Tom Mboya’s Request That Landed US President in Trouble

  • Revolutionary Kenyan politician Tom Mboya played in an integral role in the famous ‘airlift’ program that saw students in Kenya, which was then a British colony, fly out to the United States for college studies.

    Mboya, alongside his friend and contributor to the airlift program Bill Scheinman, and members of the African American Students Foundation (AASF) felt that there was a need for more funds, to help the beneficiaries live comfortably in the US.

    Reports from Stanford University's research think tank, Hoover Institute, indicate that for the airlift program to fully take root, the families of the students were supposed to pay USD300 (Ksh30,000), which was expensive at the time.

    Eighty-one students from East Africa arrive in New York in 1959, after the first flight to bring East Africans to study in the United States.

    This forced people in the villages to pool their resources and cater for part of the funds needed to be allowed to fly out, while Mboya and his associates struggled to raise money for the air tickets and other expenses.

    The Hoover institution announced that at times, Mboya would request Bill to chip in and help students who had received scholarships but could not afford air tickets to fly out.

    Happy to oblige, Scheinman spent $15,000 for that purpose and also acted as a mentor to the students, corresponding with them, housing them, and hiring them for summer work in his New Jersey factory,” Hoover Digest wrote.

    The Britons were not happy with the American's idea to educate Africans, forcing the American government to tread carefully by offering scholarships but asking the beneficiaries to fund their own trips.

    This would change, however, in the run-up to the 1960 General Election when American presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy promised to enlist his family trust's help in airlifting the Kenyan citizens after Mboya's request.

    When the sitting President Richard Nixon got wind of the idea, he persuaded the State Department to reverse its policy and offer to fly the students and counter Kennedy’s offer.

    A fire was by then raging in the Senate, where Kennedy was accused of attempting to buy black votes by using his family's resources to show that he cared.

    Mboya and Bill then deliberated and decided to take Kennedy’s offer which they found to be more certain compared to Nixon’s, a matter that is stated to have given Kennedy more popularity among the black people, leading to his victory in the 1961 elections.

    American Presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy and Tom Mboya addressing the press in 1960.

    Upon becoming president, his government reversed the earlier stance on educating Africans and pledged to fully support African students in the US and to arrange for more to fly into the country.