Manilal Ambalal Desai

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Desai Road, a prominent landmark in Ngara, is familiar to most Kenyans. What’s not, however, is the story of the man behind the name. Manilal Desai was born around 1879 in India. He came to Kenya in 1915 to join a European law firm in Nairobi. Unable to stomach the racism in his workplace, he quit and plunged into politics.

Alibhai M. Jeevanjee, who had founded the East African Indian National Congress (EAINC) in 1914, appointed Desai as secretary to the Congress. Desai started a newspaper, the East African Chronicle, to campaign against the segregation and injustice being meted out to Indians and Africans.

He was a close friend of Harry Thuku and the offices of the Chronicle became a meeting place of Indian and African political activists for their political work.

The Chronicle Press also printed Thuku’s broadsheet, Tangazo (The Announcement) as well as leaflets and pamphlets in Kiswahili. In 1922, after it had condemned the arrest of Thuku, the Chronicle had to cease publication because of a libel charge.

In 1923, Desai led a delegation to the Colonial Office in London to discuss the growing unrest in Kenya and to demand equality of status. In 1924, Desai led a boycott against unfair taxation and was imprisoned for six weeks. In 1925, he was nominated to the Legislative Council.

Desai passed away in 1926 in Bukoba, Tanganyika. He left neither relatives nor property in Kenya, but is remembered for his dedicated, selfless public work.