Makhan Singh: A Revolutionary Kenyan Trade Unionist

Volume 13, Issue 2  | 
Published 30/11/2016

Publ: Vita Books, London, UK
ISBN: 978-1-869886-22-6
Reviewer: John Sibi-OKumu

Imagine being the father of a son who refuses to inherit the business that you have created over the years because, as a committed communist, he doesn’t believe in such things and would much rather remain a mere employee.

Imagine ending up being the wife of that recalcitrant son and, in response to a plea for him to dedicate more of his time and energies to the family, you are told ‘I am sorry, but as far as I’m concerned, you can all perish in thin air but I cannot give up my political activities in this country.’

Imagine having that same man as a father and watching helplessly as he is taken away by policemen, to spend 11 years in confinement, without charge or trial, at an isolated place where only occasional visits are allowed.

Makhan Singh, (December 27, 1913 to May 18, 1973), the real-life individual being evoked in these extreme scenarios, will go down in history as Kenya’s longest serving political detainee, in the run-up to the country’s independence in 1963. The book MAKHAN SINGH, A Revolutionary Kenyan Trade Unionist, gathers, under one cover, encomiums by his son, his daughter and his grandson and the edited texts of presentations made at two commemorative colloquies held in London and Nairobi in 2010 and 2013 respectively; a short autobiography; one or two poems which he wrote, an explanation by a playwright as to why he chose to write about him; a review of the play that was written consequently; as well as historical pictures, circulars, leaflets, articles, notes and appendices. The book ends with author details and, quite handily, an index.  It is this scrap book quality that makes for a desire for more and disappointment that more is not offered.

For example, from the memories of relations and friends we learn that Makhan Singh was what Americans might describe as having been a ‘quirky’ character: a meticulous archivist who recorded his own thoughts on page after page of minute, spidery handwriting or using an old typewriter; a man who was given to leaping to attention upon hearing the Kenyan national anthem being played, a man ‘highly principled to the point of deprivation and self-sacrifice.’ Yet, no one offers any critical comment, although it is safe to assume that, given his intransigent nature, Makhan Singh must have been difficult and demanding and unlikely to have suffered fools, as he saw them, gladly.

In the section labelled Makhan Singh, A Photo Safari, there are pictures which are either not captioned at all or have captions ending with the words ‘….and others’ or simply signalling ‘Another group,’ when it is clear that some of those anonymous folk might have been history makers in their own right.

A note on Makhan Singh’s Punjabi Poems ends with the baffling statement, ‘It is worth finding out if he wrote any poems during his stay in the Punjab or during solitary detention in Maralal.’ Indeed, it is.

Frustrations notwithstanding, MAKHAN SINGH, A Revolutionary Kenyan Trade Unionist outlines the origins of a struggle, of which he was the initial flagbearer and which continues to this day in Kenya, for better conditions and terms of employment for the working class. The underlying revelation to the reader is that, in many ways the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same.

In celebrating a man of his generation who was wedded to a cause, the book also leads to introspection about the evolving perception of an ideal husband, an ideal family man and an ideal friend. And on these counts Makhan Singh, and many of his contemporaries, might not score very highly today.

Nowadays, a good husband is a companion and partner to his wife rather than the domestic despot, albeit benevolent, of times past. Nowadays, a good dad is exemplified by President Barack Obama’s much publicised action in the final year of his presidency: given a toss-up between going to the memorial service for Mohamed Ali, ‘the greatest,’ and one of his daughters’ high school graduation ceremony, he chose the latter without hesitation, giving priority to his child and to her emotional needs over the symbolic needs of his country and global expectations. Such a role model has replaced the largely non-existent, figurehead father of Makhan Singh’s generation, more associated with issuing edicts and doling out severe punishments. And in these more self-centred times, a good friend is ‘always there’ for select individuals rather than for an entire community or for a whole country. However, there will always be men whose reward for consistency and integrity in the public arena, especially in the face of sustained persecution, will be lasting fame and admiration. MAKHAN SINGH, A Revolutionary Kenyan Trade Unionist serves to acquaint us with one such. Otherwise, those desirous of more detailed research and editorial rigour on the man who was among the first to call publicly for Uhuru, sasa! (Freedom, now!) and to pay for so doing with seclusion and, later, ostracism for his political incorrectness, would do well to locate and read Zarina Patel’s close to 600 page biography UNQUIET, The Life and Times of Makhan Singh, Zand Graphics, 2006.

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