In the 1960s and early 1970s, Lena Tungo Moi strode Kenya’s political scene with her visibility as the vice-president’s wife. Then in the middle of the 1970s, she faded away from the public arena never to be heard of again until her death in 2004.
The collapse of her marriage in 1974 and divorce in 1979 was a bitter blow to the ardent Christian who had been raised under strict African Inland Church (AIC) doctrines.
Lena’s parents, the Paul Bomett family, were pioneer Christians in Eldama Ravine. They respected Moi, the young, tall, handsome and well-mannered orphan boy.That is how Moi found himself inthe Bometts’ home, where he silently admired Helena, the beautiful girl with a round face. It was at the Bometts’ that Moi sought shelter during school holidays, unable to return home, 160 kilometres away, like the older boys.He would also stay at the home of the Christian family of Isaiah Chesire, the father of Kanu’s nominated MP, Zipporah Kittony,and former Eldoret North MP, Reuben Chesire. Moi’s father, Kimoi arap Chebii, had died in 1928. Moi was only four then and little is known about his mother, Kabon.
ELDER BROTHER BECAME GUARDIAN
What is known is that his elder brother, Tuitoek, became his guardian and that he was one of the herdsboys from Sacho location recommended to join the new Africa Inland Mission (AIM) School at Kabartonjo in 1934 before it was shifted to Kapsabet.
Lena, born in 1926, was also a student at the AIM School in Eldama Ravine before she joined Tenwek Girls’ Boarding School in Kericho. A devout Christian, she, together with her brother William Bomett and sister Dina, became the face of educated converts.
After exposure in the US with some Christian families, Lena had returned to become a primary school teacher and would visit local churches accompanied by Moi. They would each carry a Bible. “She was an iron lady but with a great sense of humour,” recalled Paul Chemirchir in Moi’s biography, The Making of An African Statesman, by Andrew Morton. It was during this period that Lena started dating Moi, whose promotion to principal at Tambach (he was recommended by education officer Moses Mudavadi, the father of one of Moi’s vice-presidents, Musalia Mudavadi) shoved him into stardom in the region, first as a teacher, then as a preacher.
A year after Moi returned from training at Kagumo Teachers College, he married Lena in a ceremony conducted by the Reverend Erik Barnett. The choice of Erik Barnett was apt. Whereas the Barnett family was instrumental in Moi’s education, Erik’s younger brother, Paul, had baptised Lena — his first duty after returning to Kenya as a missionary.
He also built Moi’s first house. Again, while Moi was in Tambach, and as Paul was going through the region opening churches and schools, he would sleep at Moi’s house.The relationship was much deeper than that. Erik’s father, Albert Barnett, had left Australia in 1907, believing that God had called him as a missionary to Kenya. Then a bachelor, Barnett had boarded a steamship to Mombasa and travelled towards Lake Baringo, where he lived among the Tugen in what is today Kabarnet before settling at Eldama Ravine. Kabarnet town is named after him. It means “the place of Barnett”.
INTENSE DEVOTION TO CHRISTIANITY
This started influencing a generation of African Christians whose intense devotion to the faith was impeccable. With his wife Elma, they built a mission station at Eldama Ravine where a large number of missionary families started converting locals into the faith.
At times when Moi was not staying with the Bomett family, he would stay with the Barnetts. It is here that the story of Kapkorios Toroitich arap Moi and Helena Bomett, later Lena Moi, started. Moi had taken off to the mission hoping to get an education at the Barnetts-run African Inland Mission.
They would wake up at 6am, work in the vegetable gardens and haul gallons of water from the river to the station. In the afternoon, they would sit with Barnett’s Swedish wife, Elma, to learn numbers.The Bometts made Moi the Sunday school teacher at an early age as they encouraged him to take a leadership role in the church. By 1942, he was the school captain of the government school, with Paul and Erik Barnett as his peers — the two missionary sons of Albert Barnett.It is this close relationship that saw Erik officiate the wedding ofMoi to Lena in 1950 at the AIC mission in Eldama Ravine after he paid two heifers, one ox, and four sheep to the Bomett family. Moi’s long-time friend, Francis Cherogony, was the best man.
With the marriage, Lena abandoned her career as a teacher and immersed herself into bringing up her family, settling down with Moi at Tambach Government School, where his first two children, Jennifer and Jonathan Kipkemboi, were born in 1952 and 1953, respectively.
Although most of those who knew Moi in the 1950s thought he would make an excellent preacher, Moi liked teaching more than anything else. Things took a new twist for Lena in 1955, when her husband was appointed to the Legco to replace the inefficient John ole Tameno. Moi bought a Land Rover and opened a posho mill in south Baringo, then started spending his early years of marriage crisscrossing the Rift Valley as the region’s senior-most politician at the height of the emergency.
QUIET TEACHING LIFE
The quiet teaching life that the couple had anticipated was gone as Moi moved out of the school compound with his family for Nairobi. “He now dressed in suits and ties rather than the shorts and long socks that had been his trademark as a teacher. He and his family were better fed, eating a richer diet than they ever had before,” wrote Moi’s biographer.
But Moi’s political relationship with his in-laws was not always at its best. The fallout with the Bometts appeared to have started in the 1961 election when his brother-in-law, Eric Bomett, stood against him as an independent candidate in the General Election. It was not personal. It was a matter of principle,” Eric would later say. Although Eric would enter Parliament as a Specially Elected Member on a Kanu ticket, it was Moi’s Kadu that carried the day, eclipsing Kanu in the region.
As Moi was on the move in the pre-independence politics, Lena became a housewife. In an interview in 1967, she said it was necessary that the children were cared for by their own mothers if they were to grow up mentally and physically healthy.
“She is equally assiduous about looking after her husband, who enjoys her cooking and only eats outside the home when he has to,” veteran journalist Faraj Dumila, who conducted the interview, wrote. Moi would also remark: “I owe her much of my success in the service of my people and my country. She has always been an encouraging factor in all aspects of my political life.”
But Moi chose not to say much about Lena to his official biographer, Andrew Morton, leading the writer to conclude: “The character of the man is elusive… a biographer’s nightmare; happy to let you near, but not so close. He has mastered the art of selective deafness…” Thus, Moi reveals nothing about his ex-wife. What we know is that in most of his public functions, especially after independence, Lena was always in tow, spotting a headscarf or with her Afro hair pulled back.
There was also the romantic walk in July 1970 on the Orapa pipe in Botswana, where the world’s richest diamond mines had been discovered. With most of her children in their teens, with the last-born, Gideon, having been born in 1964, Lena had ploughed herself into public meetings, conducting harambees and supporting women’s groups in the Rift Valley.
But it was Moi’s appointment as vice-president in 1967 that brought her to national limelight, and she was to enjoy six years of fame. Lena was everywhere. She shifted to Nakuru’s Delamere (now Moi) Flats in Milimani area and enrolled her children at St Joseph’s Primary School. She was loved by her neighbours due to her humility.
At the height of her popularity, President Jomo Kenyatta bestowed on her on January 1, 1968, the Order of the Golden Heart medal for her service to the community. That week, when the wife of the US vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, arrived in Nairobi as part of her husband’s “listen-and-learn” Africa tour, Lena led the government delegation that received Mrs Humphrey at the Embakasi Airport, although she held no government position. Moi would arrive at the airport later to receive Mr Humprey together with then US ambassador to Kenya, Glenn Ferguson.
With Kenyatta suffering a heart-attack in 1969, Moi (and to an extent Lena) were left to fill in for official engagements. In the mix, Moi abandoned Lena for politics, which was fast-moving and dangerously so after Tom Mboya’s assassination in 1969. It was in this year that he boughtthe Kabimoi Farm and built a house where Lena settled. Moi was also a frightened man. “He would travel anywhere, do anything, see anybody, if that was Kenyatta’s wish,” wrote Morton.
These schedules, some of them deliberately crafted by Kenyatta allies to tire him, broke his family. He was also portrayed by his Kalenjin rivals, the likes of Jean Marie Seroney, as a sell-out to the Kikuyu. In 1974, Moi’s place in Kenya’s politics came under severe threat from the mandarins surrounding Kenyatta. As he was fighting for survival and getting harassed in the Rift Valley by provincial commissioner Isaiah Mathenge and roads engineer Kim Gatende on behalf of the Kiambu mafia, his marriage to Lena took a nose-dive.
Lena started disappearing slowly from the public arena and little is known on what else caused the cracks. Moi’s biographer blames politics, and there is little about Moi’s days with Lena. It leaves the reader unable to have a glimpse of the woman who bore him eight children. Instead, Moi let family friends speak of Lena.
PUBLICLY REFUSED TO DANCE WITH KENYATTA
Although they told Andrew Morton that the final breakup came after Lena publicly refused to dance with Kenyatta during a dinner dance at the Rift Valley Technical College, there are archival pictures to show that indeed, Kenyatta danced with Lena and Moi danced with Mama Ngina during that 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. He was the only one who agreed to be quoted talking of Lena and the breakup, but only saying: “It was for the best that they parted.” Lena left the vice-president’s official residence at Nairobi’s Kabarnet Gardens and retreated to the couple’s Kabimoi ranch farm in Baringo. The school-going children were sent to boarding schools. From here, she immersed herself into rural life, attending the local church, joining women’s groups, and keeping out of the glare of the media that she had become used to.
With Moi settling elsewhere with their children, Lena’s hope, according to Morton, was that Moi would return one day to the matrimonial home once he was done with politics. He wrote: “Even today she keeps a room of the house as a shrine to her former husband, believing that when he sets aside the cares of high office, he will return…”
It is now known that apart from Jonathan, who lived in Kabimoi with his mother, the others — Jennifer, Raymond, John Mark, Doris Elizabeth and her twin Philip, Gideon, and adopted daughter June, opted to stay with their father in Nairobi.
LITTLE JOY FROM HIS FAMILY
Despite this, according to his biographer, “Moi had little joy from his family… Those who know the family well observe that with the possible exception of Gideon and June, the President felt disappointed and rather let down by his children.”
Bringing up the children, with their mother absent, took a toll on everyone in the family. Moi was also fighting to survive politically as the change-the-constitution campaign was started to block him from ascending to the presidency.
Four years after the separation, 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.
Moi was frustrated that 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 sternness produced the inevitable backlash, and as adolescents, the boys rebelled against their father’s austere moral code,” wrote Morton, who says 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, when rebel soldiers from the Airforce announced that they had deposed the president, an attempt by Moi’s bodyguards to evacuate her from Kabimoi to a secure place was met with a solid “No”. Moi had ordered several lorry loads of troops to her farm to evacuate her, but she told the soldiers that she had a telephone that reached 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, andfor 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. But this was shifted to Kabarak, where she was laid to rest on the trimmed lawns in front of the imposing bungalow where Moi lives. In death, Lena was reunited with her husband. Kenya’s would-be second First Lady had largely gone unnoticed…..
RIP Helena Moi