By now you know that Dr. Julius Gikonyo Kiano was the first Kenyan to earn a PhD.
This is not surprising since one of his supervisors said of him: “He is the brightest foreign student California University ever had.”
At California, the bespectacled brainbox with an “intelligent” face dated Coretta Scott, the future wife of American civil rights crusader Dr Martin Luther King Jr, as Dorothy Stephens informs us in her 2006 memoir, Kwa Heri Means Goodbye: Memories of Kenya 1957-1959.
But Coretta ended the relationship after five years, since Gikonyo was “too bright” and “too political” and would return to his country after graduation.
That was how Martin Luther King Jr, later a Nobel Peace laureate and the most significant African-American, saw his chance to tell Coretta, “I love your hair.”
But returning with a doctorate proved challenging in 1956. Dr Kiano couldn’t get a decent job besides marking time at Shell prompting his uncle, Muchoki Gikonyo, to confront Sir Evelyn Baring, the Governor, about the irony of Kiano’s education and “pumping petrol!”
Did you know that was how, at his uncle’s intervention, Dr Kiano became the first African lecturer, teaching political science, at what later became the University of Nairobi?
Racial segregation was rife. Staff quarters were reserved for wazungus, but Dr Kiano and his then African-American wife, Ernestine Hammond, stayed put.
Stephens describes Ernestine as ”outspoken, determined woman who took no nonsense from any one. Tall, heavy-browed, sometimes fierce in her approach to people and problems, she chaffed at the political and social restrictions under which she lived.”
Ernestine also complained about their then low economic status and how Dr Kiano’s extended blood relations sponged on them by way of trying to benefit from his advanced education, visiting their college flat and overstaying their welcome and “Kiano couldn’t chase them.”
Did you also know they couldn’t get an African school for their children, which was how Hospital Hill Primary was founded by the Kianos and uncategorised college staffers for their kids?
Duncan Ndegwa, in Walking in Kenyatta Struggles: My Story, recalls Ernestine embarrassing Dr Kiano after having one too many at the United Kenya Club-where they were the earliest African members.
President Kenyatta couldn’t tolerate her drama queen’s tendencies and got her deported for having “shown herself by act and speech to be disloyal and disaffected toward Kenya” in 1966.
Dr Kiano was the labour minister. Cabinet colleague, Daniel arap Moi, had to sign Ernestine’s deportation orders as Minister for Home Affairs with Parliament even debating the issue of inter-racial marriages!
Dr Kiano later married Jane Mumbi in June 1966. Both were a power couple until he succumbed to heart attack in 2003 aged 77. He was buried at Muranga’s Weithaga ACK Church, where the harambee for his journey to earn the acclaimed PhD had been held when he was a young man.
Ernestine died in California in 2010 aged 84.