The History Kenya Forgot: Untold World War II Stories7 min read.
The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II, in general, suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level.
Before 2:30 pm on 12th February 1944, everything on SS Khedive Ismail was as normal as things aboard a troopship could be. In the music room on the upper decks, someone was playing the Warsaw Concerto on the grand piano. In the lower decks and the cargo hold, which had been converted into barracks mainly for the black soldiers, it was hot and humid. Both spaces would become death traps within a matter of seconds, and the grand piano, a weapon.
A lookout, probably bored out of his mind, noticed a periscope peeking from the water. He raised the alarm, alerting the gunners to the position of the Japanese submarine deftly charging towards SS Khedive Ismail. The troopship was on a routine mission to deliver troops, mainly East Africans, from Mombasa to Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before their onward journey to Burma (now Myanmar). It was part of a convoy codenamed KR8, which had begun its journey from Kilindini port in Mombasa a week earlier.
The alarm was a little too late. Just as the gunners opened fire, the submarine fired four torpedoes. Two missed, but the other two found their target. The first struck the engine room. The second hit the boiler room. The troopship listed, and in less than two minutes, disappeared under the water. The other troopships and the destroyers in the convoy, codenamed KR8, barely had time to react or help. They fled to safety before two destroyers doubled back to face the Japanese submarine and to rescue survivors.
As the troopship sank, survivors clutched onto whatever they could get their hands on. The Japanese submarine, I-27, hid beneath them as the destroyers in the convoy doubled back and tried to hit it with depth charges, killing even more of the survivors. The submarine was eventually forced to surface, and one of the destroyers, Palladin, rammed into it. The hit breached the destroyer’s hull, forcing it to retreat and leave the work to the other destroyer in the convoy, the HMS Petard. The Petard’s torpedoes hit the submarine at 5:30pm, three hours after SS Khedive Ismail had sunk. The sub broke into two and sank with everyone on board.
Aboard the SS Khedive Ismail before the sinking had been 1, 511 people, 996 of whom were members of the 301st Field Regiment, East African Artillery. Only 215 people would make it out alive. The survivors were rescued once the submarine had been sank and moved on to Ceylon, where they got survival leave for two weeks before rejoining the war effort.
Of the 1, 296 people who died that day, only four of them were given a proper sea burial. The rest were left in the shark-infested waters, far from home and virtually forgotten.
The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail is the subject of Brian J. Crabb’s 1997 book Passage to Destiny. In an email conversation, Crabb says his interest stems from his father, Percival Crabb, who “…was a fortunate survivor of the sinking, escaping through an open porthole with his leg still in plaster!”
In the book, Crabb includes an extensive appendix with all the names and ranks/roles of everyone, black and white, on board the doomed ship. The list of East Africans, mainly from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, takes up several pages. The troops are ranked by names, rank, and number. That’s all we know about Warrant Officers Alfani Ndagile, Kathuka Ndajo, Mua Kilonzi, Muema Ileli, Selemani Mzee, Shabani Mbaraku and Siligwi Mwita. The seven of them were the highest ranking enlisted men among the hundreds of East African troops who died that day. Most of the East African casualties were gunners.
The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II in general suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level.
When World War II began, there were only 2,900 men in the Kings African Rifles (KAR). The real threat of an Italian invasion from Ethiopia, and the entry of Japan into the war, drove the need for fast mobilisation.
Although the Great Depression (1929-1939) was a relatively prosperous time for Kenyan farmers, it gutted the settler economy and the colony’s budgets. Job opportunities in urban areas and farms dwindled, and crime levels in the former rose for a time. Combined with the crop failure of 1939, it meant that the best option for young men was to join the military. Any able-bodied man could enlist, although there had been restrictions as late as 1941 based on ethnicity. The Pioneer Corps, for example, were initially recruited from Western Kenya.
The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail suffers from the same historicity issues that World War II in general suffers from in former colonies. It was a war (mainly) away from home, driven by issues that most of the one million Africans who enlisted had little or nothing to do with, at least at a socio-cultural level.
In his memoirs, Fan to Flame, John G Gatu, the future Reverend and Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, writes that he joined the armed forces because he was unemployed. Gatu joined the Signal Corps and served in Ethiopia and Somaliland. Like Gatu, Waruhiu Itote (General China) joined the military because he was unemployed and “to escape the boredom”.
For some, the economic benefits were a result, not a motivation, of being recruited. Kenya’s first four-star general, Jackson Mulinge, accidentally found himself in the military after he chose the wrong day to go to Machakos to sell a chicken. A recruitment officer grabbed the teenager and conscripted him, marking the beginning of a journey that would see him climb up the ranks over the next three decades.
The contracts the new recruits signed stated that they would be discharged “after the cessation of hostilities”. Most of them were in their early 20s, still single, and because of the education policies at the time, barely literate, if at all. By the end of the war, in 1945, there were nearly 100,000 Kenyans in the military either as members of the Kings African Rifles or the Pioneer Corps, a successor of the Carrier Corps.
Being a soldier meant a steady income and other benefits, such as being exempt from excruciating hut and poll taxes. It also gave the soldiers a common martial identity as well as exposed them to unprecedented trauma and horrors that would also go largely undocumented.
In the heat of war, despite concerns from the settler community about everything from labour supply to the economic and security risks, thousands of Kenyans were trained, armed, and deployed to fight in Northern Kenya, North Africa, and Asia. They were all enlisted men, meaning they could never rise beyond the rank of Warrant Officer. That would be one of the challenges in the lead up to and immediate aftermath of independence two decades later.
Discipline was still enforced mainly with corporal punishment. Major infractions were punished with a kiboko, while cowardice was punished with execution. There were at least three incidents of retaliation, once when a sergeant shot and killed three officers, and then when two enlisted men were executed for shooting officers and wounding others with a grenade.
In 1945, a quarter of those who survived the war were discharged. The demobilisation went on for two more years, which meant that tens of thousands of young men who had seen war and death were expected to resume their pre-war status. The Kenya that the veterans returned to had barely changed, but they had. They had not only seen the perils of war but they had also been exposed to a new lifestyle, and had had a steady income and developed new habits. Gatu, in his book, offers that the war was the beginning of unparalleled drug use among the troops. Every week, the soldiers would be issued with matches, soap, and cigarettes.
But they were also liquid and most of them were still young, single and raring to go. Studies of the post-war period mention a rising discomfort with the power held by chiefs and elders, as well as inflation in the social scene as bride price was hiked.
In 1945, a quarter of those who survived the war were discharged. The demobilisation went on for two more years, which meant that tens of thousands of young men who had seen war and death were expected to resume their pre-war status. The Kenya that the veterans returned to had barely changed, but they had.
The money they had made could not last forever. Many of them applied for trade, shop and transport licences, only to be met by a racist bureaucracy that expected them to fall back to wage labour, primarily in agriculture. Some re-enlisted into the Kings African Rifles, while others struck out in new businesses. Others, like my grandfather, used the training they had obtained during the war to eke out a living as health officers and drivers.
A number of the former soldiers were involved in the political upheaval of the late 1940s and the 1950s, but not to as significant a level as one would imagine. Dedan Kimathi, the de facto leader of the Mau Mau, was only a soldier for a month in 1940 before he was dishonourably discharged for violence and drunkenness.
Some rejoined the KAR and other disciplined units, but a large number disappeared into the normalcy of reserve life.
What’s less acknowledged in our history books are the number of enlisted men who died or suffered during the war, and the trauma the survivors came home with. Because a large number of the survivors did not have any formal education, and there was little interest in chronicling their experiences, we can only glean aspects of them from scattered memoirs and academic studies. Several memorials and cemeteries in major towns celebrate their lives and sacrifice, but very few black soldiers are named.
The sinking of SS Khedive Ismail was also problematic because of its magnitude; it was the single largest loss of East African troops, and third worst Allied mercantile shipping disaster of World War II. Publicizing it in the immediate aftermath would have affected recruitment and morale as the sinking of SS Mendi during World War I had done with South African troops.
What’s lesser acknowledged in our history books are the number of enlisted men who died or suffered during the war, and the trauma the survivors came home with. Because a large number of the survivors did not have any formal education, and there was little interest in chronicling their experiences, we can only glean aspects of their experiences from scattered memoirs and academic studies.
Despite Kenya’s central role as the home of the East African force, the Eastern Fleet, and also as a war front with Italy, the war itself is merely a footnote in the events that followed in the next decade. Thousands of enlisted men who died for a cause they didn’t necessarily believe in remain mainly nameless and unacknowledged. The unit that suffered the heaviest losses, the 301st Field Regiment, had been formed just two years before and had already served in Madagascar. The only thing that remains in their memory is a plaque at the Nairobi War Cemetery. Few of the thousands of Kenyans who died on different fronts and missions are named, and their stories have all but disappeared. Even the wounds of war, such as the bombing of Malindi and the Italian excursion 100km into Kenya, are now mere footnotes in history.
It is a significant gap in our military history, and if the lacklustre coverage of our eight-year war in Somalia is anything to go by, a part of our national ethos.
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Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.
Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”
Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.
Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.
At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.
Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.
Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned. US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.
The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.
AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.
Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”
Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.
I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.
Sweet home Alabama!
An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.
Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.
He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.
We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.
What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.
Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked
King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.
In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.
Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.
Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.
Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.
“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.
The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.
According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.
A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.
The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”. “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.
These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.
The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.
The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.
The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.
The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”
With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:
And this bird, you cannot change
Lord help me, I can’t change….
Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.
Breaking the Chains of Indifference
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.
They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.
This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”
Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.
Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.
Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.
Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.
The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no retribution against the military for their actions.
During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.
Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.
Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.
Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
Mukami Kimathi and the Scramble to Own Mau Mau Memory
The struggle for control of Mau Mau memory and memorialisation resurfaces with the burial of Mukami Kimathi.
May the scramble for memorialisation commence. The body of Dedan Kimathi’s widow was barely in the ground before the wannabe Mau Maus began using her to score cheap political points. The line between “rebel” and “loyalist” is blurred once again, as it was during and after the liberation struggle. Just as hotly contested is the struggle for control of Mau Mau memory and memorialisation. Who owns Kimathi? Who owns Mukami? The usual suspects, most of whom had nothing to do with Mau Mau, came running to stake their claim.
Kenyan politicians love a good death—captive audience, media spotlight, the chance to dress up, and a feast to follow. Predictably, they made a meal out of this one.
Attempts to control the narrative kicked off at the burial, and in tributes reported in the media. Raila Odinga and William Ruto went head to head, the president declaring: “Mama Mukami Kimathi courageously withstood the brutality of colonial oppression, proudly wore the scars of battle, and bore the terrible losses of war with admirable fortitude.” Whether she actually took part in physical combat, as this implies, is neither here nor there.
Fans of Raila took to Twitter to claim that he had taken better care of Mukami and her family than his political opponents had. “Baba used to look out for the late Field Marshall Mukami Kimathi. “Hao wengine ambao wanajiita [those others who call themselves] ‘sons of Mau Mau’ never met Mukami until she passed away.” Other tweeps spoke of a “showdown” between former Mungiki leader Maina Njenga and Vice President Rigathi Gachagua at the burial. “Who is the true son of Mau Mau between Maina Njenga and Riggy G?”. One young woman scathingly noted: “There is nothing Mau Mauish about Mukami Kimathi ‘s burial. That MC was the worst very sad. Watoto wa home guards have hijacked the burial.”
This story isn’t really about Mukami as a person or as an activist. It doesn’t need to be. It discusses what has been projected onto her, and will continue to be projected onto her and Kimathi, in the slippery process of memorialising Mau Mau (more properly, the Land and Freedom Army; its members never called it Mau Mau). It also draws some parallels between Mukami and Winnie Mandela.
As Julie MacArthur wrote in the introduction to her edited volume Dedan Kimathi on Trial, “Kimathi’s legacy was never a simple exemplar of patriotic martyrdom, and his place in the postcolonial imagination reflected the complicated legacy of the Mau Mau rebellion: at times suppressed or downplayed, at others lauded and filled with mythic importance, but always contested.” This landmark 2017 book ran five “critical essays” by scholars—alongside a transcript of Kimathi’s trial—from primary documents which MacArthur had discovered. It was an exciting find of archival papers everyone had “long thought lost, hidden or destroyed”. She described how, when Nelson Mandela visited Kenya for the first time, in July 1990, he was surprised to find that Eloise Mukami (as MacArthur calls her) had not been invited to the festivities, and “lamented” her absence. He also queried the absence of a proper grave for Kimathi, and said he would have liked to have paid his respects there, as one freedom fighter to another. The face of then President Moi, as he listened to this homage, was reportedly stony. At that time, Kimathi was not considered the right kind of hero. Mandela had publicly embarrassed him.
Winnie and Mukami
It is fitting that we refer to Mandela here, since there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between Winnie and Mukami. Both were iconic as the wives of famous freedom fighters, though Winnie differed from Mukami in being a huge political figure in her own right. Both led underground networks, of ANC activists in Winnie’s case, and (if reports are correct) of Mau Mau fighters and supporters in Mukami’s case. The two couples both spent more time apart than they did together, exchanging precious letters. “He talked with letters,” Mukami told interviewer Wambui Kamiru; they used a secret code. The Mandelas, too, relied on letters, albeit heavily censored ones. It can also be argued that Winnie suffered more on the outside, during her husband’s 27-year incarceration, than he did on the inside. She was constantly hounded, held under house arrest, vilified and spied upon. In May 1969 she was arrested and jailed for 491 days, 400 of them in solitary confinement. In his new biography Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage Jonny Steinberg writes that by the mid-1960s “the security police expended astonishing energy to render her life unlivable”. This included hounding those close to her; for example, her brother Msuthu was arrested and jailed for vagrancy. Then, when it became known that Winnie had taken other lovers, even before Nelson was imprisoned on Robben Island, she was vilified as a cheating wife. A man in the same circumstances would have escaped blame. If anything, it would have enhanced his reputation. (Kimathi reportedly had many lovers in the forest, while banning his fighters from cohabitation outside marriage.)
Both were iconic as the wives of famous freedom fighters, though Winnie differed from Mukami in being a huge political figure in her own right.
To my knowledge Mukami was never accused of being unfaithful (is that even possible for a widow?) but some of this also applies to her. She suffered for decades after Dedan was executed, living in poverty and struggling to bring up four children alone (some reports say ten). Wambui Kamiru (widow of the late Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore) refers to “the cost she paid for freedom” in her unpublished Master’s thesis “Memorialising the Kimathi Family”, based largely on informal interviews with Mukami at her home in South Kinangop. (My thanks to Wambui for sharing a copy of this long ago.) Mukami’s biographer, Wairimu Nderitu, has also described her struggles and incarceration, ultimately in Kamiti Prison.
However, accounts of Mukami’s time in the forest do not add up. While some writers including Nderitu claim that she spent years in the forest, led a platoon and was quarter-master of a fighters’ camp, other accounts contradict this. Writes Kamiru: “Although Mukami had initially followed Kimathi into the forest in 1952, when their eldest son Waciuri became a toddler, Kimathi asked her to leave the forest so that the child and the family to come would be raised outside of war.” Which is it? In the weeks and months to come, we can expect more “active forest fighter” tributes to Mukami. Her story is already becoming embellished.
Why Mau Mau memorialisation is still contested
It shouldn’t be necessary to repeat this, 60 years after independence. Mau Mau was not a unifying movement. It remains an open wound on Kenya’s body politic. Its sheer ambiguity makes it so, and no single figure was more ambiguous than Kimathi. Kenyan scholar Simon Gikandi, writing in the MacArthur collection of essays cited earlier, calls him “neither the demonic figure of colonial discourse, nor the heroic subject of radical nationalism, but what the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously called a ‘floating signifier’, a term intended ‘to represent an undetermined quantity of signification’, but is in ‘itself void of meaning and thus apt to receive any meaning’. Kimathi is a signifier with a value, but what this value represents is variable and open to multiple interpretations”. In other words, anyone can project onto him whatever they wish. He represents whatever they want him to. Now people will do the same, to a much lesser extent, with Mukami.
Another problem is this. Millions of Kenyans have forebears who were what I call neither-nors – neither Mau Mau nor so-called loyalists. Many may have moved up and down a spectrum that had Mau Mau and loyalists at each extreme, ducking and diving when necessary. Naturally, many of their descendants don’t want to be reminded of this; it’s all too painful. Historian Daniel Branch has described the complex blurring of allegiances in Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya. He notes, for example: “In late 1952 and through much of 1953, Home Guards repeatedly assisted Mau Mau units”. As in any civil conflict (and yes this became one, despite what the naysayers claim), some people play a double game in order to survive. They may also, as Branch describes, join a particular side not for ideological reasons but in order to settle private scores. As he put it, “The violence of the conflict became privatised as individuals assumed the labels of Mau Mau or loyalist to pursue rivals who had declared for the other group.”
Millions of Kenyans have forebears who were what I call neither-nors – neither Mau Mau nor so-called loyalists.
Why do I refer to naysayers? Because the struggle within a struggle (including that between Kimathi and his own fighters, some of whom turned against him) is dismissed by some as yet another colonial invention. All this messy complexity is now brushed aside, in an effort to present a seamless metanarrative of freedom struggle—not least by the state.
Moreover, the entire population of “peasants” did not rise up and join Mau Mau, despite Ngugi’s best attempts to claim that they did. (Calling them peasants is a tad derogatory, isn’t it? Pastoralists, for one, are not peasants, but they too revolted against the colonial state at various times. And Kimathi had been a teacher, not a peasant.) If some readers are harrumphing as they read this, and want to accuse me of heresy, that proves my point: Mau Mau is still utterly divisive, but critique is healthy and necessary, in this or any other discussion of the past. The critical essays in MacArthur’s volume, written by eminent Kenyan and British scholars with a Foreword by Ngugi and Micere Githae Mugo, attest to that. Many other Kenyan scholars have previously written critically about Mau Mau, notably E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, Bethwell Ogot and others in Mau Mau and Nationhood. Ogot has argued that the narrow focus on Mau Mau as the sole actors in the independence struggle obscures the role that others (such as trade unionists, intellectuals) played in achieving the goal of uhuru. He wrote of how “the heroes and heroines are identified with the forest fighters in the 1950s, and the rest of our freedom fighters are supposed to suffer a second death like Fanon”. The anticolonial movement, he argues, was much larger than that. Most scholars would agree: the uncomfortable fact is that Mau Mau failed militarily, and may even have delayed independence.
Let’s take the contradictions and anomalies that swirl around Jomo Kenyatta. He is hailed as the founding “father of the nation”, while Mau Mau is simultaneously seen as the foundation story. Yet there is no evidence that Jomo was ever in Mau Mau. How can these two opposites be reconciled? Though he swung between denouncing Mau Mau and occasionally embracing it, Jomo declared it to be “a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again” (speech at Githunguri, September 1962, just after he was released from detention). Scholar Marshall Clough has said of this: “Kenyatta’s use of criminal analogies and disease metaphors directly recalled the British discourse on Mau Mau, and suggested not only a political repudiation of the movement but a certain degree of personal distaste.” (I quote from his chapter in Mau Mau and Nationhood.) As I have previously written in the MacArthur volume, “On coming to power, Jomo Kenyatta ushered in a period of orchestrated amnesia about Mau Mau, which served his political purposes.” Those purposes included the urgent need to unify a divided post-conflict nation. They included the need to obscure his own role (or lack of it) in the freedom struggle, at least that part of it involving actual physical combat. He also wanted to fend off what he saw as veterans’ unrealistic demands for compensation, free land and jobs, and possibly to avoid the expense of erecting memorials to liberation heroes. That only started once Mwai Kibaki came to power and embarked on a mausoleum-building spree.
Let me quote from the horse’s mouth. My late informant Paul Thuku Njembui was a war veteran with the best of credentials—he claimed to have sheltered Kimathi in his home for a while. He spent seven years in British detention camps, where he learned some English. In conversation with me (we spent many hours talking at his home in Karima Forest near Nyeri; funnily enough Wambui Kamiru was briefly my research assistant), he was adamant that Jomo was never in Mau Mau. “Kenyatta was not a Mau Mau,” he told me. “Who could have become the first president of Kenya? Is it Kenyatta or Kimathi? Kimathi continued fighting for freedom up to the end of his life, but Kenyatta surrendered, he betrayed his people … Mau Mau fought for land and freedom, but it is the children of the loyalists who got the land. The truth only comes from us [veterans], other sources may not have been accurate.”
“On coming to power, Jomo Kenyatta ushered in a period of orchestrated amnesia about Mau Mau, which served his political purposes.”
It is a refrain often heard from veterans, both living and dead. It belies the Jomo-led official mantra “We all fought for freedom”; that is, all communities, not just Gikuyu and the few members of other ethnic groups who joined Mau Mau. Thuku also believed that Kenyatta told the British to execute Kimathi: “He was there to say [to the British]: ‘Kill Kimathi! Let him die!’ Because he knew that he would [otherwise] have no chance of being president.”
That was obviously a myth, but it served a purpose in Thuku’s mind: it made sense of the past. His past. Myth forms an important part of what scholars call regimes of memory, which simultaneously feature “forgetting”, myth, occlusion, absences, contradictions, and often a surfeit of memory. Memory can be both individual and collective. It is vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, as French historian Pierre Nora famously wrote, particularly where the construction and reconstruction of nationhood and national history are concerned. His description of memory as “susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived” applies to Mau Mau memory, as Clough has previously pointed out. Equally, it also applies to its memorialisation, which has taken on a life of its own.
This is where it gets doubly tricky: when the government of the day uses select narratives to construct the official “story of the nation”. Nowhere is the struggle to produce a coherent story of Kenya, most particularly the story of Mau Mau, more apparent than in the permanent history exhibition at Nairobi National Museum, which opened in 2010. (See my chapter on “The Production and Transmission of National History” in Annie E. Coombes, Lotte Hughes and Karega-Munene, Managing Heritage, Making Peace. History, Identity and Memory in Contemporary Kenya.) In the “Armed Struggle” room, Kenyatta’s role in the fight for independence is fudged. When I last visited some years ago, I asked a guide what connection, if any, there was between Kenyatta and Mau Mau, since this was not at all clear from the display. “He led Mau Mau but he pretended that he did not” came the reply. Oddly, his photograph was not included in a display showing three of the Kapenguria Six, who were jailed with Kenyatta. The caption read: “The militant leaders of the Mau Mau movement” rather than members of the militant wing of the Kenya African Union (KAU). Other questionable features of the exhibition included displays presenting “collaborators” and “resisters” as binary opposites, and a video showing interviews with Mau Mau veterans, who all happened to be Gikuyu—thereby contradicting the line that Mau Mau was multi-ethnic. These displays may have changed since I was there.
And so we have returned, with the burial of Mukami, to the idea that “We all fought for freedom”. This is not said in so many words, but it is implied, and is being relayed once again as a unifying message from a new president to a divided nation.
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