When he was still a teenager, David Nginga Wambugu, along with thousands of others, rushed to the mountain forests in the 1950s to take up arms against the British and their African supporters.
The Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), or the “Mau Mau,” issued their British rulers, who had controlled the area since 1895, with two demands: ithaka na wiyathi, land and freedom.
Armed with mostly homemade weapons, spears, and machetes, about twenty thousand men and women, mostly from the Kikuyu ethnicity, waged an intense guerrilla war against the British and their African supporters, who became known as “loyalists.”
“Life was very difficult in the forest,” recounts Wambugu, a former resistance fighter. Now eighty-three, he is still affected by the memory of the four years he spent in the Aberdare Mountains, which look over Kenya’s central highlands. Wambugu’s eyes quickly became overwhelmed with tears the moment he began to recount the war years. Mid-sentence he paused and refocused his attention outside the window, attempting to regain his composure.
“But we never dreamed of giving up,” he continued, after a few moments. “Either the British returned our land, or we would die fighting in the forest. There were no other options. It was either freedom or death. As long as there was one Kikuyu left alive, the fight would continue.”
Start of an Uprising
British direct rule in Kenya began in 1895 and ended in 1963. The first decades of this period were characterized by large-scale dispossession of indigenous African lands, subsuming locals into a highly discriminatory colonial and capitalist economy.
As part of this process, the British pushed the Kikuyu, who make up the largest ethnicity in Kenya, off more than 60,000 acres of their ancestral territory, mostly in the highly fertile Kiambu region, just outside the capital, Nairobi; this would become the most productive European farmland in the colony.
Like Kenya’s other ethnicities, the Kikuyu were corralled into overpopulated “native reserves,” which lacked sufficient land; many eventually left the reserves and migrated back to the lands from which they were displaced. Upon returning, they would find that their farms had been taken over by European settlers. They were forced to live as “squatters” and provide labor for these white settler farms.
To further force Africans into the wage economy, the British colonial government enforced a series of taxes while prohibiting Africans from growing profitable cash crops — such as tea, coffee, and sisal — and enforced a set price on maize sold by Africans. Thousands migrated from the reserves in search of work because of these policies.
By 1920, all African men migrating outside their reserves were required by law to carry a kipande, a pass that recorded a person’s name, fingerprint, ethnic group, past employment history, and current employer’s signature. The kipande was often worn around their necks in a small metal container.
Britain’s colonial authorities sought after African collaborators who would be willing to exercise authority over the local populations on the reserves, selecting “chiefs” to enforce discipline and oversee adherence to colonial laws; these chiefs, in turn, were rewarded handsomely for their work. This was despite the fact that Kikuyu society never had a chiefdom system but was governed by councils of elders and lineage heads.
Historians have pointed out that these chiefdoms, created by colonial governments, were often seen as completely illegitimate. Caroline Elkins, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, has even argued that these new authorities brought with them “bitter internal conflict within the Kikuyu community.”
In the 1940s, following the end of World War II, increasing discontent and anger among the Kikuyu would begin to take the shape of a mass peasant uprising, dubbed the “Mau Mau” by the British.
A group of several thousand Kikuyu squatters in an area called Olenguruone, who had been evicted from settler farms in the central highlands, radicalized the Kikuyu’s traditional practice of oath-taking, administering oaths to men, women, and even children, uniting them in the struggle against colonial rule.
Before the British became aware of the burgeoning uprising, the oathing ceremonies had already spread throughout the Kikuyu population. In 1950, after being alerted to these mass oath-taking ceremonies, the colonial government banned the movement.
But the spiritual commitments to liberation had already been etched into the hearts of hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu. Mau Mau rebels began attacking farms and killing Africans who they believed to be loyalists. Many Kikuyu took advantage of various benefits, or potential benefits, of aligning with the British, which included much-needed employment in the colonial administration and access to trade licenses denied to nonloyal Africans, and forced communal labor was even used to terrace loyalists’ land.
By far, the vast majority the conflicts that took place during the Mau Mau era were between loyalists and resistance fighters. In some cases, however, Mau Mau moved on to also kill European settlers.
In response, Sir Evelyn Baring, the newly appointed governor of the colony, declared a state of emergency on October 20, 1952.
Authorities ordered the arrest of around 180 people they believed to be leaders of the uprising. Among them was Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, a conservative politician who was at that time the leader of the Kenya African Union (KAU). Meanwhile, the real leadership of Mau Mau, which consisted of the most radical members of KAU, was already in the forests preparing for war.
It took Britain years and 20,000 members of its military forces, along with the Royal Air Force, to weed out the insurgency. At the same time, authorities carried out mass arrests of anyone suspected of belonging to Mau Mau. The British, along with the loyalists — many of whom were themselves Kikuyu — brutally targeted the entire Kikuyu population, numbering some 1.5 million people.
Elkins estimates that 160,000 to 320,000 Africans were subsequently apprehended in Britain’s vast system of detention camps and prisons in Kenya, where detainees faced systematic torture and unfathomable abuse, including castration and rape with glass bottles.
The Mau Mau killed around 1,800 African loyalists, along with thirty-two European and twenty-six Asian civilians. Rebels also killed about two hundred colonial security forces during the fighting. Fewer than a hundred Europeans died as a result of the uprising.
It is still unknown how many Mau Mau died throughout the conflict; the numbers remain a source of dispute. The uncertainty is compounded by the fact the colonial government burned thousands of official documents in massive bonfires on the eve of their 1963 retreat from the country.
At least 11,000 Mau Mau rebels were killed in combat, while some historians put the number of overall Kenyan casualties at 20,000. Elkins, however, estimates that between 100,000 and 300,000 Africans are unaccounted for, indicating that the number could be much higher.
The Mau Mau fighters continue to believe that their struggle for independence and land reclamation was nothing short of a holy war — and that God, or Ngai in the Kikuyu language, was on their side.
“Ngai was fighting on the side of the Mau Mau,” Wambugu says. “Nature and even the wild animals came to our aid to defend us. Giving up never crossed our minds because that would have been the equivalent of betraying Ngai.”
After the war erupted in 1952, Wambugu rushed to the remote Aberdare Mountains to join the resistance. Once he reached the mountains’ dense interior, Wambugu took his second oath. Veterans are highly secretive about the specifics of these oath-taking ceremonies, as they believe revealing too much or confessing their oaths to colonial authorities could attract the wrath of Ngai, leading to a supernatural punishment of sickness, injury, or, more commonly, death.
Mau Mau elders administered up to seven oaths, all of which varied in ritual and represented a greater commitment to the anti-colonial struggle. It is said that the rituals could incorporate the drinking of animal and even human blood, along with the eating of various animal parts.
Mau Mau veterans tell me that one oath consisted of cutting the skin of each oath-taker and collecting the blood from the wounds in a traditional calabash. Each person then drank a gulp of the combined blood, which was mixed with goat blood and pieces of raw meat. But the oath-taking ceremonies also commonly did not include any consumption of blood and could vary widely depending on the participants; the secrecy around these ceremonies means these details will go with the veterans to their graves.
“Each time you take the oath, you feel very powerful,” says Wambugu, who was shot in his chest by European soldiers in 1955 after his camp was ambushed; he fell on a rock, which broke his hip. He now cannot walk without the support of a cane. “It gives you the strength and commitment you need to go on.”
Veterans describe the oath-taking as a “purification” process, allowing them to be rebirthed as a “full Kikuyu,” shedding the blemishes colonization had left on their souls. It bound them to a spiritual agreement between themselves and Ngai.
“Every night in the forest we slept under the open air,” Wambugu remembers. “We weren’t able to bathe and we didn’t own more than the clothes on our backs. It was constantly raining. Our clothes would dry while they were still on our bodies.”
Disheveled from years living in the mountains, Wambugu once had dreadlocks falling down the length of his back — sharply dressed in clean neatly ironed sweater and trousers, he could not be further from this early image of himself.
“It was a very hard life,” Wambugu continues. “The colonial forces were killing many of us. We didn’t have many weapons like they did. We weren’t able to kill the Europeans like they were killing us.” Wambugu’s two elder brothers who had accompanied him to the forest were killed there.
“We stayed for years without washing our bodies,” he explains:
The animals began to believe we were one of them. They treated us as one of their own. Whenever the bombs were dropped from the sky, the buffaloes, rhinos, and elephants would run toward us. They would follow us everywhere; they would even sleep around our camp. They felt protected by us.
Wambugu says that throughout the years he spent in the forest, he never witnessed a Mau Mau fighter being attacked by a wild animal. “Ngai was protecting us,” he says. “There were many signs from nature that proved this to us.”
But the British and African loyalists would send these animals running in fear. “They wear perfume and wash themselves with soap, so the animals knew they were something foreign,” he tells me. “When startled, the animals would instinctively run to higher ground, which is where we were camped. We knew whichever direction the animals were running from, there was a threat.”
According to Wambugu, the region also experienced unusually high rainfall for the seven years the emergency went on. “This rain helped us a lot,” he says. “It made it harder for the British [and loyalists] to enter the forest. It was a blessing from Ngai to help us in the war.”
At the time of sunrise and sunset each day, the Mau Mau rebels would conduct traditional prayers, Wambugu says. Facing Kirinyaga, now called Mount Kenya, where followers of the Kikuyu religion believe Ngai resides when he visits Earth, they outstretch their flattened palms to the sky.
They repeat: “Thai thathaiya Ngai thai,” meaning “Praise, praise, God praise.” According to Wambugu, the rebels would then say:
I pray to you Ngai, with my eyes facing Kirinyaga
Where our forefathers used to face when praying for rains, and rains used to come.
We pray that you grant us victory because we believe that if we win,
You will have won.
But if we lose, it is you who will have lost.
“Preparing for War”
When he was around twenty-years-old, Captain Nderitu Wambugu, along with others who had already taken the Mau Mau oath, refused to wear the kipande. This was before the state of emergency was declared. At the time he and his family were living as squatters, providing labor to a white settler farm near Nakuru in the Rift Valley region.
“This was one of the first expressions of resistance organized by the Mau Mau,” Nderitu says, foreshadowing the ferocity that was to come. If Africans outside the reserves were caught without a kipande they would face hefty fines and imprisonment; therefore, many Mau Mau were hauled off to jail at this time, according to Nderitu.
“Before this, there were KAU public rallies that were organized by people like Jomo Kenyatta,” Nderitu explains. “But none of it was taken very seriously by the British. They started paying attention to the Mau Mau as a potential threat only when we organized the mass refusal of the kipande.”
Nderitu’s small home sits atop the Aberdare Mountains; the surrounding forests are lush, green, and silent, except for the chirping of birds from the treetops and the faint mooing of a cow on Nderitu’s property. This entire mountainous area was once considered a “special area,” a territory that stretched between the villages and the forest edge where any villager who was caught without colonial escorts would be assumed a Mau Mau militant and shot on sight.
Nderitu says he first became involved with the Mau Mau movement when he was eighteen years old. “I used to buy eggs from the farm and then sell them in Nakuru town,” the now ninety-year-old recounts. “An elder Mau Mau saw that I was literate, and he had me transfer messages between members. Each letter had someone’s name written on it, so I would pass the person his eggs while secretly handing him his letter.”
“I then became responsible for recruiting new members and educating people on the importance of taking the oath,” he adds. Nderitu was soon selected to be a Mau Mau youth leader. Later, around 1949, he was transferred to Nairobi to provide personal security to Mbaria Kaniu, a prominent Mau Mau general who was involved in the infamous 1954 Lukenya Prison raid, when fighters killed the guards and released all their comrades being tortured there.
“At this time, there was a lot of political agitation for freedom,” Nderitu says, from a couch in his sitting room, dressed in a freshly pressed navy blue suit:
Everyone was becoming part of Mau Mau and taking the oath. Already young men were volunteering themselves to go to the forests to receive guerilla training on how to fight the wazunguu [Europeans]. We were already preparing for war years before the emergency was declared.
When the war began, Nderitu, along with a group of about 130 men, walked for five days from Nairobi to Murang’a, then called Fort Hall, in the central region, where they entered the Aberdare Mountains to join the fight. They walked only during the night, creeping through forests and bushes. During the day, they hid in the homes of fellow oath-takers.
Nderitu fought in the forests for four years. “We faced many hardships,” he says. “I was carrying around a heavy gun each day. The exhaustion was felt deep in your bones. Many people were getting sick from malaria and pneumonia. I saw many people die from sickness.”
One day, Nderitu, along with about eighty other fighters, was ambushed by colonial forces. “The wazunguu began shooting everywhere,” he says, pulling back his arms and making a shooting motion. “About twenty to thirty were killed on the spot. Everyone scattered. I was shot in my leg and fell into a stream. I dragged myself into a nearby bush and hid there for three days, unable to move.”
“I was in a lot of pain,” he continues. “But I gained some strength, and I began limping through the forest, balancing myself on trees. I was trying to find a camp with my comrades. I had no food and no medicine. I was completely alone.” Eventually, he ran into a fellow rebel who led him to a Mau Mau camp where he could find treatment.
Three days later, however, Nderitu was arrested and subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison.
Like thousands of Kikuyu, Nderitu spent the next several years transferred between a pipeline of prisons and detention camps, more than a hundred of which were constructed for the sole purpose of incarcerating suspected Mau Mau members, according to Elkins.
Forced labor and torture were the norm in these facilities. Colonial authorities made each detainee undergo several rounds of “screenings,” in which teams of interrogators would torture prisoners to coerce them into confessing their Mau Mau oaths.
During these screenings, electric shock, cigarettes, fire, broken bottles, severe beatings, snakes, and vermin were colonial authorities’ weapons of choice. Captives were whipped, shot, and their bodies mutilated. In some cases, hot eggs and broken bottles were shoved up men’s rectums and women’s vaginas.
The screening teams would then classify the Mau Mau suspects using a color-coded system. “Whites” were considered nonthreatening and cooperative and were permitted to return to the reserves. “Grays” were more cooperative oath-takers who were transferred to works camps in their local districts. “Blacks,” meanwhile, were considered hard-core, and were sent to special detention camps to experience an array of colonial terrors aimed at softening their Mau Mau loyalties.
Kinyua Ndugire, ninety-two, breaks out into cackling laughter when I nudge him on details about taking the oath, a single tooth jutting from his top gums. “I took almost seven oaths,” he says, still laughing.
“Each was different. We drank a concoction of blood and ate raw meat. But I cannot say more because it is a covenant between myself, Ngai, and my brothers. If I say more, I will face repercussions from Ngai.”
Ndugire, who was in his twenties at the time, also fought in the Aberdare Mountains. “I saw many maimed and killed in the forests,” he says, his face becoming serious; his voice flattening. “I saw many people die. Most people who were my age were shot and left to be eaten by wild animals.”
“We all became like brothers in the forest. We knew at any moment death would come for us,” he says. Around 1956, Ndugire was arrested, along with about thirty others; another thirty of his comrades were shot dead at the scene. Ndugire was shot in his leg.
Ndugire’s yearslong journey through Britain’s pipeline of detention facilities had begun. “All the camps were horrible,” Ndugire says, dropping his face into his palms and recoiling from the memories. “I can’t decipher between them. There were beatings and torture on a daily basis.”
But there was one incident that he can never forget, which occurred during his years at a prison in Naivasha. The Home Guards — an official armed unit of loyalists from various African tribes, including many Kikuyu, who benefited in various ways from colonial rule — attempted once again to coerce him into confessing his oaths.
The guards forced him onto his back, holding his legs and arms down, and approached his private parts with a set of pliers. A sharp pain jolted through Ndugire’s body as one of his testicles was ripped off.
“I’m still suffering from a lot of medical problems because of the torture I sustained,” Ndugire tells me. “I continue to feel a lot of pain.” Castration of male detainees was widespread throughout the prisons and detention camps. Sometimes their testicles were crushed during torture before they were removed with pliers; other times their testicles were beaten or mutilated.
In 2013, Ndugire was one of 5,200 Mau Mau who received compensation from the British government in an out-of-court settlement, which totaled $30.5 million, for the atrocities committed against them in the camps. This marked the first time Britain has admitted guilt over colonial-era abuses and its victims have been given the right to claim compensation.
Ndugire says he personally received about $3,000. Many of the veterans refer to these compensation payments as “medicine money” — only enough to cover the costs of medical treatment they need as a result of the years of torture they sustained.
Ndugire built a house with the money. “It’s not enough,” he tells me. “But I was happy when I got it because before I didn’t have any money. Now I have a house to lay my head down at night. But that money is gone.”
Ndugire, however, says he no longer harbors hatred for the British. “I have forgiven them for what they did to me,” he says:
They left our country and went back to their own. They apologized. So I cannot continue holding a grudge against them. I will never heal from what they did to me in those camps. I will take that pain with me to my grave. But I have no choice but to forgive them.
“Remember Their Screams”
Around 1956, Taracisio Waweru Kihia, who was a colonel in the KLFA, was sentenced to death by hanging.
Several months before, he and other Mau Mau rebels ambushed a colonist-controlled village in Nyeri. “It was a big war,” Kihia recounts. “We had fighters shooting at the loyalists from the trees. I saw their bodies falling from the trees after they were shot.”
Kihia, who was in his early twenties at the time, was shot in the arm; the bullet passed through his flesh and exited from the other side. He was also shot in his leg; this second bullet was only removed a few months before my visit to his home in Nyeri.
“I grabbed my gun with my remaining arm, and I ran as fast as I could,” he says. “I went to a river and fell to my knees, slurping up water like a cow. I wouldn’t dream of putting my gun down.”
Kihia was bleeding profusely, he remembers. He pulled off a piece of his shirt and tied it around his arm. He then returned to the Aberdare forests to find his camp. “We had our own doctors in the forests,” he says. “So I found them, and I was treated.”
After he was healed, he was caught by the Home Guards attempting to sneak into another village to collect supplies to bring back to the forests. He was arrested and brought to Nairobi Prison, where he was sentenced to death.
For three months, he remained in a detention cell with six others. “They were hanging people from Monday to Friday,” Kihia says. “They were being taken out, one by one, and hanging them outside. I can still remember their screams.”
“The head officer would come in every morning to beat me into confessing,” he continues. “I was beaten at least three times per day. One night, at around 11 PM, the guards came and told me they needed to take my fingerprints. When they brought me to the room, I felt a hard slap on my face, and the guards began kicking me in my private parts.”
“I couldn’t see anything because it was too dark. I collapsed to the ground. I asked them: ‘Why would you continue torturing someone who is already sentenced to death?’”
Kihia was given twenty-one days to file an appeal and the British Crown provided him an “mzunguu lawyer”; he still speaks about her with fondness. She took advantage of the courts not being able to determine Kihia’s age and tried to convince the judge he was still a teenager, even directing Kihia to bend his knees when standing to give the impression he was smaller than he actually was. He pauses to chuckle at this memory.
Her ploys worked, and Kihia’s death sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.
He then went on to spend years in various prisons and detention camps. The worst of them, he says, was the Aguthi Works Camp in the Nyeri region, where he stayed for five months. This camp is where suspected Mau Mau would be received for their initial screenings and for a final screening upon their release. Appearing on the camp’s gate was the slogan: “He who helps himself will also be helped.”
“When I arrived, they beat me very badly,” Kihia recounts. “They removed five of my teeth during the torture. At one point, they refused me food and water for five days.” Kihia says the detainees were forced to do pointless tasks for hours on end, such as digging an eight-foot-deep hole and then filling it back up with dirt.
Detainees were also forced to construct spiked trenches around the camp. Throughout all the various modes of incarceration they experienced, the detainees were forced to build the infrastructure of their own torture and imprisonment.
For years, Kihia’s legs were shackled together, only removed when he was released from the Aguthi works camp in 1959. Years of wearing these iron shackles caused a chronic bacterial infection. His legs are now wrapped in white bandages, stained yellow from constant infections. He must replace the bandages every three days, which costs him 240 Kenyan shillings (about $2).
Despite sacrificing his life to Kenya’s independence struggle, Kihia lives in abject poverty. “Sometimes I have to sell my goats and chickens to get the money for bandages and medical treatment,” he says. “Other than that I have to rely on charity.”
“Thought I Would Die There”
Gladys Wahito Kanyi was awoken by a trumpet each morning at 5:30 AM, bellowed by the Home Guards to prompt the detainees to begin their work at Kamiti, the colony’s only female detention camp. Thousands of women suspected of being Mau Mau were detained there, including many underage girls.
“They would scream at us: ‘Do you think you are wazunguu or Indians and can sleep in like them? Wake up!” says Kanyi, now eighty-four. She surprisingly recounts this verbal abuse while throwing her head back and laughing, displaying the continued stubbornness among the veterans who refused to capitulate to British control.
When she was still a teenager, Kanyi became a youth leader for the Mau Mau, while cooking, collecting supplies, and organizing drop-offs for the rebels to bring the materials back to the camps in the mountains.
Despite widespread violence on the reserves, which included raping of women and intermittent massacres of civilians, Kikuyu villagers continued to operate intricate supply lines to the Mau Mau rebels, providing them information, food, clothing, ammunition, and medical supplies.
But in 1954, Kanyi was detained, accused of assisting Mau Mau rebels who killed a family of collaborators. The arrest came days after she got married. Her husband was also detained, condemned to Manyani Detention Camp, where many of the suspected hard-core Mau Mau were held.
She was first brought to a screening camp, where guards issued the first of many rounds of torture, attempting to force detainees into confessing their oaths. At that time, Kanyi had already taken three oaths, she says. Women detainees did not escape the cruelty of these screenings; interrogators would often mutilate their breasts, sometimes squeezing their nipples with pliers, or shove foreign objects up their vaginas to coerce them into confessing.
But Kanyi admits to confessing quickly. “I confessed almost immediately,” she concedes. “I saw how people were being tortured. They beat you until you confess. They would do horrible things to people. I wanted to avoid all of that, and so I just confessed.”
Despite confessing her oaths, after a few months, she was transferred to Kamiti, where she stayed for two years. Women of all classifications — white, gray, and black — were detained at Kamiti. Kanyi was classified as “gray.”
“Each day, we woke to take our porridge,” Kanyi remembers:
We were given a mattock, and we would dig murram [hardened asphalt-like earth] all day, putting it in a bucket and carrying it on our heads, transporting it to another site, where we dumped it in a big heap. This was life for us every day.
Others had the job of off-loading and burying dead bodies of suspected Mau Mau who had been executed or tortured to death — all the while receiving intermittent beatings from the guards if they worked too slowly.
“Young women like me were given these hard jobs,” she adds. “But breastfeeding women and old women were given easier jobs, like cleaning the cells, gardening, and cooking.” Anti–Mau Mau propaganda constantly blared from speakers at Kamiti, while Christian preachers frequently visited to urge the detainees to convert and save their souls.
The women detainees would often compose songs and hymns during the grueling work of digging murram all day. Kanyi still remembers some of these songs today. She sings: “Loyalists of Kimunya [a colonial chief] are proud / Sleeping in your houses while we are in the forest / Sleeping in your house while we are in the forest.”
“Life was very hard in Kamiti,” Kanyi tells me. “I was thinking that I would die there. And I felt so sad because I would never experience giving birth or raising a child.”
There were also hundreds of children in Kamiti; most of them ended up dead, unable to withstand the malnutrition and atrocious hygiene at the camp. Some formerly detained women believe the camp authorities were intentionally killing them, as many children died after camp authorities administered medicine to them.
The guards at Kamiti gave names to the compounds, where women were separated into small group cells, each of which corresponded with an animal important in Kikuyu culture, such as hiti (hyena) and mburi (goat), along with the Kikuyu names for the various life cycles of the n’gombe, or cow.
Kanyi says she was held in the hiti compound, where the more hard-core detainees were kept; she shared a cell with Ngina Kenyatta, popularly known as “Mama Ngina,” Jomo Kenyatta’s wife and mother of the current president. “They put me in there because they feared that I could organize the prisoners,” Kanyi says. “I was a youth leader, so I knew how to organize a good number of people.”
In 1958, she was finally released. Two months later, she was reunited with her husband, who died in 1985. “I was very happy when I saw him again,” she says, her smile lighting up her face. “We were very lucky. Many families never saw each other again after that.” Kanyi went on to have several children.
But freedom was not a possibility for Kikuyu under British rule. Following release, the former detainees stepped into another form of incarceration, where torture, abuse, and forced labor were just as commonplace as in the camps and prisons. In these emergency villages, many considered life to be even worse than in the camps.
“Hungry All the Time”
Starting in 1954, colonial authorities removed more than a million Kikuyu from their homesteads throughout the central region and herded them into 804 emergency villages, partly designed to sever the supply lines between villagers in the reserves and the fighters in the forest.
These villages were surrounded by barbed wire and spiked trenches while constantly surveilled by heavily armed Home Guards and watchtowers. Villagers were subjected to daily forced labor with a loud siren that routinized their work schedules.
Each day, Meshack Waigwa Mbung’ai, who was then in his early twenties, was forced to labor digging the spiked trenches around Kangaita, a village in the Nyeri region. Villagers in Kangaita were also transported to other emergency villages for forced labor, digging trenches, constructing roads, and building colonial facilities. They had to walk on foot, escorted by the Home Guards, to the work sites, which sometimes took hours.
“In a lot of areas, all the men had either been killed or detained, so they relied on men from our village to build everything,” Mbung’ai, now eighty-four, explains. According to Mbung’ai, Kangaita had the highest number of remaining men, about two thousand.
“I felt like being a prisoner would have been a better life because at least they were given food and soap to wash themselves,” he says. The trenches he and others were forced to construct around the villages were twenty feet wide and twelve feet deep, he says; they spent many days chiseling wood into two-sided spikes they would hammer into the deep indentation, ensuring no villager could get out and no Mau Mau could get in. The perimeters of the villages would then be surrounded with barbed wire.
“The Home Guards would beat us like it was their hobby,” Mbung’ai remembers. “They got enjoyment from it. Maybe they would feel bored or tired and they would come over and start whipping us . . . just for fun.” Women villagers also worked on these trenches but were mostly tasked with collecting the discarded soil and removing it from the area, he says.
“Many people died working on those trenches,” Mbung’ai adds, sitting on a couch at his home, with a tilted top hat casting a shadow across his wrinkled face. “Many died from the beatings, while others died just from sheer exhaustion.” When villagers fell dead, the others would be forced to bury them, usually in the exact spot where they had died.
Mbung’ai remembers being punished by guards during the forced labor. He was told to lower himself into an already dug hole, with just enough space to stand straight up, while guards slowly filled it up with water until it reached his neck. “I was forced to stay there for about twelve hours, throughout the night, and until the next morning,” he says.
Women were also frequently raped by wazunguu and the Home Guards, sometimes repeatedly by several men at once. Any resistance to the treatment would result in further torture or summary executions, sometimes done publicly to send a message to the rest of the village.
Mbung’ai, who first took the Mau Mau oath when he was eighteen, worked in forced labor for the entire emergency, which lasted for seven years. His father went to fight in the forests at the start of the war and was subsequently detained for years. “I wanted to go with my father to fight, but he wouldn’t allow it. If he died in the forest someone would need to be around to care for the family,” Mbung’ai says.
Once a week, residents were given a few hours to leave the emergency villages, from a single gate manned by the Home Guards, and scavenge for anything they could find on their abandoned farm plots to use for food, while collecting wild roots and vegetables. The food they were able to gather was supposed to last them for the week, when the desperate hunt for food would once again resume. Typically, however, the food only lasted them a few days, if they were lucky.
In the village, “we were hungry all the time,” Mbung’ai remembers. “Even if someone served us rotten food, we would eat it without complaining — that’s how hungry we were.”
Mbung’ai says he helped transport goats to pickup locations for Mau Mau fighters, before and after being forced onto the emergency village. Villagers were told to go to prearranged sites, which they refer to as postas, to leave supplies, where another villager would grab them and transport them to another prearranged site, until it eventually ended up in the hands of the rebels.
But when the Kikuyu were forced onto the emergency villages, “we had to come up with other tricks to help our fighters in the forest,” Mbung’ai says. “It became much more challenging and risky.”
At times, the villages would secretly construct a bridge in the cover of night, making ropes out of the bark of wattle trees to fasten the wood together. “We had to be very quiet,” Mbung’ai recounts. “There was no power in the villages, so this darkness helped us a lot. If we were caught, we would certainly be tortured to death.”
The villagers relied heavily on children in the villages to act as “scouts,” or conduits between the villagers and the fighters in the forest. Colonial authorities were not as suspicious of Kikuyu children as they were of the adults; they were allowed more freedom to congregate, run around, and play. Villagers quickly took advantage of this oversight.
Joshua Mwendia, now seventy-five, was about eight years old when he was forced onto an emergency village. Mwendia’s father, Wairia Mwendia, was fighting in the forests at the time. Mwendia says he worked as a scout, gathering information during the day when the adults were out on forced labor projects.
“We were left to play around the grounds of the village,” Mwendia recounts:
We would play children’s games that could communicate messages to the fighters in the forests. If the Home Guards asked if we had seen anything suspicious, we would give them wrong information or point the guards in the opposite direction of the fighters’ location.
Mwendia says he had also been one of the scouts to personally deliver supplies to the Mau Mau fighters at the final posta, which typically saw the rebels cross the trenches over a makeshift bridge. The interaction would only last for a few seconds, he says.
According to Mwendia, the Mau Mau rebels would remind the villagers, “Stay strong and endure the hardships. Even if there is just one man and one woman left, the struggle is continuing,” before disappearing back into the forests.
Despite the immeasurable torture and brutality they experienced under British rule, without fail the issue that aroused the most anger in the Mau Mau veterans during our interviews was when I asked about their experience after independence in 1963.
“It makes me feel horrible,” Kihia says, suddenly agitated:
We sacrificed our lives for this struggle. And the Mau Mau are still landless. We were fighting for two things: land and freedom. And we have gotten nothing. . . . Only poverty. I wasted years of my life in prison, and now I can’t even afford my medical bills or support my family. Independence for the Mau Mau was no different than being moved from one prison to another prison.
As the British mistakenly pointed to Kenyatta as being the mastermind behind Mau Mau, so too did the Kikuyu. It would be a dire mistake that continues to haunt them.
Kenyatta was imprisoned in the Lokitaung detention camp in the arid northern region throughout the war, where the suspected inciters and managers of the rebellion were condemned. Their days were defined by grueling and pointless work, while the camp faced constant water and food shortages.
According to Elkins, Kenyatta stayed out of any prison organizing and politics, and instead rejected anti-European or anti-loyalist politics. He soon had to be separated from the other prisoners, most likely for his own safety, as detainees accused him of harboring loyalist sympathies.
When Kenya was granted independence, Kenyatta emerged as the first president of free Kenya, just two years after he was released from prison. An ineffable surge of euphoria spread throughout the Kikuyu community. But if the Mau Mau believed their supposed leader would right the colonial injustices they had fought so hard against, they were sorely wrong.
Instead, at every moment, Kenyatta attempted to marginalize those who had fought and were detained during the war. Upon their release, former Mau Mau detainees underwent another oathing ceremony, vowing to continue their fight if the new government failed to return their land. Many of them would subsequently be arrested by Kenyatta’s government. The revival of Mau Mau was seen as a threat to the new political order; the independent government would not lift the colonial ban on the Mau Mau until 2003.
Rather than spearhead a just land redistribution and compensation program that could help the millions of Africans who became landless as a result of decades of colonial dispossession, Kenyatta announced that if anyone wanted land, they would have to buy it.
“Nothing is free,” he unabashedly said, stating that lands would change hands on a “willing seller–willing buyer” basis.
“There was no employment in the forests,” Wambugu says, clenching his jaw in anger. “No one was paid for the years of work they did in those camps. The Europeans did not pay us for the land they took. Where in the world would we have gotten money to buy land?”
The newly independent government also used tens of millions of dollars in loans it received from the British government to purchase farms owned by thousands of settlers who decided to pack their bags and leave independent Kenya. Much of this land was then resold to European investors and wealthy Kenyans, most of whom were loyalists throughout the war.
Under Kenyatta, many of these loyalists, who accumulated massive amounts of wealth, power, and privilege for their allegiance to colonial authorities, became influential members of the new government — from its highest echelons to its village-level bureaucracies.
“The government uses the word ‘Mau Mau’ to serve its own interests,” Ndugire says:
But most of these men in power are the children of the same people who tortured us in the camps and collaborated with our enemies. They have no shame. Now they want to honor the Mau Mau and our fight for freedom. But if they really want to celebrate us, then they should give us our land back.
The Kenyatta family is said to now own about 500,000 acres of land in Kenya, more than twice the size of New York City. Other politically elite families have also acquired massive tracts of land in the country. The Mau Mau veterans, meanwhile, are spending the last years of their lives landless and in crippling poverty.
“The Mau Mau struggle is continuing,” Wambugu says; his voice is stern:
But our enemy is no longer the British. Our enemies are these rich Kenyans who benefited from their rule and then stole our land. But our lands will one day be returned to us — no matter how much time passes, because Ngai is still on the side of the Mau Mau.