Obituary

Joan Waithaka: The bright girl men died to take home to their mothers

Good old Jomo asked that his two sons, Uhuru and Muhoho Kenyatta be taken along to face the knife as well!

One of a kind: Joan and James Waithaka after saying ‘i do.’ She is famous as the first African headmistress of Alliance Girls High School where students called her ‘Auntie.’

By Undercover Reporter

Her father fed founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta yams and arrow roots as he healed from the vagaries of circumcision in Thogoto, Kiambu County over a century ago.

Kenyatta, then called Johstone Kamau, had gone to Thogoto seeking an education. That was how he met pioneer educationist, the Rev Musa Gitau, his sponsor (mutiiri) when he jumped into the freezing Nyongera River to face the knife that frosty morning in 1913.

Musa Gitau, after whom a national primary school is named in Kikuyu, sired children who followed in his footsteps, the most notable being his daughters- Joan and Edith Gitau-both brain boxes who married prominent personalities. Or rather, men who became prominent married daughters of Musa Gitau.

Joan Wambui Waithaka, who closed her gate of life at 90 and was buried at her Kentmere home in Limuru on November 20, married Prof James Waithaka. Joan was only 75 days older, but finished school three years earlier.   

Edith married corporate executive millionaire and politician, the late Kenneth Matiba who later recalled in his memoirs, Aiming High: The story of my Life and published in year 2000: “I never contemplated how I could ever face her parents to ask for her hand in marriage had I failed at Makerere, where Edith and her sister were always top in the class.”

Musa Gitau was instrumental in the rise of Matiba, his son in-law. A good word with President Jomo Kenyatta saw him appointed PS at the Ministry of Education at 31 in May 1963, five months before Kenya attained her independence.

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History repeated itself years later when Matiba told Mzee Kenyatta he was taking his son, Raymond, for circumcision. Good old Jomo asked that his two sons, Uhuru and Muhoho Kenyatta, be taken along to face the knife as well!

Musa Gitau’s son, the late Alexander Njoroge Gitau, not only served as assistant director of education, but also as Comptroller of State House in the Kenyatta administration.

Indeed, hopeful husbands, at the time, were lucky to marry a girl from the Musa Gitau family-meaning these girls were every man’s dream wife, the girls they died to take to their mothers. And Joan, the elder sister of Edith, was lucky.

Instead of undergoing FGM enroute to getting married, Musa Gitau ensured she got an education

Bush Girls: These were the first students when Alliance Girls opened shop in 1948. Joan Waithaka missed out and was enrolled at Alliance High School with boys among them his future hubby, Prof James Waithaka.

Her father’s life was steeped in early Christianity and its civilizing mission through education. Instead of undergoing FGM enroute to getting married off as was custom, Musa Gitau ensured Joan got an education.

There was a problem though. Joan cleared from the Church of Scotland Mission Primary School when there were fewer girls’ junior secondary schools in Kenya with enough students. But for her exemplary academic prowess, Carey Francis, the legendary headmaster of Alliance High School had no qualms admitting her alongside Margaret Kenyatta, daughter of Jomo Kenyatta, Isabella Muthoni, Mukwa Mugo and Joan Gitau as among the four girls in an all-boy’s school.

And there being no boarding facilities for girls, they four holed up in the teacher’s quarters, recalls former East African Breweries Chairman, Jeremiah Kiereini in his 2014 memoirs, A Daunting Journey where he adds that “they were clever girls but opportunities to talk to them personally were rare and no boy would dare disturb them for fear that he might be expelled.”

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Margaret Kenyatta later become Nairobi’s first woman African Mayor and Kenya’s Permanent Representative to Habitat.

Carey Francis, a bachelor to the bone marrow, had a morbid phobia of women and Kiereini recalls there were no social events like dances through which to meet and mingle with girls and Carey chancing upon a misguided boy attempting lines on a girl translated to the said boy being  instructed to sleep for hours on end before slushing all the grass in the school compound.  

That was how Waithaka had hots for Joan but kept them the fire under wraps. Her brother, Alexander had been at Alliance four years earlier.

Joan’s future hubby, James, was watching her during the day-before playing houseboy in the evening in the home of his uncle, a teacher at Alliance and who excited him into the world of academia.

Carey Francis was right: Joan beat all the boys-including Waithaka- in junior secondary, scoring a Division One in the 1947 Cambridge School Certificate in senior secondary, the first and only girl to do so!

Joan proceeded to Makerere University, Uganda as the first Kenyan female student in 1949. Her future hubby, Waithaka, joined Makerere  three years later to study botany and zoology and later a post-graduate in education.

One thing led to the other culminating in a marriage lasting over 60 years

Auntie Joan: She was no nonsense but congenial in the 32 years she taught, half as head of Alliance Girls High School until her retirement in 1984.

Joan earned her diploma in education two years later as Makerere did not offer degrees at the time, and taught history at African Girls High School, later Alliance Girls High where her students included younger sister, Edith and a girl who later became Dr Eddah Gachukia, the owner of Riara Group of Schools and Riara University in Nairobi.

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Joan was later transferred to Machakos Girls, and by a twist of fate, Waithaka to Machakos Boys…one thing led to the other culminating in a marriage lasting over 60 years!

In that time span, Waithaka would earn a Commonwealth scholarship to Canada to pursue a Master’s and PhD from Canada’s Dalhousie University in 1965, leaving Joan holding fort.

Girls nicknamed her ‘Auntie Joan’, no nonsense but congenial in the 32 years she taught, half as headmistress

Beauty and brains: Kenneth Matiba with his wife Edith (Joan’s younger sister) and mother Susan Njindo. You had to be a man with prospects if you were lucky enough to marry a girl from the Musa Gitau family.

 On his way to being Kenya’s Director of Education, Prof Waithaka lectured in plant physiology and genetics while serving as deputy principal of what is today Kenyatta University.

Joan’s career was also nosing north. With an easy transition, she replaced Jean Wilkinson to become the first African headmistress of Alliance Girls in 1969. She had been posted there from from what is today Moi Nairobi Girls School-where her sister Edith later served as headmistress!

Girls at Alliance nicknamed her ‘Auntie Joan’, no nonsense but congenial in the 32 years she taught, half as head of Alliance until her retirement in 1984, with an Order of the Burning Spear for her contribution to education. She spent her post-headmistress years in horticulture and as a staunch Presbyterian.  

Joan and James had five children: the late David Gitau, an accountant/businessman who died in 2017, Angela Wokabi, the Deputy Director of Livestock, Ministry of Agriculture, Dr Catherine Karekezi, a pharmacist, Margaret Waithaka, a chemical engineer and Anne Waithaka, a linguist. 

Joan Wambui Waithaka was survived by eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

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