J M DESAI

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Jashbhai Motibhai Desai (JM) was born in India in 1905. He landed in Zanzibar on December 14, 1925 at the age of 20, carrying with him inspirational memories of Mahatma Gandhi. He went into the insurance business and in 1936, moved with his wife, Sushila, to Nairobi.

Financial success followed, but Desai remained restless, unsettled by the flagrant racism displayed by the colonialists towards Africans in their own land.

Soft spoken and modest, Desai’s nationalist fervour and determination to achieve a multi-racial society brought him into contact with established African families. One of them was the Koinange family, and through them, in 1946, he met Jomo Kenyatta.

Desai opened the doors to his house to patriotic African and South Asian leaders and to sympathisers of the Kenyan struggle from abroad. He volunteered for the Kenya African Union and spent his own money to support the burgeoning African freedom struggle.

Predictably, the colonial anger was welling. The main British insurance companies withdrew all their agencies from Desai’s firm. All schools were ordered to boycott GR Stephens & Co. – the biggest tailoring contractors for school uniforms, also owned by Desai.  His business empire crumbled and had to recall his children from Britain, where they were going to school because he could not pay for their stay or education.

Undaunted, Desai did not sever his ties with the nationalist leaders. He continued to harbour activists being sought by the colonial police. He remained true to the end.

He died in 1991.