Saturday, March 26

Conversations with A Freedom Fighter

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?


Mshairi said...

This interview with one of Kenya's forgotten heroines is incredibly moving. Superb work!

Blue said...

I agree with Mshairi- well done. I like the style. I will be visting more frequently.Quite breathtaking and informative in a 'touch and feel' way- I love it!!



Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez said...

I am a professor of world literature and human rights in the U.S., co-editing an anthology of contemporary African women's writing of resistance.

Would you be interested in contributing? This post itself, with a little reworking to introduce the Field Marshall to a general audience, would be of great interest to us!

If you're interested, please contact me, Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, at

bee said...

2 things. I know there is alot of animosity between Mau Mau fighter and Kenyatta, saying that he did not fight but cowered and took the white hand to escape. What's your take on that.
Second, what is your goal with the interview. Does it end here or are you going to take what I am sure has been an inspiring moment and share it with more than those who surf the web.
Did you talk to Kimathi's wife?

Anonymous said...

I feel my identity as a Kenyan today is defined more by the heroic acts of the people who fought for justice in the history of our nation than by the thieves who came in to steal from their fellow Kenyans once they acquired positions of influence in indepedent Kenya.- Dr Maina Edward.

Anonymous said...

I fought as a young cpl in the KSLI in the Aberdare forest and saw some of the most revolting rapes and Panga killings that some of these thugs inflicted on the white farmers and hundreds of Blacks during 1954-55 shame on the people who erected that statue of a killer in Nairobi it should be pulled down as soon as possible,

Unknown said...

Thank you

Anonymous said...

I'm an avid follower of African History, Ancient and Recent. This is an excellent piece of work: beautiful interview.

Sadly, I hold it that the Mau Mau lost the war. It is said that "Wisdom is known by her children". The Wisdom of the Mau Mau was to 'go into the forest and fight'; the child of this wisdom is landlessness. Look at it, the Mau Mau fought but they didn't get any land: none from the foreigner and none from the countryman. So, they lost.

I also hold it that, though there are cases where unconventional warfare has been applied with positive results in the past, the Mau Mau case was not such a one. The militant uprising was Wisdom for one man only: Kenyatta. And it was Wisdom for him as long as he was not the one in the bush.

Believe it or not, Kenyatta was a Mau Mau. Too many former fighters have cited him as an inspiration. And this not a disconnected inspiration, a his-picture-on-my-wall kind, but rather a top-of-the-hierachy kind. That is why his arrest by the colonial administration was instrumental in cracking down the Mau Mau Movement. A poet says, "Cut off the head! There. It's dead."

An old man said that there is no king who doesn't have an army. It was not Wisdom for the man who would be king (of Kenya that is) to fight from the bush. But it was wise for him to have an army that would do it for him.

Kenyatta's army had two wings. One was the Mau Mau: a rag-tag movement of men & women embittered by landlessness, discontented by unfruitful politicking. Further, among them were few like Dedan Kimathi, who during the World War, had witnessed 'white men die'."Why didn't we ever think of that?" they said to themselves, "Let's just kill the NYAKERU (white one)!" These were Promised land, bound by a potent oath and good for the bush.

The other army was the elite, men and women educated and somewhat assimilated by the ways and tastes of the British. They were drawn from all over the nation and were united by exposure and bound by a focus of beating 'the white man at his own game'. These were promised power, bound by education and good for the Corridors and the Cameras.

Kenyatta, a seasoned politician, kept easily kept the two armies apart because he had a face for each of them. To the Mau Mau Movement that was drawn from the Gikuyu tribe (not to forget the Embu & Meru 'sub-tribes'), he was one of their own sons: a teacher, advocate & adherent of their culture & customs. To the Elite, he was an educated & sophisticated modern man; skillful in moderation politics.

In finishing, these wings had to meet at some point in time, for the British soon exited the stage. When they met, either one of them had to go. Either the Moderate Elite, who had acquired tastes of 'white men' as their own, or the Revolutinary Mau Mau, who had invoked death in an oath and stared at it in the face. Either those who had 'secured' freedom through negotiations and ink-stained Lancaster papers, or those who had 'secured' it through combat and blood-stained African soil.

If you were in Kenyattas shoes (or Maasai belt) in 1963, which of those two army wings would you (1) pick as comrades to govern with you (2) empower with land & political position?

Let me know what the reader thinks: please email me, Mwalimu, on

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