Tuesday, July 9, 2013 – 00:00 — BY NJONJO KIHURIA
In mid 1950s, Gitu wa Kahengeri was among a group of diehard Mau Mau detainees who were being transferred from the scorching Lodwar detention camp to the harsher ‘away-from-land’ Takwa camp in Lamu when their train stopped at Voi at around 3pm.
The prisoners were of course not allowed to get off the train, but as he stood near the compartment door, Gitu heard the commanding voice of a white officer, ordering, “Come on Mzee!”, an order that was repeated three times, before an old man was shoved into the compartment, to land on his feet.
The old man who lay on the cold metal floor happened to be his own father but the son would not find this out until a half hour later as the train slogged towards the coastal town of Mombasa. “Immediately the old man was thrown into the compartment, the guard standing next to me pushed him with the butt of his gun to the middle of the compartment and I remained near the door. It would be sometime before our eyes met and an untold sorrow engulfed us.”
While Gitu was arrested and taken to Lodwar, his father – a member of the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) – had been serving his detention without trial stint at Manyani and now the two were being reunited unexpectedly and very unceremoniously. The father-son duo was headed to the notorious Takwa detention camp, where both would suffer unbearably. “My father and I suffered immensely,” says Gitu with a bowed head.
Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, Gitu watched his father Kahengeri wa Gitu agitate for the rights of Africans, who were dominated by the British colonialists and their Indian and African allies.
Soon enough he became aware of the humiliation and oppression the black African was undergoing at the hands of the colonialists which included physical beatings, forced labour and attendance of insulting ‘barazas’ (DC Meetings). “My father was totally against this unjust governance and he even at one time came to blows with a colonial chief who tried to force him to attend such a meeting.”
At the tender age of 17, the current secretary general of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association joined KCA and started running errands for the men who were running it.
He interrupted his political activism to attend school at Kagumo and later was employed by the Postal Corporation where he faced discrimination first hand from his white and Indian bosses. “To this people, the African was nothing and I had to leave the post office after fighting an Indian for treating me badly.”
Gitu then joined the Kenya African Union (KAU) as a political activist and later was among those who organised for the formation of the Mau Mau movement, an organisation that sought to remove the white man from Kenyan soil by force. “The men we found in KAU were always carrying briefcases that contained the dozens of memorandums they had over time written to the colonial office and on which no action had been taken. So we (the young men) decided the only language the white man could understand was that of violence.”
He was made one of the movement’s strategists and was among the people who initiated a guerrilla war against the colonial administration, the white settlers and their allies in Nairobi, before the war was taken to the bush in central Kenya.
“When our activities extended to the forests, I remember escorting Mathenge wa Mirugi from Kiburi House to Wanjiru’s Bridge (Museum Hill), when he left to join the forest forces.” Gitu and a group of other strategists remained behind to organise supplies and administer oaths to the yet unconverted.
In this capacity he travelled to, among many other places, Kaya, West Nile in Uganda to administer the Mau Mau oath to road construction workers there. “Many of our people had settled or were working in the then Tanganyika and I again travelled to Arusha to give the oath to Kenyans who were potato farmers at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. Much later I would be re-united with some of them at the Takwa detention camp.”
It was the duty of the strategists in Nairobi to acquire arms for the forest forces. “We had a big camp at Number 10 (the area around the Mathare chief’s office today), which to us was equivalent to Camp David in America.”
It was from here that plans were made to steal guns and ammunition from white settlers in city hotels, especially the Avenue Hotel that was situated next to Kipande House. Gitu says no police officer would come to Number 10. Most hotel workers had already taken the Mau Mau oath and if they espied a tired upcountry white settler with guns in his room, they would alert the strategists at Number 10 who would then send courageous young men to steal them.
“The settlers’ upcountry lives had been largely disrupted by the Mau Mau operating from the forests, forcing them to abandon their farms and seek refuge in the city hotels. When they came, the heavily armed settlers would be very tired, at times just leaving their guns lying around as they soundly slept. The hotel workers would then alert us and we would send brave young men, one called Evan and the other Karanja Gathana to go ‘pick’ the guns.”
Dressed in overcoats, the men would sneak into the targeted room at Avenue, seize the guns and head back to Number 10, where the guns that were initially used by the Mau Mau mostly came from. The strategists at Number 10 also organised for the acquisition of arms from government installations, some that they bought and others that they were helped to acquire by friendly officers.
Gitu pays tribute to those who were in the police force then for helping them acquire many guns. He particularly singles out an inspector of police from Luo Nyanza who was based at Githunguri. “He would tell us to get into the armoury and take the arms that we wanted and would only raise the alarm after we were long gone.”
When a sizeable collection of guns and ammunition was put together, arrangements were then made to ‘ship’ them to the forest, a mission that was mostly undertaken by charcoal dealers, who were also part of the Mau Mau.
The strategists from Kiburi House would meet at a garage owned by one Njuguna wa Thuku on Grogan (Kirinyaga) Road and supervise the stuffing of small arms into tyres which were later inflated. The charcoal dealers would take the same as spare wheels and deliver the concealed arms to the Mau Mau at the edge of the various forests.
But as they carried out this task one day in 1953, they were surrounded by police and the leaders who were having a discussion in the committee room, Gitu included, were arrested. “Being in possession of a firearm or even a bullet would attract a life sentence but luckily, our captors missed the gun stuffing activity as they did not search the rest of the garage.”
Initially Gitu and the others were held at Kileleshwa Police Station and later taken to the CID headquarters, then situated near what is the Serena Hotel today. Here he was interrogated and found to be material for “detention camp of no return”. Those who would not confess were condemned to die in detention.
The detainees were taken by truck to Athi River where they were beaten, denied food and medicine and screened to separate the diehard elements from moderate Mau Mau followers. “Three of us would balance an iron sheet on our heads, then a fourth prisoner would scoop and load sand on the sheet until our necks started ‘sinking into our bodies’, at which point we would be ordered to march. Half a kilometre away, we would dump the sand and later scoop the same and return it in the same manner to the spot from where we had picked it.”
This group was later flown to Lodwar, where the detainees suffered immensely from the scorching sun. “For people not used to the extreme weather, the heat in Lodwar is unbearable. We did not have shoes and walking bare foot would lead to the skin of your feet painfully peeling off, so we tore our threadbare shirts and tied the material around our feet for protection. This was the only way one could move around to undertake the slave labour assigned to us”.
But not even this intolerable punishment could lead the detainees into confessing, so they were later packed into trucks and driven to Kitale from where they boarded a train that would take them to Fort Jesus in Mombasa. Then a rough boat ride would see them land at the Takwa detention camp in Lamu Island.
On reaching Mombasa, the detainees were locked inside Fort Jesus, woken up very early in the morning and 75 of them put in a big open boat, by the name ‘Rosalind’. As they sailed in the high seas, some recalled how in 1939, Africans who had been seized to be used as carrier corps during the Second World War had perished in the Indian Ocean. “We suspected that our captors were going to throw us into the ocean, but this did not happen and at around midday the prisoners were served the ugali that had been packed for them.”
Gitu and his father were too distressed to eat, which would be a blessing in disguise as all those who had eaten became violently sea-sick a short while later. At that point, Kahengeri who had served as a member of the carrier corps in the First World War turned to his son and asserted, ‘Muriu (son), do not worry. As long as we believe in God, we will one day go back home.”
The source of water at Takwa was five wells which have been named the Mau Mau Wells and since most of the old men could not pull a bucketful of water from the well, Gitu, who was much younger, was assigned this duty by his elders. “I would wake up very early in the morning to fetch bathing water for the old men and generally acted as their errand boy.”
As the wind of change blew and it became apparent that Kenya would soon become independent, life became even harder for the prisoners who were put in a ‘pipeline’ through which they were taken from camp to camp and put under torturous interrogation and hard labour. “The guards knew their time was up and so used the opportunity to torment us to the maximum, in an effort to kill or maim us.”
Gitu and group were taken from Takwa to Thiba camp where they broke their backs with mattocks preparing the rice fields of Mwea. From Thiba they were taken to Gatundu Eton Camp (Kwa Barichu), from where he was released.