Joseph Musau, Kenyan immigrant who helped friends and other immigrants, dies at 59

·9 min read

Editor’s note: This feature is part of a weekly focus from The Star meant to highlight and remember the lives of Black Kansas Citians who have died.

Joseph Musau did everything he could think of to help his recently widowed friend, who now lived alone in a nursing home, driving her to the hair salon whenever she needed a trim and taking her laundry home each week to wash.

The Kenyan-born Olathe resident felt a responsibility to the woman with advancing dementia because of his belief in returning favors, his wife, Esther Muiruri, said.

Because, decades ago, when he was finding his way in a new country, she and her late husband helped him.

Musau grew up in a village in Kenya outside of Nairobi, a dry and dusty town with a tiny single road sandwiched between acres of steep hilltops, recalled Muiruri, also a native of Kenya. He knew of America — of its geography, its institutions, its ideals — mainly through school and the movies he would see at the closest cinema. His uncle had moved to the U.S. when he was young, family said; he dreamt of one day doing the same.

So at the age of 19 he moved to Kansas to attend Mid-America Nazarene University in Olathe, close to his uncle, though he needed to work to stay afloat. He found a job with the woman he would one day look after, doing yard work and gardening for her and her husband.

His car broke down once while he was working for the couple, Muiruri said. It was left beyond repair.

The couple bought him a new one, unknowingly earning a lifelong chauffeur.

“From that particular time, he just wanted to pass along,” Muiruri said over the phone. “If somebody had a problem with a car, he would go and help…to give them rides.”

Musau, whose giving spirit led him to not only care for the Olathe couple but to volunteer his time helping Kenyans in his home country and those who immigrated to his new one, died on June 7 following a two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer, family said. He was 59.

His family residing in the U.S., including his wife and three children, made the long flight to Kenya this week to honor the soft-spoken man known for his service on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In Kansas, he helped other Kenyan immigrants in his community navigate the complicated visa process he faced, Muiruri said. He also took trips back to Kenya to help build new homes in his village and recruit others to make the big move.

He was buried on Saturday in his village, underneath his family farm, explained his brother-in-law, James Waite, of Olathe.

“It is a tradition to be buried in our own farms,” said Waite, who’s also from Kenya. “He’s been honored to be taken back home.”

Born on August 12, 1962, Musau was the first-born child in his family, with six younger siblings. His mother, a teacher, and his father, who worked for the railroad, wanted their children to have every opportunity to thrive in their home country — and to possibly, like their uncle, see the world beyond it.

Education was everything in their household, Waite said. Musau would tell him about his not-always-easy time in high school, a short distance away in Nairobi, where there was a tradition for the older students to bully the younger ones with elaborate pranks. He was, for instance, “made to eat beans” during most lunches, Waite said. He never wanted to eat them again.

A love of science, however, blossomed within him during school. He decided he would study computer science at Mid-America Nazarene in America, leaving Kenya like his uncle and the neighbors in his village he had said goodbye to in the past.

It was always an event when they returned, Waite said, and everyone gathered around them to hear stories of America.

“Everyone wanted to be like them,” he said.

As a 19-year-old adjusting to the culture shock of a new country, he slowly found community with his uncle, friends from college and the couple that employed him. He also joined a church, the Gospel Outreach Center, that wound up leading him to the person he would start a new life with.

Muiruri was a member at the church. A mutual friend, who went to college with Musau, mentioned to Muiruri she knew someone who was also from Kenya who could be a good friend.

“He was very quiet, with a very soft demeanor, but accepting and welcoming,” Muiruri said. “As much as he was soft-spoken, he was very purposeful — you know, like somebody with a purpose.”

They wed in 1995 and started a family together, having three children.

Musau, Muiruri said, was a strict but loving father who — like his parents before him — wanted them to get a good education and have opportunities he never could. He was known to sit down with them if they ever made a mistake, preaching the importance of apologizing and moving on. He taught them with his words, as well as his actions.

He worked as a salesman for many companies during his career, most recently with Harlan Global, traveling back to African countries to sell airplane and car parts. There were many occasions when he took trips back to his village, and he never showed up empty-handed.

He brought clothes and books to donate to community members in his village, Muiruri said. He helped them construct new buildings.

Also, in the role of the American citizen triumphantly returning home, he told people about what awaited them on the other side of the world and helped those who chose to immigrate. He provided guidance on securing the right paperwork, making the right appointments. He gave them car rides once they were here.

“He helped them actually settle down,” Muiruri said. “Because it’s hard when you come here to get places.”

His love of his homeland never left him even after he became a proud American.

In 2017, a couple of years before his cancer diagnosis, he and Muiruri took a trip together to his village for the first time. She had never seen it before, since they had grown up in different parts of the country, in different tribes. She was in the Kikuyu tribe; he was in the Kamba tribe.

It was emotional for him to show his wife and children where he grew up, and where he spent countless trips as an adult trying to do what he could to help. He felt proud.

One of his main goals in life, Muiruri said, was to treat people with the same kindness he had experienced.

“When he came to America, he was also helped,” she said. “So every time he found people who are poor, even back in his village, he helped them out…He never forgot them, even when he was here.”

He’s survived by his wife, Muiruri; children, Daisy Wambua, Musau Wambua and Sam Wambua; parents Nelson and Margaret Musau; siblings, Theresa Mwalwa, Mary Musau, John Musau, Kevin Musau, Agnes Musau and Rhoda Kinako; and several nieces, nephews and other relatives.

Other remembrances

Harriet Powell

Harriet Powell, a mother who at times worked three jobs to provide for her family, died April 14 following a seven-year battle with cancer, family said in an obituary shared by Golden Gate Funeral Home. She was 74.

Born on December 9, 1947, in Kansas City, Kansas, Powell was one of six siblings in her family. She went through Kansas City schools and later became employed at Price Shopper, where she worked for more than 30 years.

She also became a mother to one daughter, Tracy Birch. Family, Birch said, was the most important thing to Powell, her “biggest value in life.”

More recently, her daughter made her a grandmother.

“Harriet was very passionate about doing anything she could to make her granddaughter happy,” Birch said, “and always inspiring her to do well in life.”

Harriet Powell died April 14 following a seven-year battle with cancer, family said in an obituary shared by Golden Gate Funeral Home. She was 74.
Harriet Powell died April 14 following a seven-year battle with cancer, family said in an obituary shared by Golden Gate Funeral Home. She was 74.

Powell was known as a strong woman but also an unapologetic diva who loved red lipstick, high fashion and bling. She always seemed to apply the prettiest makeup paired with the “most stunning outfit,” Birch said.

She loved to bake, too, which she picked up from her own mother, whipping up her specialty chocolate chip cookies or barbecue chicken.

Birch said her mother always had a big smile on her face, one that could brighten the day of anyone who was feeling down. She tried to keep her spirits up even as she dealt with cancer for the past seven years.

There were numerous treatments and surgeries and setbacks, but she didn’t let it get to her.

“But even though she was going through all this, she never complained,” Birch said.

Powell is survived by her daughter, Birch; granddaughter Rezi Hawkins; siblings Sharon Hutton-Langsford, Harvey Dawkins Jr., Joyce Dawkins and Victor Dawkins; nieces, Traneece Green, Sparkle Donahue and Chloe Donahue; nephews, Terrance Hutton and Jaron Sanders; and several great-nieces, great-nephews, cousins and other relatives.

Cheril Sims

Cheril Sims, who was known to friends and family for her ability to help those around her even as she faced her own health struggles, died April 12, family said in a Golden Gate Funeral Home obituary. She was 57.

Sims was born on April 28, 1964, in Kansas City, Kansas, and was eventually educated in the Kansas City, Missouri School District. She had one sister.

After high school, she went to Penn Valley Community College, helping her later to gain employment with several companies over the years, from Deffenbaugh Waste Management to Western Missouri Mental Health. She had multiple security jobs during her long career.

In June 1988, she married Rodney Simpson and together they had two children.

Cheril Sims was born in Kansas City, Kansas. In June 1988, she married Rodney Simpson and together they had two children. She died April 12 at age 57.
Cheril Sims was born in Kansas City, Kansas. In June 1988, she married Rodney Simpson and together they had two children. She died April 12 at age 57.

To her family, she was the woman with the beautiful smile, whose upbeat personality led her to make many long-term friendships over the years, family said. She liked old technology, too — recording her music onto CDs and thumb drives and tinkering with electronics. Poker was among her favorite games.

Sims eventually had to stop working because she faced kidney problems and, in 2010, received a transplant.

But she would take the time to help her loved ones, “even when she wasn’t feeling well,” family said in the obituary.

She’s survived by her mother, Frances Gilbert; sister, Cherie Stansbury; sons, Romone Simpson Sr. and Romond Simpson Sr.; stepchildren; 12 grandchildren; and several cousins, aunts, uncles and other relatives.