Kenya’s foremost trade unionist

As we wade through the pandemic-stricken 2020 cutting through May, the month of workers and their welfare, one may wonder just how the creative, diligent, towering and legendary trade unionist, Joseph Thomas Mboya would have handled the ensuing labour anxiety 


Historical accounts captured an incident in 1951 when a European woman in then colonial Kenya walked into an office for service, found an African young man and posed: “Is there anybody here?” to which the cheeky African retorted: “Is there something wrong with your eyes?”

The young African quoted above was Joseph Thomas Mboya, then a Sanitary Inspector at Nairobi City Council. According to David Goldsworthy in his book: Tom Mboya, The Man Kenya Wanted to Forget, “Often enough, Europeans refused to have their premises inspected by Africans”.

Regarding the above incident, Goldsworthy recounts that when the woman returned the next day with a petition that declared its signatories refusal to deal with an African in matters of sanitation, the Chief Sanitary Inspector supported Mboya and asserted that Europeans were required to accept inspection of their premises by any qualified inspector. The council further prosecuted many Europeans for blocking African Inspectors into their premises for inspection.

Ironically though, in Goldsworthy’s account, this was the aspect of the affair from which Mboya drew his principal political moral. The Councils’ liberalism only convinced him of its hypocrisy because even as it defended his right to do the same work as Europeans, it paid him only a fifth as much as it paid Europeans. It also made him wear khaki uniform but not Europeans. It allowed them to use the official car for their rounds but not him.

The young African Sanitary Inspector was deeply disturbed with such work place mischief. In the process, the seeds of trade unionism was awakened and progressively solidified in Thomas Mboya who later played a pioneering role in the establishment and nurturing of work place welfare through trade unions in Kenya and beyond such that most description of him today is dominated with coronations such as  ‘Kenya’s leading trade unionist’ among other colorful references.

Indeed, Mboya attained remarkable milestones in local, continental and international labor movement activities where he climbed to the peak, stayed and shone fighting and defending the welfare of workers.

This seed may have been sowed and engrained in young Mboya at Kilimambogo, near Thika where his father, Leonard Ndiege was a laborer in a Sisal farm belonging to a settler, Sir William McMillan.

Mboya’s early childhood is reported  to have been  spent at the McMillan sisal farm where he occasionally saw an accident at the factory or a European supervisor assaulting laborers. Goldsworthy recounts that by his subsequent account, Mboya ‘began to feel the first childish stirrings of resentment both at Europeans treatment of the men and the men’s own servility.’

This is the spirit that defined his formation such that when he later joined Holy Ghost College, present day Mangu High School, after attending St Mary Yala, Goldsworthy narrates that “the future trade union leader was able to already dispense small favors such as first aid… mediated between boys and masters when there was a strike over school food…yet behind all this conformism and success within the school system, feelings of resentment were beginning to grow. Outwardly, he was pleasant, restrained, pacifist, inwardly, he felt himself a rebel’.

Students Leader

Mboya later joined The Jeans School at Kabete to train as a sanitary inspector. It is during this period that while ‘mixing with so many people, young and old, from so many backgrounds, he discovered in himself, almost overnight, a keen sense of the political. The discounted feelings of his later school days crystallized into sharp awareness of the character of the African grievances and of the structure of European privileges. He began to conceive the whole social order in terms of exploitation and oppression, and went hunting for the factual knowledge that would substantiate his view. He took to slipping down the road to Nairobi to listen to speakers at political meetings and in this way heard Kenyatta himself. He made up his mind that he would work for his people and in particular for the improvement of conditions for African workers and for the education of the African children’, recounts Goldsworthy. This realization pushed the proactive Mboya into action such that within a few months of arrival at the school, he stood for and won the presidency of the student’s.

The sudden triumph placed him in charge of a very powerful body. As President, he was responsible for chairing council meetings, office administration, and accounting, disbursement of resources among the many school clubs, drafting letters and memoranda, organizing debates and general meetings and discussing student’s matters with the School administration. Unfortunately, Mboya later resigned from the coveted position when there was change of management at the school and the new regime wanted to trim the powers of the Council, which he disagreed.

Sanitary Inspector

On graduation from college, Tom was hired by the Nairoibi City Council as a sanitary inspector. The role allowed him to traverse the city and experienced firsthand the contrast in living and working conditions of workers and discriminations like the one recounted in the introductory account of this article.

According to Goldsworthy “at twenty, he was already a politicized man, went to African Union meetings, admired Jomo Kenyatta, absorbed his country’s history, pondered injustice…he was impatient to exercise the abilities which he had began to discover in himself in the meeting rooms, if not the classrooms of Holy Ghost college and the Jean school”. The impatient Mboya could not wait anymore. He immediately joined the Nairobi African Local Government Association (NALGSA). Before long, he became vice president of the association.

On assuming office as the vice president of NALGSA, Goldsworthy  recounts that  Mboya had already made up his mind that his activist career should begin in the field of worker organization ….he was himself a worker among workers….his concern for workers’ conditions of employment went right back to the sisal farm…..those who had seen him in his earlier formal roles as school prefect and student president could not have been surprised then when he began at once to act as if his new office conferred on him all the authority of a fully fledged labor leader.

It is reported that progressively, the volume of Mboya’s staff association workload ballooned where he was immersed in holding sessions of workers issues in his office for long and spent quite some time complaining to management about the welfare of workers besides going in staff membership recruitment drives. His success was however limited since his outfit was just a staff association.

Cognizant of this hiccup, in May 1952, he pushed for constitutional changes in NALGSA so as to get itself more powers and to seek registration under the Trade Union Ordinance. His sterling performance as acting Secretary General of NALGSA could not escape attention. According to Goldsworthy, ‘the labor department was taking considerable notice… a young man of such unusual ability and efficiency…he was invited to become a member of the Labor Advisory Board in the mid 1952’.

Always on the move, Mboya applied for the registration of NALGSA in 1953. However, his department boss and the Nairobi City Council, the Medical officer for health was increasingly unease with his trade union activism and began issuing warnings. In response, Mboya resigned to concentrate on full time basis as a unionist and immediately assumed the full office of secretary general of NALGSA now   registered as Kenya Local Government Workers Union (KLGWU).

Soon thereafter, Mboya took his union to Kenya Federation of Trade Unions (KFRTU), an umbrella workers body that had been formed earlier in 1952 under the leadership of Aggrey Minya of Transport and Allied Workers Union (TAWU).

On attending the first meeting of KFRTU on September 12, 1953, he became acting secretary general when Minya walked out of the meeting in a huff during a heated exchange with members. In the process, ‘No one could fail to be aware of the contrast between the work style of the two men: Minya rambling and emotional. Mboya cool, intelligent, meticulous’, recounts Goldsworthy.

Mboya continued to discharge his duties extremely well in the several subsequent meetings, which Minya boycotted. In October 1953, Aggrey Minya was dismissed and Tom Mboya was installed as the new Secretary General of KFTRU, which would later morph in 1965 into the present day Central Organization of Trade Unions-COTU.

 Mboya’s meteoric rise exhibited his signature characteristics that were to dominate his whole career: clear and systematic intelligence, confidence in himself, capacity to work long hours, ability to acquire useful patrons and friends, the skills at fashioning himself an institutional base; his union the federation and arriving in the right place at the right time. Tom Mboya became the most powerful figure in Kenya Labor movement.

That magical combination of talent, ambition and work ethic gave Mboya an ability to move through the murky waters of the colonial world to get a secondary education, a job as a sanitation officer which introduced him into the world of trade union politics and won landmark union disputes, including the dockworkers union strike of 1955. 

Entry into Politics

Mboya would later plunge into active politics where he played a leading role in the struggle for Kenya’s independence.

In June 1963, he was elected as an MP for Nairobi Central Constituency, present day Kamukunji Constituency and subsequently appointed Labor Minister and later Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs before moving to the Ministry of Economic Planning and National Development. In this role, he wrote the famous Kenyan “Sessional Paper No. 10” on Harambee and the Principles of African Socialism, which provided a model of government based on African values.

 He was prematurely shot dead on dark morning of July 5, 1969 on Nairobi Moi Avenue aged 39.

Childhood and Education

Joseph Tom Mboya was born on August 15,1930 to Leonard Ndiege and Marsella Awour, natives of Rusinga Island in South Nyanza who moved to Kilimabago near Thika to eke a living as laborers for a white settler, Sir William McMillan.

He was educated at various Catholic mission schools including St Mary Seconday School in Yala which he joined in 1942. In 1946, he went to the Holy Ghost College, present day Mangu High School.

 In 1948, Mboya joined Jeans School Kabete in Nairobi for Sanitary Inspectors training and graduated as an inspector in 1950.He went to Ruskin College Oxford in Britain in 1955, where he studied industrial management. 


Besides trade unionism and politics, Mboya was also an active Pan-Africanist. He teamed up with other leading African leaders such Ghana’s Kwame Nkuruma who, like Mboya, was a Pan-Africanist. In 1958, during the All –African People’s Conference in Ghana convened by Kwame Nkurumah, Mboya was elected as the Conference Chairman at the age of 28.


In 1959, together with the African-American Students Foundation in the United States, Mboya organized the Airlift Africa project, through which many Kenyan students including Barack Obama Sr, father to former and first U.S black President Barack Obama were flown to the U.S. to study.  This program later expanded and included students from other African countries too such as Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe. 


Mboya married Pamela in 1962; a daughter of politician Walter Odede. Their children include Maureen Odero, a high court judge and Susan Mboya-Kidero who is married to former Nairobi governor Dr Evans Kidero.  

Tom Mboya in 2020

As we wade through the economically volatile month of May 2020, traditionally the month of workers and their welfare, the month of Labor day on May 1, one may wonder just how this creative worker, diligent servant, committed leader, towering and legendary trade unionist, Joseph Tom Mboya would have handled the prevailing global labor anxiety during this period of COVID 19 despondency.   

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