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Friday, October 13, 2006

The British in Kenya


Shameful legacy

In the early 1950s, Mau Mau rebels murdered 32 people in an uprising against colonial rule in Kenya. Britain's response was brutal: 150,000 Kenyans were detained in camps where, survivors claim, prisoners were beaten, tortured, sexually abused and even murdered. Fifty years on, a handful of them are suing the British government. By Chris McGreal

Friday October 13, 2006
The Guardian

It has been 50 years and there is much to remember. But what still stands out from his time in the camps is a tall white man in shorts with a swagger stick. "When we first arrived we didn't know who he was, but we quickly knew he was in charge," says Espon Makanga. "All the other whites and the black guards waited for him to speak, and when he gave the order that is when it began. After that it never really stopped. I came to hate that man. I can never forgive him."

Makanga, now 78, had already endured more than two years as a prisoner of the British when the colonial authorities sent him to Kandongu camp in Kenya in 1957. He describes life in the earlier camps as a routine of tortures, beatings and typhoid that claimed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.

But Kandongu was designed to be the toughest stop on what British officials described as the "pipeline" of camps intended to break down the "hard core" of Kenyans supporting the Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule, which began in 1952. Hard core did not mean the worst killers, merely the most defiant.

The camp enforced a regimen known as the "dilution technique". It was designed by three white colonial officials, one of them the officer whom Makanga spotted as being in charge when he first arrived at Kandongu, and whom he and the other inmates came to fear. They had various nicknames for that officer, but it was only in time that they discovered he was really called Terence Gavaghan. "He was a tall man with a thin face and we soon discovered his camp was about nothing more than being beaten and tortured. They beat us from the day we arrived, with sticks, with their fists, kicking us with their boots. They beat us to make us work. They beat us to force us to confess our Mau Mau oath. After a year I couldn't take it any longer. Gavaghan had won," he says.

Makanga was just one of the estimated 150,000 Kenyans held in British prison camps for up to seven years during what was known as the Kenya Emergency, a rebellion against colonial rule in Kenya. Today, he is among a group of 10 survivors, all in their 70s and 80s, who took the first legal step in London this week towards suing the British government for what they say was officially sanctioned torture and other human rights abuses.

Some of the former prisoners describe rape and sexual abuse of women; others say they survived camps where inmates were flogged, worked to death, murdered in cold blood or starved. They want compensation but also an apology for what they describe as a system of organised brutality unmatched anywhere else in the waning years of the British empire. Even in the 1950s, the camps were described as "Kenya's gulags" and likened by officials to Nazi slave labour camps.

The camps were justified, in British eyes, by the Mau Mau's butchering of 32 white settlers and African chiefs loyal to the crown early in the rebellion. The Mau Mau were dominated by the Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, and were largely driven by bitterness at the loss of land to the white settlers. But the struggle also divided the tribe, and the Mau Mau ultimately killed far more fellow Kikuyu than whites, with massacres such as the killing of 120 men, women and children at Lari in March 1953. In Britain the Mau Mau were portrayed as representing the re-emergence of a primitive bloodlust that the twin benefits of colonisation - Christianity and civilisation - were intended to eradicate. But the British soon proved they could be as brutal as their enemies.

Jane Muthoni Mara is among those taking legal action against the British government. She was 15 when she was arrested for supplying Mau Mau fighters with food and taken to Gatithi screening camp. There she says she and two friends, including a young boy, were beaten with the butts of guns. Her interrogators demanded to know the whereabouts of her brother, who was a member of the Mau Mau. Mara says she was ordered into a tent by a white army officer. There was a black soldier from her area she knew as Edward. He ordered her to lie down and asked her where her brother was. When she did not answer, he picked up a bottle. "He filled the bottle with hot water and then pushed it into my private parts with his foot. I screamed and screamed," she says.

Mara says other women were also tortured by having bottles thrust into their vaginas. "For older women, Edward would use bigger beer bottles, but for us younger girls it was smaller soda bottles," she says. "The next day we were forced to sit with our legs in front of us, and the African guards marched over them in their army boots. We were often beaten."

Mara was later tried and sentenced to three years in prison for Mau Mau membership. "We were taken to Embu prison. A lot of people died there of typhoid. We were forced to do work carrying bricks to build a school. We were beaten if we moved too slowly. It was very hard work," she says. "They would just flog everyone at times, four or five guards with whips would come into the cell." She was finally released in September 1957, but never saw her brother again. She says she never recovered from the sexual violence and for years was frightened of sex with her husband.

Terence Gavaghan is 84 now and lives in London. His former prisoners do not accuse him of the worst crimes committed in some of the camps, such as the sexual abuse or killing. But they do say that the camps under his authority enforced a regime of systematic brutalisation aimed at breaking any resistance to the authority of British rule.

Gavaghan was a colonial district officer when he was recruited to oversee "rehabilitation" of Mau Mau prisoners at six camps in the Mwea area of central Kenya. In his memoirs he describes agreeing with John Cowan, the head of Kenya's prisons, on a system to force detainees to renounce their support for the Mau Mau that he described as "enlightened, humane and Christian-based". He also writes that "no legal restraints were envisaged".

In a telephone interview with the Guardian, Gavaghan says his orders were to end the defiance of inmates who were viewed as a block toward economic and political progress on the way to independence. He declines to discuss whether he ever used the beatings described by Makanga on prisoners, or other specifics of how he broke the hard-core Mau Mau, other than to say he was intent on ensuring that on release they would "not be demonstrating defiance".


Europeans tend to forget their excursions into colonial gulags and torture. This only became an issue because an American academic, Caroline Elkins, did the research in the bowels of the Public Records Office and British Library. When she found out the extent and brutality of the British war in Kenya, she was astonished. Like the French pogrom on Madagascar in 1946-47, killing tens of thousands, the crimes against the Kenyan people aren't even a footnote in British History.

The war in Kenya was little noticed raging while Malaya, Vietnam and Algeria were in full scale rebellion, but it shaped the pattern for African wars to follow. The brutality of Kenya was the prelude to the madness in Portuguese Africa and the battles to keep apartheid alive.

Of course, the genesis of the Mau Mau guerrillas was the 11th East African division which fought in Burma during WWII. Regarded as one of the better allied formations there, they took their lessons on jungle fighting home as the British tried to keep their empire, by savage means.

As a condition of peace, Kenyatta tried to erase the Mau Mau movement from Kenyan history, only recently have Mau Mau veterans been accorded recognition.

Kenya has always held, a special, depraved place in the British imagination. Treated somewhat like Cuba by the Americans, sexual perversions and a last chance for floundering Englishmen defined Kenya to the British psyche. The small colony of white Kenyans became known for their occasional forays into sexual degeneracy and murder.

Because whites had a stake in Kenya, the savage desperation to control the place, which didn't happen in Malaya, a place the British knew they were leaving, or Borneo, a godforsaken island, or the rocky desert of Oman, was in full evidence here. The desperate, cruel abuse of power used by the British didn't corrupt Kenya, but it set the tone for their former colonies, savage wars of peace.

posted by Steve @ 1:35:00 AM

1:35:00 AM

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