British Subjects: The Uganda-Kenya Railway

This blog is partially transcribed from Anna Rose Kerr’s podcast British Subjects, which tells the stories of 52 immigrants from Commonwealth countries. Our co-founder Tayiana Chao was recently a guest on Anna’s podcast, and spoke about the Museum, as well as her work documenting the remains of the Uganda-Kenya Railway. Read more below, and listen to British Subjects on iTunes or Spotify.

Growing up in a former British colony, you are always very aware of what the British have brought or taken away from the country you live in. In Kenya, one of the most obvious signs of British rule is the railroads.

In the late 1890s, there were reports in the German press that the Germans had already claimed Uganda. This was fuel to the British fire in the ‘Scramble for Africa’, and to prevent the Germans from blocking the source of the Nile, they had to secure Kenya in order to reach the landlocked Uganda. And for their munitions and supplies to reach Uganda, they had to build a railway.

This railway was known as the Uganda Railway, despite most of it being in Kenya. Within the question of affordability and finances was the question of labour. The British brought in close to 35,000 labourers from India to work on the railway, being that it was much cheaper than using European labour. They had also previously built railways in India, and so communities there knew more about the process of railway building than the indigenous communities within Kenya. It was a way to get cheap, fast, and skilled labour - but this resulted in 35,000 people coming somewhere completely unfamiliar, with a climate that is completely different, to build a railway in the worst conditions.

Nairobi Railway Station in 1946, during 50th anniversary celebrations of the Uganda Railway ( Photo source )

Nairobi Railway Station in 1946, during 50th anniversary celebrations of the Uganda Railway (Photo source)

There is a famous story about the ‘Tsavo Man-Eaters’, a pair of lions that lived in the Tsavo desert, a couple of miles from the Kenyan coast. A number of labourers were eaten alive by these lions because they were camping out in the open. The man-eaters of Tsavo has become one of the most ‘romantic’ stories of the Kenya railway, but I find this very, very disturbing when you look further into the conditions that these men were working in, and why someone who came all the way from India had to suffer a fate like that to build something that had nothing to do with their interests. When you look at it from a perspective of social good... there was none of that. When I was doing my research on the railway, I found that there were labourers who preferred to wander off into the desert and die at night rather than face the day labouring under the sun. They would rather die than face another day.

By the 1970s, the railway began to decline, and by the 2000s, it was not functioning at all. People were dependent on this infrastructure for their income, and after it declined, the buildings were left to rot. No one was taking care of them, and they were locked down. It was really telling of how much of our own perspectives we are keen to erase or we don’t see, and so in 2015, I started a project called Save The Railway, to document the railway stations in Kenya that were abandoned and left to decay.

Samburu Railway Station, 2015. See more at  Save The Railway .

Samburu Railway Station, 2015. See more at Save The Railway.

We have 60 years of a railway serving millions of Kenyans, but never being written from their perspective. The history of the railways is always looked at in terms of European or Asian perspectives, with the romanticised lions and carriages and safaris and hunting trips. There is a significant gap in the history of the railway in Kenya which has no recollection whatsoever to what these stations and the infrastructure of the railway meant to the communities. If you look at the map of Kenya, most of the urban centres and towns are along the railway - very few lie outside of the railway buffer zone. I was looking at these stations as not just buildings that were ruined, but also as reminiscent of a lot of work that was put into building Kenya as we know it today.

Mau Mau Fieldwork: April, 2019

With thanks to a travel grant from The Heritage Alliance in partnership with the British Council, I was recently able to travel to Nairobi to undertake field research on the heritage and history of the Mau Mau Uprising. With Antony Maina from National Museums of Kenya, as well as fellow Museum of British Colonialism team member Beth and research assistants Caroline and Henry, we travelled to Nyeri and explored a variety of sites, each sombre and surreal in their own way.

We revisited the sites of Mweru and Aguthi detention camps, now both used as high schools. Aguthi, now Kangubiri Girls High School, was founded as a school in 1965 - just five years after the conflict ended. We were taken around by Antony and one of the school’s caretakers, who informed us that there was a mass grave on site, where detainees held at Aguthi were buried during the Emergency. The area is down a path from the main school grounds, among a grove of trees with two benches. The area is eerily peaceful; it afforded us one of the few quiet moments in our long day of fieldwork, but it was hard to forget the site’s painful past.

Mass grave at Aguthi Works Camp, now Kangubiri Girls High School

Mass grave at Aguthi Works Camp, now Kangubiri Girls High School

Graves at Gikondi Catholic Church

Graves at Gikondi Catholic Church

Antony then took us to Gikondi Catholic Church, where three Catholic Kenyans murdered by a group of Mau Mau fighters for their faith are buried. Antony tells us that their bodies were found after some weeks as they were dumped in a nearby river. With all the violence of the Mau Mau Uprising, the pain inflicted by both sides during the Emergency can sometimes be too easily forgotten, and unfortunately civilians were too often entangled in the conflict.

Kariba Caves, Nyeri

Kariba Caves, Nyeri

Later, we visited Kariba Caves, where Mau Mau commander General Kariba and his fighters hid after he was suspected of killing Louis and Mary Leakey, prominent British archaeologists living and working in Kenya at the time. A network of caves served as hideouts for Mau Mau fighters, who knew how to navigate the forests and local landscapes far better than the British forces. Our team member Maureen also recently visited Mau Mau caves in Meru, you can read and listen to her account here.

Kariba was eventually shot by British soldiers after they had captured his wife to lure him out of the cave. The site is down steep, winding paths, and the noise of the waterfall drowns out almost all sounds from the outside world. Today, the area is used by worshippers to pray, and their utensils and sleeping bags are scattered around the cave. It is, much like the grave at Kangubiri, a beautiful natural area that conceals its dark past.

Outside Kariba Caves

Outside Kariba Caves

Sloping hill of the former emergency village

Sloping hill of the former emergency village

Finally we visited the site of a former emergency village, atop a steep hill and once surrounded by a trench. Emergency villages were adopted after their similar use by the British in Malaya. Communities of over a million Kikuyu were forcibly relocated into colonial-built villages in an attempt to cut off supply lines to Mau Mau fighters, the villages surrounded by deep, spiked trenches, barbed wire, and watchtowers. Today, nothing remains of the former site but its landscape; the remnants of a trench are visible before a steep hill. The village would have been at its foot, watched over by the homeguard post at the peak.

Mau Mau mass grave, with Kiawara in the background

Mau Mau mass grave, with Kiawara in the background

On our second day in Nyeri, Antony took us around the town and guided us through Kiawara slum. In an unmarked lot of land lies a mass grave of Mau Mau fighters, the remains of whom are sometimes accidentally exhumed by farmers or workers. Antony tells me that though the site is gazetted by National Museums of Kenya, the local residents often attempt to farm or construct buildings on the area - and they may eventually have to be removed by force. This tension between archaeologists and the public crops up often, and as archaeologists we must constantly attempt to balance what we consider to be important to the public with the needs and wishes of local residents. This case is even more delicate not only with regards to the subject of the site, but also due to local community’s pressing need to create and secure sustainable livelihoods.

Recreated emergency village at Karatina University

Recreated emergency village at Karatina University

Finally we visited Karatina University, where we were met by Professor John Mwaruvie. Professor Mwaruvie gave us a tour of the grounds, showing us their collection of Mau Mau artefacts and photographs at a small museum on the site, as well as their replica emergency village which is currently under construction. Just outside the campus is the trench of the former Karatina Works Camp, part of which has been excavated by the university in partnership with National Museums of Kenya and the British Institute in Eastern Africa. On the site is also an enormous fig tree (Mugumo), sacred in Kikuyu tradition. Mau Mau fighters would leave messages within the tree, often written on leaves in charcoal or blood. The work at Karatina is very promising, and will hopefully contribute towards further illumination and wider dissemination of knowledge of the Mau Mau Uprising.

Remains of trench at Karatina

Remains of trench at Karatina

Mugumo tree at Karatina

Mugumo tree at Karatina

While in Nairobi, I also got the chance to meet with our Museum co-founder Chao, and we worked on finding the best ways to develop an integrated digital map of the sites of the Mau Mau Emergency. You can find our initial work here. With time and further funding, we’ll be able to develop a map that integrates photographs, videos, and oral history interviews, and eventually go on to create 3D reconstructions of the camps and villages explored in our fieldwork and research.

My time spent in Nyeri and Nairobi was an incredible experience; though I spent a relatively short time in Kenya, I’ve certainly come away with a better understanding of the history, the landscape, and the present day context. My initial contact with the sites had only been through photographs of and editing videos from the previous fieldwork trip, and so to experience the sites first-hand was surreal and incredibly sobering. This trip, and seeing the extent of what has been wiped from historical records, has certainly emphasised the importance of listening to different voices and experiences to share these important stories across cultures and countries. I hope that by sharing these stories, we are able to inspire more people to question the commonly accepted narratives of empire, and listen to the people that were affected by - and continue to live with the legacy of - British colonialism.

By Hannah McLean

The Zaina Trail

Maureen Ng’ayu joined the Museum team in March 2019. She is a final year student Travel and Tourism Management Student at Kenya Methodist University, an International Air Transport Association (I.A.T.A.) certified Consultant, Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda (S.T.T.A.) Change Maker, the mind behind East African Simba Travels (E.A.S.T.) and a mother.

Maureen is excited to see how History and Heritage merge with Travel and Tourism while working with MBC. Just after joining the team, she took a trip to Meru to visit and speak with her grandmother and walk the Zaina trail. We are excited to share her blog below!

The story of the MAU MAU has always intrigued me. It’s close to my heart as I hail from where all the action happened. It seems, however, to be shrouded in mystery and this has led me down a path that seeks to demystify its theories.


I just now returned from a trip to Meru where my grandmother is a native. She is well into a century of her life and still strong though now slowly and sadly fading away. Never before have we talked at such lengths about this historical fact. But today my eyes were opened to new perspectives and I can’t wait to hear more.

At the time of the infamous curfew imposed on my people, she was a mother of three and was operating a shop with my grandfather. Here, she was at the centre of the tension from both ends and she witnessed the brutality and bravery of all the players.

As a trader, those who fought for freedom and those who opposed it were regular clientele. She narrated to me the harrowing near-death experiences she survived and it was nothing short of breathtaking.

She told of babies strapped to the backs of their mothers upside down to aid in manoeuvring through thick forest seeking hideouts. The reason for strapping the tots in such a precarious position was to protect their delicate heads from being scathed by thorns. You would imagine they would wail and throw up with all the blood rushing to their tiny brains but no. Not a sound did they make. How else you can describe an act of God, I don’t know.

She told of lifeless arms bobbing up and down in government trucks passing through. Their drivers leisurely stopping for a refreshing drink before proceeding on to offload the carcasses at a humongous pit where they then set them on fire.

She told of days the curfew was in full force, when they had to sit in a Chiefs office from dawn to dusk. On these days they had to forgo trading, food and drink and not forgetting toilet breaks. All they could do was sit there silently until the day’s activity was complete.

She told of witnessing, with her own eyes, mutilated bodies sliced open at the throat. These images put fear in her heart and she confided in her husband about wanting to leave. But it was no secret that there was nowhere to run to. There was no-one the war hadn’t touched. She and her family were only safe under the Chief’s protection because to the eyes of the warriors, they passed for sympathisers. And none of them, if ever caught, would get away with their life.

As sordid as the details sound to my millennial ears, something of strength left her lips and I have never felt more empowered. Many females of today will be surprised to hear that the females of that time were the bravest and most tactful warriors. Their attacks were unprecedented, vicious and exacting. When they struck they never missed and always got the job done. They were fearless! Nothing short of magnificent.


Needless to say, this was by far the most revealing and awe-inspiring MAU MAU story I have heard yet. I am pumped and I can’t wait to learn more. It got me back to the reason for doing this project as it is my view that women today pale in comparison to our heroines who have gone unappreciated for so long.

We, as females must put our boots back on, face and fearlessly fight whatever ails our present society. We cannot afford to, any longer, sit on the sidelines and expect things to miraculously work themselves out. We must put on a stern stance and refuse to be shoved any which way.

So, girls, ladies, women, even men, remember who you are and where you have come from. Wake up from those cocoons and manifest yourselves into a force to be reckoned with. If you don’t, no-one else will. God will not come from the skies and make everything alright. So get up and face whichever demons stand in your way. You have the strongest backing that you have no clue about.

Let us all men and women, leave our groups behind and stand alone for what we believe to be true and just. A heavy price was paid for what we now carelessly enjoy: freedom. Pay back by being responsible and insightful in whatever this life throws at you.

Seek knowledge and you will gain understanding and thus be wiser for the next generation. As you bring them into the world and raise your tots, make it a priority to never let them forget how precious their land is.

Let us all be worthy custodians of this priceless history which is now, gratefully, our reality. Own up and don’t delegate. Know your history and let it be the foundation for a great destiny.

From my grandmother and East African Simba, to you, with much love.


By Maureen Ng’ayu. Read Maureen’s blog on her website here.

Why We Call Ourselves MBC

And what is restorative history

We are often asked why we chose to call ourselves the Museum of British Colonialism. Some people say, ‘But we already have a Museum of British Colonialism - the British Museum’. Other people wonder if we are celebrating colonialism, or enquire as to ‘which side of the fence we are on’.

To set the record straight - neither in the UK, nor elsewhere, do we already have a Museum of British Colonialism. Yes, we have the British Museum. And yes, the majority of objects in the British Museum were ‘acquired’ during the time of the British Empire (still extant). The British Museum could then, therefore, perhaps be ‘read’ as a museum that provides insights and access into British colonial history. In some ways it does. If you would like to know about the British Empire’s astonishing and rapacious desire for acquiring and displaying objects and items from across the world, nowhere is there a finer example that the displays at the British Museum. It is therefore fair to say that if you visit the British Museum and apply a critical lens to their collection, you will probably pick up a thing or two about our colonial exploits. It is also, we believe, fair to say that one could visit the British Museum and come away entirely ignorant as to some of the more challenging aspects of Britain’s Empire and role in the world.

Where in the British Museum, for example, could one go to learn about the British in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau Emergency, or the legacy of British colonialism in Ireland? Where in the British Museum can we learn of freedom struggles from Burma to Belize; of documents seized and destroyed by colonial forces; of Emergency Villages constructed, refined, redeployed, removed, buried and forgotten? Where in the British Museum would a visitor - be it British or otherwise - be encouraged to come away thinking of England, and thinking of Britain, as anything less than utterly triumphant? A world-class power, in a world-class building, with world-class objects. While it is true that the narrative is being increasingly challenged - and, one would hope, unstuck - this is the message the British Museum projects to the world. And this has always been the intention.

The Museum of British Colonialism, as conceived by our team, has a wholly different objective. Our aim is not to glorify Britain or to display objects from Empire (we don’t even have any…). Our aim is not to declare a side, or to position ourselves as pro or against Empire. Our aim is to provide a space - digital, physical, emotional and psychological - for people to confront, consider, assess and understand our less than glorious imperial past, and help forge a better future.

’We call this process restorative history.’

We call this process restorative history and the reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, much of this history has been actively, wilfully and knowingly removed, concealed or destroyed. Cover-ups, denials, and alternative (glorious) narratives have collectively served to obliterate knowledge, or even the access to knowledge, of many aspects of our imperial past. In an effort to ‘forget and move on’, this has been the case outside as well as inside the UK. It is our belief, at the Museum, that if we care for our present and future, we must also care for and attend to our past. And when and where we know there are gaps in the narrative, stories or experiences denied or over-ridden by false or unfair emphasis, we must work our way back, collectively, creatively and collaboratively, to understand, explore and restore them. We actively work to fill in the gaps in our history. To educate ourselves and in the process, educate others as well.

Connected to this is the second reason. We believe collective, collaborative and active restoration of a history that has been destroyed, concealed or denied is not just a factually and practically important act; we believe it is also an emotionally, psychologically and even politically restorative act. We believe that the restoration of our history can and will lead to a restoration of our relationships, our communities, and - in the long run - our society.

This is what we call restorative history and this is the aim of our Museum. To our knowledge, it diverges slightly from that of the other one...

Mau Mau Literature: Talking with Dr Chege Githiora

The Mau Mau was a movement of freedom fighters, also known as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, who fought against the British Colonial Government in Kenya. Although the organisation was multi-ethnic, the members were mainly drawn from the Kikuyu. In 2009, a group of Mau Mau  war veterans filed a claim against the British government and – in the process - revealed the full extent of the British Colonial Government’s use of violence and torture during the 1952-1960 State of Emergency. Dr Chege Githiora was the Gikuyu translator during the Mau Mau case in London in 2014 and has an intense personal connection with this brutal episode of British colonial history. 

In February, Dr Githiora joined us on the panel at our Operation Legacy screening at SOAS. This documentary follows the veterans’ struggle for truth and reparations, and exposes the depths of the establishment’s attempts to erase histories of colonial violence. He was joined on the panel by journalist Julius Mbaluto who also covered the Mau Mau case in London, hip hop artist and political activist Lowkey, and our own Olivia Windham-Stewart. 

Dr. Chege Githiora (far right) at Operation Legacy screening, SOAS

Dr. Chege Githiora (far right) at Operation Legacy screening, SOAS

The panel discussion that followed the screening was passionate and wide ranging. It encompassed the need to address intergenerational trauma suffered as a result of the conflict to the mechanisms of historical miseducation in the present. The audience felt passionately that the documentary is a good starting point for raising awareness on the Mau Mau, and Dr Githiora highlighted the importance of listening to African stories and reading African historians to enhance our collective understanding of this conflict.

Dr Githiora’s call to acknowledge the contribution of Kenyans intellectuals who have actively engaged with this history is connected to the movement to decolonise the curriculum. Decolonising the curriculum means more than simply citing a few sources; it’s a commitment to acknowledging different knowledge systems and the different ways that people engage with history. Central to this challenge is the question of language, and the importance of engaging in discourses in African languages. 

I was fortunate to sit down with Dr Githiora and gather his thoughts on some key texts by Kenyan authors, as well as his views on their significance. What follows is a brief – by no means exhaustive - account of literature which is not widely read in the academic mainstream but we believe to be important to a deeper, and progressively decolonised account of this history. 

Non fiction

Maina wa Kinyatii

CG: Mania wa Kinyatii is the foremost Kenyan historian writing about the Mau Mau but he is not very much read here in the West, partly because of his radical views. Also, some of his work has not been translated from Gikuyu. He was arrested and imprisoned in the 1980s for writing about the Mau Mau. He writes with great passion, and has lots of insider information because as a young boy he participated in the struggle - it was common for young boys to be sent on errands etc. 

He is one person who really needs to be read more. For example his book ‘Thunder from the Mountains’ is a very interesting oral history in which he analyses the songs that were sung at the time. Part of the problem is that it’s very easy to tarnish peoples names by declaring them unbalanced. Another problem is that they’re not published in the mainstream, and therefore distribution becomes an issue and they don’t become known.

  • Thunder from the Mountains: Poems and Songs from the Mau Mau / Mania wa Kinyatii (1980)

  • Mau Mau: A Revolution Betrayed / Mania wa Kinyatii (1991)

  • Kenya's Freedom Struggle: The Dedan Kimathi Papers / Mania wa Kinyatii (1987)


Karari Njama and Donald Barnett

CG: This book is interesting because it was co-authored with an American anthropologist who was involved in the anti-imperial movements of the 1960s and Karari Njama, a Mau Mau war veteran who had been Dedan Kimathi’s secretary in the forest. The subtitle is also interesting - ‘An Analysis of a Peasant Revolt’ - because the terminology sometimes differs. From his account we hear about the armed movements organisation, motivations and weaknesses. 

  • Mau Mau from Within: An Analysis of Kenya's Peasant Revolt / Donald Barnett and Karari Njama (1968)

Wunyabari Maloba

CG: Wunyabari Maloba is an important Kenyan historian who takes an economic analysis of that struggle. It’s clear from the subtitle of his book that he also considers the Mau Mau as a peasant revolution. 

  • Mau Mau and Kenya: An Analysis of a Peasant Revolt / Wunyabari O. Maloba (1993)

Ogot and Odhiambo

CG: B.A. Ogot and E.S. Odhiambo are other historians who certainly need to be read a lot more for their different interpretation of the Mau Mau movement. They see Mau Mau as an implosion, a sort of civil war amongst the Gikuyu: of peasants against the landed classes and loyalists. They are decreed for being too radical: not mincing their words and not making apologies of any sort. 

  • Bethwell A. Ogot and William Ochieng (eds) Decolonization and Independence in Kenya 1940-93 (1995)

  • Ogot, Bethwell Alan. ‘Revolt of the Elders: An Anatomy of the Loyalist Crowd in the Mau Mau Uprising 1952-1956.’ In Bethwell Alan Ogot (ed), Hadith 4: Politics and Nationalism in Colonial Kenya, 134-148 (1972)

  • Odhiambo, E.S. Atieno and John Lonsdale (eds). Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration (2003)

  • [For a review see: Michael Chege. Mau Mau Rebellion Fifty Years On. African Affairs, Volume 103, Issue 410, Pages 123–136 (2004)]

  • Odhiambo, E.S. Atieno. ‘The production of history in Kenya: the Mau Mau debate.’ Canadian Journal of African Studies 25, ii: 300-307 (1991)

  • Odhiambo, E.S. Atieno. ‘The Formative Years 1945-55.’ In Bethwell A. Ogot and William Ochieng (eds) Decolonization and Independence in Kenya 1940-93, 25-47 (1995)


Ngugi wa Thiong’o

CG: Literature is often thinly fictionalised history and authors such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o are a really good source of reading Mau Mau. His novels recount momental events in Kenyan history. For example, the character Moses in ‘A Grain of Wheat’ is obviously referring to Kenyatta. It’s really history put in a fictional form. Ngugi’s books are often read in history classes. 

  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Weep Not, Child (1964) 

  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The River Between (1965)
    Ngugi wa Thiong’o. A Grain of Wheat (1968)

  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Petals of Blood (1977)

  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986)

  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (2004)


Chege Githiora 

2019 marks fifty years since the publication of Kaburi Bila Msalaba. The book written in Swahili and first published in 1969 has been translated for the first time from Swahili into English by Dr Chege Githiora. An Unmarked Grave is the first translation of Kaburi Bila Msalaba in any language and makes a significant contribution to world literature. The narrative portrays a powerful account of life during the Mau Mau struggles in Kenya and the defeat of British Colonialism and is told in the spirit of oral tradition and community history. 

  • Githiora, Chege. Unmarked Grave: A story of the Mau Mau war (2017) translation of P.M.Kareithi. Kaburi Bila Msalaba: Hadithi ya vita vya Mau Mau (1969)

As part of the campaign to attract attention to the Mau Mau court case in 2009, Dr Githiora wrote this short article for the first ever annual review of the Centre of African Studies (CAS) at SOAS: 

  • Githiora, Chege. ‘Striking back at the Empire: The Mau Mau Case in London.' Annual review, Centre of African Studies, University of London, 2 (1). pp. 2-5 (2011)


CG: Life histories are invaluable resources for learning more about this history. Kariuki’s well-known diary has been translated into 27 languages, including Japanese. 

  • Josiah Mwangi Kariuki. “Mau Mau” Detainee: The Account of a Kenya African of His Experiences in Detention Camps 1953-1960 (1975)

  • Gakaara wa Wanjaũ. Mau Mau Author in Detention. Translated and heavily edited by Paul Ngigi Njoroge (1988)

  • Wambui Waiyaki Otieno. Mau Mau’s Daughter: A Life History (1992)

By Adam Rodgers Johns

Hola - Another British Scandal?

On this day, sixty years ago, ten men were proclaimed dead in a British colonial detention camp at Hola in the Coast Province of Kenya. Three days later an eleventh man was declared dead. The British government claimed their deaths were the result of drinking contaminated water. What soon became apparent, however, is that this claim was nothing short of a government cover-up. 

With the anniversary of this incident at Hola detention camp in mind, I spent a few days in the Kenya National Archives (KNA) this week exploring what files are housed there in reference to Hola. As the outgoing British colonial government secretly removed the main bulk of their papers referencing the period of the Mau Mau conflict, unsurprisingly there was little to find. With the kind help of the KNA archivists, however, we were able to locate a document containing the full inquiry presented by the then Secretary of State for the Colonies to the UK Parliament in June 1959. Using this document, we can begin to understand what happened on the 3rd March 1959 in Hola detention camp.

Image used with permission from the Kenya National Archives. File reference: KNA/MSS/115/50/15.

Image used with permission from the Kenya National Archives. File reference: KNA/MSS/115/50/15.

The British colonial government had established Hola detention camp to house those classified as the most ‘hard-core’ fighters of the Land and Freedom Army. Hola was one of many detention and work camps the colonial authorities established during the 1950s whereby detainees were to complete a form of ‘rehabilitation’ before they would be allowed release. Upon a visit in November 1958 by the Commissioner of Prisons to Hola, it was a decided that a new plan had to be drawn up to tackle the lack of discipline amongst detainees in this closed camp. So, what was this new plan and how did it lead to the death of eleven detainees?

After a detailed inspection of the camp, the then Acting Assistant Commissioner of Prisons Mr Cowan and the Camp Commandant Michael Sullivan drew up a plan on what action was to be adopted to force reluctant detainees to work. This plan, which became known as ‘The Cowan Plan’, was designed to compel 66 uncooperative detainees to work by clearing each of the living compounds, housing the detainees, separately and escorting them to the work site. A vital part of this plan was that any individual who refused to obey this order would be ‘manhandled to the site of work and forced to carry out the task’. With ‘manhandled’ and ‘forced’ being typically vague, an environment was created to allow legal ambiguity.

In the implementation of this plan on the 3rd March 1959, violence broke out between reluctant detainees and camp guards which resulted in the deaths of eleven detainees. What was initially insinuated through a government press handout released on the 4th March 1959, was that these individuals had drunk contaminated water. Eight days later however, it was proclaimed that they ‘may’ have died due to injuries on their bodies caused by violence. From here a full inquest was declared. The medical evidence later presented to parliament detailed each case of death ‘was found to have been caused by shock and haemorrhage due to multiple bruising caused by violence’. Not a single criminal charge was brought against any persons involved, it was argued by the Attorney General in Kenya that this was due to unreliable evidence and detainees’ refusal to cooperate as witnesses. It was, however, declared that illegal force had been used by camp guards and therefore caused fiery debate in the House of Commons.1

The team with Mr. Wambugu Nyigi in September 2018.

The team with Mr. Wambugu Nyigi in September 2018.

The incident at Hola was one of many scandals in the British colonial government’s attempts to suppress those fighting against colonial power. Mr. Wambugu Nyigi, a Hola massacre survivor was one of four Kenyan claimants who successfully sued the UK government for the use of torture during this brutal conflict. Members of our team spent time with Mr Nyigi last year learning about the horrors of that day and the impact this has had on him. With the main bulk of archival evidence on events such as Hola remaining housed in the UK National Archives, it is important we work to better our knowledge and share these stories for those unable to easily access these archival papers.

Beth Rebisz

1. David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (London, 2005), 326-327.

This blog post has used evidence from the full inquiry presented by the then Secretary of State for the Colonies to the UK Parliament in June 1959. This document can be found in a number of places; however, the author used the version housed in the Kenya National Archives (Reference: KNA/MSS/115/50/15). The main bulk of primary material related to the Hola Massacre can be found in the UK National Archives. The author felt it was important to use evidence accessible in Kenya to signpost our Kenya based readers to material they can more easily access if desired.  

Operation Legacy Screening at SOAS

On Monday 4th February, we were thrilled to screen our documentary Operation Legacy at SOAS University of London with friends from the Decolonising Our Minds Society. Operation Legacy is a co-production between Museum of British Colonialism and HistoryHit TV. Filmed half by our team in Kenya and half by our team in the UK, Operation Legacy charts the incredible story of a group of Kenyan war veterans who sued the British government in 2009 in order to reveal the truth of what happened in Kenya between 1952-1960. The case would expose a cover up so deep it was to rock the British establishment and change the way we view colonial history forever.

Although we have screened the documentary to a packed out audience in Kenya, this was the first opportunity we have had to share it in London and we were delighted to welcome such a large and engaged audience.

The screening was followed by a panel discussion and Q&A with Dr Chege Githiora, Senior Lecturer in Swahili at SOAS University of London and was the Gikuyu translator during the Mau Mau case; Julius Mbaluto founding editor of Informer East Africa, who also covered the Mau Mau legal case in London; British-Iraqi hip hop artist, campaigner and political activist, Lowkey, and our own Olivia WS. Shamsher Singh from Decolonising Our Minds Society chaired the conversation.

Everyone on the panel was amazed and humbled by the response to the film and the dynamism of the conversation. Reflections and questions ranged from the need to address intergenerational trauma suffered as a result of the Mau Mau Emergency, the mechanisms of historical miseducation including the absence of teaching this history in schools and the silencing of voices that opposed British colonialism. In addition, panellists explored what justice could look like for victims of British colonialism outside of legal reparation and the lasting legacy of British colonialism in Kenya. And how we might address this through the preservation or reclamation of a country’s heritage.

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‘Wonderful, enlightening film and fascinating debate / panel after. All thoroughly informative and important. Thank you.’

For our team, the event also provided us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect and receive feedback on work completed to date, as well as to gather insight into what audiences would like to see moving forward. All in the room agreed that the documentary is a great starting point for awareness raising and discussion on the Mau Mau Emergency, and highlighted the importance of listening to African stories and reading African historians to tell the story of the Mau Mau Emergency.

‘Fantastic event. Keep up the good work. Please have more events so we can have a platform to learn and discuss the issues so that perhaps we can have some change.’

Thank you SOAS University of London and Decolonising Our Minds Society for having us and to all those who attended. Here’s to more events like this in the future!

In the meantime you can watch our documentary Operation Legacy via History Hit and you can also watch the post-screening panel and Q&A via our Twitter page. Please share online and use #OperationLegacy to spread the word. We will announce further screenings in the UK, Kenya and abroad very soon so please do keep an eye on our website, Twitter and Facebook page.

‘Would love to come for more events like this! Such, important and valuable work. I hope it continues and reaches new spaces’

‘Thanks for the event. Keep on fighting!’

And if you're interested in holding a screening like this at your institution or in your city, let us know at

Annual Report 2018

As a small team of volunteers - all with full time jobs - we work tirelessly to get as much done as possible in the small pockets of time we have available. Sometimes it is hard to take a moment to look back at all we have done in the short time we have been up and running.

Fortunately, we managed to get together as a team at the beginning of 2019 and reflect on how far we have come in the last 12 months. We are pleased to say that we gathered some of those reflections in our annual report, which we are delighted to share with you all here.

Thank you again to all our wonderful supporters for joining us on this journey!

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From looted lands to restless hands — Return Africa’s stolen artifacts.

The discussion on repatriation is not just about objects, it is a about people..their longing, their suffering and their right to their identity…these objects tell only half the story, our hearts tell the rest. Listen.

Also available to read on Chao’s Medium blog.


The year 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the looting of the Maqdala treasures and manuscripts by British Soldiers from the town of Magdala, Ethiopia. So vast was the quantity of this loot that explorer H.M Stanley wrote, “Over a space growing more and more extended, the thousand articles were scattered until they dotted the surface of the rocky citadel, the slopes of the hill and the entire road to camp, two miles off”.

After the expedition, most of the items were brought to the UK where many of them were distributed among museums and institutions in the region such as the British museum, the Victoria and Albert (V & A) museum, the Oxford Bodleian library and others.

Figure 1: Maqdala 1868 display, V&A museum

Figure 1: Maqdala 1868 display, V&A museum

Among the most valuable items from this loot are those acquired by the Victoria and Albert museum in 1872. These items, which include a stunning three-tier crown and a golden chalice are considered to be some of Ethiopia’s greatest historical/cultural treasures, yet they have been held in the UK for more than a century. In April 2018, when asked about the possibility of returning these treasures back to their rightful home, the V&A’s Director, indicated that the museum would be glad to assist Ethiopia in pursuing their return on a long-term loan basis … Now, one might be hard pressed to miss the sheer irony of this proposition.

How can looted artifacts be loaned back to the countries they were stolen from? Who exactly benefits from a power structure that continually states that a certain group of people need to prove that they are worthy of their own culture?

To find answers to these questions, we must examine the case of stolen cultural treasures from a wider lens and more so, that of African artifacts which are so often simply lumped into a ‘troubled history’ category.

An issue such as Maqdala is not unique to Ethiopia. From Congo, to Benin, to Namibia and Nigeria, several African countries have and continue to wrestle with the bureaucracies of trying to bring back cultural and archaeological objects taken during colonial times.

In the case of Nigeria, the loot from the 1897 sack of Benin City is today displayed in 85 museums around 18 countries. It is estimated that approximately 4000 items were looted from the city of Benin with most of them eventually ending up in Britain, France, Germany and the United States. Part of this loot included 160 bronze heads taken from the kingdom. These heads are said to have acted as the ‘Benin equivalent to chronological records’ with each of them representing a former King/Oba. Essentially tracing the history of the kingdom back several centuries, yet as I sit down to write about them a still voice in my head reminds me that Africa has no great history…I silence it, it is not my voice and this article must continue….

“Benin brass work was totally unknown in the West as it had been confined almost entirely to the royal palace and it so confounded current ideas about Africa that some refused to believe that it could be of exclusively Benin origin” — British Museum

While the looting of cultural objects during conflicts and wars has occurred in the world over, the case of African treasures is peculiar, not just in the scale of what was taken away but in what was intentionally left behind.

Where treasures once stood in homes, shrines and palaces, narratives of emptiness and nothingness were planted. Narratives that stated that African history started with colonialism and slavery, before that there was nothing.

A recent report by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr estimated that close to 90–95% of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside the continent.The complexities and wounds created by colonialism, slavery and years of systemic plunder cannot afford us the luxury of looking at these items as just objects. No…In their cracks and their crevices, they represent pride, loss, pain, identity and belonging. At the very least, they belong to the countries from which they were taken and at best, they belong to each and every individual who has been denied the fundamental right to appreciate and access tangible links to his or her own identity.

Nigerian poet and writer, Ben Okri once said “to poison a people…poison their stories”, and by denying Africans the right to own what is inherently part of their culture, Western museums still contribute to this system of cultural exploitation and disenfranchisement.

One might ask, on what grounds has this been allowed to continue for so long? In looking at previous repatriation requests, we see a painful trend where the same excuses are often floated to discredit and deny repatriation demands. More often than not, the reasons given will be centered around claims that Western museums are better placed to take care of these artifacts because they are ‘more secure’ and the expertise is better.

Indeed, it is no secret that cultural institutions around the world are equipped and funded differently. Neither do we refute that any advancements made through research and scholarship of cultural artifacts is of great benefit to the entire world.But is the complexity of training professionals, improving facilities in other museums and forging inter-institutional partnerships, so difficult and so complex that it can never ever be overcome? That it justifies separating sacred, cultural and national relics from their contexts? That 150 years later, we are still subjected to the same excuses?

The suggestion that millions of people have to prove that they are worthy of their own identity ultimately distracts us from the bigger picture, that these objects are being held against the will of the societies that own them, for the financial and social gain of societies that falsely claim them.

This idea that Africa is so dangerous that at any sign of trouble, we will flee and leave all our important artifacts behind because they mean nothing to us is completely condescending. So is the notion that Western museums have protected these artifacts from hypothetical harm, and we should be grateful to them instead of demanding for repatriation. It is no secret that most museums acquired objects from pre-colonial Africa at the height of slavery, colonialism and state perpetrated racial discrimination. Even when these objects are known to have been taken under such inhuman conditions, demands for restitution are still treated as trivial, baseless and meaningless. Why?

In Belgium for instance we know that human zoos displaying Congolese people in makeshift villages were once a common feature of trade fairs and exhibitions, with the last one being as recent as 1958. The earliest zoos were so popular that an entire museum was set up in Tervuren (Royal Museum for Central Africa), in 1898, to display “ King Leopold II’s Congo Free State”. During and after talks for independence, the Congolese government made several claims on the country’s cultural artifacts, specifically items within the Tervuren museum’s collection. The requests were largely rejected and as, scholar, Sarah Van Beurden’s research highlights, the Belgian government made deliberate attempts to keep the issue of repatriation of cultural artifacts out of any independence talks.

Belgian — Congolese Round Table Conference January 1960 —  C/O Nationaal Archief

Belgian — Congolese Round Table Conference January 1960 — C/O Nationaal Archief

What it is important to understand is that demands for repatriation arise neither as a need for admiration nor endorsement. The aim is not to be given a stamp of approval for African culture or genius.

The issue here is the return of items that were painfully ripped apart from the living cultures and societies that they once belonged. And we have to ask ourselves again and again, who exactly benefits from the present power structure?

The integral issue that we must confront and speak up about today is this widespread cultural colonialism that constantly benefits a certain class of institution by virtue of disenfranchising the cultural wealth of other societies.

This notion that African countries are completely incapable of taking care of their own artifacts is a false narrative meant to alienate and it can be proved wrong. For instance, Kenya hosts some of the world’s largest and most important fossil collections, key among them, the Turkana boy, a nearly complete skeleton of a Homo Erectus youth found in 1984. To date it remains the world’s most complete early man skeleton.

A collection such as is this is unique in the world, and its benefits to research and scholarship are innumerable. Yet the ability of Kenya to take care of these fossils (on behalf of the world) has never been questioned. They are today held in a state of the art gallery on early man at the National Museum in Kenya where they have been since they were excavated.

Can we safely say that the only reason these objects are in Kenya is because they were found post-independence? If unearthed during the colonial era, would they have been shipped off to the British Museum and Kenya ‘unable to take care of them’?

Figure 2: Homo Erectus skull on display in the Early Man gallery, National Museum of Kenya

Figure 2: Homo Erectus skull on display in the Early Man gallery, National Museum of Kenya

To prove this further, is the case of the Timbuktu manuscripts.When Al Qaeda militants seized the legendary city of Timbuktu in 2012, they declared war on the city’s rich culture and threatened to destroy some of the city’s most priceless possessions; its manuscripts, which dated back to the 13th century .

Timbuktu’s manuscripts are not only important to Mali, they are important to the whole of Africa. When foreign scholars argued that the continent had no tradition of writing, therefore no history or memory of its own, the manuscripts served as a clear and tangible disavowal of this.

Such was the importance of these fragile, irreplaceable treasures that one librarian, Abdel Kader Haidara and his team, facilitated the daring rescue of more than 300,000 manuscripts from 45 different libraries around the city. Over a grueling nine-month period, Haidara and his team smuggled hundreds of thousands of manuscripts out of the city, relying heavily on the assistance of local families to hide and protect the texts, at a great risk to their lives and safety. The successful evacuation was a combination of both local and international efforts with organisations such as the Prince Claus Fund and the Ford Foundation supporting the evacuation efforts through financial aid.

What this shows is that even in times of turmoil, the people to whom culture means the most are willing to protect it, even at a great risk to their personal well being.

If the international community truly values artifacts such as the Benin bronzes or the Maqdala treasures as they did in the case of the Timbuktu manuscripts, then support should be geared towards ensuring they are preserved in the best way possible in their home countries. Efforts should be made to ensure that local communities are trained and are the first beneficiaries, culturally, socially and economically of their cultural heritage.

In the British museum, the Benin Bronzes will always be the Looted Benin Bronzes. In the V&A, the Maqdala jewels will always the Looted Maqdala Jewels…

At a time when Europe is closing its doors to immigrants and right-wing populism sweeps through the West, to argue that these objects should remain in Western museums because they are more accessible to the world is puzzling in the least. Again, we ask who is this global audience that has ease of access to these museums and the artifacts therein, when majority of Africans cannot be granted visas to Western countries? When dying at sea is not cause enough to be granted entry, will the simple leisure of viewing your historical artifacts get you through?

Figure 3: A section of the Benin Bronze statues displayed at the British Museum

Figure 3: A section of the Benin Bronze statues displayed at the British Museum

It is not enough to say that objects will be loaned and simply expect people to accept and move on. We need to consider the place of Africa’s cultural industry in the development of the globalizing world. It is disingenuous to expect Africans to fund their museums when their most treasured artifacts and symbols of national pride are held in Berlin, Paris, New York or London.

A tourist in Ethiopia should be able to view the Maqdala jewels in the context of the artifact's country of origin. The National Museum of Ethiopia should benefit financially from its objects being displayed in Addis Ababa or more so in the V&A. So would Museums in Nigeria if the Benin statues and carvings were displayed in the West African nation or loaned to museums in the West.

Figure 4: Left, Homo erectus skull found in National Museum, Kenya. Right, a model of the same skull in the Natural History Museum London.

Figure 4: Left, Homo erectus skull found in National Museum, Kenya. Right, a model of the same skull in the Natural History Museum London.

Asking for cultural objects to be returned is not asking for them to be hidden from the world.

The case of the Kenyan fossils presents a model of shared heritage management that gives priority to the country of origin in exhibiting artifacts. The image above shows a skull from a Homo Erectus fossil at the National Museum of Kenya while the adjacent image shows a cast model of the same skull at the National History Museum in London. Repatriation should therefore not be used as a barrier towards global cultural consumption but as a pathway towards it.

“The gap created by this senseless exploitation is causing our people untold anguish, discomfort and disillusionment”. National Commission for Museums in Nigeria — Director Mallam Yusuf Abdallah

In examining the issue of repatriation, we see that up until this point very little has changed in a very long time. Yet one can’t help but acknowledge that at least one thing has changed; access to information. The silver lining of an issue such as Maqdala today is that it comes to light in an ever-changing era of technology and social media. Therefore opening up discussions on a subject that was previously limited to museum professionals, academics, professors, diplomats or politicians.

This is a subject that we should approach as humans who consume culture, create it, inherit it and pass it on. If this culture is to be consumed by the public, then that very well makes it a public discussion. Listen to us. Listen to our voices.

On 28th November 2017, in front of a room packed with University students in Burkina Faso, French president Emmanuel Macron made a historic statement regarding the return of Africa’s cultural artifacts. In it, he highlighted the glaring irony of the repatriation debate, a paradox that several before him and many today refuse to confront and choose to cloak in excuses and pretexts. This was the first time a leader of a former colonial power had acknowledged the immense loss that the possession of African artifacts in Western museums has had on African people. But this is something that several scholars, museum professionals and citizens have been saying for decades.

“I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France. There are historical explanations for that, but there are no valid justifications that are durable and unconditional. African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums. African heritage must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou.”- Emmanuel Macron

Macron pledged to make the return of objects a priority within the next five years, and it comes as a breath of fresh air for many who have been calling for change and restitution. Most recently the recommendations, made in this significant report on African artifacts held within France, could have far reaching impact on the international museum scene. The world is changing, and museums have the responsibility of representing the past to a generation, whose ideals may be entirely different from the past they consume.

Millions of African children still grow up, being embarrassed of their own ‘limited’ history, when they look to their museums and they cannot find symbols of their glorious past. Yet these artifacts line the halls of foreign museums.

I know because I was one of those children.

I had to actively seek out my own true history as a young adult to discover a pride that I never knew I had inside. For this reason, we refuse to remain silent. History is a conduit to national and individual pride. Institutions such as museums and archives stand at the gateways to this path.

As I conclude this article the voice in my head that once said I come from nothing fades away, it is replaced by a peaceful stillness, I wait…and I can finally hear the beating of my own heart. The other half of my story lies within. Listen...Demands for restitution will not end or be brushed aside easily. Each new generation will continue to demand for the return of its artifacts and with each object and each request, a different truth will emerge. Or perhaps best put in the words of the great Patrice Lumumba himself…

“History will one day have its say; it will not be the history taught in…Washington, Paris, or Brussels…Africa will write its own history, and it will be…a history of glory and dignity.”

All images courtesy of unless otherwise stated.

Mau Mau Field Research in Kenya

As you may have seen on our social media, our team recently visited Kenya to conduct field research on the remains of Mau Mau detention centres. This work builds upon the archival research and work on digital maps of the ‘Pipeline’ that we’ve previously undertaken. Our work in Kenya was supported by the UCL Centre for Critical Heritage Studies, as well as National Museums Kenya, and of course our Kickstarter backers.

Our aim was to survey the remains of these colonial detention centres and work camps, in the hopes that a study of such sites would illuminate the lives of prisoners (and their captors) during the Mau Mau Emergency, and the technologies of structural violence employed. We wanted to record and preserve this archaeological heritage, ultimately with the aim of improving understanding of Kenya’s colonial history in both Kenya and the UK.

Anthony Maina outside Nyeri Museum

Anthony Maina outside Nyeri Museum

Our four days in the field began in Nyeri County, where six known work camps were located, including Aguthi and Mweru. To prepare for our research, we met with Anthony Maina of National Museums Kenya, whose knowledge and help guiding the team around Nyeri was invaluable. With Anthony, we visited the Nyeri Museum and the Mau Mau flag site (also see Beth’s blog on her visit to the site with Adam). The museum, housed in a former ‘native law court’, is filled with artefacts of the Emergency, including colonial shields and helmets, bricks produced by detainees in Aguthi Works Camp, and colonial ‘Pass Books’.

On the trail of Nyeri’s detention camps, our first day of field research was in Tetu, where some remaining structures of Aguthi Works Camp are now part of Kangubiri Girls School. Kangubiri is one of very few locations where the physical remains of the camps are still standing, including cells, torture chambers, and offices. Camps like Aguthi were the last stage of the ‘Pipeline’, and were known as ‘rehabilitation’ camps, a term that Beth recently unpacked on our blog. In a camp like Aguthi, colonial officers could determine whether a detainee was eligible to be released back into ‘society’, something that depended on the confession of allegiance to and renunciation of the Mau Mau. released back into ‘society’. It is said that this is where Kangubiri School gets its name: a Kikuyu modification of the English “Can go f\Free.” Trenches surrounding the camp - dug by detainees - are also still visible, the largest being 20ft wide and 10ft deep.

Later on in the day we met with Mr. Wambugu Nyigi, 91, a Mau Mau veteran who survived several camps around the country, and even the Hola massacre. It was a privilege to be able to listen to his story and to meet such a warm man so eager to help with our research. We were able to conduct an interview with him on his experiences during the Emergency; the oral history of Mau Mau veterans and survivors of the Uprising are as critical in preserving this history as the physical remains of the camps. (You can also read Mr. Wambugu’s story online here).

The surviving brick-making kiln from Mweru Works Camp

The surviving brick-making kiln from Mweru Works Camp

The following day we visited Mweru Works Camp in Mukuruweini, the buildings of which had again been repurposed for a high school. Mweru was known by the British colonial government as a ‘filter’ camp; a codename for places that used officially sanctioned violence. Still remaining at Mweru is a brick kiln. Detainees were forced to make the bricks used to build the camp structures, which included cells and a torture room, used for the administration of the ferocious ‘dilution techniques’ - a new method for ‘breaking’ the most hardcore Mau Mau.

After Mweru we travelled to Karunaini, where Dedan Kimathi was shot, and today serves as the site of his memorial. While there, we were lucky enough to meet and interview Mr. Wangobe, who carried Kimathi after the shooting. We also met an elderly gentleman, who as a young boy was one of the first to arrive on the scene after hearing gunshots from a nearby village, and told by the homeguards to build Kimathi’s stretcher.

Chinga Dam today (From Gabe’s  Twitter thread )

Chinga Dam today (From Gabe’s Twitter thread)

Our final day of field research took us to Chinga Dam, which was constructed in the 1950s for a colonial officer who wanted a lake on which to sail and fish. Prisoners from Othaya Works Camp were forced to build the dam, destroying land belonging to local farmers who received no compensation. The construction of dams has a long history of being a brutally effective way to appropriate land, exploit resources, and destroy communities. Today, however, the lake has become a resource for the local community, where they can fish and rent out boats to tourists.

To see such a large amount of surviving infrastructure, to interview veterans and record their stories, and learn more about the ways in which local communities are dealing with the legacies of British colonial rule was remarkable. These experiences certainly made it easier to understand and put into context the stories we’ve read and memories we’ve heard. The research we’ve collected on this trip is invaluable to sharing the true nature of colonial history in Kenya, and we’re immensely grateful to all those who have helped us to gather this information, and especially to those who shared their experiences with us.

More updates soon!

The Pipeline

Last week members of the museum team conducted exciting research on the ground in Kenya. Their aim has been to survey the remains of British colonial detention and work camps established during the 1950s to incarcerate suspected Mau Mau fighters and supporters. There are very few locations where the physical remains of camps still stand, but this fieldwork has hugely aided the museum’s project in collating a more accurate history of the conflict. Sites such as the Aguthi Works Camp visited by our team were at the epicentre of what the British colonial authority dubbed their ‘rehabilitation’ programme. This programme, along with the network of works and detention camps built to support the process, was nicknamed the ‘pipeline’ and was a vital component in the colonial government’s response to the Mau Mau. So, what were the aims of the pipeline and what did it entail? We thought it would be a good idea to further delve into this notorious programme and to determine what ‘rehabilitation’ in this conflict really involved.

View of Aguthi (Mungaria) Work Camp, from J.M. Kariuki’s 1963 book ‘Mau Mau Detainee’.

The same view, taken on the Museum’s research trip to Nyeri. Moha, above, stands in the former location of the watchtower.

Thomas Askwith, Commissioner for Community Development in Kenya, developed the pipeline in 1953. It was a large-scale system to ‘rehabilitate’ suspected supporters and fighters of the Mau Mau movement. The notion of a ‘pipeline’ was used to denote the progression of individuals from initial detention to their ultimate release. The concept of ‘rehabilitation’ was borne from the fact that, in an effort to delegitimize their struggle, the British colonial administration declared adherence to the Mau Mau cause as a mental disease. As a result, Askwith designed a process aimed to ‘cure’ the Mau Mau of this disease through a specially designed programme of hard labour, typically involving ‘training’ within a particular trade such as agriculture or carpentry, followed by re-education and a restoration of what he considered to be British moral values.1

The pipeline system - a network of detention centres and works camps through which the British colonial administration moved their detainees - was constructed to support this process. Askwith created a programme focused on hard work and education in the hope of equipping detainees to contribute to colonial Kenyan society upon release. The pipeline became a powerful propaganda tool to validate the British response to Mau Mau as the system had been legitimised through the influence of psychiatrist Dr. J. C. Carothers and the involvement of scientist Louis Leakey. Carothers had argued the notion that Mau Mau was a symptom of psychological shock to modernity whilst Leakey characterised Mau Mau as a religion orchestrated by ‘evil men’. Therefore these notions along with Askwith’s proposed ‘solution’ to Mau Mau substantiated the British response. As military operations ramped up in 1954, however, this programme was soon outpaced due to the soaring numbers of detainees.2 Askwith’s pipeline was soon converted into a system of punitive detention, torture and collective punishment.

Former torture room at Mweru Works Camp

In theory and in practice, it was vital that any Mau Mau adherent confess and renounce their oath in order to progress through the pipeline towards eventual release. As Mau Mau oaths, however, were binding - and a condition of taking the oath was that it was not to be revealed - the British colonial administration relied upon a brutal process of interrogation to determine the individuals’ involvement with the Mau Mau movement, and ‘extract’ a confession. As confession and renunciation of the oath was the first step towards ‘cleansing themselves’ of the Mau Mau ‘infection’ 3, the interrogation process became central to ‘rehabilitation’. From the point of confession - which was not guaranteed - British colonial officers decided which category the individual would join; the Blacks, Greys or Whites. These groups reflected the involvement of the individual within the Mau Mau and determined how easily they believed they would be ‘rehabilitated’. Those within the Black category were primarily the leaders and those most deeply involved, whereas the White group consisted of individuals mainly cleared of involvement during screening. This category system was used to monitor the progress of those detained, and framed the process of ‘rehabilitation’. 4

Mweru High school Mau Mau torture room 2.jpeg

With Askwith’s plans now converted into a harsher system of punitive detention, it was decided that he would turn his attention to the ‘community development’ for those outside detention; those in the reserves and the emergency villages. And what had begun as a short-term aim of ‘rehabilitating’ those caught fighting for the Mau Mau, soon became a long-term process of social reengineering amongst the wider population.

This illustrates that although historians have often implied that ‘rehabilitation’ was a process exclusive to male and female detainees, it was in fact an approach implemented far more widely than the detention centres alone. Indeed, under the guise of this ‘community development’, the ‘rehabilitation’ programme formed the bases of youth camps such as the Boy’s Scouts as well as women’s development organisations such as Maendeleo ya Wanawake. My own research explores the involvement of the British Red Cross and colonial officials in teaching African women the skills very much expected of British women during the 1950s. Kenyan mothers attended classes on keeping their homes clean, washing their babies correctly as well as acquiring sewing and crocheting experience. These classes worked as a form of ‘rehabilitation’ and conditioning to steer Kenyan women’s focus from the Mau Mau cause and as illustrated yet a further attempt to impose Western gender expectations on those within British colonies.

Former solitary confinement cell in Aguthi Works Camp, now Kangubiri Girls School. Windows were added by the school after independence.

Former solitary confinement cell in Aguthi Works Camp, now Kangubiri Girls School. Windows were added by the school after independence.

Barbed wire in the roof of the solitary confinement cell pictured above.

In 1953, ‘rehabilitation’ may have aptly described the process designed by Askwith and his team, as they saw it; a training and education programme designed to rid individuals of the Mau Mau ‘curse’ and restore them to the model moral citizens required for colonial control. But as I sit writing this piece, I wonder whether we are using the most appropriate terminology in our assessments of the pipeline or merely inheriting the names and phrases for this time that served to conceal the true nature of British colonial control. If we do not sufficiently interrogate and dismantle the language of colonial rule itself, are we, as historians, going far enough to challenge the power structures and the narratives that we are seeking to understand.

Though the programme may have started out with plans for ‘rehabilitation’, and though it may have contained elements of training and education, there is no question that ‘rehabilitation’ escalated to include mass detention without trial, violence, torture and other egregious abuses; not just within the detention centres, but within even everyday life in the emergency villages. Now this is known to us, perhaps it is time to deploy a term that can more accurately convey the realities of this process.

Beth Rebisz

1 Rhodes House Library, Mss. Afr.s.2100, Thomas Askwith, Correspondence, 35-36.

2 Paul Ocobock, An Uncertain Age: The Politics of Manhood in Kenya (Ohio, 2017), 176-179.

3 Thomas Askwith (Edited by Joanna Lewis), From Mau Mau to Harambee: Memoirs and Memoranda of Colonial Kenya (Cambridge, 1995), 111.

4 The National Archives, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 141/6426, Official Committee on Resettlement; Papers and Agenda 1955-8, 7.

“It is better to die on our feet than live on our knees for fear of colonial rule” ...

… reads the plaque on the memorial built to commemorate the capture and death of the Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi. Hidden deep in what would have been the dense forests of the Aberdare mountain range, after a thirty-minute drive out of Nyeri and a small trek through the beautiful tea plantations on the hill sides, it is hard to imagine that just sixty years ago, this was a battle ground between the Mau Mau movement and the British colonial forces. The state of emergency between 1952-1959 saw the Mau Mau guerrillas and their supporters fight a violent insurgency against the British colonial rulers and Africans known as loyalists of the colonial administration. The British responded to this violence with widespread incarceration, brutal torture and an ongoing attempt by the British government to suppress information exposing the true nature of their campaign to retain control.

What started as a trip out of Nairobi to visit the brilliant National Museum of Kenya – Nyeri quickly evolved into something even more special. In a quest to learn how the history of the Mau Mau conflict is being taught here in Kenya, the National Museum in Nyeri sounded like a good place to start. The museum is situated inside a previously used “native law court” built in 1924 which mainly dealt with customary law cases before later developing to include criminal cases such as theft and murder. The museum covers a wide breadth of Kenyan history with a particular focus on the 1950s conflict and the Kenyan people’s pursuit for independence, gained in 1963, from the British colonial government. It is a fantastic museum which also houses on its grounds the Matigari Welfare Association Mau Mau Heroes head office, built to support and provide welfare to those who fought in the war. It was here that the day took an exciting turn.

Although Kenya achieved independence from the British colonial government, there has been little concerted, centralised effort towards fair land redistribution. Martin Muteru Nderitu, sub county scout commissioner for the Nyeri centre of the Kenya Scouts Association, has been working to help reclaim land previously owned by and promised to Mau Mau war veterans. Now it just so happened that Martin had a little spare time and was thrilled to take visitors up into the mountain to not only visit Dedan Kimathi’s memorial site, but to also visit a Mau Mau war veteran at his home.

Now it took some searching to finally locate the site of Dedan Kimathi’s shooting and capture. The pursuit that had fixated the British War Office and colonial soldiers for years had finally come to an end on the 21st October 1956. His capture was a pivotal moment in the British campaign to retain colonial control, with the elimination of the forest gangs achieved as 1956 drew to a close. For many Mau Mau veterans, family members, local communities and political figures Kimathi’s memorial site has become an important area to pay their respects to the struggle fought for land and freedom.

However, what was striking when reflecting on the realities of this conflict with Martin was the
question, what land and freedom did these fighters truly gain? This was a question that rang in our ears for the rest of the afternoon, forcing us to really comprehend and witness the legacy of this conflict and the reality it has left for those fighting as part of the Mau Mau movement.

Having dropped by a local shop to buy maize flour, milk, rice and sugar as a gift for our hosts, we made our way to the home of General Haraka – General Reserve, also known as Daniel Mwangi Muchugu. He and his wife so kindly welcomed us into their home with Kikuyu blessings and beautiful songs, some of which Mau Mau fighters had sung in the forest. It was evident that so manyyears on, they found this aspect of their personal history difficult to reflect on. Despite this, they invited us to return one day to spend more time listening to their stories. Having joined the Mau Mau movement to fight for land and freedom, it was another reminder of the outcome of this conflict. You see, Mzee Muchugu now resides with his wife in a modest home situated on his son’s land. And the Kikuyu gentlemen with us - having grown up hearing the stories of the Mau Mau fight - felt more should be done to celebrate the people they see as war heroes. Have these individuals secured land and freedom? Land which they see as rightfully theirs? Or freedom from this legacy the British government spent so long trying to conceal? For these Mau Mau fighters, the struggle continues and the remnants of colonialism still live on, yet to be resolved.

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By Beth Rebisz

Gitu's Story: 'We Want the Whole World to Know'

Gitu Wa Kahengeri is the Secretary General of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association. In the course of the struggle for independence he spent almost seven years in detention, first at Athi River Camp, then later at Manda Island. 

Over the last few months, our team has been talking to Gitu extensively about his life and experiences during the emergency, his ongoing fight for recognition for Mau Mau freedom fighters and as our plans for the project. Ultimately, clips from these conversations will be used in our exhibition, layered over our interactive digital map to help visitors engage with first hand accounts of the struggle. In the meantime, we are sharing various excerpts via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. As well as the website!

The Journey to Meet Field Marshal Muthoni – Chapter One

Finally Auntie Jerrioth gave me the phone number to my Cucu (grandmother), Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima. As I had told you earlier, we are related through marriage, her sister is married to my grandfather, General Karangi. I was so excited and confused at the same time; anxious because I didn’t know if she’d agree to meet with us. I called her, we chatted like we had known each other for years. After that we kept in touch, she is always happy to talk to me. After numerous talks, telling her about our work and why are passionate about this, she agreed to meet the Museum of British Colonialism team. We set the interview date for Sunday 22nd July. She was coming to Nairobi from Nyeri to attend a church services at African Independent Pentecostal Church of Kenya (AIPCK) in Githurai 45, a church she founded and sponsors, and she invited us to join.

Meeting day

We set out early in the morning to meet Olivia and Adam in town. I was joined by my two sons, Hannington and Devlin. My sister Muthoni and her daughter Lulu also joined us. My sister is part of the museum team. We are like a family business! We linked up with in David in town, as well, who had done the filming for our HistoryHit documentary and was going to join us to take photos. This was the first time Muthoni was meeting Olivia, Adam and David face to face. Technology has changed a lot of things.

The journey started with a debate on whether the church was located in Githurai 44 or 45. We decided to go with the church located in Githurai 44….. and this was the beginning of drama.




I switched on my audio GPRS, pinned AIPCK Kahawa West  as the destination and we set out in a convoy of 3 vehicles. Let me say it was not easy driving through rough roads to a destination we were clueless about. We arrived at the gate of the said church, parked and went inside. Even when inside the church we could hear the songs and the music from at least three others. There were churches everywhere.

We joined in with the service and looked around for Field Marshal Muthoni. Out of nowhere I decide to ask one of the ushers if they had visitors from Nyeri. Can you imagine the shock on me when she said NO. ☹ I asked again if they had a Mau Mau visitor in church, again said no. Wow! I gathered the rest of the crew and we went out to strategize. Muthoni’s phone was now off, but the usher informed us of another parish which was located almost 10Kms away. After getting the coordinates, my sister led the way. On arriving there, they said they hadn’t received any visitors. We were directed to another church only to receive the same news. Finally, we set out to their other parish in Githurai 45.  On arriving there we realized that we had been searching the wrong name. This church was AIPCA and not AIPCK. ☺ Fortunately one of the church leaders informed us there was one AIPCK in Githurai Kimbo and requested a church member to drive with us there.

FINALLY!! On getting to this church’s gate, the first thing we saw were two vans from Nyeri, at last we were in the right place. We were tired, dusty and thirsty and our vehicles looked like they had come from an off-road challenge. The church service had already started, we arrived over one and a half (1½) hours late. We were welcomed very well and ushered into the church. After a while we were asked to introduce ourselves.

And there she was, Field Marshal Muthoni herself. I was filled joy just by looking at her from a distance. She personally came to welcome us. I felt goose pimples run through my body. I couldn’t believe I was standing next to her, our Freedom fighter, a Kenyan heroine, my grandmother. She was so excited to see us, she threw a couple of flying kisses at us. I tell you, this lady can command a room. She has panache; you can’t help but notice her.

As this was an independence service, we also met with some other veterans. One veteran, Mr. Eliud Rware, has been a close friend of Field Marshal Muthoni since the Emergency. He showed us identity cards from the time of the Empire, clippings from the paper, both past and present, and photos of the two of them over the years, as they saw in Kenya's independence and beyond. 

I know you are waiting to hear the part where we sat down and interviewed Field Marshal Muthoni. After a long day and an upcoming meeting with the Church Elders, she suggested it would be better if we went to Nyeri to spend proper time with her in September, when Olivia was also back in town. We can be at home with her. Be in her life, her surroundings and hear more of her story. So we made a date. And we'll be back...