A HISTORY OF THE UNITED KENYA CLUB
As you walk through the gate of the United Kenya Club in down town Nairobi, you are first struck by the peaceful setting. It’s a quiet oasis in the centre of a busy city. Flowers and tress line the parking lot. A lower verandah opens out onto a wide grassy lawn, while an upper verandah draws you into the main entrance. This is the site of Kenya’s first and most influential multiracial club – founded over 68 years ago in 1946 and still important today.
The United Kenya Club has a long and distinguished history. Indeed, its story is intertwined with the story of independent Kenya – from the freedom struggles of the post-World War II years all the way to the present day. There have been problems from time to time, to be sure, but the United Kenya Club has successfully weathered all difficulties and is stronger than ever today.
ORIGINS OF THE CLUB
The origin of the United Kenya Club lay in the problems of the colonial period. In the decades before Kenyan independence in 1963, race relations became increasingly tense. Africans, Asians and Europeans lived together within the framework of an easy truce. Europeans who held political control occupied the top position in the social structure, with the Asians in the middle and the Africans at the bottom.
Contact among members of different races was restrained. Whites viewed Africans as employees at best and operated within the confines of a master-servant relationship. Asians, who owned most shops, regarded Africans as customers or hired help, and maintained their distance as well. Like the Africans, Asians faced discrimination from Europeans, who simply did not mix with non-Europeans in public places.
Each group had its own organizations. Whites frequented hotels, such as the Norfolk and the New Stanley. Some belonged to the Nairobi Club; others were members of the Muthaiga Country Club. Asians used hotels established exclusively for their use in Pangani, Ngara and Parklands. Some joined Gymkhana Club, or the Simba Club or the Premier Club. Africans found themselves restricted to eating establishments in Pumwani and Kaloleni, which were far less comfortable than the places Europeans and Asians used. Some of them belonged to the Pumwani Social Club, organized by African civil servants and municipal employees in 1946 to provide a place to meet.
But change was in the air. The Harry Thuku riots following the First World War reflected the demand for a greater African role in social and political affairs. Some British civil servants sought to quell the agitation as they ignored the rumblings of discontent. Others were troubled by the friction they saw growing in Kenya in the years after World War II.
Tom Askwith was one of those with a vision of greater harmony among the races. An Olympic oarsman with a degree in engineering from Cambridge University, he had arrived in Kenya as a British civil servant in 1936. He had worked everywhere from Kisumu to Kilifi, from Machakos to Malindi. In 1945, he became Municipal African Affairs Officer and was assigned to help the Nairobi City Council look after African inhabitants of the town.
He later recalled “a good deal of unrest” in the city. “Wars have a way of making people aware of injustices,” he wrote, “and when these are related to class or race, the results can be explosive.” In his position, where he was responsible for dealing with African housing, trade and recreation, he saw the problems of overcrowding in Nairobi, as thousands of people flocked into the city in hope of finding better-paying jobs.
He also saw the social consequences of segregation. As he subsequently observed:
The biggest difficulty was the increasing number of young men who had just left the secondary schools and universities in Britain and the States and were disgruntled at the fact that they were paid lower salaries than either Asians or Europeans, had to be segregated and live in low standard housing and had inadequate means of voicing their grievances.
They found themselves refused admission in restaurants, hotels and other establishments intended for whites. They had to travel in separate railway compartments. They needed to line up in their own lines in some shops.
Askwith was equally concerned about the increasing isolation of the white population. He worried that some of his colleagues knew only their African servants, and did not even know them particularly well. Some had never met an educated African. “Their World,” he noted, “was bounded by the society of their own people.” This was, in short, “a very unpleasant state of affairs.”
He and others recognized the need to do something. They wanted to find a way in which “those of good will” in the white and Indian population could become aware of the point-of-view of better educated Africans and thus “give support to easing this tension.” Along with a group that included an Irish politician, a missionary and a school master, he decided to find a place for people, “whether European, African or Indian, to meet socially and appreciate how little there was dividing them.” Their plan was to gather together once per week for lunch and once a week in the evening for a formal discussion.
First, they needed a place to meet. Very quickly they found an old wood and iron building on Whitehouse Road (now Haile Selassie Avenue) near the railway station, on the site currently occupy by the Central Bank of Kenya. It was really a corrugated iron shed, “a pretty derelict building, with peeling paintwork and a rusty roof,” Askwith later wrote. It had two rooms and a kitchen and rented for £25 per year. Earlier it had housed the children of European pioneers; more recently it had been occupied by the Girl Guides. In some ways, the simple surroundings proved to be an advantage. The physical labour necessary to make the place hospitable required people to work together.
The founders agreed that for the club to work, it needed to maintain a balance among the racial groups. They should be represented by equal numbers. Before too long, members from the three communities had agreed to join. The actual founding occurred on October 29, 1946, as interested participants gathered together at a first formal meeting and launched the Club.
Europeans who joined included Askwith; Bill Kirkaldy-Lewis, a medical missionary; Charles Mortimer, a minister and civil servant; Ernest Vasey, another prominent government officer; T. C. Colchester and H. Earnshaw, both employees of the Municipal Council; Meredyth Hyde-Clarke, another civil servant; P. Phillips, a merchant; and Shirley V. Cooke and Geoffrey Northcotte, both politicians.
Among the Asians were Hassan Nathoo, a dentist, and K. V. Adalja, a medical doctor; Eboo Pirbhai, J. Ahmed, R. G. Datoo, and Kisken Singh Benawra, all businessmen; A. R. Dhanji, an accountant; and R. G. Gautama, a lawyer.
Most of the Africans were politicians. They included Walter Odede, Francis Khamisi, Eliud Mathu, Musa Amalemba, and E. K. Binns. Bethwell Gecaga was an attorney and later a business man. Government workers included John Muchura, Muchohi Gikonyo and Dedan Githegi.
The founding group, which soon began to call itself the United Kenya Club, determined that the club should be governed by a steering committee. Africans, Asians and Europeans should all have representation, and the chairmanship should rotate among the three groups. Tom Askwith became first chairman, and Bethwell Gecaga succeeded him. Next came Bill Kirkaldy-Willis, and then Hassan Nathoo.
This group wanted to function as a social organization, not, in Askwith’s word, as “a vehicle for political protest.” And yet, there was definitely a political purpose to founding the United Kenya Club. As Askwith noted years later, the explicit goal was the “improvement of racial relations.” The club could help the country address some fundamental problems: “We were a mixed community. We had to find a way of working and living together.”
A constitution, called the “Rules of the United Kenya Club,” soon followed. It specified that “The objects of the Club shall be the association of persons of all races inhabiting Kenya interested in providing a common meeting ground for social, cultural, and recreational activities.” The constitution was very clear about the intent to avoid politics in these early post-World War II years, as it specified that “The Club shall be non-political.” The rest of the constitution described how members were to be elected, what they should pay (a 5 shillings entrance fee, with annual dues of 20 shillings), what committees should exist, and how the club should be governed.
Person interested in joining the club had to be proposed by one member and seconded by another. The sponsors needed to write to the balloting committee indicating why the applicant would be a suitable member. The applicant likewise had to provide reasons for wishing to join the club. The balloting committee was concerned about the occupation of the applicant in those first days. It hoped to attract prominent people to join, as part of the larger effort to persuade the rest of the population of Kenya to discard racial prejudice, just as people of distinction had done.
Above all, candidates had to satisfy the balloting committee of their lack of racial prejudice. Sometimes applicants ran into trouble. One early candidate who encountered difficulty was Derek Erskine, later knighted for his contributions to Kenya. Invited to Kenya by a businessman with connections to Lord Delamere, he had set up a food supplies business that prospered and meanwhile become very involved in athletic endeavors.
When Erskine sought to join United Kenya Club, he was rejected. Though he was the kind of person sought, a speech he had made in a recent election campaign came back to haunt him. He had referred to Africans as “the lesser breeds without the law” using Rudyard Kipling’s framework in his famous poem “The White Man’s Burden.” Erskine’s comment had been published in the press and had caused considerable irritation.
Tom Askwith viewed Erskine as “a man of substance and importance,” and understood that Derek in his flamboyant way referred to those who were not enfranchised, namely the African section of the population, and so suffered discrimination in consequence. “Still, as a chairman, he had the task of telling Erskine that he had been blackballed. Askwith suggested that Erskine meet with the committee and apologize for his unintended offense. Erskine did, and the committee accepted his apology. Erskine was later invited to reapply for membership, and he played an important role in the club, serving as chairman in 1954, 1961 – 1962, and 1965 – 1969.
THE CLUB PROSPERS IN THE EARLY YEARS.
In the early years, the club prospered and fulfilled the purposes the founders had in mind. It was the only place in Kenya where Africans, Asians and Europeans were able to mix freely with each other. It also provided members of all groups with a glimpse of the cultural patterns of the others. As Askwith recalled, “we all learned from each other.” For instance, he remembered meeting an Asian doctor and his wife, and in the course of casual conversation discovering that the two had met for the first time on their wedding day, a custom unfamiliar to the British.
The club brought together people who took other important steps in Kenya. In 1949, Ismaili John Karmali, a member of the club, was worried about educating his children. He had married an English woman, and this was “almost the first mixed marriage in that mini-South Africa, which Kenya was in those days,” as his wife Joan recalled nearly four decades later. Indeed, she and her husband could not eat in the same restaurant. In segregated Nairobi, the Karmali children were not allowed to enroll in white schools. With five other Asian parents in 1950, the Karmalis founded the Hospital Hill Primary School, began in the Karmalis’ home and later located on what is now State House Road, which was open to children of all races. Within several years, it gained financial assistance from the colonial administration.
Membership in the United Kenya Club increased rapidly. By 1950, the club had grown to 325 members. At that point, the management committee decided that the present quarters were simply too small. Club officials felt that it would be far preferable to construct a permanent structure rather than pay higher rent for a larger building. In 1950, they set up a building fund to raise money for a new building.
Contribution poured in. the Ministry of Lands, survey and Mines provided a plot of land along Hospital Hill Road (now State House Road), the present site of the club. The colonial government also gave the building fund £1,100 and provided a subvention of £250 a year, beginning in 1952. Other funds came from private sources. The Rockefeller Foundation contributed £1,000 in 1952. Companies including Unga Limited, Esmail Nathoo Trust Limited, and Dawood and Company, made donations, bringing corporate contributions up to £376. Europeans members of the club donated £1,194; Asians gave £2,050; and Africans, who were far less secure financially, provided £20.
Derek Erskine helped arrange the financing. Cub officials took out a loan of £6,000 from Barclays Bank. Architect George Vamos, a club member, designed the new building, and construction began in April 1952. Completed in December of that same year, it consisted of two stories, with an office and library on the ground floor and dining hall, kitchen, and storeroom upstairs. Sir Evelyn Baring, the governor of Kenya, officially opened the building in 1953.
By the mid 1950s, the United Kenya Cub had become the community of “like-minded people” American Gloria Hagberg found when she arrived in Nairobi. In the process, it helped break barriers in the larger outside community. As Joan Karmali observed many years later, “some members brought to lunch….reluctant acquaintances who were racially prejudiced yet found to their amazement that people of other races existed who were perfectly civilised and even compatible.”
Unfortunately, just as it was achieving stability, the United Kenya Club ran into serious problems in the middle part of the 1950s. Some of the difficulties were financial. Even though the club had raised a total of £4,590 for the building fund, it proved unable to pay off the bank debt. In 1954, therefore, it introduced life membership as a new category. The cost was 300 shillings, and with 77 members paying for such membership, the club raised enough money to clear the debt. Annual income, however, now fell as a result. Not even acquisition of a liquor licence in 1956 could stop the decline.
The other major problem was political. The Mau Mau uprising disrupted the club, just as it threw the entire country into turmoil and pointed the way to independence. The economic and political hardships Africans had long endured under British rule led to insurmountable frustrations that culminated in armed uprisings in the Rift Valley and Central Provinces. Crops belonging to white settlers were destroyed. Violence became endemic. Africans with close relations to Europeans found themselves particularly vulnerable. As J. Gikonyo Kiano, then a Kenyan graduate student in the United States later noted, “To be too close to whites was not something appreciated by the masses at that time.” On 20th October 1952, following the murder of Chief Waruhiu, the colonial government declared a state of emergency. It enacted a curfew law and required Africans to be in their homes by 6:00 p.m. every day.
The Mau Mau rebellion affected club membership. Because of the curfew, Africans could not participate in social activities usually held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. More important was their reluctance to attend daytime functions out of fear for their lives, particularly after the assassination of Chief Waruhiu in broad daylight. Some Africans club members, such as Musa Amalemba and Muchohi Gikonyo, were told by Mau Mau warriors that they would be murdered unless they ceased their close ties with Europeans. Africans membership at the United Kenya Club dropped from 56 in 1951 to 30 in 1953 to 0 in 1955.
Europeans membership was particularly affected by Mau Mau movement. Some Europeans, particularly members of the colonial administration, disliked criticisms of colonial policy. Yet frequently speakers at the regular Wednesday lunch meetings at the United Kenya Club denounced the patterns of British rule. On August 22, 1953, for example, N. S. Mangat, later president of the Indian Congress, argued that non-Europeans should be permitted to settle in the White Highlands and also demanded that the colonial government institute a common roll franchise in the country. Three months later, on November 20, 1953, Chanan Singh, a lawyer and later a judge after independence, addressed the club on “Human Rights in Theory and Practice.” He argued that British colonial policy violated the ideals of the British constitution and insisted on the abolition of discrimination based on race and religion.
While the United Kenya Club continued to promote close contacts among African, Asian and Europeans members, there was still occasional tension. As Gikonyo Kiano, an active member at the time, recalled many years later, “The very idea of sympathy with … [Mau Mau] aims some members of the club found difficult to swallow.” Indeed, he went on, issues were so heated that “even among Africans we would sometimes argue.”
Some Europeans, among them several founding members, resigned from the club. Shirley Cooke, a member of the Legislative Council from the Coast, argued that the club had strayed from its earlier non-political stance. Tom Askwith, now Commissioner for Community Development, was likewise upset with the direction the club was taking. In his memoirs, he wrote that “unfortunately as time went on the attitude of many members became so political as to make it impossible for some of us government officials to take part.” By 1955, he and a number of other Europeans had simply stopped participating in club activities. Some did not pay their subscriptions and were expelled. With these expulsions, club membership dropped from 525 to 269.
In a latter part of the decade, financial and political problems continued to plaque the club. Though the ukc had cleared its debt with Barclays Bank in 1956, it was constantly short of funds. The decline in membership had eroded the financial base. The club also suffered when the four-year subvention provided by the government came to an end. Something clearly needed to be done to put finances in order.
Likewise, there was a need to deal with low-quality meals and poor services. From its start, the UKC had meals inexpensive to make the club accessible to members with low incomes. It had run on a shoe string. Mary Ridley, a member since the late 1950s, noted the tradition of pitching in that had marked the club since its earliest days. Wives came to the club to help sew and mend curtains. they sometimes scrubbed floors. They helped the club survive, as volunteer labour meant that the UKC “didn’t have to pay wages”. If food ran short at Wednesday lunches, Elizabeth Erskine and others often hurried over to raid the shelves of Erskine and Duncan, the grocery. But people began to realize that if the club was to prosper, it had to take action to address the problem of declining membership that resulted from services that did not meet members’ expectations.
Finally there was a need to address the evolving political mood. The United Kenya Club had been founded to promote multiracialism in Kenya. But now, as the independence movement gained momentum, some Africans argued that multiracialism hindered democratic growth by defusing radical agitation and thereby undermining the push for full African autonomy. Multiracialism implied a sharing of power, which was what some Europeans wanted, but which African leaders vigorously resisted. They recognized that there would be Europeans in the government, but they were insistent that Africans be in control. While harmony among the races remained a goal of the United Kenya Club, steps had to be taken to avoid using language that had become highly charged.
A new constitution in 1958 altered the aims of the club. In an effort to meet the objections of those taking aim at the policy of multiracialism, it stressed that the UKC was a social institution with no racial prejudice, rather than an institution whose specific goal was to bring the races together. At the same time, the new constitution made the club in to a company that could be run on a sounder financial footing. It would seek to acquire assets, such as land and buildings, as part of the effort to become self-supporting. It would likewise endeavour to provide efficient services and good quality meals to members. The new constitution also defined two new categories of membership: reciprocating members and temporary members. And entrance and subscription fees were raised.
THE CLUB REBUILDS
As the United Kenya Club began to redefine its focus, Sir Ernest Vasey (known as Verry to his friends) played an increasingly influential role, Kenya’s Minister for Finance from 1952 to 1959 (and knighted at the end of that time in recognition of his service to Kenya and East Africa), he was a dominant personality in both club and national affairs. A one-time actor who had also been Mayor of Nairobi the decade before, Vasey had a keen sense of coming independence and the need to prepare for it. He made friends with Africans at a time, according to Nairobi businessman Manu Chandaria, “when it was unfashionable” to do so.
Sometimes this approach drew fire. As finance Minister, he was severely criticized for saying that “for anybody who believes in democratic principles, an African majority in the government is inevitable.” But his own integrity and commitment to his fundamental values led him to push ahead.
Vasey believed that the United Kenya Club, which he served as chairman from 1958 to 1959 and again from 1970to 1980, had a role to play in this transitional process. He wanted to help young African executives be ready when independence came. The UKC, which had lost most of its African members, needed to recruit more African candidates. Whatever the wording of the new constitution, the club had to revive the aims of the founders by bringing members of different races together again and encouraging them to work with one another.
First, however, the club needed better quarters. To that end, at the end of 1950s, Vasey approached Robert Ridley, an Englishman who had come to Kenya in the 1920s and had taken over leadership of Standard Bank in 1952, and E. T. Jones (known as Jonah), who headed the Shell corporation in Kenya. Together they talked about what funds they needed to raise and what kind of building they wanted to construct. They planned to build residential units for short-term guests so the club would have an on-going source of income. The original plan was to expand the building constructed in 1952. After consultations with the architect (again George Vamos) they realized that problems relating to the soil base meant that the still relatively new building would have to be razed to make way for the larger structure they envisioned, and they saw that it would take considerably more money.
Ridley, Jones and Vamos did an admirable job of fund-raising. Jones and Ridley joined the Club and sat on the board to help plan and monitor financing. The Governor of Kenya, the patron of the club, arranged for the government to guarantee a bank loan. The United Kenya Club was then able to borrow £33,000 from Barclays Bank for construction. In addition, another £8,100 was raised by persuading members of the commercial community to subscribe for 3 debentures. The club also received a donation of £3,500 from the Ford Foundation in the United States. Businessman Inder Singh Gill provided the wood blocks for the floors.
Construction began in August 1961 and was completed a year later. Because the old two story building had to be demolished, the club was closed for eight months during the process. During this time, the board held meetings in Parliament buildings.
The new building was three stories high. It contained a bar, lounge, dining hall, committee room and reception hall on the ground floor. It had 26 room s, each of which contained beds with inner-spring mattresses, built-in wardrobes, a suit case rack and a writing table. Income from these hotel-like facilities would help support the club. A small verandah extended out from the lounge. Sir Patrick Renison, governor officially opened the new building on 22nd August, 1962.
That same year, the United Kenya Club appointed its first manager. With a larger building and better facilities, the club required administrative attention than before. I. E. Williams became the manager of the Ukc, and under his direction, the quality of meals and services improved.
The club began t prosper again. Membership began to increase once more, not yet reaching the levels attained in the early 1950s, but nonetheless providing evidence that the UKC was regaining its health.
THE CLUB ATTRACTS NEW MEMBERS
Sir Ernest Vasey again played an important role during this period. He kept a careful lookout for people who could contribute to the club. Charles Njonjo was one of those whom Vasey encouraged to join. When Njonjo came back from studying at London University and the London School of Economics several years before independence, he later told a non-African interviewer, the system of segregation in Kenya meant that “there was no place you and I could go.” He stayed at Vasey’s home the first few nights after his return from Great Britain and soon joined the Club.
He stayed at Vasey’s home the first few nights after his return from Great Britain and soon joined the club. He became an important member at the same time that he rose in the government becoming Attorney General and later Constitutional and Home Affairs Minister. He served as patron of the UKC from 1963 to 1984. “The place was a haven,” he observed, “where you felt welcome, felt free.”
Vasey likewise encouraged Parmeet Singh, who stayed at the United Kenya Club for several months when he came to Nairobi in 1962 to take a job at the Ministry of Finance and Planning. Finding a friendly community, Singh soon joined the club and by the end of the decade he was elected to the board and then became vice chairman before being sent to a post outside the country. As Singh later noted,” I think Vasey’s success was that….. [he] groomed as to take over.”
Vasey also helped Andrew Ligale become active in the club. Ligale had come to Nairobi in 1966, then gone to United Kingdom to study for an M. A. from 1967 to 1968. On his return, he was looking for a place to socialize and was introduced to the UKC by an older member. Once in the Club, Ligale became close to Vasey as he rose in the ranks of the government. After a long tenure as Permanent Secretary for Local Government, he retired in 1990 and stood for Parliament in the first multiparty elections in 1992. He won a seat and was appointed Assistant Minister for Land Reclamation, Regional and Water Development. Meanwhile, he joined the Board of UKC in 1974, and became chairman from 1981 all the way to 1996.
Other members, many of them now equally influential in the club, joined for their own reasons. Francis Ojany, on his return from studying in the United Kingdom, was booked in the United Kenya Club when he began to work for the University of Nairobi in 1963. It was within easy walking distance of the university, and he soon joined and later became a life member. Reuben Shibutse, active in the insurance business and was a director of the UKC, had been to the club a few times with friends. Mary Ridley, whom he knew from the Quaker Meeting in Nairobi, proposed him for membership towards the end of the 1960s, and he joined the board a decade later. He felt “out of place” at other clubs where the only Africans were government ministers or corporate managers. The United Kenya Club was much more comfortable. Betty Chappell, a British teacher newly arrived in Kenya in 1968, had drinks with friends at the club and found it a good place to meet people and enjoy Kenya. She joined the next year, and after ten years took up permanent residence in the club.
ANIMATED DISCUSSION AT WEDNESDAY LUNCH
One feature of the club that was popular with most members in the first decades of the club’s history was Wednesday lunch. “The luncheon was a very prominent feature when the institution started,” Parmeet Singh later recalled. Club members came together to eat and to listen to speakers spark discussion at these sessions. The speakers were often prominent officials. As lady Elizabeth Erskine once observed, “Anyone who had any influence was invited.” The visitors’ book, which begins with a first entry on 1st September, 1948, records a wide range of prominent officials, ranging from ministers to ambassadors to cultural leaders in a variety of fields. “This was a place you looked forward to on Wednesdays,” Gloria Hagberg, a long time resident of the club, later noted. Newspaper stories in the East African Standard carried the speakers’ comments around the country.
In the first few years, the club avoided politically sensitive topics. Cultural questions, of course, had a political dimension, yet an effort was still made to steer clear of controversy. By the mid 1950s, despite the disapproval of some of the founder members, club officials recognized that it was hard to avoid politics in a time of intense political upheaval.
Speeches in years from 1953 on often criticised colonial rule in Kenya. That year, for example, Sir Ernest Vasey argued that social and political reform was necessary in Kenya to promote racial harmony. Several years later, in 1956, Oginga Odinga, a businessman and rising politician from Nyanza, suggested that multiracial schools could help eliminate racial prejudice and called on Europeans to treat Africans adults with more courtesy and respect. The following year, in 1957, Tom Mboya, an elected member of the Legislative Council and General Secretary of the Kenya Federation of Registered Trade Unions (and a member of the club after independence), argued in a luncheon speech at the UKC that Europeans needed to discard their attitude of superiority and grant equal rights to other groups in the country.
Wednesday speeches became even more pointed in the 1960s with the approach of independence. On 1st March, 1961, Mboya was back at the club arguing for the release of Jomo Kenyatta from detention. “It is the desire of the people of this country that we should have stability, peace and co-operation,” he said, “and I think the release of Kenyatta would do a lot to make the ground for the future we can see.” He demanded such freedom “before there is a head-on crash between us and the Governor.”
Following his release, Kenyatta himself came to the club to speak on 23rd November, 1961. The UKC Wednesday lunch provided him with a forum when racial restrictions still limited free expression. Kenyatta, the president of KANU and the man who had become symbol of the freedom struggle, was reassuring in his message “to my African friends.” He spoke of his wish to maintain friendship with all people in Africa and to run the government in an appropriate way. “Some of you have a notion that Kenyatta is a terrible hater of other people, especially Europeans,” he said. “I am here to tell you that we do not hate anybody.” Then he went on to declare that the takeover of land from colonial owners was not his aim. “Some people think that when we get uhuru we shall take all the property away. That is an idea I want to remove from your minds.”
Wednesday lunches remained popular for some years. While they are no longer a weekly feature, occasional speakers still address members following an appetizing buffet in the dining room.
THE CLUB EXPANDS ITS FACILITIES
As membership increased in the 1960s, the club began to consider expanding its facilities once again to earn more revenue from short-term guests. In 1964, the UKC secured another loan from Barclays Bank, this time for £8,500. In May 1965, construction began on what is now called the new wing. This extension consisted of ten more guest rooms as well as alterations to the existing structure. It also included a games room and members’ bar. Club patron Charles Njonjo formally opened the new wing on 15th December, 1966.
Expansion continued. The following year, in August 1967, the United Kenya Club acquired and adjacent plot of land. Soon after, it shared costs with the University of Nairobi and the YMCA to construct an access road to all the facilities. At about the same time, the club built a car park and planted gardens nearby. In 1968, it converted a reading room into a library and set aside funds for the purchase of books and magazines.
As the club flourished, it expanded still further in a process that continued over the next several decades. Robert Ridley and the other directors considered constructing a block of private suites to provide a stable source of income. In May 1968, after arranging for overdraft funding of up to £4,000 from Barclays Bank, the club began construction of nine one bedroom suites that were ready for occupation early next year. Building the apartments turned out to be a wise investment. As Ridley later recalled, “They would prove a bread ticket.”
Income from these suites, along with increased membership, stabilized the club financially. It liquidated its earlier loans and debentures and set up monthly repayment instalments for outstanding debts.
Further expansion occurred in the 1970s. The club built its large main verandah in 1973 and 1974. Pleased with the success of the private suites, it also embarked upon construction of nine more that were ready for occupancy in September 1975. The library was then moved to its present site in the new block and a part-time librarian was hired. At about the same time, the club bought its first snooker table (which came with ivory balls) and opened the Snooker Room.
Other improvements followed in the 1980s and 1990s. The club enlarged and resurfaced the car park and installed a telephone exchange system with extensions to each residential room. The most visible step was the construction of the lower verandah. After one meeting of the board of directors, Reuben Shibutse was chatting with club manager John Brandram and suggested expanding the attractive and much used verandah. Brandram liked the idea, the board agreed, and Professor Harry Wood provided the design and supervised the construction. Club chairman Andrew Ligale opened the lower verandah in August 1991, and it has had extensive use ever since.
THE CLUB MATURES IN THE POST-INDEPENDENCE YEARS
As the United Kenya Club expanded in the years after independence, its completion and character slowly changed. At the time of its founding, the club had an elitist base and tried to encourage people of prominence to join, regardless of their income level. Later, as many of the original founders drifted away, that elitist orientation faded, and the United Kenya Club sought to broaden its membership base. More and more middle class Africans joined, and in the 1970s, they came to dominate the life of the club. Now the UKC attracted a healthy mix of African civil servants, members of Parliament, business leaders and professionals of all sorts.
By the 1980s, both the country and the club were prospering. Though the UKC sought to avoid becoming, in Ligale’s words, the “preserve of a privileged few,” it included people of more substantial means than in the first post-independence years. This presented the club’s fourth manager, John Brandram, with a dilemma. For much of its early history, the United Kenya Club had held down the cost of meals and drinks to make it accessible to people with modest incomes. Brandram noted that things had to be “cheap and not too ambitious.” But as more highly paid people joined, they demanded better service, and helped create the continuing dilemma of “wanting to improve our standards but being very reluctant o increase our charges.” Services did improve, thanks to a capable staff, and the club leadership managed to keep costs in check.
The leadership of the Club changed in the early 1980s as the people Sir Ernest Vasey had groomed took over positions of responsibility. Vasey himself stepped down after decade as chairman. The ideals for which he had long fought had been achieved. Kenya was free and multiracial society, and the United Kenya Club had played a part in helping bring that transition about. Yet even as times changed, director Francis Ojany noted later, “We like the original concept of the founders.”
Andrew Ligale, who became chairman in 1981, provided direction as the club began to change. He observed recently that “I do subscribe to the original ideals of the club.” He grew up in the colonial period and knew discrimination from those days. At an important point in his life, the club had helped him in “finding friends and colleagues who were able to see me for what I was.” But that period of rigid separation was long gone. Now the United Kenya Club was more intent on functioning as a successful social Club.
Ligale’s own concern was Kenyans’ parochialism, and his aim was to encourage greater social integration among members of the club. Evening activities, where members might dance or taste wines and spirits, helped foster communication. The new verandah encouraged casual conversation among informal groups.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the club prospered. Its governance structure functioned well. The Board of Directors met regularly to keep the club on an even keel. Committees – the Finance Committee, Balloting Committee, Catering Committee, Disciplinary Committee and Entertainment Committee, for example – likewise ensured that regular business was handled promptly. Membership in 1996 stood at nearly 1,000, just the level desired.
But these years were not without their difficulties. As Reuben Shibutse noted recently, “There is no place that has no problems,” and the United Kenya Club is no exception. Yet the mark of a healthy and vibrant institution is not in its lacking of troubles but in the way it handles those that occur.
Finances continues to cause problems. The overall decline in Kenyan tourism has led to a reduced number of foreign visitors staying at the club. The massive inflation in the early 1990s caused a large increase in operating expenses. Then a 25 percent increase in staff wages in 1955 and another 25 percent increase in 1996 further disrupted budget projections and led to a fall in the fixed deposits of the Club. An increase in charges in 1996 was necessary to offset higher costs.
Discipline was sometimes a prickly issue. There have been occasional infractions of rules throughout the club’s history, and the Disciplinary Committee has sought to handle those as quietly and gracefully as it could. In the past decade, however, some problems became public. In mid 1989, one disagreeable resident of the club made a series of unwarranted charges against the manager and the staff. After a lengthy hearing, he was suspended from the club for six months and asked to vacate his suite. One club director then protested the Board’s ruling, called for a special board meeting, and later instituted legal proceedings to stop both the chairman and the club from efforts to take disciplinary action. His legal campaign failed and he was himself suspended as one of the club’s directors. Meanwhile, a story in The Weekly Review of 24th November, 1989 charged “A Crisis of Confidence” at the club. Andrew Ligale refuted all charges compellingly in a letter to The Weekly Review published on January 5, 1990, pointing to “cordial relations” and lack of “internal bickering among members” over the years and deploring the fact that “two disgruntled members” had chosen to make an internal matter public. The club survived this difficulty, as it had other troubles in the past, and emerged stronger in the process.
Another problem involved membership on the Board of Directors. With the advent of multipartyism in Kenya in 1992, some members initiated a move to make comparable pluralistic changes within the club. They charged that some directors seemed to have a lengthy tenure with no end in sight. In response, the Board itself decided to limit to two terms in office, as a way of promoting greater participation by more members in the life of the Club.
These difficulties pale when set against the contributions of United Kenya Club. This year the club marks its 70th anniversary. The club played a role in making Kenya what it is today. It was a forum for multiracialism when there was virtually nowhere that members of different races could meet together in the years following World War II. It provided a platform for the voices of protest in the years prior to independence and a site for conversation and companionship in the years after Kenya became free.
The UKC prospered thanks to the dedicated service of its leaders and employees. The Club has long depended on the voluntary efforts of its members, past and present, only some of whom have been mentioned so far. The list goes on and on, and includes people such as Kirsten Porter and Peter Walker, both directors for many years, and Charles Davidson, who served as secretary from 1968 to 1987. The list likewise includes the helpful staff members who have provided friendly service to those using the Club.
Today, members speak fondly of the sense of community – and history – the club offers. It has “a very nice atmosphere” resident Betty Chappell says. “Everyone really is friendly with everyone else,” Winfred Booth, another resident (and director) concurs. “Having left here, whenever I come back, I live here” former director Parmeet Singh declares. Today, director Francis Ojany notes with pride the accomplishments of the UKC and asserts, “We still feel that we are an exemplary Club,” while Robert Ridley, treasurer for many years, observes, “It still does what it was founded to do.”
From old colonial times the club has undergone some restructuring to accommodate the current world technology. With the latest installation of the CCTV systems to ensure Maximum security for our members to introduction of card systems which ensure convenient and safe usage as no cash carrying around. With diverse membership categories ranging from junior membership to senior membership, the club caters for each category and with our sociable members it’s a home away from home.
Challenges lie ahead. The club will deal with financial issues that concern all institutions in Kenya and around the World as it looks to the future, the UKC will have to decide again, as it has at several points in the past, just what kind of club it wants to be. In togetherness we prosper, Lets join together and make THE UNITED KENYA CLUB, the place to be.