‘We are the Mau Mau’: Kenyans share stories of torture
Kenyans who were arrested, beaten and tortured by the British during the fight for independence share their stories.
It’s December 1952. Naomi Nziula Kimweli, her husband Kimweli Mbithuka Kilatya, and their three children are on a bus, returning to their home town to celebrate Christmas in what today is central Kenya. Life is good: Kimweli works at the Department of Public Works and Naomi is five months pregnant with their fourth child.
But then soldiers stop the coach and force everybody off. Kenya was then a colony of the United Kingdom, and the soldiers were commanded by a British officer. Naomi and Kimweli refer to him as Luvai, which in their Kamba language means “ruthless person”.
The soldiers separate the men from the women and children, and haul the passengers to a detention camp.
“When we arrived, we found other people being tortured and we were being asked how many oaths we had taken; I said ‘no’ to anything about taking an oath,” Naomi says softly. “I was blindfolded and I could hear my children crying, calling me ‘Mummy, Mummy.’ I never saw them again.”
Now 87, Naomi wears a flowery dress and colourful headscarf, but her eyes are sad and her face angry as she recounts her ordeal. “Because when this bottle was pushed into my vagina, I fell unconscious,” she adds.
Naomi woke up some time later in Nairobi’s King George Hospital, today the Kenyatta National Hospital, to learn that the assault had caused her to miscarry.
In the meantime, her husband, Kimweli, now 91, suffered his own torment. “When we were taken to that camp, we were asked: ‘You must tell us how many oaths you have taken because you are also a Mau Mau’,” he explains.
Then he says he was pushed to the ground, ordered to straighten his legs and trampled on, slowly. Pulling up the hems of his trousers, he reveals scars he says are from wounds inflicted upon him that day.
A tall, gaunt man in a worn-out, too-small suit, Kimweli frowns as he continues: “Then I was forced to lie on my back, my groins were taken. Then they used pliers and I felt a very painful yank of my testicles.” He had just been castrated.
A few years earlier, a local movement had started revolting against the British colonial administration, which had ruled the area since 1895.
The movement mainly comprised Kikuyus, Kenya’s largest native tribe, many of whom had been pushed off their fertile lands in central Kenya by the European settlers. Along with other tribes, the Kikuyus had been forced to live in ethnic reserves that were too small for them, and required to possess a special permit to move around the country. Many ended up as cheap labour on white-owned farms in what had become known as the White Highlands.
Many of their European masters were young, upper-class British officers who had resettled there after World War I; others had arrived from South Africa and British-administered Rhodesia. Most enjoyed a life of luxury on their large, servant-staffed estates.
But, by 1948, growing unrest on the farms had alerted the colonial government to the existence of the so-called Mau Mau movement, which it subsequently banned in 1950. But just two years later, violence erupted as rebels began attacking farms and killing Africans they considered to be supporting the regime.
The rebels called themselves the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA). Their aim was to end colonial rule. It was the British who called them “the Mau Mau”, a term whose origins and meaning is still being discussed today.
The Mau Mau were said to be united by a secret Kikuyu oath that involved drinking blood and even eating human flesh.
When the rebels started killing Europeans too, the newly appointed governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, declared a state of emergency in the colony. It was October 1952, and the war against the Mau Mau had officially begun.
The colonial response
The colonial authorities struck swiftly and, intending to thwart the rebellion at its very beginning, arrested around 180 people, among them Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Kenyan African Union (KAU), a predominantly Kikuyu political organisation. But the actual leaders of the guerrillas, who, like Dedan Kimathi, came from the most radical wing of the KAU, had already escaped into the forests, from where they would continue their fight.
The rebels possessed few firearms so used spears and machetes. When they killed, they left the bodies torn to pieces. Living in the bush, they grew dishevelled, with long hair or dreadlocks, and some wore animal skins.
The fact that they mostly killed other Africans enabled the administration to frame the conflict as inter-Kenyan, one that the authorities were obliged to pacify.
“But that is not true. The truth is the Mau Mau was a mass movement that was organised to liberate Kenya from colonial domination,” says Gitu wa Kahengeri, the secretary-general of the Mau Mau War Veterans’ Association. “We went on and on and on; we did not want to leave [the struggle] until [the British] came to understand that this country belongs to the Kenyan Africans.”
Compared with almost all the other veterans, things are good for the secretary of their association, who ended up becoming a member of parliament and now has a state pension. In a navy blue suit, Gitu looks healthy and younger than his 86 years. He is sitting in the manicured gardens of the Fairview Hotel, near the centre of Nairobi. The hotel was already here in the 1930s, when its guests were Europeans arriving in the administrative capital of British Kenya.
Gitu says he joined the Mau Mau movement in 1946 and spent seven years in detention after being arrested in 1953.
Back then, while the regime soldiers fought the guerrillas, the colonial government also conducted a campaign of mass arrests. Almost anybody even slightly suspected of belonging to the Mau Mau was arrested and taken to a detention camp or prison where they were then interrogated and often tortured and abused.
Many women, like Naomi, were raped with glass bottles. Many men, like Kimweli, were castrated with pliers.
Few prisoners were brought before a court of law. They were classified according to how dangerous they were perceived to be, and they were continually moved from one camp or prison to another until they were considered safe to be sent to a reserve.
As the war dragged on, the administration started relocating a large part of the native population into what it dubbed “protected villages”. These were surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by soldiers and resembled the detention camps in everything but name. The “villages” also served the purpose of cutting off the locals’ support to the guerrillas.
Conditions in both the camps and villages were harsh; violence, sickness and hunger were rife.
There is contention about how many people were detained, but Harvard historian Caroline Elkins estimates that between 160,000 and 320,000 Kenyans were taken to detention camps. In total, she says, up to 1.5 million, including almost all the Kikuyu population, were forcibly kept either in the camps or the “protected villages”.
The rebellion proved to be much more difficult to deal with than the British had anticipated: the colonial government brought in 20,000 extra soldiers and used the British Royal Air Force to try to strike the rebels in the forests.
In October 1956, the Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi was shot and captured, effectively signalling the end of the fighting in the bush. Kimathi was tried and sentenced to death. He was hanged in February the following year.
Finally, in 1960, the state of emergency was lifted, and the colonial regime filed the uprising away as just a savage conflict conducted mostly between Africans.
The rebellion, however, had helped to accelerate the transition of power, as had been happening in other European colonies. Three years later, in 1963, Kenya was declared independent.
Its first government was led by Jomo Kenyatta, by then on friendly terms with the UK. The land which did not remain in British hands passed to Kenyans linked with Kenyatta’s government.
The new masters had little interest in bringing to light the wrongs committed by either side during the uprising, or in recognising the role played by the Mau Mau fighters. The Kenyan government did not remove the law banning the Mau Mau movement, and so the veterans remained barred from meeting and organising themselves into any kind of association.
The death toll of the conflict remains a source of dispute today. The Mau Mau killed around 1,800 Africans because of their supposed loyalty to the colonial regime, and a further 32 European and 26 Asian civilians, according to figures compiled by David Anderson, a professor of African history at the University of Warwick in the UK.
According to the official figures, the rebels also killed some 200 colonial security forces during combat. But as most of them were Africans, not more than 100 Europeans died as a result of the uprising. In contrast, at least 11,000 rebels were killed by the regime, and historians such as Anderson calculate the number of Kenyan casualties to be at least 20,000 – possibly more.
Harvard historian Elkins, whose estimates have been disputed by some of her colleagues, says between 100,000 and 300,000 Africans are unaccounted for.
All these disagreements were made possible by the fact that, as researchers such as Elkins discovered, many official documents from the time of the uprising were nowhere to be found. It seemed the British government had actually tried to delete that part of its imperial past.
Things suddenly changed in 2003. That year the government of the newly elected Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki lifted the law that banned the Mau Mau. The veterans immediately began gathering to share their stories, and soon the Mau Mau War Veterans’ Association was formed.
Together with the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), the veterans started working towards the possibility of bringing a lawsuit against the United Kingdom. The KHRC said it had documented 40 cases of sexual abuse, castration and illegal detention. From those cases, the commission was finally able to present five Mau Mau veterans as claimants in mid-2009.
As part of the research for the legal case, Professor Anderson made a startling discovery in 2010. He found out that the British government had indeed smuggled out of Kenya a huge number of official documents, which were still being kept secret on special premises. The judge for the case ordered the government to release these. Some 1,500 files recording Britain’s past in Kenya surfaced, many of them documenting systematic abuses committed by the colonial regime during the uprising. More than 7,000 secret files were found in 36 other former British colonies.
The British government argued that any legal responsibility for the Mau Mau case had passed on to the Kenyan government along with independence, and that a fair trial was not possible after such a long time.
The court denied both arguments; the first in April 2011 and the second in June 2012. Finally, the judge ruled that three of the Mau Mau claimants – Wambugu wa Nyingi, Jane Muthoni Mara and Paulo Muoka Nzili – had been tortured and abused by the colonial authorities. They could proceed with their case and sue the British government.
The trial never happened, however. In June 2013, the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, announced that Britain would pay roughly $31m in costs and compensation to a total of 5,228 veterans represented by the British law firm Leigh Day.
“We understand the pain and the grief felt by those who were involved in the events of emergency in Kenya. The British government recognises that Kenyans were subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” Hague said. He also insisted that his government still denied liability for the actions of the colonial administration in Kenya, and added that it would defend any claims brought by other former British colonies.
“You know, [the British] wrote our history the way they wanted it to be seen or to be heard,” says Gitu, the Veterans’ Association secretary general. “Now the [Kenyan] government has to support us, and I think it’s going to support us, because now the constitution recognises those who went to war to liberate Kenya, and there is also a day specifically to commemorate those who did fight the British government.”
“Therefore something is happening within our government, and possibly in the future they will embrace the rewriting of our history, perhaps before we die.”
Meet the Mau Mau
Jane Muthoni Mara:
“We took the oath to be united to ask for freedom and for our land”
- Born in around 1937-1939 in Kianjiru village, Nyeri district
- A member of the Mau Mau, she was arrested in 1954, when she was about 15
- She was sent to a detention camp, where she was beaten and violated with a glass bottle
- She was one of the three claimants who won the right to sue the British government
“The main thing I used to do was take food to the Mau Mau,” says Jane Muthoni Mara.
She recalls how she ran into the bush to escape harsh treatment by the colonisers “because they came in force, beating us … We were not fighting them; we ran to the forest for safety,” she adds.
She was arrested, she says, “because somebody, somewhere, reported that I belonged to the Mau Mau”.
She describes how, in detention, “we were thoroughly beaten and we had bottles inserted into our private parts. There were different glass bottles for elderly women and for the young ones. For the young ones, they used bottles of soda and for the others, Tusker beer bottles.”
“There was a certain British man, Waikanja as we called him, and he forced the soldiers to beat us and to insert the bottles into our private parts … They wanted us to say that we’d been given oaths by some of those who had gone to the forest. So we were forced to say who gave us the oath.”
“The area – the private parts – was injured. When the bottles were inserted, blood came out, I started bleeding.”
A healer gave Jane stitches.
When she returned home, she says she married and had children.
“My children are now suffering from the lack of land, a lack of education,” she says. “I tend to forget things and I think it could be because of the beatings.”
Jane and her husband have only casual employment. “We suffer from poverty,” she says. When asked if she receives any kind of support from the Kenyan government, her reply is a brief “nothing”.
The British, she says, “curtailed my life, they never did anything to benefit me”.
“The British never came to prevent anything here, they colonised the land and they denied the people of Kenya their rights, snatching their land and their freedom,” Jane laments. “They came with guns and machine guns and whips to beat all of us …. We all suffered the consequences: those who were in the forest, those who were in the villages, those who were in detention or in the prisons.”
Kimweli Mbithuka Kilatya:
“I was forced to lie on my back and my groins were taken. They used pliers and I had a very painful yank of my testicles”
- Born in 1923 in Kasau
- During the uprising he was a civilian, working at the Department of Public Works in the colonial administration
- He was arrested, interrogated, beaten up and castrated
“I was arrested in 1952 in December. We were going for Christmas, and we were intercepted on the way. We were all in the vehicles we were travelling in, which was stopped by a European.
“When we arrived in the town called Athi River, we were ordered out. There were very many other men and women who were going for holidays. All the men were ordered to go into one van, which was caged, and all the women were told to go into another van, also caged. That is where I was separated from my wife, Nziula. They were taken and we were taken and we never met until some time afterwards.
“When we were taken to that camp, we were asked how many oaths each one of us had taken. When I said I never took an oath because I was working with the minister of Public Works Department, I was told, ‘No, you must tell us how many oaths you have taken because you are also a Mau Mau’. I refused, so I was abused using ropes, and I continued saying ‘No, no’. We were taken backwards, on the neck here, behind the neck here. And then I was ordered to straighten my legs and here I was trampled on, slowly [by the officer]. ‘How many oaths did you take?’ ‘I did not take oaths.’ I was pressed harder, three times.
“Then I was forced to lie on my back and then my groins were taken and then they used pliers. I had a very painful yank of my testicles. It was very painful and then it got swollen.
“After I got all these injuries, I was unconscious and I don’t know how many days I remained there because I was only half there. There was a time, when I came back to consciousness, I found myself in today’s Kenyatta Hospital, which was called back then King George’s Hospital. How I went there, I don’t know; who took me there, I don’t know.
“I think they punished us or they tortured us because we’d joined together to ask for our land and whoever asked for that land was … [considered to be a] Mau Mau, so we were tortured seriously.
” After treatment, which took slightly more than two months, we were discharged from hospital and then I went back home. I was not taken to the detention camp again, so I was allowed to go back home.
“I never did anything else when I went back home, I never worked. I used to get support from relatives who were sympathising with me, until I was able to have produce from my shamba [small field]. After becoming a little bit stronger, I used to make quivers and sell them, and this is how I got support. ”
Naomi Nziula Kimweli:
“When they inserted this bottle into my vagina, I fell unconscious”
- Born in 1927, she now lives in Katangi
- She was five months pregnant when she was arrested, interrogated, beaten and assaulted, resulting in a miscarriage
- The last time she saw her three children, one girl and two boys, was when she was being tortured. She does not know what happened to them
“We were going home for holidays when our bus was stopped. Men were separated from women, w e were forced to enter our own van and we were taken to a detention camp.
“When we arrived at the detention camp, we found other people being tortured. We were also taken to be tortured, and asked how many oaths we had taken …. I said ‘no’ to any information about taking an oath. At that time I was blindfolded and during all of this I could hear my children crying, calling me ‘Mummy, Mummy’, and I never saw them again.
“When t his bottle was pushed into my vagina, I fell unconscious, I aborted.
“When I fell unconscious, fortunately there was my nephew, who was an army officer …. When he came to Athi River and found a bus stopped and asked, ‘What happened?’, he was told, ‘All the passengers have been taken to Kwaluwai’. He went to see because he knew we were coming home. So when he came to see if we were there, to fight for us so that we could be released, he found me unconscious. Because I had not yet died he asked to take this woman to the hospital and because he was working with the same government he was allowed, so he took us to King George’s Hospital.
“When I was taken to hospital, the bottle that was in my vagina was removed and the fœtus that had died from injuries was also removed and I was treated for more than three months. When I gained consciousness, I was told [there were] four of us [women]; two had died and another one had not yet died; she died recently of old age. I was stitched, the stitches can be seen, so this is the suffering I got.
“After t hat time I never saw my children again.
“Those who used to beat and kill and do all evil were British. It was the Britons who were fighting against the Africans, because they did not want to give us freedom or our land.
“I don’t walk properly because of the injuries I got. I feel I was destroyed inside.”
Ndiku Mutwiwa Mutua:
“The Kenyan government has done nothing for us – it has done nothing for the freedom fighters”
- Born in 1927 or 1928 in Kimutwa village, near Machakos
- He took the Mau Mau oath and used to give the rebels food from the farm where he worked
- He was arrested and castrated, and then rescued by the Mau Mau and taken to the forest
- He was one of the original claimants but his file was removed because of a legal technicality
“We had to support [the Mau Mau], and we had decided whoever would not support the freedom fighters outside in the fields, he should also be killed because he was useless. So one could be cut into pieces and left or dealt with mercilessly by fellow Africans.
“There was no civil war in the country, but what we wanted was freedom and we used guns, we hid ourselves and we fought …. Those who supported them [the colonial authorities] we considered enemies. But to say there was fighting in the country between each other … there was nothing like that.
“If there’s anyone who has done a lot of injustice, it was the British – they were very bad people.
“The [Mau Mau] oath was a mixture of so many things I cannot tell …. You are joined together, you won’t leave them and you’ll fight and support fighters for the freedom of this country.
“I worked on a farm as a milkman. Together with others, we used to hide some of the milk to give to some of the freedom fighters we knew, and we also gave them some of our rations. But when we were discovered by our employer [a white farm owner] – he was Luvai [ruthless person]. We were arrested and taken to that detention camp where we got really tortured, severely tortured.
“We were asked whether we were members of the Mau Mau movement, because the British government did not want to leave Kenya. We were against their ruling of the country, we wanted freedom.
“The castration was done by soldiers under the instructions of the Europeans, especially that man called Luvai. They used a pair of pliers, we were tied, blindfolded, and our hands astray, pinned on the ground, legs astray, pinned on the ground. And everything, anything bad was done to your testicles.
“When we were taken to that camp, we were severely beaten everywhere, for example, in the ankles, legs, ribs. I was hurt in the jaw and on my head; we were seriously beaten, mercilessly.
“The government has done nothing for us. There’s no support, nothing as a token, nothing. It took nearly half a century for the law banning the Mau Mau to be lifted. We went to court this late, after this length, because the time had not yet come for us to be free, to say anything, because we were banned by the former constitution … We are now free, so this is the time to speak for ourselves and we decided to sue the British government for all the atrocities they perpetrated against us.”
Paulo Muoka Nzili:
“The oath had some effect, because after taking it we were very united and did not fear anything”
- Born in 1927 in Kiimakiu village
- A former Mau Mau fighter, he was one of three claimants who won the right to sue the British government
- He was arrested in 1955, taken to a detention camp and castrated
“[The colonisers] were harsh against us and they never listened to us. We were given the hard jobs and, on complaining, one was beaten. We had to rise against them because of these injustices.
“We took the oath because it was an oath of unity and it had some effect. After taking it we were very united and did not fear anything. There was a state of unity; you cut yourself here, you suck that blood and also your friend sucks blood, that is for unity.
“I went to the forest and I fought … We were given home-made guns, because there were experts from World War II who had come and who knew how to do it, so they prepared guns and they gave [them to] us in the forest so I knew how to use it.
“I just fired shots against Europeans who were attacking us in the forest. I don’t know whether I killed or [did] not kill, because it was in the forest and you cannot know whether you have hit your enemy. But we were defending ourselves because we were attacked, there in the forest.
“I was arrested near the Kamethe prison and when I was discovered I was taken to Kwaluvai, the Mbkasi detention camp. At Mbakasi we were beaten up and I was castrated there, by this man Luvai. He gave the instructions to an askari [African soldier].
“I was forced to lay on my back, my arms were tied and my legs were tied by chains, and then this man, Luvai , ordered a soldier to make sure that I was castrated hard because I was coming from the bush and I was a very bad person – as far as the fight against the Europeans was concerned. So they castrated me using a pliers-like instrument.
“After castration, I got swollen all over and they took me to King George’s Hospital. I was there under the supervision of the askaris . After treatment, I was taken back to Mbakasi under the instructions of Luvai and then I was, after some time – about two weeks – taken to Manyani detention camp.”
Wambugu Wa Nyingi:
“When I was released, I found that my father’s land had been given to Kenyan collaborators”
- Born in 1928 in Aguthi village, Nyeri district
- He was not a Mau Mau but a member of the Kenyan African Union (KAU), from the most militant wing of which the Mau Mau was formed
- He was arrested on December 24, 1952, taken to a detention camp and beaten up
- He was one of the three claimants who won the right to sue the British government
“I wanted to be a free man and our land to be given back to us. The organisation [the KAU] used to unite people, in order to get the freedom of our land that had been taken by the white people.”
On December 24, 1952, Wambugu was arrested and taken to the Kiariua detention camp. “There, w e were thoroughly beaten with clubs, sticks and even the butts of the guns,” he recalls. “B eaten such that 16 people died … I saw it, I witnessed it with my eyes. They were buried by the detainees there.”
After Kiariua, Wambugu was moved to the Athi River detention camp, where the conditions were much better. “This camp was very peaceful. We were not beaten, we were given food freely – the camp was just nice to us. Life was good,” he says.
But then he was moved to another camp where he says the detainees “were thoroughly punished and even had to walk on our knees on gravel, [we] were tied with chains”.
When he was eventually returned to Athi River, the situation there had changed. “We were totally punished,” he recounts. “The greatest punishment was [that] we were tied on the legs and then we were hanged, the head down and the legs up, and then water was poured on us.”
The torture was used to extract a confession about having taken the Mau Mau “blood oath”. “We stayed hanging for about 15 minutes and there were some bitter questions, whether we had taken the oath or not, whether we were going to deny the Mau Mau.
“We were beaten on the shoulders every morning with special sticks,” he adds.
“The word Mau Mau was brought by the British colonisers. Even now I do not know what ‘Mau Mau’ is,” Wambugu says.
“The colonisers, they never came here to prevent [the] Kenyans [who often meted out the punishment].”
Wambugu remembers one man at the Rudwar detention camp they dubbed ‘White House’. “That white man used to call himself ‘God of Rudwar’. He was terrible, very brutal to us.
“Because of what I faced, the torture, the beating, even now I feel pain when I move my head …. After I was released from detention, I found my father’s land was given to other people who were siding with the British people … Because it was my land and the freedom I wanted that was not given, I need compensation from the British.”
When the British withdrew from Kenya, he says, they “left the Kenyan people suffering and even their children suffered. They curtailed their education, they curtailed their agricultural development and so on.
“Our children will not be enemies of the British people, because something has been done to their fathers or their father’s fathers … so we become friends and we continue with that friendship.”
This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine.