Published18 hours ago
King Charles and his wife Camilla are on a four-day state visit to Kenya, where he will acknowledge “painful aspects” of the UK’s colonial past.
More than 10,000 people were killed and others tortured during the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, one of the British Empire’s bloodiest insurgencies. In 2013 the UK expressed regret and paid out £20m ($24m) to more than 5,000 people – but some feel that did not go far enough.
One of those is 90-year-old Agnes Muthoni.
With a steady stride despite a stoop, she leads us to the grave site at her home in Shamata, central Kenya.
She plucks weeds that have grown next to her husband’s grave. Elijah Kinyua died two years ago, aged 93. He was also known as General Bahati, and like his wife was a fighter during the bloody uprising against the British Empire’s colonial government in the 1950s.
She held the rank of a major in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army – more commonly known as the Mau Mau.
Ms Muthoni breaks into a radiant smile as she shows us her wedding ring. They only met after the revolt ended and he was released from detention.
“He said if there were women fighters who survived, he would like to marry one of them because she would understand his problems and not call him Mau Mau.”
Human beings forgive each other and continue living together, but I would like to be given land”
The struggle united them. But even after Kenya gained independence from British colonial rule, the couple continued to live in the shadows – like many former Mau Mau fighters.
The resistance group remained outlawed. It was designated a terrorist organisation by the colonial government and subsequent administrations in independent Kenya did not overturn the ban. “Three Mau Mau members could not meet; it was an offence,” says Kenyan lawyer and politician Paul Muite. “It was atrocious.”
It was only in 2003 that the law was changed, and members of the Mau Mau were finally recognised as freedom fighters.
But this also meant that post-independence generations knew little of the past.
“So many children and grandchildren had no idea about the roots of the country’s suffering that gave birth to independence,” says historian Caroline Elkins, who conducted interviews on the topic in the 1990s.
Her observations are echoed on the streets of the capital, Nairobi, today. Many young people hardly know about the detention and torture of the Mau Mau. They are more concerned about the economy and wonder if King Charles’s visit will have any impact.
Ms Muthoni’s 36-year-old grandson, Wachira Githui, is one of the few who heard about it first-hand. But he is also at ease with several of the lasting impacts of colonialism on Kenya’s social, political and economic life. “I speak English and I’m proud of that,” he says, adding that he is a fan of Chelsea football club.
Kenyan social media comes alive when a crucial English Premier League game is on. Fans trade banter for hours on end.
From the streets to offices, the legacy of empire remains unmissable in Nairobi.
A neatly pressed black gown and white neck bands hang behind Paul Muite’s desk in his office in the Kilimani neighbourhood. He dons a wig as well when appearing in court. Much of the British legal, governance and educational structures were inherited not only in Kenya but across much of the former empire.
But knowledge of many aspects of the “more painful past” which the King is expected to acknowledge was seldom passed down through the generations, and remains hidden from the public.
Mr Muite is calling for a commission of inquiry to be set up by both the Kenyan and UK governments to go to every part of Kenya and document the colonial period in detail. He was part of the legal team that took a test case to British courts in 2009, which ended with an out-of-court settlement four years later.
The British government expressed regret and paid the compensation to Mau Mau veterans.
But Mr Muite says only those fighters still alive who could be examined by doctors and confirmed as torture victims received payments. Those who provided services and maintained supply lines for fighters, as well as Kenyans outside the centre of the country who fought against colonialism, were not included, he says.
Among them are members of the Talai clan, who have recently renewed their calls for the British government to return the skull of their leader Koitalel arap Samoei. He led the Nandi community’s resistance to colonial settlement, disrupting the plans to occupy the highlands of the Rift Valley for over a decade. Eventually, he was lured to a peace meeting where he was killed in 1905.
Mr Muite argues that recognising “those who were killed, those who provided services including meals to Mau Mau fighters and those who were raped, and giving them a bit of compensation” would help bring closure.
Ms Elkins says the anticipated announcement by the monarch will be “an extraordinary moment” but adds that the right thing would be to “insist upon proper investigations, done by the government, to change history books, to change museums in Britain and to provide funding in Kenya to establish its own museums and cultural artefacts”.
She says the atrocities committed during the state of emergency – declared by the colonial government in October 1952 in response to the Mau Mau revolt – were done in the monarch’s name. Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne just eight months earlier while on a visit to central Kenya where the rebellion had been brewing.
“It was Her Majesty the Queen whose picture hung in detention camps, [and] as they were being tortured and forced to labour, they had to sing God Save the Queen.”
The Mau Mau attacks could be brutal, and would often occur at night. Images of six-year-old Michael Ruck – hacked to death along with his parents and a farmhand – and his bloodied teddy bears, were published in newspapers abroad, and drew no sympathy for the fighters.
The colonial government used its air power and ground forces that included many Kenyans – known as the home guards – to mount a brutal crackdown on the Mau Mau.
Ms Elkins estimates that as many as 320,000 people were interned in detention or concentration camps. Prisoners were reportedly castrated, flogged to death, and even set on fire.
More than 1,000 were executed by hanging during the emergency period. The total death toll is estimated to be in the thousands. Historians have described the operations to crush the revolt as the bloodiest post-war conflict the UK was involved in last century.
“There were no houses for us to live in,” says veteran Agnes Muthoni of the conditions in the forest during the emergency. “There were hyenas, hunger and rain.”
She now lives in a blue-roofed house made of corrugated iron sheets and timber which overlooks the undulating green ranges of the Aberdare mountain range.
The vast fertile land stretching across central Kenya to the Rift Valley was once known as the “White Highlands”. Almost all of it was exclusively owned by settler farmers. Local people, like Ms Muthoni, were pushed to the fringes to pave the way for European farmers to occupy the best land.
After independence much of it went to the home guards, as the Mau Mau continued to be considered a terrorist organisation.
But Ms Muthoni is ready to let go of the past. “We are not bitter in our hearts because the past is gone,” she says.
“Human beings forgive each other and continue living together, but I would like to be given land.”