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”

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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.

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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 37.

    The problem with the UK is we are seen as a soft touch and that is because we are. We are civilising ourselves out of existance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Do the families of thousands of victims hacked to death by Mau Mau get a cheque? They don't know the difference between the BBC and the British High Commission, accuse Joseph Warungu who wasn't born at the time of working for "them" and have no thought for their own victims. This shows how little their wonderful government has done to improve the education or lives of the Kenyan people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Why do we allow the do gooders and the appeasers in this country insist we be forever quilty and obligated to anyone in the world who steps forward and Claims I Was Wronged. War is hell, no one would wish anyone harm but we cant be forever responsible. Are the Germans compensating all victims of holocaust, or the Romans, Normans and Vikings compensating us NO so lets stop this nonsense NOW!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    They will spend the money as fast as they can. This is normal for the people in that region. Food spoils quickly, so it is eaten immediately. Anyone who has money is required to share it with other family members asap, so it is better to spend it now. The mentality is that nothing lasts so eat it, use it up, spend it NOW.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    My Grandfather was a soldier in Kenya at the time of the revolution and my father was there as a boy. he and a group of his friends (all white British) used to play down by a waterhole. A week after the family left Kenya a group of Mau Mau slaughtered all of the children by the waterhole with machetes. Where is the compensation for their families?

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    And how much compensation have the Mau Mau's victims received from the Kenyan government ...................?


  • rate this

    Comment number 31.


    Counter insurgency is a messy business, if they where innocent then the Mau Mau are just as guilty as the occupying British; perhaps we should have matched 1£ for 1£ how much they where willing to give to their victims?
    "the 'pages of history' should record that, even if it is unpleasant to consider."
    Yep, it's a black mark that's on the record for everyone to see. that's punishment enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I hope our government are going to subtract the £20m from the millions we waste on Kenya in aid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    #28 However its really only Britain daft enough to pay up. Look at Japan in WW2. Precious little compensation to its victims (including one of my great uncles who starved to death on the Burma railroad... he wasn't even a soldier. He was merchant navy)

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    They ask for compensation not because they took part in a war but because of torture and sexual abuse (including castration and sexual violence).

    The British Government has admitted that atrocities took place, the 'pages of history' should record that, even if it is unpleasant to consider. We should record the ignominy of empire since we have enjoyed and celebrated its 'glory' long enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I lived through Mau Mau days and it wasn't easy. Innocent people were killed indiscriminately by the terrorists. The government had to act and thank God it did.
    The British built infrastructure and improved farming to the extent that Kenyan tea and coffee rank as one of the top products (amongst many others) in the world.
    It is time to compensate Britain for modernizing Kenya.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.


    It's not customary for the victors to pay the defeated. It's kind of ironic that those fighting to free themselves from British imperialism would come back and demand we subsidise them in their old age. They knew the risks when they took up arms, let them deal with the fallout.

    But now that they've been paid off will all mention of the atrocities be struck from the pages of history?

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    #24 It was your 'So that's all right then?' comment after mine which seemed to imply I thought the Mau Mau's actions were fine I took offence too.

    My use of the word 'hacked apart' rather than 'bravely fighting for independence' hopefully highlighted my opinion of them clearly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    #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!//

    I know - what makes you think I disagree? Read what I said, not what you think I said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    This "going broke" activity is so prevalent. When payments like this are made so semi-literate, financially-ignorant people(s), it ought to be the law that a financial adviser come assigned to the overall project, along with his/her financial guidance.
    Otherwise, those who gave the compensation (or their cohorts) will quickly suck the compensation back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    They could do a Georgie Best and spend most of it on booze and women, then squander the rest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    @ Isitonlyme
    I suppose you think they were marauding murderers before their land and resources were forcibly taken from them and they were put in Nazi type ghettos by the British.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Welfare, no, compensation, yes.It matters because they are still alive to be compensated.
    Occupying a territory by force and then leaving it does not exonerate your conduct during occupation, see WW2 for examples.
    We pay compensation because what was done in our name was unjust, we do so in recognition of this and because we hold ourselves to higher standards than existed at the time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    The Mau Mau were terrorists and committed thousands of murders of both whites & their own countrymen.

    Can someone tell me why it is OK for the UK Govt to "compensate" known terrorists?

    We'll be setting up bank accounts to pay al-Qaeda next.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.


    Why does it matter when it happened?

    The land came under British imperial control so it was theirs to do with what they wished.
    the occupation ended-- these people are no longer British subjects so why should we pay for their welfare? they have their own government now let them sort it out.


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