What white faces did to the Mau Mau

Looks like toothfish won’t save the British Foreign Office this time.

The judge presiding over the matter, Justice McCombe, has ruled that the four Kenyan claimants, Jane Muthoni Mara, Paulo Muoka Nzili, Ndiku Mutua and Wambugu Wa Nyingi now have permission to sue the British Foreign Office for their alleged torture by British colonial authorities 50 years ago. A fifth claimant already died waiting for justice. McCombe ruled that they have “arguable cases in law”, but has stopped short of stating that there was evidence of ‘systematic abuse’ carried out during the Mau Mau insurgency.

Up till now, the Foreign Office argued that the UK government was not liable for acts committed during the colonial period, using an obscure law about toothfish (see “Mau Mau and Toothfish” for a detailed explanation) to illustrate that all jurisprudence of such matters devolved to the Kenyan government after Britain left.

In April this year, I interviewed Faith Maina, one of my colleagues at SUNY-Oswego . She remembers how her father—a teacher—was detained twice during the Mau Mau uprising, after which he could only get a job as a “boy” in the city; how her family lost their lands; and how some Kenyans, like those of the Michuki family, cooperated with the British, partaking in torture and becoming some of the biggest beneficiaries of the lands confiscated from fellow Kenyans.

She wrote to say: “This is indeed very good news!! What has always been denied can be shared in public…and whether the victims win or not doesn’t matter…at least to me. What I know is that healing will begin for the millions of my parents generations that have lived in shame and silence.”

During the period of insurgency, the security forces regularly used two techniques: “screening”, or interrogation; and “dilution”, the use of force to extract co-operation from suspects. In camp Hola, the beatings are believed to have left 11 detainees dead. The descriptions remind of the methodology used in present day torture camps run (or authorized) by the US government: Wambugu wa Nyingi survived being tied upside down by the feet and beaten at Hola:

Nyingi said: “…they had locked us up in an isolated space. There were twelve of us and they killed eleven. I was the only survivor.”

Women and men were systematically sexually assaulted (at times using bottles filled with hot water, which were forced into vaginas), and castrations were by no means rare, as Professor Maina said during her interview. And it’s not just Kenyans who are confirming the stories of torture. A former district officer during the Emergency, John Nottingham, 81 (originally from Coventry), spoke about how he saw an old man being attacked: “It was clear that there was a major piece of evil going on in Kenya, and I have learned more about it in recent years,” he said.

In the Sunday Independent,  the story brought the usual vitriol from the readers: one set agreed the UK could no longer hide from its deeds, bringing about responses like “You’re obviously too young to know what the Mau Mau did to white faces; not that they had faces for long!” from cooperative5.

Others, like Run4demHills, had personal details to share: “My father, who was in military intelligence, was district officer for Nandi District, Rift Valley Province in 1955. My father hated what he was made to do and what was going on in Kenya and managed to get himself transferred to Aden a little over a year later.”

Run4demHills then added: “Although I was only two when I left Kenya I can still remember the wonderful smells of Africa. I have heard it said that this is not uncommon.”

To be fair, smell is the sense most connected to memory – more than those of sight, sound, or touch. But why are people always talking about the smell of Africa, as if the whole continent smells like one monolithic blob?



Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. Senior editor at Africa is a Country.

  1. Wow, we have been granted "permission" to sue. I'm still holding my breath: almost every case Kenyans have brought against the British for all manner of things have somehow been thrown out on some "technicality." I'm watching this one closely.

    1. No wonder Kenyans came up with (and I quote you): "navumilia kuwa Mkenya (I persevere being Kenyan); najihurumia kuwa Mkenya (I pity myself for being Kenyan); nalia kuwa Mkenya (I am crying because I’m Kenyan); natoroka kuwa Mkenya (I am running away from being Kenyan). And my favorite: Born to get Green Cards!" haha (weep).

  2. More than anything, I love the British defense. Their counterarguments are as follows:

    1. Yes, we tortured the Mau Mau, but Kenya is now an independent state and the Kenya government should take care of its own. (This is the same argument we'll hear after the US leaves Iraq and Afghanistan in 2030).

    2. Yes, we tortured the Mau Mau, but what those primitive savages did to innocent white settlers shall forever remain inexpressible (sobs).

    Which brings me to the elephant in the room in which this conversation is taking place: Jomo Kenyatta. Didn't Kenyatta and the Brits effectively pull a fast one on us? I mean, the Mau Mau was considered a "terrorist" organization throughout his presidency (and during the Moi years, but we all expected that). This crime committed against the Mau Mau by Kenyatta himself is akin to Zizek's idea about the founding crime that establishes the rule of law — the crime to end all crimes.

    Much as I'm gripped by this new development, I'm also very interested in finding out the diverse (his)tories that must have been a part of the Kenyan colonial experience. (Here's where all the hate mail will start coming in). I believe we must widen the lens of the Kenyan colonial experience beyond the focal point of the Mau Mau years. I'm not saying we should not pay attention to the Mau Mau struggle. I'm saying colonialism started and ruled give or take a century before those Mau Mau years (1950s) and that there were varied ways in which communities that came into contact with British rule resisted and collaborated — and these are all a part of Kenyan histories.

  3. kweligee,

    The question of what happened to Mau Mau veterans in the post-colonial period is a very interesting one. I was at a talk earlier this year during which John Lonsdale and David Anderson both suggested this as the next aspect of Mau Mau which needs to be explored, and this feeds directly into the current case of the Kenyans seeking legal redress in the British courts. Hopefully some bright-spark postgrad student picked up on this and is working on it now!

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