Mama Lena Tungo Moi walked the political scene in Kenya in the 1960s and early 1970s. Her recognition as the spouse of the vice-president. She then fell from the public domain in the mid-seventies. She ‘d been never seen again until her death in 2004.
The breakdown of her marriage in 1974 and separation in 1979 was a devastating loss.Mama Lena had been a devout Christian who was brought up in the strict teachings of the African Inland Church (AIC).
At Eldama Ravine, Lena’s parents, the Paul Bomett family, were founding Christians. They loved Moi, the young, tall, pretty, excellently-mannered orphan boy.
That’s how Moi found himself in the home of Bometts, where he secretly loved Helena, the gorgeous girl with a clean face.
During school holidays Moi found refuge at the Bometts, unable to return home, 160 kilometers away, like the older boys.
He would also stay at the home of Isaiah Chesire’s Christian family, the father of Kanu’s nominated MP, Zipporah Kittony, and former Eldoret North MP, Reuben Chesire.
Moi’s father, Kimoi arap Chebii, died in 1928. Moi was only four at the time, and little is known regarding his mother, Kabon.
Tuitoek , Moi’s Elder Brother
His elder brother, Tuitoek, became his guardian. He was one of the herdsboys from Sacho who joined the new Africa Inland Mission (AIM) School in Kabartonjo in 1934, before moving to Kapsabet.
Mama Lena, born in 1926, was also a student at the AIM School in Eldama Ravine before attending the Tenwek Girls Boarding School in Kericho.
A staunch christian, she became the symbol of educated believers along with her brother William Bomett and sister Dina.
After being introduced to some Christian families in the US, Lena had returned to elementary school to become a teacher and would attend local churches accompanied by Moi. They would each hold the Bible.
It was around this time that Lena began dating Moi, whose promotion to the Tambach headquarters (recommended by the education officer Moses Mudavadi, the father of one of Moi’s vice-presidents, Musalia Mudavadi) brought him into the area of fame, mostly as a teacher and as a cleric.
He married Lena at a ceremony led by Reverend Erik Barnett a year after Moi returned from college at Kagumo Teachers College. Erik Barnett ‘s decision was timely.
While the Barnett family had an influence on Moi ‘s education, Erik’s younger brother, Paul, had baptized Lena — his first missionary mission after returning to Kenya.
He also built the very first residence for Moi. Once Moi was in Tambach, and Paul toured the area setting up schools and churches, he would stay in Moi ‘s place. Friendship was much stronger than that.
In 1907, Erik ‘s father, Albert Barnett, left Australia, claiming that God had sent him to Kenya as a missionary.
Barnett had embarked on a journey to Mombasa and later moved to Lake Baringo, where he lived among the Tugen before settling at Eldama Ravine in what became a kabarnet. The town of Kabarnet is named after him. It says “the place of Barnett”
That started to influence a generation of African Christians whose intense faith devotion was impeccable.
He would stay with the Barnetts in times when Moi was not staying with the Bomett family. This is where the tale of Kapkorios Toroitich Arap Moi and later Lena Moi, Helena Bomett, starts. Expecting to get an education at the Barnetts-run African Inland Mission, Moi had taken off into the mission.
Around 6 am they would wake up, operate in the vegetable gardens, and take gallons of water from the river to the house. They would meet with Barnett’s Swedish friend, Elma, in the afternoon and study statistics. At an early age, the Bometts appointed Moi the Sunday school leader, while they wanted him to take a leading role in the community.
Through 1942 he was the public school captain, with Paul and Erik Barnett as his colleagues — Albert Barnett’s two missionary sons. It was this close connection which saw Erik officiate Moi’s wedding to Lena in 1950 at the AIC mission in Eldama Ravine, after paying two heifers, one ox, and four sheep to the Bomett family.
The maid of honor was Moi’s longstanding associate, Francis Cherogony.
After the union, Lena left her teaching career and absorbed herself in raising her son, living with Moi at Tambach Government School, where his first two daughters, Jennifer and Jonathan Kipkemboi, were born in 1952 and 1953, accordingly.
Even though many of those who came to know Moi in the 1950s assumed he would make a great pastor, Moi preferred to teach more than anything else. Situations took a different turn for Lena in 1955, when her husband was nominated to the Legco to replace the inefficient John Ole Tameno.
Moi purchased a Land Rover and started a posho mill in south Baringo, then spent his initial years of marriage traversing the Rift Valley at the peak of the emergency as the region’s high ranking-most leader.
THROWN INTO THE LIMELIGHT
The peaceful classroom life the pair had expected was lost when Moi relocated to Nairobi with his family out of the school grounds. “He dressed to the nines, instead of the sweat pants and knee socks which had been his teacher’s signature.
He and his family were better fed, eating a richer diet than they ever had before,” wrote Moi’s biographer.
However the political connection between Moi and his in-laws has not always been at its highest. The friction with the Bometts appears to have started in the 1961 referendum when his brother-in-law, Eric Bomett, stood up against him in the National election as an opposition candidate.
It’s never been personal It’s been a matter of ethics, “said Eric instead.
Whereas Eric would join the National assembly on a Kanu ticket as a Specially Elected Member, the day was carried by Moi’s Kadu, dwarfing Kanu in the region.
While Moi was still on the road in pre-independence affairs, Lena became a stay at home mother. She said in an interview in 1967 that it was important for mothers to take care of their children if they were to learn manners.althy.
“She is similarly diligent in caring for her husband who enjoys eating and eats only outside the house when its necessary,” wrote experienced journalist Faraj Dumila, who did the interview.
Yet Moi didn’t want to tell his authorized biographer, Andrew Morton, much about Lena, which led the writer to infer: “The man’s character is obscure … the nightmare of a biographer; pleased to let you come close, but not quite so close.
He perfected the art of deliberate deafness … “But Moi disclosed nothing about his ex-wife. All we know is that Lena was always in attendance, spotting a headscarf or with her Afro hair tied back throughout most of his state functions, particularly after freedom.
There was also the memorable stroll on the Orapa pipe in Botswana in July 1970. This is where the richest diamond deposits in the world had been found.
With almost all of her kids in their twenties, having been born in 1964 with the last-born, Gideon, Lena had careered through public gatherings, holding harambees and helping women’s groups in the Rift Valley.
It was the election of Moi as vp in 1967 that pushed her to the national public eye, and she was going to enjoy six years of popularity. Lena was all over the place.
She moved to Delamere (now Moi) flats in the Milimani region of Nakuru and enrolled her children at St Joseph’s Primary School. Owing to her modesty she was respected by her neighbors.
Golden Heart Medal
At the height of her popularity she got the Order of the Golden Heart medal for her service to the community. President Jomo Kenyatta bestowed it on her on January 1, 1968.
That week, U.S. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey ‘s wife arrived in Nairobi as part of her husband’s “listen-and-learn” Africa tour. Lena was in charge of the government delegation that received Mrs. Humphrey at Embakasi Airport.
Moi would arrive at the airport later to receive Mr Humprey together with then US ambassador to Kenya, Glenn Ferguson.
Moi (and to some degree Lena) was left to fill in the shoes of Kenyatta. In the process, Moi left Lena for politics after the murder of Tom Mboya in 1969.
He purchased the Kabimoi Farm that year, and built a house where Lena lived. Moi was also a scared man. Morton said, “He’d go everywhere, do anything, see anyone, if that was Kenyatta’s desire.”
Such plans, some of which Kenyatta’s associates purposely designed to exhaust him, split his heart. His opponents in Kalenjin, like Jean Marie Seroney, also portrayed him as a sell-out to the Kikuyu.
Moi’s position in politics in Kenya came under severe threat in 1974 from the mandarins around Kenyatta.
His marriage to Lena took a nose-dive, He was fighting for survival and being harassed in the Rift Valley by provincial commissioner Isaiah Mathenge and roads engineer Kim Gatende on behalf of the Kiambu Mafia.
Lena began to slowly vanish from the public arena and little is understood about what else the fractures did. The biographer of Moi cites power, and with Lena there is little about the days of Moi.
This leaves the reader unable to visualize the lady who had eight babies borne to him. Instead, Moi let Lena speak to his family friends.
While Andrew Morton was told that the final split came after Lena openly refused to dance with Kenyatta during a dance dinner at the Rift Valley Technical College, there are archival photos showing that Kenyatta personally danced with Lena and Moi during the event.
In his book, Morton hints that Lena, in fact, insulted Kenyatta when he asked her for the dance. “As an uncompromising Christian (Lena) believed that dancing was sinful, but the insult to the President gravely embarrassed Moi”.
Rev Paul Barnett, who had known both Moi and Lena, was perhaps privy to the couple’s problems.
Lena affirmed that it was for the best that they had parted.”
Lena left the Vice President’s official residence at the Kabarnet Gardens in Nairobi.She moved back to the Kabimoi ranch farm in Baringo.
The school-going children were sent to boarding schools. She immersed herself in rural life from.Lena was attending the local church, joining women’s groups and keeping herself out of the spotlight of the media she had been accustomed to.
According to Morton, Lena ‘s hope was that one day Moi would return to the marriage home once he had been done with politics.
“Even today, she keeps her former husband ‘s room of the house as a shrine. She believes that he will return when he puts aside the cares of the high office.”
Now it is known that its only Jonathan, who stayed with his mother in Kabimoi.Jennifer, Raymond, John Mark, Doris Elizabeth and her twin Philip, Gideon, and June adopted daughter, chose to stay in Nairobi with their father.
Despite this, according to his biographer, “Moi had little joy from his family.
Those who know the family well observe that the President felt disappointed. He felt rather let down by his children with the possible exception of Gideon and June.
Bringing up the children, with their mother absent, took a toll on everyone in the family.
Moi was also fighting to survive politically. The change-the-constitution campaign was started to block him from ascending to the presidency.
Four years after the separation came. Kenyatta died and Moi, thanks to Charles Njonjo and Mwai Kibaki, managed to outwit his political foes to get the job.
By this time, Lena had completely vanished from the limelight. While some people thought this helped Moi to focus on his politics, there was an apparent silence on her whereabouts.
Apart from Gideon and June, his other children did not appear in public when he was president to give him moral support.
In 1979, the divorce was finalised and Lena “was accommodated in Moi’s family”. Interestingly, she was never seen at the weddings of her own children. In 1997 when her father died, Lena was kept in the background during the burial.
After the breakup, Moi and Lena saw less and less of their children.
“This combination of absence and severity led to an inevitable backlash. As adolescents, the boys rebelled against the austere moral code of their father, “wrote Morton, who said that some had to be disciplined by the presidential guards.
That Lena missed the church weddings of her children indicated the divide between her and Moi.
That could explain why in August 1982 why she declined to be evacuated after an attempted coupe.
Moi had ordered several lorries of troops to evacuate her from her farm. But she told the soldiers she had a telephone that was reaching from Kabimoi to heaven.
“The men went inside and removed their caps while she knelt in supplication. As she prayed for the country, for deliverance from the enemy, and for her husband’s protection, a soldier sitting outside… yelled the news that the enemy had been defeated.”
Lena was not about to abandon Kabimoi and this time, Moi had settled at Kabarak near Nakuru town.
The death of Lena in July 2004 caused confusion. At first it was announced that she would be buried in Sacho.
She was laid to rest on the trimmed lawns in front of the imposing bungalow where Moi lived.
In death, Lena was reunited with her husband.
Kenya’s would-be second First Lady had largely gone unnoticed…..