Hola massacre: Man who returned from the 'dead'

Wednesday March 18 2020

Wambugu Kigotho at his home in Gatitu, Nyeri. PHOTO| WILLIAM RUTHI| NATION


The detainees knew it was going to happen, it was just a matter of time. But when it did, when the clubs fell, it was so sudden and chilling that it caught everyone by surprise; the uproar in the aftermath reverberating all the way to far-away England.

The morning of March 3, 1959 has lived on in infamy as the day the Hola massacre took place.

On that day, guards, apparently on order from the camp commandant, clubbed to death 12 of the prisoners held at Hola concentration camp in the harsh region of Tana River. Among those listed dead was a young man named Wambugu wa Kigotho. Only that he never died.

Blows to the back of his head that eventful day made him pass out and later fall into a coma, but that was not apparent as the guards carted the bodies away to the makeshift morgue inside the camp. And for two days, Wambugu lay among the dead. Only when the coroner came in to examine the bodies before burial was it discovered that Wambugu’s heart was still beating.

The falling away of the decades has somewhat dimmed the horrific memory of that day, but some things, no matter how cobwebby, never leave one's mind. Wambugu, now 85 years old, still hears the faint screams of grown men as police truncheons hit them.

“I am no longer a prisoner to it, though,” he tells me.

We are sitting in the living room of Wambugu’s home near Gatitu town in Nyeri County, about 7km outside Nyeri town. It is a roomy hall accentuated by framed photographs which somehow chronicle Wambugu’s life and the events that have shaped him the past six decades.

Wambugu, one of six siblings enrolled at a local primary school in 1935, quit after only four years after his father determined he was better off tending to the family's cattle and tilling the land. In his teens, he left home for Kabaru in Kieni East to work as a farmhand.

An ambitious young man, he soon learnt to drive and found work driving a timber-haul truck. He later moved to Ol Kalou where his driving skills were coveted. He was assigned the role of distributor of foodstuff to road construction crews.

At the close of the ’40s decade, tremors of discontent, which would later turn seismic, had begun to spread all across the land, especially in Central Kenya. The plates had shifted, the natives fed up with the subjugation by the colonialists. They wanted their land and freedom back.

“It was embarrassing and demeaning that I should address the foreigners, even a small boy as bwana (master),” Wambugu says.

After an altercation with his employer, Wambugu walked out on his well-paying job and decided to take up local politics. He had already joined the local branch of the Kenya African Union. In the horizon, a storm was already gathering and would soon sweep Wambugu into the vortex history.

Oath of allegiance

On July 27, 1952 Founding President Jomo Kenyatta travelled to Nyeri town to address a gathering at Ruring’u stadium. Hundreds of young men and women assembled to hear him speak.

Though Mzee Kenyatta would later be accused of betraying the Mau Mau militant movement after he took over the leadership of a free Kenya, the speech he gave that cold July day was a watershed moment that lent urgency to the push for freedom.

“The tree of freedom is never nourished by water, but by blood,” Kenyatta told the riveted crowd. “We are going to grab this bull by the horns, but tell me, are you ready for its kicks?” To which the crowd shouted back, “Yes, yes!”

Wambugu was among the young people at the meeting. He remembers seeing Kenyatta and the excitement that followed his speech. “The crowd was so big, they were reaching out at him and we had to cushion Kenyatta and escort him to his car,” he recalls.

On Christmas Eve in 1952, Wambugu answered his front door to a group of about seven white police officers accompanied by loyalists. He was informed he was under arrest for taking the Mau Mau oath of allegiance, something he refutes. No amount of pleading of his innocence could change a thing.

That night would usher in a decade-long odyssey and a catalogue of hellish pain - both physical and emotional - throughout his adult life. After his arrest, he was taken to Aguthi Camp in Tetu, Nyeri. The inmates spent their day hewing rocks and other manual work on meagre food.

Athi River Concentration Camp was his next stop and the most dehumanising. “We would be ordered to dig eight by six trenches and then ordered to shovel the earth back into the trench,” Wambugu says. "The guards had fun watching the action, topping it up with whips to the detainees' backs."

After a year at Athi River, Wambugu was flown to the unforgiving, wind-swept Lodwar, but just before he left, a guard clamped his feet with ankle manacles. They were fastened so tight they might as well have been welded.

He would wear them for the next two years and the long-term effects of metal-on-skin is evident: His feet appear swollen, scaly and ashy and he has to attend clinic every few weeks. “Many detainees fell sick in Lodwar, some went mad,” says Wambugu. “The conditions were terrible.”

Not too long after his rendezvous with death, still sickly, he was released from hospital. He was moved to several camps before he was set free in 1961. They brought him by truck and left him lying by the roadside near Kagumo Teachers Training College in Tetu Division with all of his belongings: two blankets, a cup and plate.

It had been a decade since Wambugu had been arrested and so much had changed. His family had relocated and he had to ask for directions home. “When I arrived, I saw my mother, but my father had died while I was in detention,” he says. “When I narrated my ordeal to my family, they were in shock."

After the excitement of returning home faded, Wambugu was confronted with the realities of beginning life all over again. Several of his age-mates had already put down roots, with families of their own. “I became a casual labourer and also ran small businesses,” he says.

Wambugu soon found a bride and settled down. And not too long after, another. There are 16 children and many grandchildren. As we talk, one of his daughters enters the room and sits transfixed. Apparently she has never heard his father narrate the story in full; just sketchy pieces. She puts her phone recorder on and leans in.

Moving on
In the aftermath of the Hola incident, the colonial government’s propaganda machine scurried with pressers indicating their hands carried no blood; that the Hola 11 had died after drinking foul water. An inquest determined that no such thing happened. The incident led to a debate in the House of Commons, with the opposition calling for reduction of support to the colonial government in Kenya.

As the years went by, the memory of the atrocities at Hola receded. Sure, he’d occasionally think about the cruelty meted by the British and their cohorts, but mostly he thinks about the friends he lost, the ones amidst whom he had spent two days with that long-ago night in ’59.

In 2006, Wambugu met with Kenya National Commission on Human Rights officials to discuss the atrocities committed by the colonial government in the Hola saga. Through the human rights body, Wambugu secured the services of lawyers in the UK. Although the case would languish for years, Wambugu, together with other petitioners, successfully sued the British government. He received a tranche of Sh350,000.

But compensation was not the motivation, Wambugu insists. It was about human dignity. “They labelled us criminals. How was I a criminal? We were fighting for our rights.”

In his deposition during the case in the UK, Wambugu, through lawyer Paul Muite, eloquently explained his point: “I feel I was robbed of my youth and that I did not get to do the things I should have done as a young man. I have brought this case because I want the world to know about the years I have lost and what was taken from a generation of Kenyans.”

It is late evening when I rise to leave. Several of Wambugu’s grandchildren have returned home from school. They huddle around the old man, a whole gaggle of them, tugging at his cardigan. He laughs and mockingly waves his cane at them. They have no idea about his travails, but that is alright; wasn’t it all for them - for their laughter and freedom?


The forgotten debut

The trees lining the dirt road about 1km off the Nyeri-Othaya road at Ruring’u near Nyeri town are a blend of foreign and native: a scattering of jacaranda amid knotty indigenous ones. There is a crumbling, ancient almost funereal feeling to the place, which is accentuated by a lingering mist this June morning.

Left of the road is the National Museums of Kenya, Nyeri branch, but keep walking. Less than 200m from the museum is an open grassy field. There’s nothing extraordinary about the plot of land until you walk across the grounds to a stone obelisk marking the start of an epoch in the country: the flag-off site of the Mau Mau militant campaign for freedom; the place Jomo Kenyatta stood that long-ago July day in 1952.

The flag-off site hardly receives any visitor. This could be attributed to the fact that there is no signboard announcing the existence of the museum itself, let alone the flag-off site. There are plans by the County Government of Nyeri to finally build a monument on the piece of land in honour of the freedom movement.

Anthony Maina, a former long-serving curator at the National Museums Nyeri branch, who recently took up the post of a ssistant curator in charge of museum sites in Murang’a County, says it would be a fitting gesture. “It’s about time. During my time there I always looked forward to an official recognition of the site,” he said from his new posting.

Wambugu Kigotho hopes to return to the place where he first saw Jomo Kenyatta and escorted him to his car. He hopes the monument placates the souls that gathered there in ’52.