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Mohamed Hassan has been described as one of the freedom fighters of Kenya who funded the nationalist movement Kenya African Union (KAU) and the Mau Mau, a major nationalist revolutionary movement that originally sought to reclaim land that the British settlers had taken away from them in the 1950s. The group would eventually contribute to Kenya’s independence.
Despite his enormous contributions, when discussing the history of Kenya’s struggle for independence, Hassan is usually ignored and this is mainly because he is Somali.
According to historians, Somalis in Kenya, who are over 2 million currently, were largely ‘ostracised’ after Kenya gained independence. This was caused by the Shifta War that followed a desire by the Somalis to join the larger Somalia.
In 1962, a year before Kenya’s independence, a referendum was held to find out whether Somalis, who were then living in North Eastern Kenya and cut off from the greater Somalia, wanted to remain Kenyan or to rejoin Somalia.
They voted for rejoining the greater Somalia, but the British government refused and the Kenyan government, since 1963, has held on to the borders. Somali nationalists seeking secession from Kenya eventually took arms against the Kenyan government, and even though the war was over by July 1967, it has influenced Kenya-Somalia relations till date.
That is perhaps why the story of Somali businessman and freedom fighter Hassan has been hardly discussed until recently when a full report on him by Kenyan media Daily Nation emerged.
According to the report, Hassan, who was in the famous 1946 picture of Jomo Kenyatta with top officials of the KAU, was a heavy financier of Kenyatta, and probably the only Somali detained during the Mau Mau war.
Mohammed Hassan is seated (far right) with other KAU leaders in this 1946 photo. Pic credit: Daily Nation
Largely targeted by the colonial government, he lost all his businesses and properties in the process of his fight towards an independent Kenya, but his story remained buried until now.
Born in 1922, Hassan was only 16 when he had to take over his father’s business after the latter’s death. Around this time, Hassan was the only Muslim student in Alliance High School, but his education was interrupted by the father’s death and the World War II.
A Swedish entrepreneur subsequently gave him land on which he built a shop in Juja, a town in Kiambu County. This shop would ultimately be the meeting point of Mau Mau guerrillas at the start of the crackdown.
Meanwhile, Hassan’s schoolmates in Alliance were made up of individuals who would become nationalist leaders and activists. Hassan would eventually find himself at the centre of the freedom struggle among his peers, the Daily Nation report said. His shop in Juja also thrived following the tens of settlers who had settled in the area, including the famous U.S. steel billionaire Sir William Northrup McMillan.
“Because of its location, especially in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the shopping complex offered restaurant and butchery services and had three entrances: one for the European settlers, one for Asians and Arabs, and another for Africans. It also had a petrol pump and records say it was one of the best-lit areas in Juja,” writes the Daily Nation.
Hassan’s shop was also frequented by Kenyatta and his supporters in the 1940s and 50s, while he was campaigning to strengthen KAU as a nationalist movement. According to the Daily Nation report, Kenyatta, who would become Kenya’s first president, had once visited the shop to get some money, and Hassan would eventually become one of Kenyatta’s financial supporters.
But when the State of Emergency was declared in Kenya in 1952 due to the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule and incarceration of thousands of Kenyans, Hassan’s shop was ordered to be closed as he was seen to be supporting the Mau Mau secretly.
“All persons who are members of the Kikuyu, Embu or Meru tribe from being or remaining in … the block of stone shops known as Juja dukas on LR 255/1/2 on the main Nairobi-Thika Road,” read a colonial order issued against Hassan’s property in July 1954.
That same year, Hassan was arrested by the colonial government and charged, but later acquitted of possessing a firearm without a valid license. He would later make attempts to get back his shop that was forcibly taken away from loyalists and other traders during the crackdown on the Mau Mau in the 1950s.
Hassan’s several attempts to get back his shop and renew his license failed after he was described by as authorities as a “bloody Mau Mau.” The Somali businessman was compelled to close the shop and it was occupied by some Indian traders after independence.
In 2017, when Hassan’s daughter, Amina Mohammed was asked by the Daily Nation whether the family owned the shop, she replied: “We don’t know whether we still own it. But my mother (now deceased) used to tell me that the shop, as it is today, was the way it was left by my father.”
Today, Hassan’s shop, which is currently one of the remaining pillars of Kenya’s independence struggle, is rotting away.
Despite being a structure that contains the history of the freedom movement and inter-race relations in colonial Kenya, as well as, the story of the place of the Somali community in the freedom struggle, it has been ignored by authorities.
Hassan died in Nairobi in 1977 – dejected. Many Somalis in Kenya have also, till date, been treated with suspicion following their links to Islamist extremism, particularly the terror group al Shabaab based in Somalia.