During a visit to Kenya after his release from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela asked to see the grave of Dedan Kimathi, who was hanged by the British colonial authorities in 1957, and to meet his widow Mukami.
Neither request was honoured, partly because the exact site of Kimathi’s grave was officially unknown, and partly because successive Kenyan governments had classed the Kenya Lands Freedom Army (KLFA), or Mau Mau, an organisation he led, as an illegal, terrorist group.
Mandela finally met Mukami Kimathi and her children on a second visit to Kenya in 2005, two years after it had finally ceased to be classified as a criminal organisation in Kenya.
Dedan Kimathi Waciuri was born in 1920 in Tetu, in what is now Nyeri County, during British colonial rule in Kenya. He worked as a teacher before joining the political organisation, the Kenya African Union. He and Mukami married and had children.
In 1951, he joined the Forty Group, whose membership largely comprised African veterans of the second world war. This organisation evolved into the KLFA. Its goals were simple: to agitate for land, freedom and self-governance.
Kimathi rose through the ranks, administering oaths, and eventually became a field marshal, leading the armed struggle against colonial rule known as the Mau Mau uprising. He was hunted down by local tribesmen at the behest the British colonial police officer Ian Henderson and hanged in 1957.
In 2013, faced with overwhelming evidence of systematic violence and torture, the British government finally agreed to pay compensation to some 5,000 people who were victims of the colonial war against the Mau Mau. This represented just the tip of the iceberg.
The British are estimated to have placed 1.5 million people in detention camps and militarised villages – Britain’s gulag, as the title of Harvard historian Caroline Elkins’ 2005 exposé named it – and killed large numbers whose deaths were concealed and unacknowledged.
In Kenya today, while there are streets, schools, a university, stadium and monuments dedicated to the memory of Dedan Kimathi and the Mau Mau (there is even a ‘reconciliation memorial’ paid for by the British government in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park), many are mere symbolic gestures in a context where the daily concerns of the people he represented are ignored.
Aside from fighting white supremacist colonialism, Kimathi also wanted the people to be fed and given land. Today there are monuments, but no land.
The streets, schools and monuments dedicated to Dedan Kimathi and the Mau Mau are mere symbolic gestures
Aside from a letter Kimathi wrote before his execution concerning the welfare of his children and his wife Mukami, who was also imprisoned at the time, there are no public records of his writings, despite him being a prolific writer.
There are some publications about him, including Kenyan writers Micere Mugo and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. But Kimathi is not remembered in the same way as other icons of pan-Africanism – largely because successive Kenyan governments have tried to suppress his memory.
Yet as Kenya confronts the disappointments of independence, he is again becoming more relevant.
Images of an icon
When I think of Kimathi, three images come to mind. The first is my earliest memory of him: an image from video footage aired on television whenever Kenya celebrates its independence heroes. Wounded and restrained, he lies on the ground after being shot in the leg and captured. His leopard-skin uniform is also displayed.
The voiceover declares that Kimathi would be charged with possession of illegal weapons, and indicates that this was a victory for the colonial government. Every year during national holidays this image of Kimathi is broadcast alongside those of others who survived the colonial period and went on to form Kenya’s first post-independence government. Kimathi is a useful symbol of suffering against colonialism but the contents of his message are ignored.
I came across the second image during an assignment at the Kenya national archives, where I got to see a different side of Kimathi – an upright and energetic Kimathi, smiling, his dreadlocks shorter than at the time of his capture. There’s a glint of cheekiness.
It’s an image that reflects his ordinariness, and the long life filled with joy, friendships, family and mundane concerns he could have had. I wonder if this image of him could not be broadcast instead. Or is it that it offers too much hope. Too much inspiration.
The third comes from the novel The People of the Ostrich Mountain by Ndirangu Githaiga, where the grief Kimathi’s contemporaries experienced at his execution jumps off the page:
Wambui had just started Form Five when she heard the news about the death of Dedan Kimathi. She managed to put on a brave face throughout the day, but when she lay in bed that night she cried uncontrollably. Most of the other girls had carried on through the day like she had… only waiting for an opportune moment to discuss in whispers what this meant and how it might affect their lives.
It often feels as if we are still whispering.
Despite Kimathi’s death, the armed struggle for liberation persisted. However, in the years following Kenya’s independence in 1963, Kenya’s ruling elite chose to enrich themselves rather than redistribute land.
To suppress dissent, the legacy of the Mau Mau resistance was tied to criminality and disorder. It was not until 2003 that Mau Mau was allowed legal registration.
Throughout her life, Mukami Kimathi never stopped agitating for Dedan Kimathi’s remains to be located and exhumed from Kamiti prison, where he was buried in an unmarked grave. It’s an injustice that the British never bothered correcting, while successive Kenyan governments participated in an on-and-off ritual, searching for his remains, honouring Mukami Kimathi and then abandoning her.
She died in May 2023. Here too, her funeral was dominated by politicians jostling for political supremacy. She never managed to get her husband’s remains.
Since 18 February 2007, the 50th anniversary of his execution, a bronze statue of Dedan Kimathi has stood on Kimathi Street, in Nairobi. Here, the freedom fighter Kimathi is in military regalia and holds a gun; his face is stern and he appears undefeated.
Though this is one step in bringing to light the stories of men and women who fought for our collective freedom, the long record of elected leaders undermining the issues of land, freedom and self-governance that freedom fighters agitated for is a constant reminder that the struggle is far from won.
1885 to 1963: Kenya is a British colony and white settler colonial state. British and Europeans settlers occupy fertile land, impoverishing and making landless large numbers of the population, especially the Kikuyu ethnic group.
1940s-1960s: Revolt against colonial rule manifests in the formation of the Kenya Africa Union (KAU), from which the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), also known as the Mau Mau, develops. Dedan Kimathi emerges from the most radical wing of the KAU.
The KLFA and Kimathi reject being called ‘Mau Mau’, saying this reduces legitimate political demands to tropes of ‘savagery’ and ‘tribalism’.
The British confine 1.5 million Kenyans in detention camps and securitised villages. People suffer forced labour, disease, starvation, torture, rape and murder. Tens of thousands, if not more, are killed.
1963 onwards: Kenya declares independence on 12 December 1963. Britain torches most of its colonial records before leaving Kenya.
An ideological battle emerges in the ruling party (formed from the KAU), which eventually sides with the west in the cold war.
Kenya bans legal recognition of the KLFA until 2003.