Remembering the Kenya Emergency

We are driving from Nairobi up to Limuru through land once farmed by white settlers. Joseph, who is driving, was born in Limuru in 1954, in the middle of a bloody conflict which heralded the end of the British colonial occupation of Kenya. Few British people understand just how violent the ‘emergency’, as it is referred to, actually was. We have a benign image of British colonial rule. The reality in Kenya was far from this.

Joseph ferries me around whenever I’m in Nairobi. His bright yellow jacket and wide grin greet me in arrivals at Jomo Keyatta International Airport each time I come. I have known him for several years but only now does he tell me that he is the grandson of Wayiki wa Hinga, a Kikuyu chief credited with being the first to resist British colonisation. Harassed and cheated by Lord Luggard and the British East Africa Company, Wayiki burned down Luggard’s fort in 1890. Two years later Wayiki was abducted by the British and buried alive. This is such an extraordinary connection it’s hard to believe he’s never mentioned it before.

The year Joseph was born my parents were living in Limuru. My father arrived here in 1952 as part of a British military build up, my mother joined him six months later. She worked in the Army HQ on Woodlands Avenue in Nairobi where the headquarters of the Kenyan Army are today. My parents left Kenya in 1955, my mother already pregnant with me, though she did not know it. Back in the UK she thought her constant nausea was the result of a tropical illness.

I grew up with exotic seashells from a beach near Mombasa, a Zebra-skin drum, carvings of giraffe and elephants. There was also a wooden paper knife with a crouching monkey for a handle which I like to chew. Photo albums held tiny snapshots of my parents and their friends in various locations in Kenya. Occasionally they would reminisce: Picnics at Thika Falls, a holiday on Kilimanjaro, life in Limuru.

I first visited Kenya in 2000. Two years later went back and lived for three months in Nairobi. I have visited many times since. Over the years I have taken advantage of the odd free weekend to try to discover traces of where my parents lived and worked. Many of these places have been demolished. My father was a sergeant in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and managed a vehicle repair workshop at Buller Camp on Ngong Rd. In Limuru my parents rented part of a house from a solicitor called Mojer, and later a bungalow in the grounds of the Limuru Country Club, now a golf course.

Joseph has made enquiries for me in the past about the Mojers, and helped me establish that their former home is no longer standing. This trip is not to search for traces of my parents, but to visit places associated with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan writer, who was a teenager in the years my parents were in Kenya, living a few kilometres from them. His was another world. His fictional accounts of this period in his early novels, and the autobiography of his childhood, Dreams in Time of War, published in 2010, have given me a vivid sense of the place, far more than my parents were ever able to.

My parents spent three years in Kenya seemingly oblivious of what was going on around them, their lives filled with domestic preoccupations. Their recollections of the period consisted mainly of anecdotes about the couples they socialised with. It is through Ngugi’s writing, and the work of historians like Caroline Elkins and David Anderson, that I have come to understand something of what was happening at the time.

Limuru town is a grubby settlement typical of many small towns in Kenya. The streets are broken and potholed. Plastic bags, scraps of paper and other waste litter the place. Entering the town you pass the old Limuru railway station, built by the British in the early twentieth century. Ngugi describes how, when he was a child, people would race to greet the arrival of a train. It was a social event. Now the station is shabby and neglected. We pass the entrance to the Bata shoe factory, workers streaming out at the end of a shift. This has been the town’s main employer for decades.

In the middle of town a row of small shops stands above the main road. In Ngugi’s time these were owned by Asians but they have now been taken over by African shopkeepers. We turn up a road which takes us back along the front of these shops and then up the hill past more shops to a bar. There we pick up a man called Moses who was at school with Ngugi and who has agreed to join us on our tour of the area.

Moses wears typical African attire, an off-white shirt, brown trousers and a crumpled suit jacket. I notice he is wearing a yellow vest under his shirt even though it is 26ºC. He tells me he is a retired civil engineer. He went to Kinyogori Secondary School with Ngugi and knew him well. ‘He was very clever,’ he says. ‘A very good debater.’ With Moses in the back seat we drive out of town past Manguo swamp, another location mentioned often by Ngugi. The swamp is full, with only a few islands standing proud of the water. Three children are wading out to one of these islands exactly as Ngugi describes himself doing.

Ngugi was born on a ridge to the south of where the main Nairobi-Kampala highway now runs. It is literally ‘the other side of the tracks’, where the poor Kikuyu were corralled. During the emergency those who opposed colonial rule were herded into ‘protected villages’ fenced in and patrolled by loyalist Kikuyu known as ‘home guard.’ These camps have now been transformed into townships, their regular grid design clear visible, strangely out of keeping with the normal patterns of African land settlement. Kaneredo Village, which lies before us as we cross the bridge over the highway, is one such settlement, and the place where Moses lived in his mid-teens.

He starts to talk about those times. Strict curfews were imposed. ‘You could not move on this road after six,’ he tells me as we drive up a steep dirt road towards a water tower which was once the home guard post. This was a terrifying place were Mau Mau suspects were beaten and tortured. Some died of their injuries. ‘There was a tower, just here, from which they could watch everything,’ Moses says. We tour the dusty streets lined with small, shabby houses. A few children are playing. Innocent people, Moses says, were denounced as Mau Mau by loyalist neighbours who wanted their land. Once denounced you had little chance of justice. ‘Many people were cheated by the loyalists,’ he says.

After independence, first Kenyatta, then his successor Daniel arap Moi, seized the spoils of power for themselves and their own. The ideals many had suffered for were betrayed. Those who had been loyal to the colonial powers profited while those who had suffered most had nothing. In the 1970s Ngugi was a one of the leading critics of the government. In his novels and plays he exposed the hypocrisy, the venality and brutality of the elite. The plays were staged in Kamirithu close to Limuru town. I’ll Marry When I Want is a hilarious exposé of the ills of Kenya at that time. Performances involved much audience participation with plenty of singing. The political movement engendered by this play and other works by Ngugi led to the author’s arrest in 1978. He was held without trial for a year. In prison he wrote the novel Devil on the Cross, using toilet paper. In 1982 he was driven into exile when the regime threatened to kill him.

The old Kamirithu education centre is no longer there – the huts built by Ngugi were razed by Moi and a new, modern college created. Moses tells me he participated in the performances here and still remembers them vividly. Three students are sitting on a wall surrounding a flower bed, one eating mashed potato from a plastic bowl. I mention Ngugi to the students. They nod with recognition. An elderly caretaker leads me across the grass to a small tree planted near the main building. On one of the slats of the fence which enclose the trunk someone has painted: PLANTED BY Prof. NGUGI WA THIONGO ON 7th AUGUST 2004. The white paint is already starting to peel.

Ngugi tree

Ngugi’s visit  in 2004 ended badly. He and his second wife Njeeri were attacked by armed gunmen in their apartment in Nairobi. The couple quickly returned to the security of their home in California where Ngugi is a Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine.

‘If he would come back he could be a member of parliament,’ Joseph says as we drive off in search of the house Ngugi lived in during the 1970s. ‘He is very popular here.’ We drive along more dirt roads between high hedges and fields of maize. Here and there men are collecting dried maize stalks and loading them into trucks. The hedgerows are entwined with a purple flowered creeper. Small yellow butterflies dance along the verge.

I ask Moses more about the Mau Mau period. He tells me that where we are now was just fields – no one was allowed to live here. ‘There were set times when you were allowed to go to plant, to harvest,’ he says. ‘At other times you had to do the communal work for the government. There were no high hedges then. The authorities feared that the terrorists would hide in the thickets. They had to be able to see everywhere. When people came to the fields they had to leave by four.’ The guards would shoot indiscriminately, he says, if you didn’t leave.

Ngugi’s house is built in imitation of a traditional Kikuyu homestead with three conical roofs like those of the huts of a man and his two wives.  It seems uninhabited, the windows covered in paper and sacking.  Building materials are piled on the ground as though abandoned. But after a while two small children appear, cross the garden, and push open the front door. Later a young woman arrives. One of Ngugi’s sons was there earlier in the morning, she tells us.

Ngugi's house

Moses tells me that his father, along with Joseph’s uncle, was in detention at Manyani camp from 1953 to 1960.  I ask if his father ever talked about the experience. ‘He talked,’ Moses says. ‘They had to do very hard labour. They were taken to the quarry every day, without food. When they came back to the camp they had to walk in circles with rocks balanced on their heads. Many people died.’ Like thousands of other camp residents Moses’ father was never convicted of any crime. He served seven years because he refused to ‘confess’ that he had taken the Mau Mau oath. ‘Those were terrible times’ Moses says.

We talk about the case brought by former detainees which is being heard in the High Court in London. After sixty years of cover up and denial these victims of torture are finally getting a hearing. Moses is surprised when I tell him people in Britain have no idea what happened here. Back in Limuru Town he asks me to ‘say hello to all the people back home.’ So to you, whoever you are reading this, from Moses I say ‘hello’.

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