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.

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.

Image caption 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.

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.

Image caption 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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