As a young woman studying at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, East Africa, I became curious about not only the cradle of civilization, which literally sat at my feet, but also local responses to colonial rule. I was searching for freedom and wondered how entire nations went about gaining it. I was also thirsty to hear firsthand accounts from indigenous people about battles for independence in the east. A fellow classmate staying at my hostel, Anyango, who hailed from Kenya, filled my afternoons with stories of the Mau Mau Uprisings, in an effort to quench my thirst and constant inquiring mind. She spoke with both joy and pain as she detailed how the mostly Kikuyu directed revolution made Kenya’s independence possible, but also led to the death and torture of thousands of Kenyans, and the loss of land and resources at the hands of the British colonial government. Her somber storytelling reminded me of my elder family members who often spoke of our own freedom movements in the US, and the related bloody costs paid to ensure that our human rights were upheld.
It was in 1952 that Britain declared a “state of emergency” in Kenya and moved military units into the country, specifically to bring down those involved in the Mau Mau Movement. The Kenyan Human Rights Commission asserts that over 90,000 Kenyans were “executed, tortured or maimed during the crackdown, and 160,000 were detained in appalling conditions.”
Why does this matter today? Three survivors of the dreadful torture issued at the hands of the British government are suing for damages in a landmark case, where the government is being forced to admit wrongdoing in their former colony. Paulo Muoka Nzili, now 85, who was castrated during the conflict; Wambugu Wa Nyingi, who is 84 and says he was imprisoned (and beaten rigorously) for over ten years; and Jane Muthoni Mara, age 73 who offers testimony on the sexual abuses suffered by Kenyan girls and women during the rebellion; all shed light on the horrific oppressions dispensed by the British government and their subsequent military forces.
This case is colossal for many reasons. Foremost, bringing the case into the legal realm helps to solidify facts that are often dismissed as fiction, myth and lore- fabricated by Kenyans who are sore at facing the idea that they were defeated by their colonizers. The attorney for the defendants have unearthed secret government documents detailing how Kenyans were brutalized, maimed, jailed and murdered arbitrarily and without fear of punishment. Supposed Mau Mau sympathizers also had goods and land stolen or “seized” during battles with the British. Secondly, the case possibly sets a precedent for future suits, as there are thousands of Kenyans who survived the government- sanctioned torture (it’s believed that Barack Obama’s grandfather was jailed during the revolt) and descendants who have never recovered land and resources.
Perhaps with Guy Mansfield QC, who represents the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), admitting that the government does not dispute that the complainants “suffered “torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” Kenyans may receive reparations for what they’ve endured, even if government officials are, at this point, arguing that the lawsuit is “too little, too late.”
Ms. Mara, who was taken into what many have coined Kenyan “concentration camps”, and sexually abused at the age of 15, commented, “”I want the British citizens of today to know what their forefathers did to me and to so many others. These crimes cannot go unpunished and forgotten.”
This is my hope for not only those who have suffered and continue to suffer in Kenya, but also those who have suffered across the globe; as we move to make peace with the past atrocities of colonial rule and human subjugation.