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.

Start Quote

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 57.

    This story in another light, The Kenyans knew that Independence was coming so it was a fight for leadership basically, .Chief Waruhiu who was a threat to it was the first person the Mau Mau killed.

    in J.M.s book a" Mau Mau detainee" He called in the Red Cross to witness the camp horrors
    but also says "My friend the prison governor" ," and I was taken home in the back of his Merc after tea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    #53 David

    "Germany also agreed to relax eligibility criteria for the Central and Eastern European Fund and Article 2 Fund, through which the German government gives pension payments of approximately $411 per month to needy Nazi victims who spent significant time in a concentration camp, in a Jewish ghetto in hiding or living under a false identity to avoid the Nazis."

    -- That is a precedent!

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    #53 David

    " a good precedent for other countries."

    ´The agreement, reached in Israel with the Claims Conference, will result in approximately $800 million in new funding for home care for Holocaust survivors from 2014 to 2017. This is in addition to $182 million for 2014 that already has been committed."

    "Some 56,000 survivors are now receiving home care through the Claims Conference."

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    #53 David

    " a good precedent for other countries."

    -- Never heard of Germany ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    People have missed the point. The compensation is for illegal acts. Torture of peoples, prisoners of war and innocents, out with the rules of war.
    But I have to say I am proud that my country has gone some small way to acknowledge a great wrong – a good precedent for other countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    @firemansaction. 'Ruled lightly', "The British possibly killed in excess of 20,000 Mau Mau militants" (Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire). This lone Commissioner and his land Rover was very busy then. Nice story though, the white man's burden and all that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    #49 firemen

    "Britain and its African colony was lightly ruled normally.Some Occupying force!"

    ´The British East Africa colony, founded in 1905, encouraged British immigration. By the time the Kenya Colony came into being in 1920, about 10,000 British people had settled in the area. The colony granted settlers 999-year leases over about 25% of the good land in Kenya.´

    --some theft !

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    @firemansaction. It's not for war and those that were killed in battle that the compensation is due, it's for the internment and torture.
    If you go to Africa and take territory by force and in doing so suffer losses does it seem appropriate that you ask for compensation? Should the Vermacht be compensated for its failed invasion of USSR? Zany logic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    "Occupying by force" has been stated by at least one post.
    My friend,now in his 70s served in Kenya.
    He tells me that the vast area was governed by Lone Commissioners, who used to cover miles of patch in a Land Rover,with a driver and an Askari guard.
    They ran the area alone,settling disputes at village level.
    Britain and its African colony was lightly ruled normally.Some Occupying force!

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Will the Africans who slaughtered a British column to a man be forced to pay compensation to the (white) soldiers who were massacred?
    Or is Human Rights "justice" only one way?? Thought so!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    @46 quietoaktree
    Just a total joke...mau mau and the meaning of money!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    #45 beam

    "Just a total joke!" ???

    -- ´Mr Hague said Britain still did not accept it was legally liable for the actions of what was a colonial administration in Kenya.

    " tens of thousands of Kenyans who were sent to concentration camps during their struggle for independence from British colonial rule half a century ago."

    The British did the concentration --and the Kenyans, the camping ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Just a total joke!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    If every country has to pay for it's wrongs, there is not one country who is not in debt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    A patronizing attitude is in the article - don't sneer at some of the world's most vulnerable people.

    #42 - the English need compensating for the series of dour and inept Scottish political leaders who've damaged them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    If Scotland gets its independence does that mean as a scot I will be able to claim for the pain and humiliation my forebears suffered in the middle ages at the hands of Longshanks? Where do I get my claim form

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Having listened to the BBC at the time -- the accusation of the author (BBC) being the ´enemy´--is totally justified.

    Similar misinformation and omissions were the rule rather than the exception --still being swallowed (it seems) by many UK citizens.

    British Guyana, India, Malaya, Ceylon etc. etc. --have identical stories of brutality to tell.

    --get used to the truth -- much more coming !

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    The Romans and Vikings haven't paid us so therefore no one should expect us to pay, comic book stuff.
    Measuring us against the Mau Mau or the Japanese, saying they haven't paid so why should we, reduces us to their moral equivalent. I take pride in living in a country with the courage to acknowledge and face up to its mistakes. Colonialism was not benign, it was an appropriation by force.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I suggest the South African government pay English and Welsh families of the soldiers that were slaughtered at the hospital at Rorkes Drift compensation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    #37 angry

    "The problem with the UK is we are seen as a soft touch " ?

    -- like Germany ?

    -- They still don´t wave flags -- denying their atrocities or history.


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