Kenya: Tom Mboya Era Revisited in 'The Airlift Orphan' Novel

22 August 2021

In the 1950s and early 1960s, numerous bright young people left Kenya to go and study in the US. This was through the efforts of Tom Mboya, a trade unionist and politician who foresaw that Kenya would need a crop of well-educated people to take over positions formerly held by colonial administrators who were leaving, with independence imminent.

Most of those who travelled west came back and took up jobs left by the British colonisers. However, some did not return. The airlift is what inspired Marjory Kimani's latest novel, The Airlift Orphan.

Kendi, the main character in this story, is the daughter of a man who left his pregnant lover behind and failed to come back. Bundi leaves in the Mboya/Kennedy airlift, gets a job in America and even marries a white woman there.

Neema, his Kenyan girlfriend, gives birth to Kendi and struggles to raise and educate the girl. She gets a job in Mwambi Primary School as a storekeeper and head of catering and she tries as much as possible to make the lives of both her and her daughter comfortable. In fact, she is almost married to her job.

Kendi has an intense desire to know her father, but to her mother this is a closed chapter. It causes her a lot of anguish and she does not want to pass it to her daughter. When Kendi becomes insistent as she grows to maturity, her mother finally reveals the painful story of how she was betrayed by Bundi.

Neema tells her daughter that after the betrayal, she vowed never to get into a relationship with another man. She tries to persuade her daughter to forget the father issue, but Kendi just can't. Kendi is very intelligent and she blazes through school with A grades. Everything is going fine in her life, until she completes secondary school.

Kendi goes to university and a lecturer who knew the family adopts her as a father figure. She graduates and goes overseas to further her studies, and when she gets back to Kenya she lands a plum job. But the curiosity to know her father is as present as ever.

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