Kenyan Land and Freedom Army Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi after he was captured by the British in 1956. Kimathi was executed by the colonialists in 1957. The survivors of the war are seeking reparations from the British., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Kenya torture claims ruling due
Three victims of torture during the Mau Mau uprising will learn today whether their compensation claims against the British Government can proceed.
Wambugu Wa Nyingi, Paulo Muoka Nzili and Jane Muthoni Mara claim they were tortured during the uprising between 1952 and 1960.
Last year the elderly Kenyans won a ruling that they had "arguable cases in law" but the case came back to the High Court in July to consider the Government's claim that the actions were brought outside the legal limit.
Lawyers for the Kenyans argue this is an exceptional case and that the existence of thousands of official records mean a fair trial is still possible, despite the passage of time.
Scott Van Wynsberghe: Looking back at Kenya’s revolution
Scott Van Wynsberghe, Special to National Post | Oct 4, 2012 3:08 PM ET
The old guy plainly liked being driven around by his chauffeur. His feet were propped up on the car seat in front of him, and his hat was pushed to the back of his head. But the fun ended on Oct. 7, 1952, 60 years ago this weekend. On that day, his car was stopped near Nairobi, Kenya, by three gunmen dressed as native police. One of them came forward and asked for chief Waruhiu wa Kunga, a prominent pro-British leader of the Kikuyu people of southwest Kenya. The old guy indicated that he was chief Waruhiu, and the gunmen shot him (although the chief’s driver and one other passenger were spared). Thirteen days later, as violent radicalism spread among the Kikuyu, British colonial authorities launched a state of emergency, and Kenya was plunged into an ordeal immortalized by just one name — Mau Mau.
What is now Kenya began to be incorporated into the British Empire in the late 1800s, and the first white settlers appeared in the early 1900s. Some of the most desirable land happened to be northwest of Nairobi, and the settlers flocked there, causing the area to be referred to as the “White Highlands” — even though much of it had previously been held by the Kikuyu. In 1934, a land commission ruled that the Kikuyu had been stripped of 60,000 acres, but it also decided that they had received sporadic compensation over the years and so merited only 21,000 acres as a final settlement. The issue festered.
Less justifiable was another Kikuyu grievance — female circumcision. As early as 1966, historians Carl G. Rosberg Jr. and John Nottingham devoted over 20 pages of a book on Mau Mau to this subject, and made clear that the Kikuyu (or at least the male Kikuyu) bitterly resented anti-circumcision crusades by missionaries.
As Kikuyu anger mounted, an outlet for it emerged in the form of politicized “oathing.” As explained by historian Jeremy Murray-Brown, generations of Kikuyu had honoured the act of giving an oath through solemn rituals that could involve blood and body parts from animals. Until the 1920s, however, nobody had applied oaths to political movements. The first political oaths, enacted by a group called the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), were innocuous and featured nothing more than a Bible, a handful of soil and a willingness to uphold Kikuyu solidarity. By the time of the Second World War, however, the Bible had been replaced with a more-traditional chunk of goat flesh. Subsequent ceremonies would go far beyond that — calling for violence, and taking on an explicitly anti-colonial tone. But the KCA would not be around for that, having been banned during the war.
What followed the KCA is murky. Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, who wrote a 1963 memoir of his involvement in the upheaval, insisted that the spread of oathing in the 1940s and early 1950s was a leaderless, grassroots phenomenon, but he may not have disclosed everything he knew. In fact, much of the oathing swirled around a successor to the KCA, the Kenya African Union (KAU), which emerged in 1944. In a 1977 book, Frank Kitson, a controversial British intelligence officer during the Mau Mau crisis, flatly blamed the KAU for subversive oathing, but that, too, was not the full story. The real trouble spot, many agree, was the Nairobi branch of the KAU, which was so packed with young violent extremists that the rest of the KAU may have been intimidated by it.
As for the KAU’s leader, Jomo Kenyatta, he was enigmatic. Over the years, he had used at least three other names, including Kamau wa Ngengi, K.N. Johnstone and Johnstone Kenyatta. Also, it was he who had installed some of the worst offenders of the KAU’s Nairobi branch. While publicly denouncing out-of-control oathing, he failed to mention that his own Nairobi hotheads were causing concern.
In any event, colonial authorities first became aware of something they called “Mau Mau” by 1948. The name is a mystery, because KAU Nairobi activists did not use it. It is close to the Kikuyu word for an oath (muma), and it is also suspiciously like the jumbled wordplay of a Kikuyu children’s game, uma uma, but neither theory has been proven. All the British knew was that secret anti-colonial oathing rituals were involved, and they banned “Mau Mau” in 1950. Even if it had no meaning, the moniker stuck.
By 1952, Kikuyu unrest culminated in the so-called “batuni” oath, the militancy of which was revealed by the term’s derivation from the English word “platoon.” According to Kariuki, who underwent a batuni ritual in 1952, this oath specifically called for violence. Kariuki also revealed a startling detail: As part of the ceremony, he was told to insert his penis into a chunk of goat meat. At least one other batuni initiate, Joseph Kiboi Muriithi, reported a similar experience, but Mau Mau historians have been even more squeamish about discussing this than the business of female circumcision.
After chief Waruhiu’s death, as the British struggled to control the mess, it became apparent that thousands of rebels were now based in forests adjoining Kikuyu territory. For months, says Murray-Brown, the Nairobi KAU branch had been sending recruits and guns to those areas — and he also claims that Kenyatta knew about it but failed to expose it. True or not, Kenyatta and scores of other prominent Kikuyu — including the leadership of the Nairobi KAU — were rounded up and confined for the length of the emergency. (Kenyatta would be tried and convicted for causing the crisis, but that trial has been called a travesty.)
The extent of white horror over Mau Mau was luridly exposed by the U.S. novelist Robert Ruark in the 1955 bestseller Something of Value. Ruark obviously did a lot of research in Kenya, but he also absorbed much racial hysteria, and his version of the batuni oath involved human sacrifice and cannibalism.
With Ruark as a benchmark, colonial restraint toward Mau Mau was not likely. During the 1950s, British security forces detained tens of thousands of Kikuyu, sealed up the rest of the tribe in guarded villages and waged a pitiless war against the rebels. Over 11,000 of the latter were reported killed in action, and almost 1,100 more were executed for alleged Mau Mau crimes. Author Caroline Elkins may have fumbled an attempt to gauge the full extent of Kikuyu mortality during the crisis, but her portrayal of British abuses is a generally convincing litany of torture, rape and murder. (In fact, even Ruark depicted severe torture by the British.)
Amid all this, it was hard to keep in mind that only 32 white civilians died in the mayhem. By contrast, Mau Mau killers zealously pursued fellow Kikuyu who had sided with the British, and slaughtered over 1,800 of them.
With victory in their bloody grasp, the British blundered. In 1959, as the rebellion faded, colonial authorities perversely decided they had to be even tougher toward detainees, 11 of whom were then beaten to death at a camp called Hola. Officials tried to cover up the outrage, worsening the scandal. The British Empire in Kenya unraveled. The state of emergency ended in 1960, and full independence was granted in 1963.
And who was the first leader of this new country? The ever-perplexing Jomo Kenyatta, who would forge a political environment in which Mau Mau veterans were often marginalized and forgotten. Talk about bad goat meat.
Scott Van Wynsberghe lives in Winnipeg, where stories of blood and madness often involve mosquitoes.