We Were Tortured in Kenya’s Mau Mau-Era Detention Centers

Suspected Mau Mau members at a detention camp in Nairobi, 1952. Bert Hardy / Getty Images

The first thing Wambugu Wa Nyingi wants his visitors to see—even before he shows them the torture scars from his years in colonial-era Kenya’s detention centers—is the lush landscape. The rolling hills on all sides, veined with rows of coffee plants as far as the eye can see, bespeak prosperity. But at 84, Wa Nyingi has only this little acre of ground where his house stands, with its rusty corrugated-iron roof and a few derelict-looking outbuildings made of scrap lumber.

This whole swath of Kenya’s countryside once belonged to Wa Nyingi’s Kikuyu ancestors. But after the British settlers arrived, these hills became the White Highlands, where only the wazungu—a Swahili term for people of European descent—could own land. With independence in 1963, the green hills changed hands again, as well-connected “neocolonial” Africans snapped up more real estate than the whites had ever taken. Most Kenyans, like Wa Nyingi, were left out. “I spent 10 years in detention,” the old man says. “I have almost nothing to show for it.

Now he can hope for something better, perhaps. In London last week a high court ruled that Nyingi and his fellow claimants, Paulo Muoka Nzili, 85, and Jane Muthoni Mara, 73, can proceed with a suit against the British government, seeking compensation for torture they say they endured as detainees during the 1950s Mau Mau uprising. The government promptly declared that it would appeal the decision. So many years have passed, and so many witnesses have died, that a fair trial is impossible, the state’s lawyers insist.

The claimants have lived through far worse things than legal delays. “Those who are defeated are free to appeal,” Nyingi says with a shrug. Mara agrees. “I forgive the government their decision to appeal,” she tells Newsweek. “It is their right. I have hope that God will intervene and give justice if the court doesn’t.” She can hardly turn her neck, not only from age but also because of the beatings she suffered six decades ago. She was 15 when she was arrested for working to organize women in her village to cook and wash clothes for the rebels. Her jailers raped her with a bottle of scalding water, she told the court.

The number of victims in the eight-year conflict is a subject of furious dispute. Everyone seems to agree that the rebels killed a total of 32 white civilians, mostly in terrorist attacks on farmers and their families. But the death toll among the Kenyans is anybody’s guess. The Kenya Land and Freedom Army (as the Mau Mau called themselves) waged a merciless war against any Kikuyu suspected of collaborating with the colonial regime, while the British and their many Kikuyu allies responded in kind.

In essence, the colonial authorities chose to fight terror with terror. “The Mau Mau did horrible things,” Harvard Prof. Caroline Elkins (author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning history Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya) tells Newsweek, “but look at the proportionality. The British had the war well in hand by 1954, and yet it went on for another six years. The only way to get them to renounce the Mau Mau oath was via torture.”

She’s not overstating the power of the Mau Mau blood oath. Just ask Paulo Nzili. An elfish man as diminutive and frail as Nyingi is tall and robust, he walks with a single crutch. It helps offset the severe limp that resulted from medical complications after his jailers castrated him, more than half a century ago. The aim was to punish him for refusing to confess that he had taken the oath. “I was a brave person,” he says. “I think by castration they wanted to lessen my bravery.”

He says he knew little about the rebels until the night in 1957 when a Mau Mau press gang grabbed him and hauled him into the forest. At first he was terrified of the wild-looking fighters dressed in animal skins, their hair hanging down in dreadlocks. Nevertheless, they persuaded him to pledge his life to their cultlike cause and to Kenyan independence.

The Kikuyu tradition of “oathing” dates back long before the Mau Mau. In essence it calls down destruction on anyone who takes the vow and then betrays it. The fighters instructed Nzili to drink from a pot of soup mixed with blood. Then they cut his arm with a blade and made him suck his own blood, after which they made a cut in his scalp, wiped the blood on a leaf, and had him lick that. Many fanciful accounts of the oath have been reported, some involving bestiality, but this is the version given by Nzili.

He stayed with the fighters six months before he escaped with the rifle they had given him. He planned to sell it in the city, he says. Instead, he blundered into the arms of law enforcers, who sent him to the notorious Embakasi detention center. There he was handed over to a white jailer named Dunman. Behind his back, Nzili and other prisoners called him Luvai: “merciless person.” He oversaw the “hard-core” prisoners—those who refused to admit having taken the oath or who would not lead the way to their former forest hideouts.

Mau Mau The Claimants (from left): Wambugu Wa Nyingi, 84, Paulo Muoka Nzili, 85, and Jane Muthoni Mara, 75 Ben Curtis / AP

Nzili had already been forced to stand and watch as other detainees were castrated with foot-long cattle pliers. While guards pinned him to the ground with booted feet, Luvai snipped the ducts in Nzili’s scrotum, leaving his testicles intact. When the job was finished, Nzili’s captors sent him to the hospital. They wanted him to survive as a warning to other detainees, he says.

When he was freed, he went home to his parents, traumatized and depressed. “I lost all my energy for women and for life,” he says. Fifteen years would pass before he finally moved to the city, found a decent job, and got married. He says he’s thankful for his wife and for the stepson he helped raise, and he even forgives Luvai, who died in 2008. “There’s nothing I can do but forgive him,” Nzili told the court. “You cannot repay a sin with a sin. That will not give back what he took from me.”

He lifts his shirt. His chest and stomach are punctuated with wartlike scars where guards stamped out their cigarettes more than five decades ago.

Nyingi likewise refused to admit taking the Mau Mau oath. That’s because he never did, he says. He was arrested in 1952 for activities associated with the Mau Mau movement’s nonviolent predecessor, the Kenya African Union. The colonial rulers effectively created the Mau Mau by arresting the KAU’s president at the time, Jomo Kenyatta, and other peaceful pro-independence activists. Kenyatta was tried and convicted in 1953 on charges of belonging to the Mau Mau. “Kenyatta was never a Mau Mau,” says Dennis Leete, who spent years fighting the rebels. “He never even wanted to look at one.”

Framed newspaper clippings and photographs line the walls of Wa Nyingi’s living room. Old as he is, he still stands tall, a distinguished-looking, well-groomed gentleman. He points to a newspaper photo of an elderly white man—Terence Gavaghan—the one who oversaw the floggings, Wa Nyingi says, lifting his sweater to reveal the scars on his lower back. Then he pulls up his trouser cuffs. Both knees are mazes of scar tissue. For years, he says, his jailers forced him to spend hours at a time kneeling on stones. Still, some of his fellow inmates had it far worse. At his last detention camp, he says he watched as 11 of them were bludgeoned to death by guards. Gavaghan received the MBE for his service in suppressing the Mau Mau rebellion. He died last year at 88.

Mukami Kimathi only wishes she could have assisted in the claimants’ case. “We wanted to go to London,” says her adopted daughter, Evelyn, “but the immigration man frowned and laughed when we told him so.” Mukami is the widow of Dedan Kimathi. Kenyan schoolchildren today are routinely taught that he was a hero and a martyr who organized the Mau Mau to fight against the colonialists before his death in 1957.

According to Mukami, Dedan Kimathi first joined Kenyatta’s KAU in the late 1940s, landing a secretarial position in the group thanks to his fluency in both spoken and written English. To become a KAU member you had to pay 5 Kenya shillings (just under $1 in those days) and administer an oath, says Evelyn. Compared with the Mau Mau ritual, the KAU’s oath was little more than a formality—essentially a pledge of allegiance to Kenya as a full-fledged African country, as opposed to a white man’s colony.

The aspiration accomplished little. “The Brits kept saying, ‘Yes, we know you want your land,’” says Mukami, “but nothing kept happening.” Then something did happen: Kenyatta and other activists were arrested. (One of the detainees was Barack Obama’s paternal grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama.) Dedan fled to the forest to help organize and lead the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, and Mukami went with him.

She cooked for him and bore his children, but crying babies finally became too great a liability for guerrillas on the run from colonial troops. By 1954, the young mother returned to Nairobi to work undercover. She was constantly on the run, Evelyn says: “She was arrested a thousand and one times.” At last however she was captured for keeps and fingered as Dedan’s wife. She was still in detention in October 1956 when her husband was shot and captured.

mau-mau-rebellion-OVNB30-third Faces of the Emergency: Kikuyu mother Express-Getty Images

Newspapers ran front-page photos of colonial police displaying the Mau Mau leader’s leopard-skin jacket like a hunting trophy. Kimathi, shackled and in a trancelike state, could do nothing but await execution. On Feb. 18, 1957, he was hanged at Nairobi’s Kamiti maximum-security prison. Three years would pass before the British declared the Mau Mau Emergency over—and the authorities continued to detain Kenyatta more than a year and a half. Kimathi’s arrest and execution took place under the direction of Ian Henderson, a Scottish-born British colonial officer with a nasty human-rights reputation. After independence he was expelled from Kenya, but he went on to enjoy a career working for the royal family of Bahrain. In 1986, Queen Elizabeth decorated him as Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Mukami says she has no hard feelings toward him. “If I get angry with this man, God gets angry with me,” she says. “All we want is an apology, recognition, and money for health care.”

At the Regiment Club in Nairobi, under the gaze of the cape-buffalo heads mounted at either end of the main room, aging veterans of the Kenya Regiment and the King’s African Rifles recall old times over beers and curry. Some dismiss the Kenyans’ lawsuit as a blatant attempt to cash in on long-past injuries. They prefer not to be quoted by name. They’re too old and outnumbered to go looking for trouble.

Others take a more measured view. Leete belonged to the “pseudo-gangs,” the elite commandos who prowled the forest by night in search of the Mau Mau, their faces darkened with greasepaint or shoe polish for concealment. As a rule, Leete says, captured rebels were treated fairly. If possible they were “converted” with offers of amnesty, cash, and protection for themselves and their families. Some were sent back into the forest to risk their lives trying to persuade their former comrades to desert or surrender. Others became guides for the counterinsurgent units.

By the time of the uprising, says Leete, “we were not invaders, but second-generation defenders of our land, our farms, way of life, religion, and future.” He compares the white farmers to settlers in the American West living among the Apache or the Sioux—who ”in turn must have felt the same way as the Kikuyu did toward us,” he admits. “Bad things happened on both sides, some of which I witnessed. I might regret what I saw, but I don’t apologize, because that was the way it was then.”

Leete scoffs at Elkins’s research. “Elkins says the colonials were trying to cleanse Kenya of the Mau Mau,” he says. “It’s the other way around—the Mau Mau were trying to cleanse Kenya of the colonials.” He sympathizes with the men who ran the detention centers. “I think it was easier for us in the forests than for the administrators of the camps,” he says. “We shot to kill, and we were not subject to the dilemmas of detention, interrogation, discipline, incarceration, and justice.”

But he also sympathizes with the detainees: “I would like to think that those old men who seek justice from the British government for alleged crimes committed against them will be heard and compensated fairly and swiftly. Though I suspect it will open wide the gates for subsequent claims, many bogus, by opportunists who were never detained at all.”

Nyingi makes no secret of his bitterness against Kenyatta, who became Kenya’s first president in 1964. “He comes out of detention with land and looking like a martyr,” the old man says. “Kimathi set out and did what he said he was going to. Kenyatta did not.” Leete, for his part, admires Kenyatta and compares him to Nelson Mandela: both men spent years in prison, with access to books and plenty of time to reflect, before becoming president.

Mukami shares Nyingi’s frustration. “Our dreams were shattered after the struggle,” she says. “Upon independence, [white-owned] land was confiscated and given to the [procolonial Kenyans of the] Home Guard and those collaborating with the British. Those who fought for land against the whites and the Home Guard are poor to this day. [Jomo’s son Uhuru] Kenyatta owns all the best land from Nairobi and Mombasa. We don’t expect any land back.”

Mukami and Evelyn recently took part in a tree-planting ceremony in the meadow where Dedan Kimathi was captured. No one has ever found his burial place. The consensus is that his body was dumped in a mass grave somewhere near the prison where he was hanged.

Back in the days of the rebellion, the forest fighters vowed never to cut their hair until they regained their freedom and their land. To this day, hundreds of former insurgents remain holed up in the Central Highlands, says Evelyn Kimathi. The old men have dreadlocks that dangle like cables, past their knees and coil at their feet. Their country gained its freedom. But they’re still waiting for the land.

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