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Unhistories – Kenya’s Mau Mau: Detention Camps and Torture

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This second part of the Unhistories series covers the ‘prohibited areas’ where the fighting took place, the mobile gallows, the trials, torture, and prisons.

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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 museumsto fill in the missing gaps of the archives.

This second part of the Unhistories series covers the ‘prohibited areas’ where the fighting took place, the mobile gallows, the trials, torture, and prisons.

A former mass holding cell at former Mweru Works Camp that today functions as a classroom. The original cell buildings did not have windows. The barbed wire can still be seen between the walls and the roofing. Mweru High School, Mukurwe-ini, Nyeri County, 2015
A mass holding cell at former Mweru Works Camp that today functions as a classroom. The original cell buildings did not have windows. The barbed wire can still be seen between the walls and the roofing. Mweru High School, Mukurwe-ini, Nyeri County, 2015.
The Colonial Executioner’s residence at former Mweru Works Camp. Mweru High School, Mukurwe-ini, Nyeri County, 2015
The Colonial Executioner’s residence at former Mweru Works Camp. Mweru High School, Mukurwe-ini, Nyeri County, 2015.
Cigarette card titled “T.G Askwith,” showing Thomas Askwith standing holding a pair of sculls with the enclosures visible across the river. 1933-1934. Thomas E. Weil Collection, The River & Rowing Museum Collection, Oxfordshire, UK.
Cigarette card titled “T.G Askwith,” showing Thomas Askwith standing holding a pair of sculls with the enclosures visible across the river. 1933-1934. Thomas E. Weil Collection, The River & Rowing Museum Collection, Oxfordshire, UK.

Thomas Askwith, Commissioner for Community Development in Kenya (1911-2001), developed the “pipeline” in 1953. A large-scale system to “rehabilitate” suspected supporters and fighters of the Mau Mau movement. As military operations ramped up in 1954, it was converted into a system of punitive detention, torture and collective punishment. Concerned by the lack of standardized procedures and heightened use of violence, he was a spirited advocate for the humane treatment of prisoners in detention camps. For his efforts, he was quietly marginalized by the colonial administration.

“The Gallows at Thomson’s Falls” by Richard Hall, Picture Post, Illustrated, p. 24, January 3, 1953. AMC, A 5072. The Archive of Modern Conflict, London, UK. Correspondence between Colonel Morcombe and Assistant Press Officer Lavers on behalf of the Director of Information, 1956 KNA, OP/1/998/105 and KNA, OP/1/998/106. Kenya National Archives, Nairobi, Kenya.
“The Gallows at Thomson’s Falls” by Richard Hall, Picture Post, Illustrated, p. 24, January 3, 1953. AMC, A 5072. The Archive of Modern Conflict, London, UK. Correspondence between Colonel Morcombe and Assistant Press Officer Lavers on behalf of the Director of Information, 1956 KNA, OP/1/998/105 and KNA, OP/1/998/106. Kenya National Archives, Nairobi, Kenya.
TNA, CO 1066/9. The National Archives, Kew, UK
TNA, CO 1066/9. The National Archives, Kew, UK
TNA, CO 1066/9. The National Archives, Kew, UK.

Mobile Gallows

Public hangings were outlawed in Britain for over a century but took place in Kenya during the emergency. A mobile gallows was transported by the British around the country to carry out the execution of Mau Mau suspects. Between 1952 and 1958, 1,090 Kikuyu were hanged. In no other place, and at no other time in the history of British imperialism, was state execution used on such a scale.

Unhistories - Kenya’s Mau Mau: Detentions and Torture

Mburu wa Gitou

The gallows stood here and this cemented block is where the bodies would drop dead before they were wrapped up and hauled out. During the hangings there was a Catholic Father at the door. He prayed and after the conviction, he would sign, break the pen and wash his hands. 57 people were hanged here.

The hanging begun at 11 at night and we could hear them saying: “We have gone, we have died and you have been left. Never let go of this land, for it is what we die for.” They all died with a fistful of soil in their hand.

Once hanged, the bodies were not disposed of immediately, they were seen by everybody so that people would be afraid. So that they would stop the war. But they would dare not surrender. The bodies were hauled into a truck in the morning. The army trucks rode away with legs dangling from the back.

The monument serves as a reminder of those who were hanged in this nation, who died for independence. We can come for prayers here. The design of the monument is made in collaboration with the National Museums of Kenya, and we will engrave their names on the wall.

— Mburu wa Gitou (Chairman of the Kenya Unity for Memorial, Peace, Heritage and Culture Organization), Githunguri, Kiambu County, 2019

Elkins, Caroline. Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2006
Elkins, Caroline. Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2006.
Sir Evelyn Baring, KG, GCMG, KCVO (1903-1973) was the Governor of Kenya from 1952 to 1959. Together with Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd, he played a significant role in the government’s efforts to cover up the abuses carried out during the suppression of the Mau Mau and keep them secret from the British public.

Sir Evelyn Baring, KG, GCMG, KCVO (1903-1973) was the Governor of Kenya from 1952 to 1959. Together with Colonial Secretary Alan Lennox-Boyd, he played a significant role in the government’s efforts to cover up the abuses carried out during the suppression of the Mau Mau and keep them secret from the British public.

Unhistories - Kenya’s Mau Mau: Detentions and Torture
Unhistories - Kenya’s Mau Mau: Detentions and Torture
Unhistories - Kenya’s Mau Mau: Detentions and Torture
Unhistories - Kenya’s Mau Mau: Detentions and Torture

Paul Mwangi Mwenja

During the struggle for independence I was a student at a school where the King’s African Rifles were staying. They were fighting for the British, but the soldiers became our friends. They showed us everything, and that’s when I learned how the gun works.

I began making homemade guns. You could only use one bullet at a time. You’d take out the cartridge and put in another. We used these guns to hunt European soldiers. When we’d get one—we would ambush or hide beside him in the bush and shoot him—we’d take his gun. That way we’d gain a gun. A new gun.

We used water pipes to make these guns. And then we were using door locks. We would sharpen the tip of the door lock and use a spring or elastic rubber to hit the bullet, so that oxygen would get in and the bullet fires. The guns we were making could be taken apart while traveling. In order to hide it in the kabuthi, the jacket, you could break it up into two pieces, and when you wanted to be in action you could put it together again. It was easy to travel with.

— Paul Mwangi Mwenja (MMWVA Murang’a Branch Secretary), Murang’a, 2019

Terence Gavaghan, MBE (1922-2011) was a British colonial district officer in Kenya responsible for six detention centers in Mwea during the emergency. He was the chief architect of the “dilution technique” and was known for implementing the systematic destruction of bodies and minds in Kenya’s detention camps. During Operation Legacy, Gavaghan also participated in the burning of documents in incinerators and ensured that others would be permanently held under lock and key. The colonial government’s chief torturer in Kenya was also one of its chief archivists in the final days of rule.

Inscription on back of print: “Near the burning swamp, Terry Gavaghan points out to his Officers and the Samburu tribesmen, their routes in search of the Kikuyu gangsters.” TNA, 1066/6/845/6. The National Archives, Kew, UK
Inscription on back of print: “Terry Gavaghan talking to his Samburu tribesmen prior to searching the papyrus swamp.” TNA, 1066/6/845/2. The National Archives, Kew, UK
Inscription on back of print: “Near the burning swamp, Terry Gavaghan points out to his Officers and the Samburu tribesmen, their routes in search of the Kikuyu gangsters.” TNA, 1066/6/845/6. The National Archives, Kew, UK.
Inscription on back of print: “Terry Gavaghan talking to his Samburu tribesmen prior to searching the papyrus swamp.” TNA, 1066/6/845/2. The National Archives, Kew, UK.
TNA, CO 822/1251. The National Archives, Kew, UK
TNA, CO 822/1251. The National Archives, Kew, UK
TNA, CO 822/1251. The National Archives, Kew, UK.

Terence Gavaghan interviewed in BBC Correspondent documentary Kenya: White Terror, aired on November 17, 2002.

Members of the Mukurwe-ini Mau Mau War Veterans Association demonstrate how people were rounded up and sent to detention camps, Mukurwe-ini, Nyeri County, 2015.
Members of the Mukurwe-ini Mau Mau War Veterans Association demonstrate how people were rounded up and sent to detention camps, Mukurwe-ini, Nyeri County, 2015.
Eliud Mwai Munyiri and Charles Ngaragari Karuitha demonstrate an oathing ceremony, Kahuru Gatei, Nyeri County, Kenya, 2015
Eliud Mwai Munyiri and Charles Ngaragari Karuitha demonstrate an oathing ceremony, Kahuru Gatei, Nyeri County, Kenya, 2015
Beninah Wanjugu Kamujeru demonstrates how she was interrogated, Murang’a, 2019.

Extra’s on Death Row

Simba (1955), directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, starring Dirk Bogarde and Virginia McKenna, was filmed in Kenya at the height of the emergency. The film tells the story of a White settler family who find themselves involved in the Mau Mau uprising. The characterization of the Mau Mau movement is conformed to what was by then a well-established British stereotype, using all of the conventional colonial imagery. South African producer Peter de Saringy, who was responsible for most of the location filming in Kenya, explained that they used Mau Mau prisoners in some of the scenes as extra’s. They had obtained the prisoners from a jail on the outskirts of Nairobi, with the full co-operation of the prison authorities, who “brought them from their cages” to be filmed at the perimeter of the gaol. Several of the prisoners were reported as being handcuffed to prevent their escape while the filming took place. Three of the eleven men filmed were taken to the gallows only three days later.

Complaints by detainees, Athi River Detention Camp, January 10, 1957 KNA, JZ/7/4/89A Kenya National Archives, Nairobi, Kenya
Complaints by detainees, Athi River Detention Camp, January 10, 1957 KNA, JZ/7/4/89A. Kenya National Archives, Nairobi, Kenya.

More from the Unhistories series

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Max Pinckers is a Belgian photographer and author, based in Brussels. All photographs from 2015 were made during the collaboration “The Struggle for Freedom in: ________” with Michiel Burger.

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Visualising Plastics Use in Society

Every day, tons of plastics are scavenged from various water bodies around the world. These plastics cause immeasurable damage to fragile ecosystems both on land and at sea. Cleaning up micro-plastics from the oceans requires concerted efforts by stakeholders across the board, and time is ticking.

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Plastic waste dumped on the beach at Ras Ukowe, Manda Island on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.

Plastic waste dumped on the beach at Ras Ukowe, Manda Island on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.

Plastic waste floating on Lake Solai, Koibanan Island. This waste is due to littering by local tourists who throw them on the Island and they get washed away to the lake.

Plastic waste floating on Lake Solai, Koibanan Island. This waste is due to littering by local tourists who throw them on the Island and they get washed away to the lake.

In Kariobangi light industries, north of Nairobi, Gjenje Makers recycle tonnes of plastics on a daily basis into eco-friendly bricks that are widely used on driveways, road signs, sidewalks, and as alternative building material for low-cost housing.

A food seller hawks ready-made in between mountains of garbage to the people who scavenge garbage for a living in Dandora dump site.

A section of a manhole grills on Nairobi roads in the central business district traps trash. Smaller pieces of plastic such as cigarette butts, plastic food wrappers and water bottles.can get through all the way down to Nairobi river.

A section of a manhole grills on Nairobi roads in the central business district traps trash. Smaller pieces of plastic such as cigarette butts, plastic food wrappers and water bottles.can get through all the way down to Nairobi river.

According to Amani Mwikia an environmental Officer at NEMA, most of this plastic clogs drains and creates a problem in sewage systems, clogged drainge and stan gant pools.

According to Amani Mwikia an environmental Officer at NEMA, most of this plastic clogs drains and creates a problem in sewage systems, clogged drainge and stan gant pools.

A herd of cows foraging for food among plastyic wastes in Kitengela town. Most post-mortem of dead cows has often revealed the presence of plastic waste in their bodies and choking from palstic bags as the cause of death.

A growing illegal dumpsite on a local community grounds in Huruma Eldoret, consisting of plastic water bottles, orange peels and plastic bags.

A growing illegal dumpsite on a local community grounds in Huruma Eldoret, consisting of plastic water bottles, orange peels and plastic bags.

A growing illegal dumpsite on a local community grounds in Huruma Eldoret, consisting of plastic water bottles, orange peels and plastic bags.

A growing illegal dumpsite on a local community grounds in Huruma Eldoret, consisting of plastic water bottles, orange peels and plastic bags.

Asection of a collapsed fence littered with plastic waste along the Sosian river in Uasin Gishu County.

A section of the famous Sosiani river in Uasin Ngishu county, is chocking with plastic waste washed away by rains from the surrounding areas.

A section of the famous Sosiani river in Uasin Ngishu county, is chocking with plastic waste washed away by rains from the surrounding areas.

A kilometre away from Nakuru CBD is Gioto dumping site, a constact environmental nightmare, safety problem, and health hazard to local residents.

Residents of Gioto dumpsiteforage for plastics and wastes for selling to scrap metal dealers.

A kilometre away from Nakuru CBD is Gioto dumping site, a constact environmental nightmare, safety problem, and health hazard to local residents.

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Chakula Mashinani

Chakula Mashinani turns the gaze of our complex national culinary adaptation away from the cities and the urban, mostly educated elite, to the rural life and community.

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Chakula Mashinani
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Chakula Mashinani turns the gaze of our complex national culinary adaptation away from the cities and the urban, mostly educated elite, to the rural life and community.

A banana stockist readies his produce for sell to clients on the Meru Highway

A banana stockist readies his produce for sell to clients on the Meru Highway.

Buchey Dairy farming in Nanyuki sells milk and heifers. A heifer goes for about KSh.250,000.

A rooster stares through a mesh at a poultry farm in Ruiru.

A dairy cow at Suyian Ranch in Nanyuki

A dairy cow at Suyian Ranch in Nanyuki.

A farmer weeding his rows of kales at his farm in Kenol, Muranga County

A farmer weeding his rows of kales at his farm in Kenol, Muranga County.

Harvesting time.

A roadside seller with his stock in Kirigiti area, Kiambu county

A roadside seller with his stock in Kirigiti area, Kiambu county.

A tomato vendor inspects her stock at Thika market

A tomato vendor inspects her stock at Thika market.

Buchey Dairy farm in Nanyuki, famed for its milk and heifers.

Buchey Dairy farm in Nanyuki, famed for its milk and heifers.

Different variety of pepper on sale at Ngara produce Market, Nairobi

Different variety of pepper on sale at Ngara produce Market, Nairobi

Gathue Coffee Farmers members group sort coffee cherries before delivery to the factory

Gathue Coffee Farmers members group sort coffee cherries before delivery to the factory.

A section of ripening coffee cherries at a farm in Nyeri

A section of ripening coffee cherries at a farm in Nyeri.

Rows of Kales at a farm in Mukurweini.

Rows of Kales at a farm in Mukurweini.

A Maize plantation in Kabarak farm, Rift Valley

A Maize plantation in Kabarak farm, Rift Valley.

Dozens of cows at the Kiwawa Dairy production milking area

Dozens of cows at the Kiwawa Dairy production milking area.

An ewe and lamb at a sheep farm in Limuru, Kiambu County

An ewe and lamb at a sheep farm in Limuru, Kiambu County.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Diani’s Changing Waters

A small fishing community’s account in Chale, south of Diani, indicates dwindling fish population in shallow waters.

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Diani’s Changing Waters
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With a swift movement, Bakari lifts himself onto the small communal fishing boat and is helped by Seif to pull the fishing basket out of the water. “This spot is better,” Bakari says as he empties the basket onto the floor of boat. A medium-sized snapper flaps around in the middle of other smaller fish. This is the third basket out of five that the four fishermen from Chale are retrieving this morning. The first two baskets came up with hardly any fish, just a handful of the rabbitfish and parrotfish that are common in shallow waters.

Catch of the day: a snapper, considered Grade A fish, caught together with rabbitfish and zebrafish which is considered Grade B and C fish, respectively (17 October 2021).

Catch of the day: a snapper, considered Grade A fish, caught together with rabbitfish and zebrafish which is considered Grade B and C fish, respectively (17 October 2021).

The generally low yield has been a regular dilemma facing this simple fishing community.  “I remember ten years ago, the water would be full of sardines. We could not believe our eyes. We would bring so many buckets full of sardines back to the village to dry, sell and use for cooking. These days, there are no sardines,” Seif says.

Fisherman Seif Hamadi (40 years) walks towards the communal fishing boat in Chale as other community members collect sea grass to use as bait (October 17, 2021)

Fisherman Seif Hamadi (40 years) walks towards the communal fishing boat in Chale as other community members collect sea grass to use as bait (October 17, 2021)

Kenya’s coastline covers 640 kilometres overlooking the Western Indian Ocean. It is a strategic lifeline for the country’s small fishing communities that reside along the coast and practice small-scale fishing for their livelihoods. In 2015, the World Bank estimated that around 27,000 people were employed by the fisheries sector, including 13,000 artisanal fishers. The sector further supports a much higher number of individuals who indirectly benefit from it, such as traders, and input suppliers.

Chale village, Seif’s home, is nestled in land planted with mango, baobab, papaya and other trees. Baboons roam under the trees and between the simple homes in search of food. From the village, home to approximately 2,000 inhabitants, it is a fifteen-minute walk to Chale Beach, where Seif teams up with Mohammed and Bakari on an early Sunday morning to go out on their daily fishing journey. The tide usually dictates what type of fishing they will be doing and it is a good day for basket fishing. Baskets are filled with sea grass and left overnight in different spots around the shallow waters off the beach. According to Seif, more than 50 fishermen operate from the communal land at Chale Beach.

Seif and Bakari pull out a basket to retrieve the catch (October 17, 2021).

Seif and Bakari pull out a basket to retrieve the catch (October 17, 2021).

Dripping with sweat from the heat of the rising morning sun, Seif explains that fish prices vary according to a grading system that is used in the market. Grades A to C cost between US$ 3.00 to USD 1.80 per kilogramme of fish, respectively. The higher the grade, the higher the selling price. On that particular day, with the exception of one snapper, all the fish caught in the shallow waters using the basket fishing method fall in the lower category of prices, generating a limited profit for the most hardworking individuals along the value chain.

The Kenyan government recognises the strategic value of the country’s marine life. Dubbed the Blue Economy, the government has prioritised the sector as a key component of its 2030 development agenda. In 2018, reports estimated that the annual economic value of goods and services in Kenya’s blue economy could be worth approximately US$4.4 billion, beating the tourism sector share by more than US$1.4 billion.

Rabbitfish weighed for sale at the small local communal market on Chale beach (October 16, 2021).

Rabbitfish weighed for sale at the small local communal market on Chale beach (October 16, 2021).

Artisanal fishing like that practiced in Chale makes up the majority of marine fisheries in Kenya. It is estimated that approximately 80 per cent of all marine products come from coastal waters and reefs, while 20 per cent is from offshore fishing. In 2016, the World Bank estimated that artisanal marine fisheries production stood at about 24,000 metric tonnes. Total fish production in Kenya (including inland capture, marine capture, and aquaculture) amounted to about 150,000 metric tonnes with a market value of about US$240,000 million. The contribution of the fisheries sector to the national economy is much larger when the full value chain is considered.

Bakari returns to the boat after a quick dive to drop a basket in a specific spot on the ocean floor (October 17, 2021).

Bakari returns to the boat after a quick dive to drop a basket in a specific spot on the ocean floor (October 17, 2021).

However, weak governance has led to overexploitation and degradation of near-shore fisheries. “Our government officials are corrupt. They allow Tanzanian fishermen to come into our waters and fish using nets that catch even small fish! There is no fish anymore for us to catch because of this corruption!” exclaims Seif.

Seif makes his way back to Chale village with a bucket of fish for him and his family (October 17, 2021).

Seif makes his way back to Chale village with a bucket of fish for him and his family (October 17, 2021).

His observations are confirmed by reports from national and international organisations. A 2018 report by the Kenya Fisheries and Maritime Institute states that most commercial species are on the decline in the Kenyan waters. A media report released in May 2021 describes how increased cheap imports from China, overfishing in shallow waters and the lack of sophisticated tools that would enable fishermen to venture into deep water fishing, are affecting small fishing communities along the Kenyan coast. Unemployment, the lack of alternative livelihoods and open access to shoreline fishing are further exacerbating the problem.

The hardship experienced by the Chale fishing community is pushing community members to find other means of generating income. “Our elders are selling parts of their ancestral lands because they need money. Those lands you see that are fenced are sold, mostly to rich politicians,” Seif explains. Chale is representative of similar neighbouring coastal communities.

One of the regular wholesale buyers chooses her catch at the local beach communal market in Chale (October 16, 2021).

One of the regular wholesale buyers chooses her catch at the local beach communal market in Chale (October 16, 2021).

Although the Kenyan government introduced plans to manage artisanal fishing in order to address the problem of dwindling fish stocks, compliance with such measures from small fishers remains limited as they depend on the sector for their livelihoods. In effect, while the management of fisheries has been decentralised to Beach Management Units within the coastal communities, and even though villages like Chale have a communal management structure, they do not always comply with the established management plans meant to preserve fish reserves and support livelihoods into the future. Being some of the poorest communities in Kenya, artisanal fishers in villages along the coast instead focus on daily subsistence.

Hundreds of thousands of lives are threatened by the changing waters of the Indian Ocean. But despite the grim reality, Seif and his fellow fishers will continue to do what they learned from their elders in order to put food on the table: go out and fish. 

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