Hours before the night of March 26, 1953, when Mau Mau fighters attacked colonial government loyalists in Lari District, Kiambu, James Kimani Njuguna, then 10, recalls how the rebels converged on his father’s home to plan the attacks.
During the day, he says, Chief Luka wa Kahangara who was the main target had addressed a big rally at the junction near the DO’s office in Kimende and warned that every boy, girl, woman or man who had taken the Mau Mau oath would be wiped out by the colonial government.
“Alarmed, my father, an oath administrator gave me letters to deliver to Mau Mau leaders in the area summoning them for a meeting at his place,” he says.
Kimani recalls all those he had given letters arriving at his father’s home at around 11pm that evening armed to the teeth with rungus, pangas and other weapons. They were all and wearing overalls.
“I heard them make plans and choose which group was to attack Chief Luka’s place and which one was to go to other colonial chiefs’ homes, “he recounts.
Two hours later, the secretary of the Lari division of the Mau Mau Veterans Association says, villagers woke to screams and a huge fire raging at Chief Luka’s homestead.
The Mau Mau warriors had attacked the home, slashing all his cattle to death.
Some of his wives and children were killed in cold blood before the homestead was set ablaze.
That night, according to Wikipedia, more than 100 people, especially colonial loyalists and their families, were killed by the Mau Mau fighters in what is today known as the Lari Massacre or Muito wa Lari in the rural dialect.
The chief had eight wives and two of them escaped death by a whisker during the vicious attack.
Almost six decades later, they still shudder when they narrate the story. Philomena Nduta, 100, and Jacinta Waruiru, 90, who were the chief’s first and second last wives respectively, sport horrendous scars on their legs, arms, faces and heads.
“After whiling away the evening at one of my co-wives’ homestead together with our husband, we dispersed to our respective houses, “recalls Waruiru.
“Before retiring to bed, I sent my youngest daughter to throw out some cobwebs on the compost pit. She returned in a hurry, saying she had seen something that looked like a black dog in a nearby thicket.
“We ignored her but an hour later, we were woken up by gunshots. It immediately came to my mind that we had been attacked as we had always been warned by the Mau Mau because of our husband’s collaboration with the colonialists.
“When I went out to investigate, there were many people outside and although the moon was shining brightly, I could not recognise any of them. Terrified, I quickly retreated to my house,” she narrated.
“Gacheri, my co-wife, was fast asleep and as I tried to wake her up to alert her that we were under attack, the attackers who were on my heels were at the door of our grass-thatched house where we were sleeping with our four children. As they broke down the door, I tried to escape, clutching Gacheri’s one-year-old daughter but the attackers mercilessly set on me with sharp machetes, vowing to kill me.
“By sheer good luck, I managed to escape and took cover near a tree a short distance from the compound, with blood oozing from the machete cuts.
“From my hideout, I saw my co-wife come out of the house carrying the three children, one on her back and the others in front. One of the attackers hit her and she fell to the ground. One of the children she was carrying, Mbura, rushed in my direction.
“The attackers brutally slashed Gacheri on the neck and head as I watched helplessly from my hideout. She did not die on the spot but the children, Wanjiku and Wairimu were killed but we never found their corpses,” she says with a shudder.
“After they were done, I took the two children I had with me and we ran for our lives towards the river. By that time, the colonial police officers had arrived and gunshots rent the air as the attackers ran away. We left our hideout at dawn and on getting home, were shocked at the sight that greeted our eyes.
“Hundreds of our cattle had been slashed to death and our entire homesteads burnt to ashes. As I was still bleeding, the police rushed me to King George Hospital (today’s Kenyatta National hospital) where I was admitted for a month.
“I could not return home fearing for my security and after I was fully recovered, I was taken to Uplands police station where I stayed for some months. At the station were hundreds of people rounded up by the colonial police and home guards and ferried there in lorries. Home guards would identify those suspected to have taken the oath and they would be shot at close range,” she says.
“We lost 13 members of our family in the attack. Our husband, Chief Luka wa Kahangara and my two co-wives Wanjiru and Nyakinywa together with Gacheri’s children, Wanjiku and Wairimu, a herdsboy and a visiting sister were among those who were executed. Gacheri, my co-wife who died last year, had her left arm amputated,” she recounts struggling to hold back her tears.
The elderly survivor denies claims that her husband had held a meeting at Kirenga market on the day he was killed.
“Apart from being a chief, he used to be a timber merchant. That day he was supervising his workers logging trees in the nearby Bathi forest which he took to Nairobi in the afternoon for sale,” she says.
Her co-wife Philomena Nduta says apart from being slashed severely and left for dead, she lost her one-year-old daughter to the attackers.
“My co-wives were cut with machetes as I watched but thank God, I survived although I cannot walk properly owing to the injuries that hurt even up to this day,” she says, pointing at huge scars on her knees, thighs and head.
“It is by the grace of God that I am alive today. The attackers’ mission was to finish us and they escaped into the forest believing they had killed me. I was saved by the police who rushed me to Tigoni hospital where I was then referred to Kiambu,” she recounts, tears welling in her eyes.
She says the villagers had a lot of hatred for Chief Luka’s family for his association with the whites.
She says the family always lived under a cloud of fear of the Mau Mau. Her husband, she says, had a rifle that he would fire when his vehicle approached his homestead to scare away Mau Mau warriors who might be lying in wait for him.
“The situation got worse until he was given armed security men by the government. Prior to his death, he had asked for the withdrawal of the security detail, saying he was no longer afraid of dying,” she recounts, pain written all over her face.
She recalls that the warriors attacked several other homesteads that night including Bathi location’s Chief Ikenya Charles, and Gituamba location’s Chief Makimei wa Kuria. She says the two managed to escape but their property was set ablaze.
According to Time Africa magazine published on April 6, 1953, Mau Mau warriors herded 120 Kikuyus into their huts which they set on fire, killing those who managed to escape from the inferno with sharp knives. The three-hour orgy left 300 villagers’ dead.
The night after the massacre, a squad of Dedan Kimathi’s men stormed a police outpost in Naivasha. Three police officers were killed and the Mau Mau set free 173 suspects before disappearing with 50 rifles, 24 submachine guns and 9,000 rounds of ammunition.
Mzee Kimani Njuguna says the Mau Mau warriors cut Chief Luka’s body into small pieces which they later took to Kirenga market in Lari for display as a warning of the repercussions that awaited other loyalists.
However, the wives say they are not sure where the chief’s remains were taken although the family has erected a tombstone a few metres from the chief’s hut where he was assassinated.
The names of the 13 family members who died that night are engraved on a ceramic plaque.
Although that night’s attack is what is today known as the Lari Massacre, historians and Mau Mau remnants believe the retaliatory action by the colonial government saw many people lose their lives while others were brutalised and tortured.
“I lost 10 members of my family when the colonialists struck the following morning, including my two parents and uncles, “says Mzee Kimani.
“Led by African home guards, colonial police went door to door searching for those suspected to have taken the oath, rounded them up and took them to police stations where they were tortured, brutalised and killed.
Those found guilty would be taken to the gallows in Githunguri or at Uplands police outpost and hanged, recalls Mrs Kanyi wa Mwaura, 80, a resident of Kirenga village.
Mrs Kanyi says bottles would be inserted in women’s private parts and they were forced to have sex with the white man’s dogs and uncircumcised boys young enough to be their sons.
“I had never seen such brutality in my life. Hundreds of our men, both young and old, were killed after Chief Luka’s killing. We would be submerged in rivers for hours and forced to have sex with uncircumcised boys as they inserted bottles in our private parts. A lot of women succumbed to the torture and died,” she says, gulping and trying to force back her tears.
She says she never thought she would live to see a young man walking freely as they were prime targets for assassination by the colonialists.
Lucy Wariara Kinyariro, 100, recalls how she was beaten to the point of almost losing her hearing.
“The torture was so intense and since then, I have become half deaf,” she says as she struggles to grasp the questions fielded by journalists.
According to Stephen Kibunja, a lawyer and historian, the actual Lari Massacre took place after March 26, contrary to what is on record.
“How can you call the murder of less than 200 people by Mau Mau who were fighting colonialists and white settlers who had grabbed their land a massacre instead of the assassination of more than 5,000 people killed in retaliation?” he poses.
He says hundreds of colonial British police officers and home guards arrived in Lari to retaliate and attacked even innocent civilians within a radius of 50kms from Chief Luka’s home.
“People in neighbouring areas of Githunguri, Kambaa, Kimende Uplands and Limuru faced the wrath of mzungu during the retaliation. They were beaten, shot and tortured to produce those who had taken the oath. It is estimated that about 5,000 people were killed in the process although the number could be higher, “he says.
Kibunja says the retaliation was state-sponsored terrorism against the people of Lari perpetrated by the colonial government by order of then governor Sir Evelyn Baring.
“The governor came here the following morning and ordered a crackdown on Mau Mau suspects. That is when the real massacre started and it went on for weeks as colonialists continued wiping out suspects like flies,” he says.
Two decades before the massacre, he explains, residents of Kiambu and Tigoni had been relocated to Lari by the white settlers who took over their land to establish coffee and tea plantations.
“In 1939, people from Kiambu were moved to Bathi area while those from Tigoni were relocated to Kimende, Githirioni and Kirenga areas in Lari. Chief Luka was among those who had been moved and later was employed by the settlers as a supervisor on the farms. His loyalty earned him a promotion and he became chief for Kirenga,” explains Kibunja.
“All the chiefs in the area were under senior Waruhiu wa Kung’u who was assassinated by the Mau Mau fighters in 1952. His execution led to a declaration of a state of emergency in the country,” he says.
The chiefs were mandated to collect taxes from their respective locations but Luka became an enemy among his people for using excessive force while carrying out this duty.
He was ruthless and would seize cattle, some of which he would surrender to the colonial government as default penalty and keep some for himself.
The chiefs would force people to go and work in white settlements to raise money for taxes, an oppression that made them agitate for independence.
“He would seize cattle and land belonging to those who had not submitted their levies on time, enriching himself while impoverishing his own people who were fighting for liberation. Chief Luka had a notorious history of grabbing, misappropriating other people’s property, including their land. Together with other greedy chiefs, they abused the law to oppress their own people,” Kibunja said.
As the Mau Mau was actually called the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, Chief Luka became one of their prime targets.
According to the historian, his ways had driven a deep wedge of hatred between him, Mau Mau fighters and the locals.
He says as the Mau Mau rebellion arose from agitation for freedom and land that had been grabbed, home guards and Chief Luka could not be spared as they were seen as the main stumbling blocks towards achieving the goal of liberation.
Although Luka’s wives say they have forgiven Mau Mau remnants and their families, popularly known as Matigari ma Njirungi (the bullet survivors), one can tell from their talk that the emotional wounds inflicted on them during the massacre are yet to completely heal.
According to Chief Luka’s wife Waruiru, she forgave her attackers even before her physical wounds had healed.
“I remember when I returned home after the attack, there were a lot of crops in my shamba. The majority of my fellow villagers were starving as the war continued. Though I knew many of them were supporting the Mau Mau, I bore no grudges and they would flock at my home for maize and potatoes that were in season. I had long forgiven my attackers,” says Waruiru.
Her co-wife Philomena Nduta also expressed the same sentiments. However, listening to some Mau remnants, it is clear the wounds are yet to heal.
Monicah Nyambura, 66, says she can hardly forgive home guards and all those who collaborated with the white man.
“They beat my mother and her one-year-old son to death. My father, whose ribs were broken, died a month later. Our land was grabbed and I live in rented premises. There is no way I can forgive them as I continue to suffer,” she says, adding that she lost two siblings during the massacre.
Mrs Kanyi says to forgive them, they must seek forgiveness from her first.
She is also very bitter that the families of those who were on the colonialists’ side acquired a lot of land and wealth while those who liberated the country are wallowing in poverty.
As we conduct this interview, the remnants go silent whenever they spot some of those they refer to as betrayers passing by.
That one’s father was a home guard, they say, insisting they hardly associate with them.
Mzee Kimani is of the mind that colonial collaborators and their families should not be compensated if there is ever any aid that will come from the government.
“It is their betrayal that empowered the white man to oppress and kill many of us,” he says.