- After Kenyan freedom fighters won a major case again Britain in 2009, the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office admitted it had documents from 37 former colonies which could contain damning evidence of colonial atrocities, and so it hired 37 “weeders” to review the office’s most historic holdings, in many cases files that are long overdue for release.
- Some of the weeders are reviewing and redacting documents that they themselves wrote while working as diplomats. In other words, according to one investigative reporter, a number of retired diplomats have been granted the power to retroactively censor their own historical legacies.
Tucked away in the crowded columns of the County News section of this newspaper a few weeks ago was a story about some old men and women complaining about something.
One photo showed leathery faces looking grimly into the camera. They were at a press conference where their leader, Gen Gitu wa Kahengeri, pleaded with the Murang’a County government to recognise their existence.
Kahengeri, who is the chairman of the Mau Mau Veterans Association, told a group of half-interested journalists that the veterans wanted their role in the struggle for Kenya’s independence recognised.
For decades, he said, the band of old men and women had unsuccessfully pleaded with the national government to compensate, or at least acknowledge, them for the pivotal role they played almost 60 years ago.
But, while Kenya might eventually “recognise” them, the international community might not, according to new reports from London. As you read this, a rigorous “weeding of documents” is going on at Hanslope Park, a huge complex in Buckinghamshire, near a town called Milton Keynes. Hanslope Park houses an archive of documents from former British colonies, including Kenya.
Katie Engelhart, a reporter with the international investigative news website Vice, says the documents relating to the Mau Mau alone are numerous.
“We are talking 300 boxes of files, tonnes of missing documents, 15,000 documents relevant to the Mau Mau. About 100 linear feet of files with really damning evidence of British conduct in Kenya,” she says.
The weeding means these documents and records might never come to light, yet, even though there have been numerous oral witness accounts from the Mau Mau fighters themselves and their relatives, it is official papers that get to make history.
STUMBLED UPON SOMETHING
Getting such papers has proved difficult for Kahengeri and his team; until about a decade ago. First, a Princeton undergraduate student wrote a book based on oral witness accounts of the Mau Mau. Imperial Reckoning was the product of Caroline Elkin’s college thesis of the Kikuyu people.
“I was looking at the Kikuyu, which is the largest ethnic group in Kenya. I was looking primarily at the shifting roles of women and the ways in which they were impacted by colonialism,” she said in a Radiolab interview.
But she stumbled upon something much bigger.
Elkins’ search would lead her to uncover the biggest British cover-up of the 20th century. She wrote the story of Mau Mau and what they went through in the detention camps.
From hundreds of interviews with the former fighters, she carved out a compelling account of the horrors that these freedom fighters went through — horrors that had, for decades, been forgotten by everyone but the ones who lived through them.
Imperial Reckoning was the basis of a major lawsuit in 2009 that saw the British government “admit that there were tortures” and expressed “sincere regret” for the atrocities committed by some colonial officers. The government agreed to pay about £20 million to the 5,000 plaintiffs in the case. Each of them got roughly Sh350,000.
Kenyans, most specifically the aging men and women who fought so hard and lost so much for the independence of Kenya, could finally breathe a sigh of relief. But the happiness was short-lived. Stories began emerging that most of the 5,000 people who were compensated had been imposters. Other groups of the veterans who had been left out sprang out, also seeking recognition and compensation. The situation became quite messy.
But something even darker was happening — and is still happening — along the halls of justice in Britain. Shortly after this historic case, a decision was made in Britain that might ensure that the full extent of the crimes committed by the colonial government will never come to light.
Dr Mandy Banton, a senior research fellow at London University who used to work at the British National Archives, says “almost immediately after the Mau Mau case, the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) admitted that it had documents from 37 former colonies”.
“There are quite a lot of people currently looking at these records. But the new stuff may not be as revelatory,” adds Banton.
According to Engelhart, the Vice reporter, the FCO has hired 37 “weeders” to review the office’s most historic holdings, in many cases files that are long overdue for release.
Each of the weeders is a former senior diplomat. She says the most inexperienced of the lot has 26 years of government work behind him. The head of the team spent 41 years serving British diplomatic interests.
“And herein lies the rub,” Engelhart reports. “Some FCO weeders are reviewing and redacting documents that they themselves wrote while working as diplomats. In other words, a number of retired diplomats have been granted the power to retroactively censor their own historical legacies.”
Each file needs to be looked over by a senior sensitivity reviewer. These are retired senior diplomats, most of them the same age as the Mau Mau veterans alive today.
They sit in an office going through the pages and redacting. At the rate they are going, notes Engelhart, it could take tens of years to go through all documents.
Meanwhile, the remaining Mau Mau veterans have learned to be content with the shadows. Many have given up the fight for recognition. In 2003, a ray of hope had shone through the decades-old struggle for recognition when the government lifted a colonial-era ban on the freedom fighters. Apparently, a ban imposed on the group in the 1950s had never been formally removed from Kenyan laws, 40 years after independence.
Shortly after, the newly formalised association of aging veterans started lobbying for compensation from Britain for mistreatment during the 1950s’ fight for independence.
This seemed like a noble cause, and every patriotic Kenyan would have easily rallied behind the group.
Except for one little problem; there was no “official record” that the Mau Mau ever suffered at the hands of the colonial government. If it wasn’t on government paper, it never happened.
In fact, the only official records that existed were of atrocities carried out by the Mau Mau fighters, violent acts of savagery that earned them the national ban in the first place. As the story goes, the accounts of the Mau Mau “fight for freedom” are merely fantastical creations of over-imaginative old men who were never interested in the freedom of Kenya.
According to historian David Anderson, the colonial administration at the time believed that the fighters who took an oath to fight for their land had in fact submitted to a form occultism.
“Oaths were seen by the British as a primitive way of capturing the mind and making the person unreasonable. The only way you could get rid of the oath was to convert the person back to sanity,” said Anderson during an interview with WNYC’s Radiolab.
In fact, the fear of the Mau Mau had reached “bogeyman” levels, as some of the settlers even started telling their children stories of how the Mau Mau would get them at night if they didn’t eat their vegetables.
Radiolab producer Latif Nasser’s mother was one of the children who grew up on such stories.
“All the time our mother would say; ‘If you don’t drink your milk or sleep, the Mau Mau will come and get you’. Just the word Mau Mau would make us crawl under the bed,” she recalled.
But the way the Mau Mau remember stories of their own struggle for independence could not have been more different.
Pushed to the limit by the White settlers who had edged them out of their land and forced them to work on it for meager salaries, a band of men and women struck out against these forces.
Some of their subversive activities included attacks on the homes of White settlers and the killing of Kenyan supporters — the loyalists — of the colonial regime.
The attacks and the killings were meant to send a message to the White settlers that they were not wanted here.
STRONG ARM OF COLONIAL LAW
“Pledging themselves to kick all Europeans out of the colony, the first thing they did was to attack the settlers’ cattle by doing things like hamstringing the cattle. Then they moved on to more significant attacks and, eventually, some of the settlers were murdered,” reports Engelhart.
But the strong arm of colonial law struck back. Men were rounded up and locked up in detention camps, which were really torture chambers. According to accounts of those who survived the camps, men and women went through unspeakable horrors.
Women were raped, children starved to death, and men forced to work until they dropped dead. But even worse was the fact that very few people believed this was happening.
Information is power, and the colonial administration controlled all communication channels. Colonial Governor Evelyn Baring and his cronies filtered all information that left Kenya for Britain.
So all the complaints from the Mau Mau about the tortures they experienced seldom reached the British parliament.
The Labour lobbies and the members of opposition who wanted Britain out of Africa had little to go on. As far as the politicians in Britain were concerned, all was well in Kenya and the rest of the Empire.
The “civilisation mission” was on course, and business was booming.
But the resilience of human beings cannot be underestimated. Even among the worst of us, there sometimes shines a ray of light and hope, and the Kenyan detainees took advantage of every flash of humanity in some of the guards at the detention camps.
So they penned letters, detailing the horrors of life at detention camps.
They wrote to whoever would listen: media houses, British government officials, opposition politicians, labour organisations. Many of these letters made out of the detention camps but never made it to a boat or plane to Europe — and those that did were often dumped at sea.
But a few made it to media houses and into the hands of empathetic politicians. Eventually, it is these letters and related news reports that added pressure for the British to leave Africa.
Their civilisation mission had backfired and proved a sham. It was no longer in Britain’s interest to stay in Kenya. So they struck some compromises and left Kenya in the hands of Kenyans.
PAY HEAVY PRICE
Some of these compromises have been resented by Kenyans, some of whom continue to pay a heavy price. For instance, it was agreed that the Mau Mau must never be validated as a legitimate resistance to colonial rule. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president who had actually been suspected as being a leader of the resistance at some point and even suffered detention for it, would treat the Mau Mau as a band of savage terrorists until the day he died.
Rumours continue to spread that key leaders of post-independence Kenya perpetuated this narrative.
The situation is made more awkward by the lifting of the ban on the Mau Mau in 2003, because it means that the history of how the Mau Mau were perceived for four decades needs revision.
Yet there is little “official” evidence to show that a contrary narrative exists for the Mau Mau people. To add insult to injury, Pope Francis plans to declare martyrs 75 Catholic faithful who died at the hands of Mau Mau fighters in the 1950s. This is because, according to Fr Peter Githinji of the Nyeri Catholic Archdiocese, the faithful “were killed because of their faith”.
Some of the veterans have strongly opposed this move, arguing that they never killed or attacked anyone because they were Christians, but only because they supported the oppressive colonial regime.
But no one seems to be paying any attention to them.
It won’t be long until the last of the veterans dies. Perhaps the British government will breathe a sigh of relief when that happens. Perhaps the Kenyan government will no longer need to deal with the messy business that is the place of the Mau Mau in the history of Kenya.
Perhaps the legacy of these fighters who fought for a land they never gained will never be forgotten, because it was never remembered.