Possibly America’s longest-residing Kenyan immigrant, Peter Gishuru Moved to US in 1963 Inspired by Mboya Airlift Program

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By Mukurima X Muriuki

In 1963, while Kenya was gaining its independence from Great Britain, Peter Gishuru, through a stroke of luck, got an opportunity to pursue his high school education in the United States, a move that was inspired by the Tom Mboya led Airlift  – a program that allowed promising Kenyan students to secure university scholarships in the United States of America.

To date, Peter Gishuru has lived in America longer than he lived in Kenya and currently resides with his wife and his adult American born children in Seattle, Washington. Since arriving in Washington, he has succeeded in bringing awareness of the many business opportunities in Kenya that are available to Americans. Peter is proud of his homeland and continues to believe that when Diasporans give back, Africa will be able to shine brighter on the world stage.

At the beginning of “Emergency,” Peter’s family left Ndeiya and moved to the Maasai side of Sultan Hamud to escape being sent to concentration camps by the colonialists. For Peter, he could not move with his parents to the new land because there were no schools available there. As a result, he began attending school in Ndeiya under the tutelage of his uncle. During his early years in Kenya, Peter remembers the tensions brought about by the deep-seated hatred of the British toward the Agikuyu in the 1950s. The British knew independence was imminent and given their preference to Majimboism, they were apprehensive about the Agikuyu living in parts of Ngong that were home to the Maasai community, and wanted them moved to Kiambu and Murang’a.

This idea was offensive to the Agikuyu, and their leaders beseeched the DO to grant them more time to find a resolution to the matter. In three months, the local chiefs called a follow-up meeting in which the Agikuyu leaders cunningly denied connection to the Agikuyu. Peter explained:

“The Agikuyu leaders told the chiefs and the DO: We hear you want to take us to Kiambu and Murang’a, where the Agikuyu people live. We hear the Agikuyu eat people. We do not want to be eaten. It is better to be killed by the guns you are holding than end up being eaten.”

Needless to say, the administrative government was shocked by this new intelligence. In the end, a compromise was reached and the Agikuyu in Ngong would not be moved back to Kiambu and Murang’a, rather they would be settled around  Olorua, Matasia, Kiserian, and Ongata Rongai. Peter’s parents settled in Matasia Village, where a distant relative helped them find their footing. It is in Matasia where Peter would rejoin his family.

Peter and his countrymen were ready for independence, and he distinctly remembers the feeling he had regarding the prevailing political climate in the late 50’s:  “There was this palpable air of freedom reverberating across the country. Some of the Manyani prisoners had been released, and it was apparent that even those held would be released in a short matter of time. Fathers who had been in concentration camps were also being released and rejoining their families.  Freedom and independence was an idea no one could stop.” 

Continuing in that spirit of independence, Peter’s father partnered with several friends to build a hotel in Ngong which they named, Munyaka.  The children of the owners would occasionally help in running the hotel; this is where Peter got his big break as he notes:

“I finished the Kenya African Primary Education (KAPET) exam and scored less than satisfactory grades to be admitted in a government high school.  Occasionally, I would attend political meetings where some of the speakers included Tom Mboya, Waiyaki Hinga, James Gichuru, Julius Nyerere among many others. It is in the meetings where I heard Mboya was a  friend of the elite Kennedy family in America and that he partnered with the Kennedys to send Kenyan students to colleges in America.”

Further, some of Peter’s friends had become beneficiaries of the airlifts. Other airlift beneficiaries used to visit the Munyaka hotel where Peter would befriend them or learn something new about the airlift program.  It wasn’t long before he met a young man who was traveling to America for his High school education. Peter observed:

“I took my external (KAPET) exams at the Ralph Bunche Academy in Nairobi which was run by Dr. Gikonyo Kiano’s wife and passed and  I was set to join Teachers Training College. By luck or a miracle, I happened to meet a young man who was leaving for Seattle. I asked him if he would be kind enough to share the address of his cousin who was in Seattle so that I could write to him and express my desire to study in America. I also sent applications to a number of high schools in Seattle. I was accepted! My only obstacle was convincing my father to raise the necessary funds to send me to America.  After my friend discussed it with him and explained what was involved, and he helped me raise Ksh 3,000, but it wasn’t enough.”

Although Peter and his father didn’t have enough money, they went to Pan American Airlines to book a flight anyway. Peter explained his situation, and the end result was that he was able to get a  flight from Nairobi to Ontario, Canada via London. From Ontario, he took a three-day journey on a Greyhound Bus to Seattle.

In November of 1963, Peter finally arrived in Seattle. His dream was to become a physician. He wanted to get the best of what America had to offer because he wanted to return to Kenya and help his motherland with the knowledge he had acquired abroad.  He attended Seattle University and graduated with a degree in Chemistry. When preparing to go to medical school, Peter was informed that his mother was extremely sick back home. Being the first born, he had to pause his medical school and go tend to his ailing mother. Later when he returned to Seattle, instead of becoming a physician as he intended, he became a substance abuse counselor.

After graduating from the university, Gishuru was still single. His mother was extremely concerned about him being unmarried.  She sent a message communicating to him that if he did not marry soon, she would have to seek out the intervention of a witch doctor! With this in mind,  he contacted a few of his friends in London while he prepared for his flight to Kenya. He knew that he would have a long layover, therefore, he asked his friends if they knew of any single girls that they could introduce him to in London. His friends were successful in setting him up with a lovely girl, Njambi, who was working in London for the Kenya Tourism Agency. He eventually convinced Njambi to marry him, and she moved with him to Seattle. They have been married now for over 40 years.

In addition to being a substance abuse counselor, Gishuru started a curio business selling African artifacts which became an instant success in the 14 years it operated, before winding down, unable to compete with Amazon and other upcoming technology-oriented competitors.

Gishuru continued his interest in politics and noticed that toward the end of the cold war in the 1990s, Africans in Diaspora were feeling marginalized. He wanted to be an effective change agent for his countrymen, therefore, he created the African Chamber of Commerce.

The ultimate goal of the organization was to educate Americans about Africa. Their mission was to improve the image of Africa in order for it to be viewed as a business partner instead of a continent dependent on foreign aid.  As he was working with the African Chamber of Commerce, he was introduced to Jim McDermont, a medical doctor who had recently returned to Seattle from then Zaire.

Dr. Jim McDermott was running for a Congressional seat in Washington’s 7th District.  He was fond of Africa, and Gishuru believed that his new friend could be the voice for Africa in the United States Congress. He fondly remembers Congressman McDermott asking him, “What can I do for Africa?”

Congressman McDermott went on to introduce legislation called AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) which opened the American market for African products. Peter recounts that period:

“Congressman Jim reached out to us at the African Chamber of Commerce, and asked us to be the foot soldiers, to call the other members of Congress and ask them to support this AGOA legislation.”

One of the most exciting experiences for Gishuru was when he learned that his hero,  Nelson Mandela, was coming to speak at Seattle University. Being an Alumnus of the university, Peter went to the university president and asked if he could meet Mandela. He was given the contact information of the facilitator who was in charge of organizing Mandela’s and his wife Graca’s trip to the university from South Africa.

Peter Gishuru at his home in Seattle, Washington during the interview

Providentially, Gishuru called the contact and the man on the other end of the phone said, “Peter, I am from Cameroon and an African just like you. I can assure you that at every event where Nelson Mandela speaks, you will have 10 tickets! There is a meeting tomorrow morning for those planning the visit. I invite you to join us.”

Gishuru describes meeting Mandela and shaking his hand as “ a dream come true.”

Today, Gishuru remains involved with the African Chamber of Commerce which is now 20 years old. From his experience, he has seen that most Congressmen know more about Asia than they do about Africa. He believes that the African Diaspora’s duty is to teach Americans about Africa.

“Our efforts at the chamber of commerce are directed in two areas: The first area is advising American companies how to enter the African market,” he remarked.

“Our other involvement is in the area of immigration and immigrants. Most of the workers in local ports are from Africa. The majority of those driving for Uber and Lyft are from Africa too. So we hold workshops on how to be successful in these jobs. We put together workshops of customer service, communication, and setting goals among other areas.”

“Presently, the goal of the African Chamber of Commerce is to build an African innovative business resource center,” Gishuru stated. He went on to explain that the Chamber was working with some of his friends, and they are exploring new work with EB5 in order to encourage the rich Africans to finance their project.

Gishuru believes the biggest challenge for any organization is the process of securing funding for a project. He said that when people hear the word “Chamber” they think of money. “This work can be thankless and involves a lot of sacrifices. I remember when we just started, there was someone whose sole mission was to watch us – hoping and praying that we goof, so she could report us to the authorities,” he recounted.   

Gishuru has accomplished many of the goals that he envisioned when he first came to America. He believes his greatest accomplishment was being a part of the team that helped AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) become a reality.  Whether he is working for the African Chamber of Commerce, running his own business, or educating Diasporans on how to assist their motherland, he will never forget the words spoken by Nelson Mandela years ago at Seattle University

“You Africans in Diaspora. You are blessed. You are going to have to remember that you are the bridge between the resources and where the resources are needed. Make sure you bring resources to our people.”

That is Gishuru’s hope for current and future Diasporans.

 

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