On the wall directly opposite the door, above a fireless fireplace, is a china plate embedded with the ubiquitous image of Dedan Kimathi. He lies stiffly on what appears to be a makeshift stretcher, hands in chains, head in dreadlocks, bare chest, defiant eyes. On another wall, to the left, is a framed reproduction of a black and white image that has graced the pages of Kenyan newspapers often since Independence: Field Marshall Muthoni at the Ruringu Stadium in Nyeri on December 16th, 1963—almost 40 years ago—where some Mau Mau had gone to give up their weapons after the declaration of Independence 4 days previously. Her chin is up, her jaw is tight, her eyes are hard. Dreadlocks flow untidily onto the middle of her back. She is clad in a cloak of animal skin.
Forty years later, we are seated in her house, suitably awed.
We are grateful for the opportunity. We had hovered outside her gate anxiously for a few long drawn out minutes while our more savvy companion went in to persuade her to give us audience.
Field Marshal Muthoni does not speak English, she did not go to school. She speaks a smattering of Kiswahili. We, on the other hand, are Kikuyu challenged. We can understand it, for the most part, but we are wary to speak it. So we pose our questions through an interpreter and then listen to intently her answers. Her intelligence strikes one immediately. She has an unquestionable air of authority about her. It is not difficult to understand why she rose up to the rank of Field Marshal in the Mau Mau Movement.
With customary African hospitality, she offers a cup of tea. In customary African fashion, we accept, thank you very much.
The interview begins tentatively: Why did she go into the forest? To fight, of course. Then she elaborates: My father worked for a settler. I was brought up in a settlers’ farm. Once you had lived with them, you knew you had to fight. And also, ‘we felt it was better to die in the forest fighting them, than to live without our freedom. We wanted our land, and we wanted our freedom, that is what we wanted.’
Slowly she warms up to our interrogation and begins to carry the story. We interject less and less. When she mentions Dedan Kimathi, her eyes cloud over. There is depth of feeling there, one can tell. When she talks about the fate of freedom fighters after independence, there is a choke in her throat. She paints a haunting analogy. ‘It’s like a competitive match she says. We were the team. We played valiantly, sacrificially, against the opposing team. We sweated. We gave our lives. Then, at the end of the match, when we had won, the spectators ran away with the trophy. ‘
This is a familiar theme among the Mau Mau ex freedom fighters still living today. Their bitterness with their treatment in independent Kenya is nigh palpable. Forty years on, Field Marshal Muthoni is still incredulous about the turn of events. The former freedom fighters around her, (and there are many), appear to still be reeling from the effects of what happened forty years ago. But she is by far the most eloquent. We listen, enthralled, to her account:
We were in the forest fighting for our freedom. Our fellow black man was not our enemy, not even those who collaborated with the white man. Those who collaborated we knew did so because of their ignorance. The white man was not our enemy because of the colour of his skin. No. It was because of what he had done. He had come and taken our land and was oppressing us in our own land. That is what we fought for: Our land and our freedom.
While they fought in the forest, another strategic war was taking place in the political arena. Parties were being formed after the fashion of western systems to fight for the rights of Kenya all the way to Lancaster house. Educated Kenyans were agitating for the rights of the black man in the legislature, through constitutional means. There was a parallel non violent movement campaigning rigorously for the end of British rule. Their goals were the same, their methods, starkly different. Nonetheless, there was a hazy overlap. Some Mau Mau we spoke to said their inspiration was Kenyatta. Kenyatta himself, although he later strove to distance himself from the Mau Mau, was allegedly arrested on account of their activity.
In her view:
Come independence, 1963 is when the injustice of the system began to set in. Mau Mau readily gave up their weapons and returned to their villages. The struggle, after all, had been won. Reality proved somewhat less than ideal. They found that, while they were in the forest fighting the enemy, land consolidation had taken place in 1960. Those who were absent had had their land taken away from them and given to others. They found that, while they were fighting, those they had left in the villages had been educating themselves and educating their children. The fledgling government needed this educated cadre as it began to establish itself. So therefore, it was the children of those who did not fight who were offered positions of influence in government on account of their experience and education.
The Ex Mau Mau, who at this time were an outlawed terror organization under Penal code Cap 108 (whose repeal may I add is long overdue), trickled back into society and found themselves in the Emergency Era Villages. These were villages constructed in the emergency era, after 1952 when the Mau Mau guerilla warfare had wreaked havoc in colonial circles. They were designed to bring people into enclosed, restricted spaces so that their movements could be more easily monitored and they could no longer help the Mau Mau with provisions and ammunition. At independence then, people went out to the farms that had been allocated to them during the land consolidation and the ex Mau Mau went into the villages and awaited their fair share of what they had fought for. For the most part, they are still waiting and waiting has bred in them a bitterness to the core.
Major Gray, one of Field Marshal Muthoni’s myriad visitors, personified that bitterness most starkly. Her eyes were bloodshot, her face hard, her expression unyielding. She spat out her words and hissed more than she talked. General Karangi vocalized it most virulently. In his anger, he almost managed to dissuade Field Marshal Muthoni from speaking to us. ‘What is in it for us?’ he asked repeatedly in a thinly veiled allusion to monetary compensation, and, ‘Where is the land we fought for?’
Muchemi, the soft spoken journalist who has his finger on the Nyeri pulse and who has been an invaluable source of background information told us, later, about trouble in the ranks.
Another group of ex Mau Mau fighters we met was hostile to Field Marshal Muthoni and her posse. Their explanations were fuzzy and inconsistent, and I was tempted to conjecture that it was inspired by some level of envy-she managed to fashion a decent living for herself after independence.
She recounts how she approached Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta and managed to secure a license to trade in ivory on account of the fact that while they were in the forest, they used to kill elephants for food and hide the ivory and she knew where they had buried it. After that supply was exhausted, she traveled the breadth and depth of the country, looking out for elephant carcasses where she might reap some ivory. It was back breaking work, but she did it. She also transported farm produce to Nairobi to sell. Slowly, out of sheer force of willpower it would seem, she empowered herself economically. When Moi’s government came into power, he helped her set up a security firm in Nyeri. In her compound in a posh surburb of Nyeri Town are two cars parked, an old Mercedes Benz, and a Peugeot 504. Compared to those ex Mau Mau fighters squatting on government land in Emergency Era villages, she is living the American dream.
It is these rival groupings within the Mau Mau that are apt to say that she went into the forest in the first instance because her husband got into some trouble in the village and risked severe punishment. Muthoni in her ingenuity is purported to have suggested that they join the armed struggle at that juncture. Once in the forest, they stirred some rancour. In order to protect her and her husband, she sought favour with Kimathi and received it. She rose to be second to none but Kimathi.
That is the alternate version of her story, the path that we did not follow, this time around.
Muthoni pauses often in her account, cringes, and shuts her eyes tightly as though battling with tears. She invokes the name of God on behalf of those who have been cheated of their rightful place in history. God, she says, will surely do them justice someday. Even when they are dead and buried, their bones will cry out to him and he will arise in his time and serve justice on their behalf. God pops up surprisingly often in her discourse. When they were in the forest, they cried out to God for their land. When Dedan Kimathi died, they prayed to God and knew that they must continue with the struggle, even if they deeply felt his loss. And she is not the only one. As we prepared to interview another group in Nyeri, they called a pause for prayer. On the face of it, it was a Christian prayer, crying out to Jehovah for help and provision. There was one stark difference: they all turned and solemnly faced Mt Kenya.
Of Field Marshal Muthoni we ask, to which God does she refer so often? She answers us with a question laced in incredulity, ‘isn’t there only one God? Does that God belong to any one person and not the other?’ Her question leaves us tongue-tied. For an unschooled person, she is possessed of superb understanding. Life has endowed her with knowledge and understanding that a university could not.
She speaks of president Kenyatta’s compensation to settlers for the land they were leaving with disbelief. They snatched the land from us, they got paid. We to whom the land belonged were not given back our land, and we were not compensated. How can this make sense?
(In President Kenyatta's defence, the compensation of settlers was financed by the British government on a willing seller willing buyer basis as agreed in the lead up to independence.)
Kenya, Muthoni says, will be judged for the way it treated its heroes. That Kimathi has lain buried in a prison cemetery for so many years after independence is beyond comprehension.
General Karangi has a controversial word to put in here. He acknowledges Kimathi’s role in the struggle but wonders why we celebrate only those who died and ignore those who are alive. He is hard put to understand why those who successfully evaded bullet, bomb and grenade are less praiseworthy than the one who got caught. His question about about Dedan Kimathi’s eminence is echoed in other quarters for other reasons.
Recently, an article in the Daily Telegraph indignantly vilified those who would celebrate Dedan Kimathi when the Mau Mau were terrorists. How dare anyone celebrate terrorism? We put this challenge before our erstwhile hostess. Muthoni sees it somewhat differently. Who is the terrorist, she challenges. Is it the one who fights back for his land and dignity through whatever means are available to him, or is it the one who forcefully takes that which belongs to another and treats them like dirt?
Nonetheless, her feathers are not unnecessarily ruffled by a ‘white man’ calling her a terrorist. They lost the war, she says, almost indulgently, what else do you expect them to call us? And then she smiles a triumphant smile and shrugs. But she is less forgiving toward her fellow Kenyans. How can they take on that definition of us? Don’t they realize that we laid down our lives for this country? How is it that we when the struggle was over, we got nothing? Not a needle, nor a handkerchief, nor a piece of land the size of a stool? Does that make any sense to you?