Letter from Africa: Mau Mau and the meaning of money

14 April 1953: Suspected members of the Mau Mau, accused of murder on trial. They are sitting in a shed holding large identifying numbers on their laps

In our series of letters from African journalists, Joseph Warungu, a former BBC editor, looks at what the compensation money to be paid by the UK government to thousands of Kenyans tortured during the Mau Mau uprising 50 years ago will mean in Kenya.

I first came face to face with the Mau Mau compensation campaign around August 2000. At the time I was editor of the BBC East Africa bureau.

I was chairing a staff meeting one morning at our office in Nairobi, when I got an urgent message to meet some visitors at the reception.

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Their local town of Nanyuki went dizzy with cash as the Samburu herdsmen splashed out on beer, meat, clothes, bicycles and of course - women”

End Quote

There were about five men in the group, most of them in their late sixties or seventies.

They did not smile; their faces looked grave.

They did not speak English but had an interpreter in their midst.

"We want to speak to the person in charge of this office," their leader said.

When I introduced myself to them in Kikuyu, they all stared at me in disgust.

"You're one of us and yet you work for them!" he responded.

"This," he said, pointing to the BBC plaque on the wall, "represents the British government here and we have something important to share."

After a very difficult conversation with the group, in which I was constantly reprimanded for working with the "enemy", we were finally able to establish that the Mau Mau veterans' visit and message was meant for the British High Commission in Nairobi not the British Broadcasting Corporation.

A short while later, the veterans and their supporters marched to the British High Commission and delivered a memorandum demanding compensation payment within 28 days.

Thirteen years and several court appearances later, the UK government finally settled the matter this month with a statement of regret, and a compensation offer totalling about £20m ($31m).

Victims of swindlers

But as the Mau Mau veterans get busy opening bank accounts in response to their leaders' instructions, the anticipated payout is attracting huge interest - not from banks but from the bulk of Kenyans who have been following the case closely.

So what does the Mau Mau money actually mean?

Memories are still fresh in Kenya of the chaos unleashed on tiny rural economies by another British compensation payout a decade ago.

A young Samburu herder with cattle in Kenya - May 2012 In 2002 some rural herdsmen became instant millionaires

In 2002, rural cattle herders who were used to handling just a few shillings a day, received payouts ranging from $10,000 to nearly $250,000 in compensation, for half a century of deaths and injuries on local live-fire ranges.

The hundreds of Maasai and Samburu victims, of what they claimed were abandoned bombs, left from the British Army's training exercises in their traditional grazing territory, received more than $7m in out-of-court settlements.

They became instant millionaires.

Start Quote

I'm old now and will use the money for food”

End Quote Hannah Nyamurwa Mau Mau veteran

Suddenly their local town of Nanyuki went dizzy with cash as the Samburu herdsmen splashed out on beer, meat, clothes, bicycles and of course - women.

Many of them have since gone broke - very broke, becoming victims of swindlers and high living.

However, fears of grey-haired, gap-toothed Mau Mau veterans swaying unsteadily into nightclubs may be unfounded.

Unlike the Samburu herdsmen, they are in their twilight years, and their payout is quite modest, with each of the 5,228 veterans on the official list of victims of torture receiving well under half a million Kenya shillings ($5,830, £3780).

Their ambitions are also modest.

"I'm old now and will use the money for food," was the response I got from one Mau Mau veteran, Hannah Nyamurwa, who is in her eighties and lives not too far from my own village in central Kenya.

"I have no specific plan for the money apart from supporting myself," she told me on the day the UK compensation was announced.

Kenyan politician Jomo Kenyatta waving to cheering crowds during Kenya independence day celebrations in 1963 Kenya gained independence from the UK just over a decade after the Mau Mau revolt had begun

But even before it lands in the veterans' accounts, the smell of money is drawing out more people.

The cash is now creating divisions, with splinter Mau Mau groups surfacing to claim a piece of the sterling, saying they too were tortured by the colonial authorities.

This has prompted the British High Commissioner in Kenya to clarify that the compensation was specifically intended for the Mau Mau War Veterans Association, saying other aggrieved groups had a right to file their cases in British courts.

The Mau Mau money coming at a time when Kenya is marking her 50th year of independence, is forcing the nation to search its soul.

Did their liberation struggle alongside other Kenyans really liberate the land, the mind and the hand of the people?

The spotlight currently on the veterans might just prompt the new government to quicken the pace of healing long-standing divisions in the country, and address historical injustices especially regarding land ownership.

So hopefully when I next visit the BBC office in Nairobi and I am confronted by another fiery group of Mau Mau veterans, I will be quick to explain that I am not the enemy but a humble messenger!


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  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    So when are the Iraqi's going to make a claim for the illegal war we waged on them?
    After Blair has lived the high life and been buried in St Pauls with full honours?
    Guantanamo bay?
    Everywhere else we stuck our noses in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    'Our own property', how so? Rebellion began when the British confiscated suitable Kikuyu land land, to sell it to rich white settlers for coffee plantations. They were removed from Nairobi en mass (some completely innocent), interned in camps where some of them were brutally tortured. Not ancient history, (Vikings, Neantherdathal, puerile justification). The UK profited greatly from its colonies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @6. chui. The white people lived and farmed in the white highlands of Kenya. The area was called the white highlands because the colonials moved there because it was cooler. The area was too cold for native peoples to live. Britian didnt steal the land, the native tribesman didnt want it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Typical of this government to admit fault, well after those involved have passed on or too old for jail.
    How the next generation always pays for the generation before.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    So can we sue Scandinavia now? For what they done to us when the vikings landed?...........naw didnt think so!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    #8 What the hell makes you think I support these pay outs????? The thing that most irritates me is that as a 35 year old tax payer some on my income tax is being used to compensate terrorists for mistreatment they suffered before I was even born! Why am I liable for alleged things that happend 2 decades before I even existed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    maybe they could hand the money back so the poor conscript squaddies can be compensated? We are talking about terrorists after all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.


    Cry me a river, chump.

    Even 1$ is too much for reparations of what was essentially policing activity on what was then our own property.

    They got a nation out of their struggle so let them figure it out themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    6. chui

    I am told that everyone '' modern humans'' came from Africa and that they when they arrived in Europe found already inhabitants Neanderthal's the Africans then it seems wiped out the whole race. That's Genocide !! on behalf of these people I would like to bring a claim of compensation against all Africa country's I know it a long time ago but good for the goose good for the gander..

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    // Peter_Sym
    #2 My attitude entirely. Its worth pointing out the Mau Mau killed approx 30 whites and 1800 black Kenyans. You were FAR more likely to be hacked apart for working for a white than for being a white.//

    So that's all right then? You're actually pointing out how vile these people were...and yet another reason why we shouldn't pay them a penny.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I'd suggest we just say 'no' to any claims of this kind. Or we start suing everyone we can think of, including the Mau Mau for what they did.

    In fact, how about handing them a cheque for £10,000 and a bill for 100,000?

    As a Brit born years after any of this happened, I feel like a victim of institutional racism in having to pay these people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    $31 million is peanut for what the British Colonialism did in stealing the most productive land from the Kikuyu and others. Let alone the Mau Mau and ten of thousands innocent people that were put in concentration camps and abused indiscriminately with impunity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    This is all very well, but some have been trying to claim, who weren't even born at the time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    #2 My attitude entirely. Its worth pointing out the Mau Mau killed approx 30 whites and 1800 black Kenyans. You were FAR more likely to be hacked apart for working for a white than for being a white.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Typical government : they will do anything if they can get away with it !
    What we don't know can't hurt them !
    And they did this in our name !

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    "You're one of us and yet you work for them!"

    So they're racists as well as terrorists?

    Good to government money is going to all the right places!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    they are old because they've been waiting since the 60s so this makes them pensioners in an odd sort of way.

    they will probably be spending their money on the same things as other pensioners. A flat, some food and perhaps tobacco and a pint or two


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