An old man with a walking stick trudges while being guided by an aide. ‘Mzee, have you been blind since childhood?,’ I curiously ask. “No,” says M’njau Ndei. “My eyes were gouged out for being a Mau Mau supporter.’
And Patrick wa Njogu, a Mau Mau general who already had one leg shot off by British troops, says after his arrest, “they would drag me around the camp by my remaining leg”.
Jane Muthoni Mara, while aged 15 at the time, used to supply food to the freedom fighters. Her brother had joined the Mau Mau and when she refused to divulge information on his whereabouts, she was tortured.
“He (a white man) filled a bottle with hot water and then pushed it into my private parts with his foot. I screamed and screamed,” she said.
And that was not all. She and other women were made to sit with their legs stretched apart in front of white men as African guards marched over them in their army boots. After release, Jane never found her brother and had visions of torture whenever her husband approached her.
Beatings and floggings were both common and constant features of camp routine, as were forced and hard labour. Hewing rocks under the burning sun, carrying buckets on the head filled with stones or overflowing with urine and faeces; or being forcibly pushed into a cattle dip full of pesticides — all were enforced with kicks and blows from truncheons and rifle butts.
The beatings made M’Mucheke Kioru impotent. Others died. But this was not enough to break the back of the Mau Mau movement.
In face of increased defiance, British colonial officer Terence Gavaghan devised the “Dilution Technique” in which hard core detainees were exposed to violent shock. This was officially endorsed by the Colonial Government in London and first implemented in the Mwea camps in 1957.
It was later expanded to camps at Athi River, Aguthi, Mweru and Hola in order to “enforce discipline and preserve good order”. Hard core did not mean the worst killers, merely the most defiant.
Wambugu wa Nyingi relates how Gavaghan ordered inmates to walk on gravel on their knees with their hands up for long distances. New detainees were tied upside down from their feet and beaten whilst cold water was poured on them.
Some of the detainees would start the “Mau Mau moan”, a cry of symbolic defiance which would be taken up by the rest of the camp. The leader who started it would be put on the ground, a foot placed on his throat and mud stuffed in his mouth and finally knocked unconscious. Many who survived the beatings died from diarrhoea and typhoid. Others went mad.
Kariuki Mungai says the screams of the detainees being beaten made it resemble a lunatic asylum. Outside the camps, large numbers of Africans were herded into “protected villages” where rape, sexual abuse, hanging and killing were rampant.
Names such as Gavaghan and Whitehouse, and the nicknames Jua Kali (burning sun), Goliath, Gatomato, Kihuga (big man) and Mapiga (one who beats) were both feared and abhorred. The state emergency for the freedom fighters was surely a hell on earth.
The concerned British voices largely went unheard. Labour MP Barbara Castle complained about the cover-ups and was kept informed by Kenya’s assistant police commissioner Duncan McPherson. The latter said conditions in the camps were far worse than anything he had experienced as a prisoner of war for four-and-a-half years under the Japanese.
A Kenyan judge, Arthur Cram, compared them to the “infamous Nazi labour camps”.
Bertrand Russell, Michel Foot and Tony Benn were some of the protesting voices. John Nottingham, who still lives in Nairobi, was posted as a young district officer to take over from Gavaghan.
“What you are doing is wrong,” he wrote to his boss adding “I can’t accept this job”.
When in March, 1959, 11 inmates died in the Hola camp, the investigating magistrate, W. H. Goudie, blamed officially-sanctioned brutality for the deaths.
So what now? Today, the Kenya Human Rights Commission and the Mau Mau War Veterans Association will file a suit in London against the British Government for human rights abuses and torture. It is expected that the British Government will present a range of legal arguments to stall the case, deny responsibility or refute the allegations. The case could drag on for years.
One of the best legal teams, Leigh Day & Co Solicitors, have been hired. The firm has previously litigated on behalf of the Maasai bomb victims and the Kenyan women who claim to have been raped by British soldiers.
The wazee are in London to make their plight known to the British public. And what will they be asking for? An apology at the very least and some form of reparation to enable them to live their sunset years with some degree of dignity, comfort and security.
There can be no argument that the treatment meted out to these men and women, who were demanding their God-given right to be free, was highly immoral. But would it not be an even greater immorality to deny these veterans their right to recognition and a better life?
The Mau Mau freedom fighters are now in their eighties and nineties, many of them ailing. Kenya owes its independence to these valiant patriots who should be accorded justice.