Unhistories – Kenya’s Mau Mau: A Walk Through the Archives6 min read.
This documentary project titled Unhistories departs from the Hanslope Disclosure in which British colonial archives were destroyed, hidden and manipulated. Known as Operation Legacy in the 1950s, the British colonial administration in Kenya destroyed much of the documentation relating to the Emergency prior to their departure in 1963.
In 2014, Belgian documentary artist Max Pinckers was invited to the Archive of Modern Conflict in London, where he came across a collection of British propaganda material relating to the 1950s “Mau Mau Emergency Crisis” in Kenya. Since then he has been working with various Mau Mau War Veterans Associations in Kenya, with a particular focus on using photography to (re-)visualize the fight for independence from their personal perspectives. This includes mass graves, former detention camp buildings, locations of former mobile gallows, cave hideouts, oral witness testimonies, portraits and demonstrations of personal experiences.
This ongoing documentary project titled Unhistories departs from the Hanslope Disclosure in which British colonial archives were destroyed, hidden and manipulated. Known as Operation Legacy in the 1950s, the British colonial administration in Kenya destroyed much of the documentation relating to the Emergency prior to their departure in 1963. Unhistories is a collaboration with Mau Mau veterans, Kenyans who survived the colonial violence, historians, artists, activists, writers, archives, universities and museums.
Part I of this series covers a walk through archival material, vaults and the burning of incriminating materials by the British government, as well as interviews and demonstrations by Mau Mau veterans.
Mũgo wa Kĩbirũ’s Prophecy
Here stood one of the largest Mũgumo trees in the country, with a diameter of about four and a half meters. The Kikuyu sage Mũgo (Chêgê wa Kĩbirũ) prophesied that the fall of this giant fig tree would mark the end of British colonial rule in Kenya. In 1946, while it was a place of worship for the Kikuyu community, the British assigned 24-hour security around the tree and decided to fortify with metal bars and a circular iron ring filled with soil to prevent it from falling.
Shortly before Kenya became independent in 1963, the tree was struck by lightning, split into two parts and withered away. The circular reinforcement still remains today, with a new tree now growing out of it.
The Hanslope Disclosure
In 2011, during the negotiations for compensation of Kenyan victims of abuse, the unrelenting efforts of lawyers and expert witnesses led to the discovery and release of thousands of secret files held by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) at the a highly-secured government facility Hanslope Park. The FCO was forced to reveal the existence of some 1,500 government files secretly removed from Kenya on the eve of independence, a process known as “Operation Legacy.” They provided many unseen documents which described in detail the systemic torture of detainees during the emergency, and the knowledge of those abuses by British Government officials in London and Nairobi. These “Migrated Archives” are just a small part of a much larger collection of documents that were either destroyed or have disappeared. The FCO subsequently announced that it held files from all 37 former colonies, a collection of about 20,000 items.
“(a) Might embarrass H.M.G. [Her Majesty’s Government] or other Governments;
(b) Might embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others (such as police agents or informers);
(c) Might compromise sources of intelligence;
(d) Might be used unethically by Ministers in the successor Government.”
— Protection and Disposal of Classified and Accountable Documents and Records Generally, TNA FCO 141/6970, 1961-63
“It is permissible, as an alternative to destruction by fire, for documents to be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast.”
— Disposal of Classified Records and Acceptable Documents, TNA FCO 141-6957, 1961
Paul Mwangi Mwenja
When the British came here they treated us like animals. They abused us saying that we Africans are domesticated gibbons and mannequins, that we have all the characteristics of human beings but suffer from academic inferiority. They expelled us from our shambas, our lands, and they settled.
They said we have no capacity of carrying our documents. So they made boxes, they called them “identity box” (kipande), which they told us to hang by our neck. They said we have no pockets or money, so they made coins with holes in them, with a string through them, to tie around our necks. They did the same with dogs. Dogs had their identity tied to their necks. And we Africans, we had our identity tied to our necks. The British were overpowering, pressing and dictating, and ruling very rudely. They took our lands by force, our property, our houses, they took everything and they ruled us very dictatorially until we said that enough is enough. Then we fought for our independence. We didn’t get the reward or compensation to wipe our tears for the land we are fighting for, we still haven’t gotten any.
Our government forgot about us freedom fighters. That is why you see us very thin and poor, living a life that does not fit people like us. I don’t know what we can do for this to reach our president. But I hope that he may remember us before we die.
— Paul Mwangi Mwenja (MMWVA Murang’a Branch Secretary), Murang’a, 2019
More from the Unhistories series
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Nairobi witnessed a new wave of protests on Tuesday, 2nd May 2023.
Kenya’s opposition wing led by Azimio la Umoja One Kenya coalition Leader Raila Odinga on Tuesday May 2nd 2023 staged a new wave of anti-government demonstrations in the country. Here is a sneak peek into how the demonstrations fared across the city of Nairobi.
Anniversary Towers on University Way which houses the IEBC offices remained under heavy security both outside and inside as policed braced for a clash with protesters.
Anti-riot police officers on horse back patrol Uhuru Highway in anticipation of the march by demonstrators.
A heavy contingent of anti-riot police deployed along Kenya International Conference Centre and Supreme Court premises ahead of the anticipated resumption of Azimio la Umoja anti-government protests.
Journalists and media practitioners from various media houses cover the anti-government protests in various streets around the Nairobi Central Business District.
The Nairobi Central Business District remained relatively calm with most residents going about their activities yesterday in spite of the concerns about the protests.
Security remained heightened along all access routes leading to Statehouse Nairobi.
Riders found it hard to access the Central Business District yesterday afternoon as anti-riots police blocked major roads and alleys leading into the city.
Earlier in the day, irate protestors burned down a minibus plying the Ngong-Nairobi route at Posta, along Ngong Road.
A private security guard mans a building entrance along Haile Selassie Avenue which was one of the earmarked routes for protests.
Nairobi: A City of Content Creators
For many youthful content creators that the Elephant interacted with, creating content is a source of income.
On a Sunday afternoon take a leisurely walk along Kenyatta Avenue, Kimathi Street, Muindi Mbingu and Koinange Streets on Sundays. Everywhere you’ll find young Kenyans with their cameras creating content of one form or the other.
Ms. Mercy Lubembe, 20 years old, explained, “Sundays are the days you will witness that Nairobi has beautiful buildings. All this makes videos and pictures look really swanky with amazing backgrounds”.
For many youthful content creators that the Elephant interacted with, creating content is a source of income. Here are some of the photos of what the streets look like on a Sunday.
Maandamano Thursdays in Photos – 30th March
In Nairobi the opposition coalition marked its third day and second week of protests by engaging the residents of Imara Daima, Kware and Mukuru Kwa Njenga. It all started peacefully before turning ugly as the day progressed.
Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya coalition leader Raila Odinga on Thursday 31 March 2023 led anti-government demonstrations across the country. In Nairobi the opposition coalition marked its third day and second week of protests by engaging the residents of Imara Daima, Kware and Mukuru Kwa Njenga. It all started peacefully before turning ugly as the day progressed.
Businesses in the Nairobi Central Business District were open for the better part of the day after security forces managed to lock out opposition protesters for the second time since the demonstrations started.
A lady tries to protect herself from teargas along Juja Road.
A tree that provides shade to Bunge la Wananchi on Jacaranda grounds was cut down by police.
Parents around the Jacaranda grounds rushed to various schools to pick up their children as news spread that opposition supporters were making their way to the area for a political rally.
Protestors barricade the Donholm underpass with stones and tires.
A protestor throws stones at the police in the Quarry area as passers-by try to get away from the scene.
Major standoff between police and protesters in the Pipeline area after a police officer was seriously wounded and a protestor shot and killed.
Some protestors walked away with police shields taken from wounded officers.
To reach their customers in Fedha Estate, delivery riders had to make tough choices after finding themselves caught between the police and stone-throwing protesters.
Kenyans coming from work are caught up in the fracas.
A police officer pleading with protestors in the Soweto area to remain calm.
Members of the press were under constant attack from both the police and the protestors as they covered the protests around the country.
A demonstrator supplying frontline protestors with stones in the Pipeline area.
Protesters cross a police roadblock on Old Donholm Road to join the opposition leaders’ motorcade.
Police provide cover for residents helping to open the road at Donholm.
A protester executing cartwheels on Jogoo Road.
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