Cold warrior for racial equality

Saturday February 7 2009

Airlift students withTom Mboya (fourth right),

Airlift students withTom Mboya (fourth right), Gloria and Gordon Hagberg (second and third right respectively). Photo/FILE 

By Dana Seidenberg

Whether it is for expanding people’s democratic space, press freedom, better pay for workers or the preservation of the environment, the choice of whether to participate in the political passions of the day is open to all of us. Despite her origins as an outsider, American-born Gloria Hagberg, a long-time Nairobi resident, has played her part.

A large canvas spanning nearly a century — with most of those years spent in Nairobi — is a colourful portrait of a life well spent — creating groundbreaking institutions, teaching, performing the roles of devoted wife and mother and, as a detail, by coincidence, a bit of personal involvement with the Obama family.

Hagberg did her bit for bringing about a more inclusive, non-racial society through her decades of involvement with the United Kenya Club and her work as a teacher at the Hospital Hill School, Nairobi’s first racially integrated school.

In the process, she became involved with some of the stellar personalities of Kenya’s Independence movement. After Independence, she continued to participate in the struggle for a just society.

Born in 1913 in New York, the daughter of an Irish policeman, Gloria Hagberg was one of only two women in her class at Brooklyn College to graduate with a degree in physics.

In 1935, she married Cornell University graduate Gordon Hagberg, a newspaperman born in India of missionary parents.


With the intensification of the Cold War, America began expanding cultural programmes in many of the world’s emerging nations.

Having always wanted to return to India, in 1950 Gordon got a job in the United States Information Service (USIS) and the couple spent two years in Madras.

It seemed almost fated that their next overseas assignment with USIS would bring them to East Africa, as Gordon’s parents had met in Lamu and married in Zanzibar.

In 1956, when the Hagbergs arrived in Nairobi, the Emergency was in its last two years.

Though restrictive colonial ways still prevailed, those in power were beginning to face the inevitability of Kenya becoming independent rather sooner than they had foreseen.

The following year, Ghana became free, paving the way for Kenya and other states still under colonial occupation to move into the community of free nations.

With Independence concretised into hopeful probability, these were exhilarating times in Kenya as well.

The couple found themselves caught up in the swirl of progressive political events in Nairobi.

The Hagbergs didn’t restrict themselves to the starchy, closed-off British colonial social circuit. Rather, they reached out to up-and-coming Kenyans involved in the movement towards self-government.

This was partly because it was their job, but it was mostly because the Hagbergs were the kind of people they were.

The establishment of a racially mixed society that was also an integral aspect of the Independence struggle had an early home in the United Kenya Club.

Established in 1947 by Thomas Askwith, a Briton, and others as a pioneering, integrated social club to provide a place where Africans, Asians and Europeans could, in Askwith’s words, “appreciate how little there was dividing them,” members met every Wednesday at a building near the Railway Terminal.

By the late 1950s, when Gloria and her husband joined, it had grown to include many of the leading lights of the Independence movement and become well established, with a club building at the foot of State House Road (where it continues to thrive).

Lawrence Sagini, who in 1962 would become minister of education, Dr Julius Kiano and his then African-American wife Ernestine, Sir Ernest Vasey, minister for finance (1952-59), and his wife Hannah, and Sir Derek and Lady Erskine, John and Joan Karmali, who were also involved in integrated education, as well as budding industrialists such as the Manjis and Manu Chandaria were all involved with the club in one way or another. Later pioneering editor Hilary and his wife Fleur Ng’weno would also become members.

The Club provided an early public forum for guest speakers when racial restrictions in the city continued to limit free expression elsewhere.

Speakers at the traditional Wednesday lunch and discussion would include “anyone who had any influence” — among them Sir Ernest Vasey and in 1956, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, in 1959 and 1961, Tom Mboya and in November 1961, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta himself, recently released from detention.

Another institution the Hagbergs supported was Hospital Hill School, the first experimental, racially integrated primary school in Nairobi, begun in 1949 by the Karmalis.

When in 1956, Gloria’s daughter, Paula, attended as a 10-year-old, it was a three-room schoolhouse on Arboretum Road with 70 pupils, equally divided among the three racial groups.

Paula remembers it as her favourite school experience.

The children, including Marsden Madoka and so many others who would figure large in Kenya’s future political arena, easily formed friendships across the racial divide in its supportive environment. Tom Mboya and Charles Njonjo were just two of the personalities involved in the success of the school.

Not walking to leave Kenya after his stint in the USIS had ended, Gordon Hagberg left government service in 1959 to begin work in the Washington-based African-American Institute and then became Director of the East African office of the Institute of International Education.

It was through these positions that he helped organise the influential student airlifts of 1959, 1960 and 1962.

It was at this time he and Gloria came to know freedom fighter, trade unionist and student airlift organiser Tom Mboya and many others.

While Gordon worked with Tom Mboya and others to secure scholarships for Kenyan students to pursue degrees at American universities as well as to raise funds for chartered flights to the United States, Gloria helped run the orientation classes for students as they were going overseas for the first time.

She had the satisfaction of seeing many of these young Kenyans return to pursue successful careers in their new country. Lasting friendships developed, including with Pamela Mboya and Lawrence Sagini.

Gloria managed to pursue teaching wherever she was and worked as a full-time teacher at Hospital Hill School, eventually becoming its deputy headmistress.

She taught students with special needs as well as English.

Hospital Hill became the primary school attended by many of the children of the country’s administrators and political leaders. By 1973, the school had moved to larger premises in Parklands and was finally handed over to the City Council.

With Gloria fully employed by the school, and having like so many other expatriates become enamoured of the young country and its people, the Hagbergs decided to make Kenya their home.

After Independence, they bought a 750-acre dairy farm at Naro Moru, the same farm where Born Free, the famous film about George and Joy Adamson and their lioness, Elsa, was shot.

In 1973, in the midst of planning all sorts of innovative projects for the farm including raising trout and developing methane-powered electricity, tragedy befell the family. Gordon was diagnosed with untreatable cancer and had three months to live.

The family all went back to the United States to seek a second opinion, but unfortunately the prognosis had been true. Gloria returned to Kenya alone and took a flat on Riverside Drive, selling the farm after five years.

In the 1980s and well into her 70s and retired, Glora was approached by the well-known educator and former MP Eddah Gachukia to run her Riara Kindergarten.

Today, she credits Gloria for giving her the start she needed to develop that one small school into the many Riara Schools, including Riara Springs Girls’ Secondary School.

During the same years, as a lifelong member of the United Kenya Club, Gloria moved into its newly built residential premises.

An excellent place to live if one can afford the rent, it combines the privacy of one’s own flat, a library with daily newspapers from around the world and social support.

When in need of company and conversation, a resident can always find any number of like-minded people downstairs on the terrace. Paula Hagberg Schramm recently returned to keep her mother company.

At 95, Gloria has just begun winding down, dropping her many social engagements.

Yet she continues to support social welfare organisations and still attends meetings of the East African Women’s League (another group she refused to join until it was racially integrated after Independence) and the American Women’s Association.

And the detail? The detail is about Gloria’s personal relationship with the family of President-elect Barack Obama.

The USIS had provided a house and staff for the family in Muthaiga near the US ambassador’s residence.

Their cook was Hussein Onyango Obama, none other than the paternal grandfather of President Obama. Gloria recalls the times Hussein’s son, the youthful student Barack Obama Sr, would visit their house, announcing: “I’ve come to see the old man!”

Although the young Obama Sr. left for the University of Hawaii before the first formal student airlift, he did maintain his friendship with the Hagbergs when he returned to Kenya. Paula has memories of Hussein cutting an intimidating figure, “tall, dignified and stern-faced, yet kind.”

Having adapted to British ways from a stint serving the British Army in Burma, Hussein Obama held everyone to a high standard of excellence — in school and in life.

Seeing the advantages of modern life before many others did in his home area near Lake Victoria, he had his children attending school, wearing Western clothes and provided his home with Western furnishings including a table where the family would sit and eat with cutlery. Second, as a Muslim, he wore a fez as well as a kanzu and vest.

Also unusual for the times, he had learned to read and write.

Gloria remembers Hussein reading his Koran and other books at night by the light of an oil lamp, as well as her shock and frustration that the landlord had refused to provide electricity to the staff houses.

Many of these points have been corroborated in Barack Obama’s journey of discovery of his Kenyan roots Dreams From My Father.

Through having known Hussein Onyango Obama and his son Barack Obama Sr., Gloria has felt that same immediacy and connection that so many Kenyans feel for America’s new leaders.

The threads that run through Gloria Hagberg’s life of hard work, open-mindedness and friendship have been woven together with the lives of many others who strive to leave the world a better place than they found it.