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.

blog picture 9.jpeg

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... 

Mary's Story: Chapter One

It is mid January, early in the morning. I get a call from Susan, a long time friend and professional colleague. She has exciting news about a project that she would like my input. Susan is so full of excitement and energy and I had to request her to pace herself so that she could help me understand what my input would be in the Mau Mau project that she is involved in. As an audio visual archivist working at our national archival office, this roused my curiosity. I agreed to work with Susan and her newly met acquaintance, Olivia.

They updated me on what they had done and the plans they had for the project at hand. This included organizing a Mau Mau exhibition in Nairobi and one on Britain. In the long term, Susan also hoped to set up a Mau Mau museum in Kenya. On learning this, I started conversations about this project with my family friends as I interacted with them and researchers who visited my office. One researcher - a German man - remarked on having noted the fact there was no museum to address this history. This was quite an eye opener and went on to confirm that the project we were involved in was timely. Another friend, upon sharing about the project, was so excited. She confirmed that her grandparents were affected by the Mau Mau insurgency and she was more than willing to help organise for us to interview them. Sharing these updates with my team always caused excitement and confirmed to us that we were on track.

My nuclear family was not left behind. Sharing information caused excitement about the new discoveries we were making. This is especially as we conducted a mapping exercise to find out where different audio visual information materials are located in various Kenyan organizations. The highlight was a visit to our country’s national museum. This office has an elegant and well displayed gallery which has a part dedicated to the Mau Mau revolution. The gallery is open to the public and my first reaction was to make a plan for my family to visit the museum and learn our history. on realising how committed we were to the project, my husband, an IT genius, also gladly helped our team develop a mailing list for our website.

 Susan and Mary visiting Nairobi National Museum. 

Susan and Mary visiting Nairobi National Museum. 

My only concern is that of our young children’s disinterest our country’s history. I believe as a people, we should advocate for sensitization of this great lesson so that the young generation can appreciate where we have come from as a nation. This will hopefully prevent these young people from wanting to be too involved in activities which may lead our country into war.

Engagement with this project also made me reflect on my parents’ experience during the Mau Mau period. They were born six years before the state of emergency was declared in Kenya. Apparently, they did not share with us their experiences of what they went through. My big question remains. Why? Is it that they were trying to protect us from the painful memories? Were they trying hard to forget what happened to them and so decided never to share these stories? The most I heard about my family interacting with the Mau Mau or what the kikuyu called itoi; is what was related to me by my paternal grandmother. She narrated that the itois could visit the villages in search of food deep into the night. These men had long, unkempt hair; they were a sight to behold! Nothing much was said. When they got into someone’s house, one was expected to give them food very fast. Upon their departure, one was expected to keep mum about such visit for fear of the colonialists and their sympathisers apprehending these Mau Mau adherents.

Am so proud about the men and women who fought for the liberation of our country from our colonial masters. They endured so much adversity. Many lost lives. Unfortunately as a country, we seem to have forgotten where we have come from. We are not keen enough to interrogate our histories so that this can inform our decisions now and in the future. This is now our task.

To be continued.

 A statue of Dedan Kimathi in downtown Nairobi

A statue of Dedan Kimathi in downtown Nairobi

Our History Hit Podcast with Dan Snow... aka 'The History Guy'!

In January 2018, Susan, Mary, and Olivia were delighted to record the first double-continent History Hit podcast with the indefatigable Dan Snow. To hear the team chatting about their work researching and communicating Mau Mau history - and more about the project in general - please click here


Huge thanks to Dan Snow, Natthaniel Tapley, and Alex von Tunzelman for making it possible! 

Barbara Castle, Labour Party Heritage and the Mau Mau Emergency

On Saturday 17th February, Olivia gave a talk about Barbara Castle's fight for an independent enquiry into conditions in camps and prisons during the Mau Mau Emergency in the 1950s. The talk was particularly moving for the fact that two members of the audience had vivid memories of those events; one -  former labour MP Stan Newens - who had played a significant role in the Movement for Colonial Freedom, discussed during the talk; the other, former RAF pilot John Grigg, who felt able to stand up and speak to the audience about what he knew, saw and heard from Kenya at the time for the very first time - almost six decades after the Emergency ended. 

A modified version of the talk will be posted in the next few days. Full interviews with Stan and John will also follow. 

 Olivia taking (very intelligent and well informed) questions and listening to the audience's memories and experiences at the Labour Party Heritage event. 

Olivia taking (very intelligent and well informed) questions and listening to the audience's memories and experiences at the Labour Party Heritage event. 

Susan's Story, Chapter 3: Field Marshal Muthoni Wa Kirima

Of late, my elder sister Muthoni has been bragging how she shares a name with a superstar, a Mau Mau warrior. She jokes that not “everybody” gets to be published on Wikipedia. I agree with her, I mean I searched my name and nothing popped up.

After learning that Field Marshal Muthoni is related to my Mau Mau guka, I contacted my Aunty Jerioth from Nanyuki for contacts or assistance on how I could reach her. Aunty Jerioth is the wife to my dad’s brother, Uncle Stephen. She promised to contact her and book an appointment for us. This means we will go live and get real information from the horse’s mouth.. (ok, I’m not calling my new found heroine grandmother a horse ✌☺). But before I meet my grandmother, I decided to search more information about her from the internet. I came across two great articles published by both Standard Media and Daily Nation. I’ll try to simplify because there is a lot written about this great heroine.

Her early days

It is sad to comprehend that when we speak of the Mau Mau freedom fighters who shed blood and lost their lives for this country, we only speak mostly of Mzee Kenyatta and Dedan Kimathi.  We fail to recognize other fighters like Muthoni wa Kirima who laid everything down for this country. Muthoni wa Kirima was born in Central Province in 1931. Being born in the colonial era meant Muthoni, as a young girl, saw the injustices committed against native Africans by the colonialists.  Having never had a formal education, to date Muthoni speaks neither English nor good Kiswahili because when others were in school, she was in the forest fighting.  At the age of about 20 years, she became a spy for the Mau Mau fighters who had camped in the forest in 1952.  She had barely stayed with her husband, General Mutungi, for a year when they joined the Mau Mau freedom struggle in the early 1960s and went their different ways into the forests of Mt Kenya.  Gen Mutungi died in 1965 — two years after the end of the freedom struggle — taking with him to the grave the only hope of Muthoni settling down again to start a family. She never had children of her own, she says Kirinyaga (Kenya) is her only child.

Joining the Mau Mau

For Muthoni, spying and bringing food was not enough, she wanted to fight. She wanted to be right where the action was. Muthoni convinced Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi to allow her into the forest as a fighter and proved a gallant soldier. Fighting next to Dedan Kimathi and proving she was a valuable soldier, Muthoni was promoted to Field Marshal and became the only woman to have ever reached that status. She became the most senior woman within the Mau Mau ranks. The liberation movement had only four Field Marshals - Dedan Kimathi, Baimungi Marete, Muthoni Wa Kirima and Musa Mwariama.  Rising to such a position was not a joke. an iron lady. This brings a revelation that her sister Mukami was not a Field Marshal rather than a Mau Mau fighter, which is still cool. Muthoni is an “iron lady”! I guess Jeff Koinange, a Kenyan journalist and talk show host of Jeff Koinange Live would say “Smooooking” We need her on The Bench! Can you imagine Muthoni wa Kirima killed a rhinoceros to save her father’s goats?

Ivory trade

In the forest, Muthoni led the hunt for elephants, walked hundreds of kilometres to pick up weapons from Ethiopia without being caught and only came out of the forest after independence. Field Marshal Muthoni was trapping wildlife to cook. Coming out of the forest after a decade of rebellion, she was poorer than when she joined the rebellion. She was in despair and after trying her hand in business she approached Mzee Kenyatta and convinced him to grant her a licence to trade in ivory, saying she used to kill elephants for food and hide the ivory, and knew where they had buried tusks. But unlike the Arabs, she was unable to export the trophies. She sold them to the Museums of Kenya for about Sh.22 per kilogramme. Her permission to collect and sell  “wild” ivory ended in 1976 when trade in ivory was banned. What a great mind.


Field Marshal Muthoni has kept her dreadlocks to remind her that she is still fighting for a better life for herself and the children of fellow fallen freedom heroes who knew no home except the brutal, dense forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares. Muthoni still has a bullet lodged in her hand, after independence, had to go for a medical operation to save her right eye from the effects of another one that had glazed the protective bone around it during the war. There is a demand for a statue to be erected in the honour of the only female Field Marshal when she is alive. I totally agree with that.

To be continued... 

Susan' Story, Chapter 2: My Grandfather the Mau Mau

 I vividly recall one of our gukas (Kikuyu name for grandfathers) who visited us once in a while when I was young. My father called him General, General Muriuki Karangi. My mum told us he was Mau Mau. He had these huge brown and dirty looking rastas, he looked very scary. He would tell us these stories of how they fought in the forest. I heard nothing, I would doze off and sleep. I think I was not interested in the stories, I mean I was just a kid. Little did I know that one day I would be here looking for information about the freedom fighters. I did not meet with his wife nor his children. The only thing I knew was that he was my guka from Nyahururu.

Unfortunately, my Mau Mau grandfather passed on a year ago … did he die with his great story? Naaah!!! You see, his wife was also a Mau Mau, Field Marshal Mukami, She is the sister to the renowned Field Marshal Muthoni Wa Kirima (picture attached). Girl power. Yes… there were female Mau Maus... The Mau Mau Maus used the women to gather food, ammunitions and information about the colonialists and take it to them in the forest. The women later decided to join the men in the fight for freedom….. to be continued...