Dispatch 14: Elders share memories of torture, detention camps with St. Gregory studentsby kenya on May. 15, 2010, under Life
May 13, 2010
By Edouard Mattille
Today, we traveled to the town of Nyeri to met a pair of Kikuyu elders who were members of the Mau Mau movement during Kenya’s armed resistance against the British. The Mau Mau uprising was a violent one, resulting in huge losses for the Kenyans. Thousands were killed and tens of thousands were held in detention camps without trial. Mau Mau nevertheless propelled the British to leave Kenya, as keeping it as a colony was no longer feasible.
First, however, we toured the Peace Museum in Nyeri. The museum, as its name indicates, is dedicated to the spread of peace and using discussion and cooperation to solve problems, rather than violence. Our guide explained to us how a problem arises. First there is a pre-conflict, in which people pick sides. Then there is confrontation, which is immediately followed by crisis and conflict. After the fighting is done, people realize the relative unimportance of the problem and eventually stop. Kenya has a new draft constitution and soon the country will vote on whether to keep it or modify if. He used this as an example of how the “problem cycle” begins, and that it must be stopped well before the conflict stage. Without the utilization of peace, the vicious cycle will go on forever.
The museum itself had many interesting artifacts. The highlights were a Kikuyu earring weighing at least a pound, which left the group wondering how an ear could hold so much weight. The wearer’s earlobes would indeed end up being stretched, which is exactly the point of the heavy earrings. We saw an array of weapons, including an arrow that had such a cruel tip that it made us wince just looking at it and a massive club that was wielded by only the elite of the Mau Mau. Its cumbersome size made it an extremely difficult weapon to use.
- St. Gregory students with Kenyan elders.
We also learned about the attitude Kenyans have towards trees. They treat them as if they have their own spirit. Therefore, before cutting them down they ask the spirits to move to another tree. They do this by giving it gifts of water and grass. According to Kikuyu tradition, it is a huge crime to cut down a tree that doesn’t need to be cut down. When building a house, a person may cut down the trees that are directly in the way of construction but nothing else. It is not that way today, but the attitude towards trees remains the same as in the past.
Our discussion with the elders was equally enlightening. Fundamental to the Mau Mau organization was a series of oaths. There were seven of them and Mau Mau warriors would take one after the other as they progressed in rank and experience. Mzee Thuku, (“Mzee” means “respected elder” in Kiswahili), had the particular distinction of being an oath administrator. This made him an important target for the British. The oath bound the Kikuyu together and committed them to sparing nothing to regain their stolen homelands.
Mzee Kamuyni was the second elder to talk with us. He was in two different detention camps over a span of six years before escaping and going to live in the forest with other Mau Mau fighters. In the camp he was tortured by the British but he refused to give any secrets about the Mau Mau and therefore kept his oath. When asked, he said he was tortured in a multitude of ways. He mentioned that he was beaten. Other tortures included being forced to quickly gulp down two gallons of water, which severely stretched his stomach. He was also lowered into a pit and covered in safari ants, which are ferocious, big, stinging insects. While he may not have been fighting in the forest at the time, he refused to talk to his captors, thereby slowing their efforts to find the Mau Mau in the forest.
Kenya gained its independence from England in 1963. The elders have forgiven what was done to them and many others, but they haven’t forgotten. After independence they returned to their family farms and slowly rebuilt their lives. While one can read volumes about Mau Mau, talking to these elders was a very rare experience for all of us.
Our discussion concluded with Kamuyni giving us some life advice. “Know who you are and where you came from. Know your parents and your country and be true to these things.” For him, his identity was carved out in the ranks of the Mau Mau, and while they may have lost the effort, all of the freedom fighters won their dignity.