Born in Kisii on December 28, 1927, James Miyenda Nyamweya was the fifth child of Pastor Paul Nyamweya and Louise Manyange. His father had another wife, Len Kwamboka. James had seven siblings and three half-siblings.
In the late 1950s, Nyamweya left for the United Kingdom to study law. His daughter, Joyce (a former Permanent Secretary), was about a year old, and his son, George (now a Nominated MP), only two weeks old. When he returned in 1959, the two children could not recognize him.
Joyce remembers her view of her father when he returned: He so closely resembled one of her uncles she thought they were twins! Nyamweya could not bear the thought that the youngest two of his four children could not recognize him. He went to great lengths to change that. For instance, whenever he travelled to Kisumu to do legal work, he took the two with him.
Nyamweya married Tabitha Moige, a daughter of a prominent Seventh Day Adventist Church (SDA) elder, Zachariah Nyaribo of Gesusu, in 1948. They had nine children — Charles Ratemo, Rebecca Moraa, Joyce Bochere, George, Kenyalyn Monyenche, Mary Nyaboke, James Ogendi, Christopher Nyambane and Paul.
Throughout his public life, Nyamweya’s household was under strict instruction to make visitors feel at home, regardless of their station in life. He cautioned his family that an Omugusii man is a proud person and that only serious issues would make him leave his home to seek help from or audience with another man. Therefore, when a person humbled himself and came to Nyamweya’s homestead, they were to be accorded respect.
Nyamweya went to Nyanchwa SDA Primary School and later Kamagambo Mission School, where he excelled and earned reputation as an avid reader. Consequently, he qualified to join Kisii Secondary School. His father, a pioneer pastor of the SDA Church, rejected the colonial missionaries’ appeal for his son to go to a missionary school as part of his progression towards eventual service to God.
For that reason, his father sent him to Kamagambo Secondary School. Unfortunately, however, the missionaries discontinued the secondary school section at the school. But Nyamweya stayed and joined a teacher-training course, after which he taught at Nyanchwa, Sengera, Isecha and Sironga. But he did not give up the desire for higher education. He later enrolled for a correspondence course to pursue secondary education. He passed the Cambridge School Certificate and sat a qualifying examination which allowed him to start law studies.
Once again, the missionaries got wind of his intention to study law, a discipline they considered an affront to the spiritual development of a son with the potential of inheriting his father’s mantle in the Church. For the second time, his father failed to stop the young man’s dream and Nyamweya got admission to Kings College, University of London, for undergraduate studies. In 1958, he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree.
His reputation in Kisii, especially among teachers, grew. At the time, the colonial government followed the subtle policy of stunting African education. The few who joined universities, however, were meant to study only teaching. This explains why the majority of people who joined politics at and before independence were mostly teachers. But Nyamweya had broken two barriers: attaining university education and studying for a profession that had eluded many Africans.
After completing university education, he returned to Kenya when the country was awash with agitation for independence. While studying in Britain, Nyamweya associated with some of the personalities who were to play a significant role before and after independence. They included Munyua Waiyaki and his friends Sam Waruhiu, Jean Seroney and Mathew Guy Muli.
Upon Nyamweya’s return to Kenya, he initially joined a colonial government secretariat offering legal assistance. This helped him expand his political network and allies. Indeed, his close association with Mboya began at that time. He also lived in the same quarters with Seroney at the Senior African Government Officers’ quarters at Lower Kabete, Nairobi, as legal counsel in the colonial government.
Despite their position as public employees, Nyamweya and Seroney secretly engaged in political agitation alongside C.M.G. Argwings-Kodhek and Mareka Gecaga. Nyamweya quit the Civil Service job and opened legal practice at Kisumu. Here, he worked closely with Odinga. When the colonial administration charged Odinga with inciting Africans to rebel against the government, Nyamweya defended him in court.
In his submission during the trial, he detailed the difficulties and intimidation African freedom fighters encountered. Nyamweya argued that the struggle for freedom compelled leaders to speak in terms that the colonial regime misinterpreted as incitement.
But in a manner characteristic of the colonial judicial system, the magistrates contemptuously warned Nyamweya against turning the court into what they alleged to be a platform for agitating African demands. Inevitably, the case attracted enormous publicity, earning the lawyer great admiration and respect among the emerging African leadership. After the landmark case, Nyamweya stepped up political activities in league with other leaders.
Nyamweya was one of the pioneer leaders who helped draft the Kanu constitution. His political profile was so high that, before the 1961 elections, when the whole of ethnic Kisii was a single constituency, politician Lawrence Sagini convened a meeting of elders to request them to vote for Nyamweya as the best candidate from the region. But the elders challenged Sagini to contest, too, since all indications were that he would command a majority vote out of the Mwa clans.
Nyamweya eventually contested the elections alongside Sagini, Thomas Mong’are and Zephaniah Anyieni, among others. The rivalry between the Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists marred the elections, the former supporting Sagini and the latter and other Protestant groups rooting for Nyamweya.
Sagini won because the Catholics were the majority and better organised than the Protestants and the Mwa clans turned out in large numbers. During the elections, Sagini contested on a Kadu ticket and Nyamweya on Kanu’s.
Nyamweya, the son of a pioneer Christian father, was born in a religious home and went to mission schools. He married from the family of a prominent SDA Church elder. His Christian worldview, therefore, defined his political style.
People who worked closely with him recall that he displayed an unusual level of tolerance and forgave those who posed legitimate or unfair challenges in his path to leadership. On one occasion, when Justus Mokamba challenged his election victory and lost the petition, Nyamweya refused to accept compensation from him after the court had awarded him costs. Instead, he asked his opponent to let bygones be bygones. Mokamba was stunned when Nyamweya volunteered to use his influence in Government to secure him a job in the Public Service.
Throughout his political career, he initiated many projects in Nyaribari constituency — building schools, churches and cattle dips. He was the first to introduce harambee (self-help)schools in Kisii so that students did not have to travel all the way to the SDA Mission School at Bugema, Uganda, to seek secondary education. To succeed in this endeavour, Nyamweya embarked on uniting the 13 clans in Nyaribari.
When cynics confronted him, Nyamweya’s nature constrained him from making irrational or ill-considered responses. It was only after he had carefully considered what to say that he answered his critics, in the most accommodating manner possible. For instance, when President Kenyatta received information that some residents were uprooting tea in the belief that the crop was ungodly, he turned to Nyamweya to plead with them to stop it. With his persuasive approach, it did not take long before the problem fizzled out.
A development which teachers in Kisii remember him for was his contribution to the construction of Mwalimu Teachers Hotel and offices in Kisii town. At the time, the local Kenya National Union of Teachers branch had a shortage of offices and wanted to put up a hotel. But it did not have the resources. Nyamweya was the Minister for Labour and the branch officials approached him for advice and help. He advised them to use the salary check-off system to collect the money required. He ensured that the system was authorised. The teachers were thus able to make their dream become reality.
Nyamweya was a trusted member of the Kenyatta Government. Just before the 1963 General Election, constituency boundaries were redrawn and Kisii got more, one of which was Nyaribari. He contested and won on a Kanu ticket, a seat he retained for 16 years. Kenyatta appointed him Assistant Minister for Constitutional Affairs, under minister Mboya.
After a while, Kenyatta promoted Nyamweya to be the Minister of State in charge of External Affairs. He also served as the Leader of Government Business in Parliament.
Politically, these were stormy times for a newly independent country in an international environment characterised by the Cold War. Inevitably, Kenya joined the Non-Aligned Movement, while the Cabinet was divided into two distinct groups — those who supported the West and others who backed the East.
In his characteristic moderate stance, Nyamweya preferred the centrist position. Despite his preference, many of his utterances and acts were rightist, mainly because the largest group of the two, which enjoyed Kenyatta’s ear and confidence, was on the right.
When Nyamweya later moved to the Ministry of Labour, he used his legal background to transform it into one of the best performing at the time. When he took over, many labour laws and regulations needed harmonising — wages, conditions of work, occupational health and hygiene, among others.
These were formative stages when the ministry was developing legal instruments to regulate employment. Nyamweya led discussions aimed at developing a tripartite employment structure and articulated Kenya’s concerns at local and international fora. Working with workers, employers and the Government, he fine-tuned industrial codes for submission to the Attorney-General’s Chambers. These still form the foundation of employment systems in Kenya today.
Industrial training required legal instruments to govern training at the workplace, conditions of apprenticeship and the training levy fund. Since the training levy fund is industry-specific, there were 11 funds. Each industry had to come up with its training levy order, and this called for rigorous legal drafting.
Nyamweya’s intervention and legal briefs helped immensely in the development of comprehensive legal instruments. The work was even more challenging because each industry had unique requirements, demanding separate drafts.
Kenya joined the International Labour Organisation when Nyamweya was the Minister for Labour. Reporting to the ILO how the Government was implementing the agreed recommendations and conventions was part of his portfolio. The country received many benefits from the organisation and, for two years, Kenya chaired the ILO governing body.
At the time of Kenyatta’s death in 1978, Nyamweya was the Minister for Public Works. Apart from Labour and External Affairs, he also served as the Minister for Power and Communications, Minister of State in charge of the Provincial Administration, Constitutional Affairs Assistant Minister and Assistant Minister in the Office of the President. He also served as chairman of the Electoral Boundaries Commission.
Those who worked with Nyamweya describe him as a warm-hearted individual. Despite losing to Sagini in the 1961 elections, for example, his relationship with the politician remained cordial. Their daughters, Joyce and Margaret, who were in the same school, continued to enjoy a ride in any of their fathers’ cars at the end of the term. Sagini’s driver often picked up the boys, and Nyamweya’s the girls when they travelled to Kisii for the school holidays. This close relationship extended to politics. The two consulted first before seeking the views of other Kisii MPs on the best position to take when a major crisis arose in Government.
The list of Nyamweya’s friends who visited his Nairobi and Kisii homes reads like a who-was-who in Kenya. They included Ronald Ngala, George Morara, Koinange, Mboya, Sagini and Ayodo (another friend from his teaching days).
However, tension began to build up in the mid-1960s after the formation of Odinga’s Kenya People’s Union and the assassination of Mboya. Joyce Nyamweya recalls one incident during the April, 1969, school holidays. Mboya paid a surprise visit to their home in Kisii. Ordinarily, he drove beautiful cars and dressed smartly, whether in a suit or in casual wear.
But that morning, he looked different in a ramshackle car. One of his daughters accompanied him. Another strange thing about the visit was that Mboya entered the house through the back door — there was a sense of urgency and secrecy about it all. Mboya and his daughter sat in the dining room and during their consultations, Joyce took them tea. She overheard Mboya remark: “James, this time it is serious.” She noticed that her father paused intentionally to allow her to serve tea before he could respond. Joyce finished her chore and left the room. In July, that year, an assassin shot and killed Mboya on a Nairobi street.
The air of political uncertainty even affected the relationship between Nyamweya and Sagini towards the end of the 1960s. The Nyamweya family also noticed that tensions were beginning to build up between Vice-President Daniel Moi and their patriarch. The sore relations arose from growing speculation that Nyamweya was eyeing the vice-presidency as the Kenyatta succession politics heated up in the 1970s.
One of Nyamweya’s best friends was Simeon Nyachae, then a Provincial Commissioner. He later became the Chief Secretary (Head of the Civil Service) and a Cabinet Minister in the Moi and Kibaki governments. The two were close and when Nyachae was the Rift Valley PC and based in Nakuru, Nyamweya and family never missed an opportunity to stop over for a meal before proceeding to Nairobi or Kisii. But by the time Nyachae moved to Nyeri as Central PC, a rift had started to emerge between the two. However, when Nyachae was Chief Secretary, their friendship was restored.
Another of Nyamweya’s great friends was President Kamuzu Banda of Malawi. When Banda paid Kenya a State visit, he spent a night in Nyamweya’s Kisii home.
In his lifetime, Nyamweya received many awards, titles and honours. Among these was recognition from St Lawrence University Canton, New York, which awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Political Science in 1975. President Kenyatta also decorated him with two of the highest honours — the Elder of the Golden Heart and Member of the Burning Spear, for his distinguished service to the country.
After the return of the multi-party politics in Kenya in 1991, Nyamweya joined hands with Mwai Kibaki — then the Minister for Health in Moi’s Cabinet — to found the Democratic Party (DP). Nyamweya became the party’s national vice-chairman with Kibaki as chairman. Nyamweya led the DP campaign in Kisii during the 1992 elections, which enabled Kibaki to get the highest number of presidential votes in the region. Nyamweya’s son is the current secretary-general of the Democratic Party.
Nyamweya died on September 25, 1995. He was 68.