Tom Mboya, born on August 15, 1930 in Kilimambogo, Kenya on a sisal plantation estate, was a Kenyan nationalist, trade union leader, and government minister. His parents were Luo agricultural workers who, as recently converted Catholics, sent him to mission schools from an early age. By 1947, Mboya was en route to graduation, but because of his father’s modest income he couldn’t afford to complete the final pre-examination course. He decided instead to attend the Royal Sanitary Institute’s medical school which paid for his training and allowed him to support his younger brother’s studies. Mboya began his involvement in labor organizing at the school, where he also became president of the student council and participated in the debating club.
Upon graduating in 1951, Mboya was given sanitary inspection duties in Nairobi. Around the same time, the anticolonial Mau Mau rebellion was erupting and much of Kenya’s trade union and political leadership were detained by British authorities. Mboya resigned from his inspector position in 1953 and began a series of full-time commitments to the growing union movement.
The Kenya Local Government Workers’ Union (KLGWU), which he founded in 1952, expanded membership from 450 to 1,300 within eight months. A year later, Mboya was made secretary-general of the Kenya Federation of Labor (KFL), an organization that had just unified five of Kenya’s major industrial unions. After the Kenya African Union (KAU) was banned, Mboya and the KFL became the major voice for Africans in the colony. Under his leadership, the KFL organized demonstrations against the mass evacuations, detentions, and secret trials of Mau Mau rebels and their supporters by the colonial government.
Mboya’s effective campaigning caught the eye of the British Labour Party which provided him a scholarship to study industrial management at Oxford University between 1955 and 1956. There he was introduced to British socialism and developed connections with British trade unionists and intellectuals.
By the time of Mboya’s return to Kenya in 1956, the Mau Mau rebellion had ended and political parties which represented Africans were now legal. Mboya formed the Nairobi Peoples’ Convention Party (PCP) and won a seat in 1957 to the previously white only Legislative Council (Legco) where he pushed for expanded electoral representation. Mboya eventually secured 14 seats for Africans (representing 6 million Kenyans) alongside 14 settler seats (representing 60,000 Europeans).
In 1960, Mboya was named secretary-general of the influential Kenya African National Union (KANU) and after independence in 1963, he entered government. As minister, first of labor, then economic planning, he pushed for open negotiations and transparent governance, institution building, and a mixed, capitalist economy.
Mboya’s success and plans for continued modernization was cut short in 1969 at the hands of an assassin tied to President Jomo Kenyatta, a former political ally whom he later accused of corruption and graft.