Kenyan statesman with a Stanford MD

The nation's prognosis is excellent, he says

Karen Ande


Mention the name of Stanford medical alumnus Njoroge Mungai, MD, to a Kenyan taxi driver or shopkeeper, and the eyes light up.

Some call him “one of the last of the freedom fighters,” for Mungai took part in the movement to free the East African nation from British rule in the early 1960s and was part of the government’s inner circle in the first decades of independence. Many place Mungai among modern Kenya’s greatest leaders.

“He’s the guy who is responsible for keeping Kenya on a safe path when all around us was falling down — like Somalia, Sudan and Uganda,” recalls Colin Forbes, MD, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Nairobi whom Mungai recruited to Kenya some 40 years ago. “He had a dynamism about him that was typical of the Americans of the ’60s.”

Today, Mungai, 79, lives in semi-retirement on the outskirts of Nairobi, where he grows roses for export on his 45-acre farm. His home — a two-story red brick and stone structure with a three-car garage — rises up at the end of a long, dusty road. A full-size, stuffed lion, flanked by cheetah- and leopard-skin rugs, greets visitors in the foyer. Mungai arrives from a side door, his cane tapping on the floor. The cane’s for a bum hip, he says.

Medicine and politics

He’s an elegant, slender man, dressed in a gray wool suit and striped tie and wearing black metal-rimmed glasses. In typical Kenyan style, he eschews all serious questions until his guests have something to drink — orange, pineapple and apple juice, served on a veranda that overlooks a vast open field and the greenhouses that supply his business, Magana Flowers. (Magana is his rarely used first name, Njoroge, his middle name.)

Mungai, Stanford medical school class of 1957, is believed to be the first American-trained physician in Kenya. He has fond memories of Stanford, where he was the only black in his medical school class of 60 students and one of few blacks in Stanford’s entire undergraduate program, from which he graduated in 1952 with a degree in biology.

“I learned many things at Stanford,” he says, soft-spoken but deliberate in his speech. “I learned medicine at Stanford. I learned politics at Stanford. And I learned mixing with all kinds of people — communicating with people from various parts of the world.”

His Stanford training prepared him to serve as Kenya’s minister of health and housing, overseeing the establishment of a health infrastructure in the country. Later, he led the ministries of defense and internal security, foreign affairs, and environment and natural resources.

Mungai is from a distinguished Kenyan family; he is the first cousin of the late Jomo Kenyatta, a leader of the Mau Mau rebellion and Kenya’s legendary first president.

Still, Mungai came from humble roots. His father was a cook at the local Presbyterian mission in Nairobi and later opened a general merchandise store. Mungai’s parents encouraged him and his five siblings to get an education; because the young Mungai could read and write, he started doing odd jobs at the local hospital after being treated there for a leg infection.

The journey starts

After high school, he wanted to study medicine in the United States but couldn’t get a passport from the British colonial authorities. So he went to South Africa, where he got his degree in hygiene from the University of South Africa. Still determined to go to medical school, he left for London and from there made his way to the United States on borrowed funds. He arrived in San Francisco with 3 cents.

After a year as a Stanford undergraduate, when he completed the pre-med requirements, he entered medical school on scholarship. He was well-respected among his peers, who recognized that he was not your ordinary medical student, says classmate Al Hackel, MD, an emeritus professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics at Stanford who would later room with Mungai during their internships at New York’s Kings County Hospital. Mungai specialized in internal medicine.

“He was different — very mature. He was a little older, and he knew how to have a smile and laugh. We knew he was someone special, and we took good care of him,” Hackel says. “He was a very friendly, bright man who obviously had a different future than the rest of us.”

While Mungai was in California, there was trouble brewing back home, as the insurgent group known as the Mau Mau was engaged in what would become a bloody fight for Kenya’s independence. As a student, Mungai says he used to go to Berkeley and other cities around the United States countering the widespread British propaganda about the Mau Mau through talks and demonstrations. After his training, he returned to Kenya at the height of the conflict.

“Kenya was in a state of emergency, and I couldn’t just be a doctor in a place where you have an emergency. You had no say, no control,” he says.

So he joined the political fray. “If you have to get independence, you have to soil your hands, dirty your hands in politics,” he says. “It’s not very clean, but you have to do it if you are going to get anything.”

He became secretary to the Kenya African National Union, which was launched in 1960. It served as the country’s ruling party for the next 40 years. He also traveled to Britain in 1960 to take part in drafting the country’s new constitution, the same document that is the source of much political strife in Kenya today.

Mungai served as the personal physician to Kenyatta, who was imprisoned by the British for seven years for his political activities. Mungai visited Kenyatta during his time in prison, where he found him to be suffering from malnutrition; Kenyatta recovered after his release.

Top doc

Mungai’s connection to Kenyatta pulled him into politics. When Kenya declared independence in December 1963, the new president tapped him for the health minister post.

At the time, few Kenyans had access to health care as most hospitals were mission hospitals located in major cities, he wrote in a 1964 article in Stanford MD, the medical school’s alumni magazine at that time. So he set about establishing a national system of government-run hospitals in the country’s 74 local districts — a system that continues to this day.

Before becoming health minister, he also worked with private interests to build a clinic and maternity hospital in Thika, as well as a clinic in Riruta, both near Nairobi. To help counter the country’s serious shortage of doctors, Mungai looked to the West for a partner to help him start Kenya’s first medical school, at the University of Nairobi. He approached Stanford, among others, and ended up inking an agreement with the medical school at McGill University in Montreal, which supplied some 50 faculty members to teach at the new African school. The medical school opened in 1967. Today, it turns out 100 graduates each year.

Mungai gave up the practice of medicine in 1964, as he turned his attention to the world scene as the country’s minister of defense and internal security and later, foreign affairs. Kenyatta preferred to stay close to home, so Mungai represented Kenya abroad. His dining room is peppered with pictures of him posing with foreign dignitaries — Britain’s Prince Charles and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and America’s Ralph Bunche, the United Nations diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

It was a time when the Cold War was at its peak, and though African countries remained nonaligned, the continent was a staging ground for many covert operations, he says. He encountered spies from the Soviet Union’s KGB, Israel’s Mossad, Britain’s MI6 “and everybody else.” He’s proud of his role as defense minister in helping suppress the misinformation emanating from these spy networks — which could have done a lot of damage to Kenya, he says.

As minister of foreign affairs in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Mungai believes one of his biggest accomplishments was bringing the U.N.’s Environment Program to Kenya, the only country outside the West where the U.N. has a major presence or headquarters.

“The only competition that Kenya had was the U.S., and Kenya won,” Mungai recalls with a smile. “That was a very bad thing to do to the country that gave me an education. You seem ungrateful,” he says, chuckling at the idea of defeating a superpower.

While Kenya thrived economically after independence, it began to lose ground in the mid-’70s and early ’80s. Mungai notes that it was a blow to the country, for instance, when major U.S. companies such as Ford Motor Co., Caterpillar and John Deere moved their operations from Kenya to South Africa.

Kenya also became torn by political conflicts that continue to this day, with disagreements over the proposed new constitution presenting one of the country’s major challenges, says Mungai, who retired from politics in 1993. He speaks with disappointment about Kenyans’ simplistic and sometimes violent debate over the proposed constitution. Before the vote on Nov. 21, 2005, he argued for withdrawing the document and rewriting it to meet the approval of the overwhelming majority of people.

“You require something that binds people together, not opens differences,” he says.

Fifty-seven percent of the voters rejected the proposed new constitution in the Nov. 21 referendum. In an e-mail, Mungai says he was pleased with the outcome, as the proposed constitution would have left far too much power in the hands of the president. He notes there were several amendments to the document during the previous administration of President Daniel Arap Moi that made Moi a “virtual dictator.”

He also argues that the proposal to give one-third of parliamentary seats to women would bring more disagreement than unity — making women appear “inferior and weak,” unable to succeed in their own right, which has not been the case.

The defeat of the constitution has thrown Kenya’s government into disarray and threatened the presidency of Mwai Kibaki, who succeeded Moi.

Despite the political turmoil, he remains optimistic about Kenya’s future, predicting a return to a period of political and social stability in which the country’s primary industries — coffee, tea, floriculture and horticulture — can thrive.

He’s surrounded by flowers these days, though he knows all is not rosy for the nation he helped shape. Still, as in his medical school days, he knows how to have a laugh.

When a visitor asks the way to the powder room, he answers with a smile: “Go into the foyer and through the door. Just pass by the lion — if you dare.”


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