The Forgotten Kenya Airlift by Eastern Socialist Countries

When Barack Obama made history as the first black president of the United States, history was made, and the world watched in amazement and hope. The election of the first black president ushered in an era of high expectations, especially among black people and the oppressed who had long hoped for great change in the nation’s trajectory on inequality, police brutality and racism, if his speeches were something to go with. However, as his presidency unfolded, it became evident that the situation for majority oppressed people in America remained challenging if not worse, and his foreign policy decisions, such as the invasion in Libya (Africa), had atrocious consequences of destroying a thriving stable nation. One aspect of Barack Obama’s background that was often discussed in the wake of his election was the fact that his father hailed from Kenya, in East Africa. Barack Obama Sr. was one of the beneficiaries of the Kennedy American Airlift in the 1960s, a program facilitated by Tom Mboya, America key point man in Kenya. The American airlift program is widely known, with many of those studying in the United States returning to become prominent elites in Neo-colonial Kenyan politics. However, what is rarely mentioned is the lesser-known Airlift for Kenyan students by Eastern Socialist Countries, also initiated in the 1960s through socialist leaning leader Oginga Odinga and a major figure in the struggle against British colonialism.

To understand why the Eastern Socialist Airlift is not popularly known, it’s essential to look into the historical context in which it unfolded. The 1960s marked the height of the Cold War, a period characterized by ideological and geopolitical confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union. This context is important in understanding why the Eastern Airlift, which enabled Kenyan students to attend universities in socialist countries, is hardly acknowledged or widely known. In contrast, the Tom Mboya Airlift was supported by the British and the USA, who were determined to keep the growing influence of communism out of Kenya and the rest of Africa. Also, Kenya’s strategic importance to the Western bloc, coupled with its allegiance to the British and the United States during this period, set it on a different trajectory from that of the communist Eastern Bloc. Countries such as East Germany, Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia aligned themselves with the socialist camp led by the Soviet Union. 

A 2013 study by Sungu F. Onyango titled “Eastern Socialist Countries Scholarship to Kenyans, Aeroflot and the Cold War Conflict, 1959-1970” sheds light on this often-overlooked subject. Onyango’s research delves into critical questions, such as why many Kenyans chose to study in the East despite British and United States prejudices against socialist countries and the impact of the Aeroflot scholarships on independent Kenya.

Interestingly, he notes that the first group of Aeroflot students embarked on their journey out of Kenya without British passports, following unofficial routes through Uganda, Sudan, and Cairo in Egypt before being flown to their respective colleges in communist bloc countries. The secrecy surrounding their departure was another factor contributing to the limited awareness of this program. These students of the late 1950s and early 1960s discreetly left the country, and there were reasons for that, as upon their return, they were subjected to constant surveillance and espionage as the government had developed a fear of communists through British and American propaganda and demonization. 

Tom Mboya’s airlift program to the U.S. A was allowed a more straightforward departure, the Eastern Socialist Airlift faced opposition, with authorities impounding passports and arresting students involved. An unfortunate aspect of the program was the high dropout rate among students who, for various reasons, struggled to reconcile their aspirations with the realities of life in Kenya as most struggled getting jobs with the capitalist government. And others chose to remain overseas, fearing a return home without the qualifications they had sought. 

As Onyango points out, the students who had studied in Eastern Bloc colleges and returned to Kenya were often branded as communist, and their education was portrayed as inferior by some political leaders influenced by the British government who were not comfortable with Oginga Odinga’s close association with the Eastern Bloc. By the mid-1960s, those seen as too closely aligned with Oginga Odinga’s had to adapt to survive and compromise on their ideological stands. 

Nevertheless, he notes that It’s important to recognize that the scholarships offered by Eastern Socialist Countries were intended to help develop a competent workforce for the future independent Kenya. Most of the courses were technical in nature- doctors, engineers and electricians, a significant difference from the American system where such degrees were typically pursued after obtaining a general degree. The socialist bloc thus made a valuable contribution to Kenya’s nationalism and development before and after independence.

Furthermore, the Eastern Socialist Countries demonstrated a genuine need to provide technical training for African nations on the eve of independence. The British colonial government had a preference for Africans seeking education within East Africa or South Africa and discouraged students from traveling to Europe or America. This restriction was enforced through the denial of passports, making it difficult for students to leave the country. It’s for this reason that many students who participated in the Eastern Socialist Airlift had to find alternative routes, often via Sudan and Egypt, as the British government was uncooperative in facilitating their travel. It was only in 1963 that for the first time a group of Kenyan students left publicly to the USSR and by 1964 there were about 250 Kenyan students studying there and the number kept increasing.

Oginga Odinga and the left-wing comrades had initially been key members of KANU. However, they would be expelled as the party distanced itself from its socialist roots and started aligning more closely with capitalist ideals under the guidance of Western Europe. This shift marked the beginning of a capitalist regime that would persist for decades. The ban on the Kenya People’s Union in 1969 founded by Oginga Odinga and Bildad Kaggia was a calculated move by the government to stifle any political dissent that diverged from the newly adopted capitalist stance. This ban not only outlawed the Kenya People’s Union but also symbolized the government’s determination to suppress any form of socialism.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kenya’s government intensified its crackdown on proponents of socialism. This suppression manifested itself in various forms, targeting political activists, students, and scholars who dared to espouse socialist ideals. In a climate of fear, speaking out for socialism was not only discouraged but also potentially dangerous. 

The demonization of socialism was a prominent feature of this era, with the government portraying it as a dangerous ideology that threatened national stability and sovereignty. The regime’s reliance on the support and guidance of Western Europe further fueled this paranoia, as the Cold War context intensified the global ideological battle between capitalism and socialism. Kenya’s government was quick to align itself with the capitalist camp, and the suppression of socialist ideals became a matter of state policy.

The government’s repression extended to the realm of education. Spies were strategically placed within universities to monitor teaching and to remove any literature related to Marxism, socialism, and communism. This practice made it increasingly challenging for scholars and students to access materials that offered alternative perspectives on socio-economic and political systems. The government’s goal was to isolate Kenyans from the ideas and experiences of Eastern socialist countries, making it difficult to comprehend and appreciate the impact of the Aeroflot.

Even with distortion and suppression of history, The USSR not only extended scholarships to young Kenyan students for education in the Soviet Union, it actively participated in infrastructure development, such as funding the construction of what is now known as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital, formerly Nyanza Provincial Hospital. Eastern Socialist Airlift for Kenyan students is a chapter in history that deserves greater recognition and understanding.