment. In the evenings, he took classes in a church mission school. Several months later he returned to Thika before obtaining employment building houses for the Thogota Mission. He also lived for a time in Dagoretti, where he became a retainer for a local sub-chief, Kioi; in 1919 he assisted Kioi in putting the latter's case in a land dispute before a Nairobi court. Desiring a wife, Kenyatta entered a relationship with Grace Wahu, who had attended the CMS School in Kabete; she initially moved into Kenyatta's family homestead, although she joined Kenyatta in Dagoretti when Ngengi drove her out. On 20 November 1920 she gave birth to Kenyatta's son, Peter Muigui. In October 1920, Kenyatta was called before the Thogota Kirk Session and suspended from taking Holy Communion; the suspension was in response to his drinking and his relations with Wahu out of wedlock. The church insisted that a traditional Kikuyu wedding would be inadequate, and that he must undergo a Christian marriage; this took place on 8 November 1922. Kenyatta had initially refused to cease drinking, but in July 1923 officially renounced alcohol and was allowed to return to Holy Communion.
In April 1922, Kenyatta began working as a stores clerk and meter reader for Cook, who had been appointed water superintendent for Nairobi's municipal council. He earned 250 shillings a month, a particularly high wage for a native African, which brought him financial independence and a growing sense of self-confidence. Kenyatta lived in the Kilimani neighbourhood of Nairobi, although financed the construction of a second home at Dagoretti; he referred to this latter hut as the Kinyata Stores for he used it to hold general provisions for the neighbourhood. He had sufficient funds that he could lend money to European clerks in the offices, and could enjoy the lifestyle offered by Nairobi, which included cinemas, football matches, and imported British fashions.
Kikuyu Central Association: 1922–1929
Kenyatta lobbied against many of the actions of Edward Grigg, Governor of Kenya; in turn, Grigg tried to suppress many of Kenyatta's activities.
Anti-imperialist sentiment was on the rise among both native and Indian communities in Kenya following the Irish War of Independence and the Russian October Revolution. Many indigenous Africans resented having to carry kipande identity certificates at all times, being forbidden from growing coffee, and paying taxes without political representation. Political upheavals occurred in Kikuyuland—the area inhabited largely by the Kikuyu—following World War I, among them the campaigns of Harry Thuku and the
East African Association, resulting in the government massacre of 21 native protesters in March 1922. Kenyatta had not taken part in these events, perhaps so as not to disrupt his lucrative employment prospects.
Kenyatta's interest in politics stemmed from his friendship with James Beauttah, a senior figure in the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Beauttah took Kenyatta to a political meeting in Pumwani, although this led to no firm involvement at the time. In either 1925 or early 1926, Beauttah moved to Uganda, although remained in contact with Kenyatta. When the KCA wrote to Beauttah and asked him to travel to London as their representative, he declined, but recommended that Kenyatta—who had a good command of English—go in his place. Kenyatta accepted, probably on the condition that the Association matched his pre-existing wage. He thus became the group's secretary.
It is likely that the KCA purchased a motorbike for Kenyatta, which he used to travel around Kikuyuland and neighbouring areas inhabited by the Meru and Embu, helping to establish new KCA branches. In February 1928, he was part of a KCA party that visited Government House in Nairobi to give evidence in front of the Hilton Young Commission, which was then considering a federation between Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika. In June, he was part of a KCA team which appeared before a select committee of the Kenyan Legislative Council to express concerns about the recent introduction of Land Boards. Introduced by the British Governor of Kenya, Edward Grigg, these Land Boards would hold all land in native reserves in trust for each tribal group. Both the KCA and the
Kikuyu Association opposed these Land Boards, which treated Kikuyu land as collectively-owned rather than recognising individual Kikuyu land ownership. Also in February, his daughter, Wambui Margaret, was born.
By this point he was increasingly using the name "Kenyatta", which had a more African appearance than "Johnstone".
In May 1928, the KCA launched a Kikuyu-language magazine, Muĩgwithania (roughly translated as "The Reconciler" or "The Unifier"), in which it published news, articles, and homilies. Its purpose was to help unify the Kikuyu and raise funds for the KCA. Kenyatta was listed as the publication's editor, although Murray-Brown suggested that he was not the guiding hand behind it and that his duties were largely confined to translating into Kikuyu. Aware that Thuku had been exiled for his activism, Kenyatta's took a cautious approach to campaigning, and in Muĩgwithania he expressed support for the churches, district commissioners, and chiefs. He also praised the British Empire, stating that: "The first thing [about the Empire] is that all people are governed justly, big or small – equally. The second thing is that nobody is regarded as a slave, everyone is free to do what he or she likes without being hindered." This did not prevent Grigg from writing to the authorities in London requesting permission to shut the magazine down.