Dr Taaitta Kipyegon arap Toweett was born in 1925. He started school at Litein Primary and later joined Kabianga Mission School. In the 1948 Kenya African Preliminary Examination, he emerged the top pupil in the country. He joined Alliance High School, from where he later went to Makerere College.
He then enrolled for a correspondence course with a South African university and obtained a BA degree in philosophy. He later studied for a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Nairobi and a doctorate in linguistics at the same institution.
Toweett joined politics in 1958 when he was elected to the Legislative Council to represent Kericho. When Kadu was formed in 1960, he became its chief adviser and prophesied the death of Kanu in four months. He was among prominent Kenyan political leaders who participated in the writing of the first Constitution at Lancaster as a member of the Kadu delegation.
In 1963, he resigned and joined Kanu without the consent of his party. He also resigned as MP for Sotik to defend the seat on a Kanu ticket. But he lost to Alexander Bii. When he quit Kadu, he cited political disillusionment and was philosophical about it: “I have ceased to distinguish between what is right from what is not as a result of my metaphysical studies. I find it very difficult to take sides in political matters and to abide by one-sided political decisions despite new and changing realities of life.”
When Kenyatta became Prime Minister, Toweett gave conditions for his support — he would only work with him if those close to the Kanu leader did not stab Toweett in the back. And when Kadu was dissolved in 1964 to join Kanu, Toweett refused to cross the floor of the House and was the only one who took the principled option of seeking a fresh mandate from the electorate. He lost the by-election and was in political oblivion until 1969 when he recaptured the seat.
After the election, President Kenyatta appointed him Education Minister. He was re-elected in 1974. But he lost in 1979 and did not return to Parliament until 1992 when Kanu nominated him. He was also appointed chairman of the Kenya Seed Company. Toweett and Jean Marie Seroney, the MP for Tinderet in Nandi, were opposed to the settlement of other communities in the Rift Valley, which the Kalenjin regarded as their ancestral land. The two held public rallies in the province, culminating in the 1969 Nandi Hills Declaration in which they vowed to resist such resettlements.
He only accepted the settlement of immigrants in the Rift Valley after Moi supported it. His resentment of the mostly Kikuyu settlement ended after Kibaki and other central Kenya politicians supported Moi to become the second President. At one time, Toweett described Kenyatta as a President who kept silent when in bad company and spoke only when in good company. Toweett’s political woes began in the early 1970s when a group of politicians tried to change the Constitution to bar Vice-President Moi from ascending to the presidency should Kenyatta die. He was said to have been sympathetic to the group. This heightened tension between him and Moi, who eventually became President upon Kenyatta’s death on August 22, 1978.
Toweett lost his parliamentary seat to Prof Jonathan Ng’eno in the General Election. In 1988 he attempted a comeback, only to bow out of the race for what he termed “dirty politics”. In the early 1990s, during the clamour for multi-partyism, he advocated a partyless state. But he was appointed a director of Kanu’s Kenya Times Media Trust, which owned the now defunct Kenya Times newspapers and wrote articles in praise of Moi.
Prior to 2007, Toweett cautioned the Kipsigis not to jump onto the bandwagon of new political parties, saying they could eventually lock them out of the next government. He told the community to weigh its options — between joining other parties and sticking to Kanu. He said the community found itself in the opposition in 2002 due to lack of strategic planning. He advised the Kipsigis, the most populous sub-group of the Kalenjin, not to ignore Moi’s advice to them to remain steadfast in Kanu. At the time, the ODM of Raila Odinga, now the Prime Minister, had gained ground. Moi, for his part, supported Kanu, which was in the PNU coalition that supported Kibaki.
Toweett was controversial and mercurial, and had many eccentricities. His glasses were always on the forehead. Despite his age and failing eyesight that made driving difficult, a conversation with him was stimulating, speckled with wit and rib-tickling humour. In 1961, he astonished the country when he declared that he was a tribalist and urged his Kalenjin community to be proud of their ethnicity. But he changed tune 10 years later, and described people who cherished only their tribes as shortsighted.
Not a man to shy away from speaking his mind, he once denounced parliamentary reporters as “semi-deaf and mediocre”. Years later, he dismissed boarding schools as “useless creations of the colonialists”. When free primary education was introduced in 2003, he called for its abolition, saying it drained the resources allocated to the ministry. On crime, Toweett once addressed a press conference at independence and said thieves should be arrested and shot in public.
When he was the Minister for Education, between 1969 and 1979, he was angered by widespread failure in national examinations. As a result, he placed an advertisement in the press, urging students not to give up but seek his help. “I do not believe that a person’s chance in education should be curtailed by results. Everyone should get a chance to pass examinations for a bright future,” he said in the advert. Within two weeks, Toweett had received more than 1,000 letters from students. It is, however, not clear how he responded.
Toweett’s cars were an enigma. The passenger seats were either removed or turned backwards so that passengers rode facing the rear. His reasoning was that most people are so linear in their thinking that it was a waste of time looking at them directly in the eye. This also ensured that his driver was not distracted, and he and his aide sat behind. Once, Toweett bought a new Isuzu Trooper and removed the back seat and replaced it with a sack full of cement. His driver, Mathew Thuita, recalls: “He refused to let the person talking to him face the other way, and decided to have the passenger seat removed or turned to face the back seat.”
Several years before his death, he told journalists at the Nakuru Railway Restaurant that he took his dinner at exactly midnight. When drinking in a bar, he insisted on using his bottle top opener and kept the bottle tops in his pocket. Asked why, Toweett explained that it ensured bar attendants did not cheat him if he got drunk. Whenever his bill was brought to him, he would fish out the bottle tops from his pocket, count them and then pay.
Toweett was an accomplished scholar in philosophy and linguistics and authored publications on Kipsigis literature, language and Kalenjin social life, A Study of Kalenjin Linguistics and The History of Kipsigis, among others . He also had an insatiable appetite for reading and always had a book in his car, which he read during long trips. In 1981, he caused a stir when he disclosed that he had written a will, directing that when he died, his corpse be donated to the University of Nairobi’s School of Medicine.
But it was his research in moles in the 1980s that was a spectacle. He studied their sleeping habits and established the effects on human beings if they ate moles. At first, he wanted to use cats for the study, but abandoned the idea because he discovered their ineptness — that they are naturally heavy sleepers. He paid Sh15 for each mole delivered to his Mashimoni home. And the home was another peculiarity. The house was not built on the ground, but below it, hence the name mashimoni (bunker).
Toweett’s convictions earned him the tag of ‘intellectual arrogance’. He had independence of mind others considered eccentric. He was on his own orbit in life. During many meetings with journalists at Nakuru, he expressed belief in the independence of the individual and disagreed with the inclination to judge others.
He was married five times and divorced twice. In an earlier interview, he said he had divorced his first wife because she sued him over the custody of his children. The second wife, he said, could not cope with his lifestyle and opted out of the marriage. His wives and 26 children could not just walk into his house. He insisted that they book an appointment. However, he took pride in them, saying they were bright.
In the October 8, 2007, accident near Safari Bite Hotel at Free Area, six kilometres from Nakuru town, Toweett was with Thuita and an aide, Peter Kimani Ngunyo. He did not survive the 7.30 pm crash.
Thuita says the former Bureti MP was in a jovial mood before the accident. Talking while still recuperating at Nakuru’s Pine Breeze Hospital, he said: “He was looking forward to celebrating Moi Day (2007) at his Mashimoni home. Mzee sounded upbeat about the occasion and looked forward to a great moment with the guests he had invited.”
The death ended one of Kenya’s most colourful pioneer scholars and politicians. With a life often shrouded in controversy, he surely lived ahead of his time. He had a distinguished career in elective politics as an MP and Minister for Education. It was in appreciation of his long service to the country that Taaitta arap Toweett was awarded the Freedom of the City of Nairobi Honours Award in recognition of the role he played during the struggle for independence. He was 82.