All summer long, we had waited and talked about the day Jomo Kenyatta would be freed after nine years of detention by the British. At this time, 1961, Kenya had not yet achieved independence, but it was generally felt that when independence came, Kenyatta would be the first prime minister.
The day of his release would be a day of frenzied celebration, of spectacle and pageantry and ritual.
Kenyatta had been detained as "a leader to darkness and death" in one of Africa's bloodiest struggles for freedom, the Mau Mau rebellion. Although he was the recognized leader of Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu, Kenyatta denied he was responsible for the terrorism, and historians still dispute his role. He led his country to independence from Great Britain in 1963 and became president of Kenya from 1963 until his death Monday night.
But in the golden summer of 1961, we spent the nights in our sleeping bags in chilly August, the Ngong Hills on one side and Mount Kenya on the other. It was the summer I met Kenyetta, the summer I unpacked the dishes for his wives on the day he picked up his great walking stick and ruby ring and strode to freedom.
I was in Kenya as part of Operation Crossroads, a private, voluntary organization Edward R. Murrow once called "the pilot project for the Peace Corps." Begun by the Rev. James H. Robinson, Crosscroads takes American and Canadian students to Africa during their summer vacations to do manual labor with their African counterparts.
Fresh out of Columbia University, I was one of 17 Crossroads American cans in Kenya. We built a road leading to Dr. Mungai Ngorge's new clinic (actually, it was a long driveway), terraced land for showing films on health and worked on a YMCA project at Lake Naivasha.
As the first contingent in Kenya, we found ourselves being courted by competing political parties, only to be disowned by them when we were called CIA agents by the press which misunderstood our work projects.
As we rode back and forth on lorries into Nairobi from our campsite eight miles out of town, we watched Kenya's landscape unfold - majestic mountains, gentle slopes and fertile valleys could all be glimpsed within a 20-minute ride. Zebra pairs gently pressed the air, giraffe cantered in the distance.
Sometimes at night, we sat around the campfire at sang 'Sisi Twasadiana," a song our African counterparts taught us, which meant. "Let's help each other" and was about sending Kenyatta to get freedom.
"Uhuru" is he Swabili word for "freedom," and in the minds of most of the Kenyans, "freedom" and "Kenyatta" were one and the same.
That is why when we crossroaders heard that Kenyatta would be released from detention to go to his home at Gatumdu, some of us began plotting to be on hand.
"We'll do anything," we wailed to our leader, Dr. Cochran of Atlanta University. "But we have to go to Gatumdau."
Finally the, invitation came, wheedled through Dr. Njoroge who had befriended us Crossroaders when the Kenyan press used us for Dartboards.
Emily Schrader of Minnepolis and I were the lucky pair selected to go. Emily was from Radcliffe, tall, blond, funny and friendly. In Operation Crossroads' spirit of work we were told we would be expected to work at the compound. We would help unpack the dishes of Kenyatta's three wives. His English wife, Edna May Clarke, was not there. Two of his Kenyan wives organized the unpacking, surrounded by dozens of buzzing helpers in the modest frame house on a hill.
The British did not specify the exact day Kenyatta would be released, so Kenyans, particularly Kenyatta's own tribe, the Kikuyu, started gathering three days before his actual release.
His new house of Gatundu, 15 miles from the capital of Nairobi was surrounded by a large compound and the countryside was not populous. Nevertheless the road leading up to Kenyatta's house was thronged with people three-deep, anxious not to miss the moment when the Land Rover bearing Kenyatta climbed the final dusty hill to his house.
Women with babies and children of all ages waited as the gentle morning sun grew balmy by midday, and leaving them chiled as the sun set. The stars shimmered as though transparent.
Then, on the morning of the forth day, the drum massage was triumphant. "Mzee (old man) was on his stay home."
Dancing broke out. The women began their chants of welcome. Deep guttural sounds that escalated to a high-pitched, shrill cry follwed by grunting noises. There were the long "ehs". Songs were accompanied by a rhythmic dipping of the knees and a beckoning motion of the arms.
Many of the women were lean and slightly stooped, for the women of West Africa who carried everything but their babies on their heads.
Emily and I were already inside the compound and knew from the sudden commotion outside that Kenyatta must be on his way. Under the watchful eye of the women, we hastened through out job of unpacking china in Kenyatta's new home.
Inside the compound were the favored few - relatives, friends, close political associates.
Finally, the police ear bearing Kenyatta drew near and the frenzy was complete.
He steeped out wearing simple pants and a belted leather jacket, his eyes above his graying beard crinkling with pleasure. He carried a camera and ceremonal fly whisk. It was the beginning of a difficult path, uniting the discordant Kenyans, and leading them to independence, so there was not, as I remember, a long speech. It was a simple day of home-coming.
Kenyatta's voice was raspy as he spoke the word that would be his motto in the days ahead. "Harambee" (Let's pull together")
Then "Mzee" wlked around the grounds, striding boldly, his large, gapped front teeth bared, his dark eyes ablaze. He greeted relatives, supporters, politicians - and a couple of bug-eyed Crossroaders.
Like the other Crossroaders from Radcliffe and Harvard, Emily had studied Swahili the preceeding winter so she exchanged several phrases with Kenyatta.
When he grasped my hand, I murmured the simple greeting, "Jambo" in Swahili and he tossed it back at me like a gentle gift.
Often upon meeting famous figures, you are left with a sense of disappointment. Watching Kenyatta that day at the launching pad of his destiny. I sensed the tension of his contradictions - he seemed gentle yet tyrannical, kindly yet cunning, with briliance and courage the only constants, then he moved on.