| Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

Mau Mau, not yet free: A life of penury for this national hero

It’s 1953. Benson Njege is at Kiorugari village in Kirinyaga County, where he’s joined other men in a rebellion against the colonial government.

Amid the struggle, a local movement known as the Mau Mau has launched a vicious guerrilla war to reclaim fertile land taken by white settlers.

As the rebellion gathers pace, Njege is arrested by British soldiers. They break his leg and fingers, leaving him unconscious. When he comes back to his senses, he’s been chained to a hospital bed in Embu.

“I was in the hospital for two months. They later gathered whatever charges they could put together and arraigned me. I was jailed for a year,” he recalls.

Now 92, Mzee Njege may seem lively, but his eyes are sad and his face angry as he recounts his ordeal at the hands of the colonial officers. 

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

As Kenya celebrates Mashujaa Day tomorrow, he recalls the cruelty of the British during the struggle. Suspected Mau Mau fighters were subjected to brutal treatment, including torture, in colonial camps.

Upon his release in 1954, he linked up with Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, who appointed him the Mau Mau commander in charge of Mutira, Mwirua, Mutira and Inoi areas.

“I had become a key member of the Mau Mau. Sadly, I was arrested again and taken to Sagana detention camp, where I was tortured. The soldiers wanted to know where Mau Mau weapons were kept and made,” he offers.

When he declined to open up, a soldier threatened to shoot him. “I gathered courage, because I had taken an oath not to reveal anything about the Mau Mau weapons and dared him to shoot me. I was ready to die rather than go against the oath and betray my fellow freedom fighters,” he says.

They, however, spared his life and transferred him to Kerugoya detention camp. He would later be released without any charges.

Despite the British threats, he rejoined his colleagues in the forest, including General Fredrick Gachoki alias Magoto, where they lived until 1956, when Kimathi was captured. 

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

“I wasn’t compensated by the government or recognised in any way. I’ve never enjoyed the fruits of freedom with my colleagues,” says Mzee Njege.

“I’ve been invited to this year’s Mashujaa Day celebrations at Wang’uru Stadium in Kirinyaga, but I’m not sure if I’ll make it to the venue because I’ve no bus fare.”

Former Kirinyaga Governor Joseph Ndathi awarded him a medal for his contribution to independence.

“We were shot at in the forests around Mount Kenya. We braved the cold weather. Food was a problem. We survived on wild fruits,” he offers.

General Magoto, who was Kirinyaga’s last top Mau Mau commander, died recently and was laid to rest at his Ndunduini home in Gichugu. At 94, he breathed his last with a bullet still lodged in his hip.

He assumed the name Magoto to conceal his identity as the British had placed a prize on his head for his involvement in the struggle.

Ailing, he was rushed to Kianyaga Sub-County Hospital on May 15, where he was treated and discharged. Three days later, he succumbed to complications of diabetes on his way to Kerugoya Referral Hospital.

“Magoto was the last general who inspired the nation with his sacrifice. We shall forever miss him,” says former Kirinyaga Council of Elders chairman, Cyrus Githaka.

The ‘general’ spent most of his youthful years in detention fighting for independence. During one of his patrols, he was shot in the hip, arrested and moved to a detention camp in Hola.

He would later be transferred to Mwea GK Prison, where they accused him of committing 30 murders. The matter did not, however, proceed to trial as his accusers could not get anyone to testify against him. They freed him in 1960.

He lived with the bullet in his hip as it could not be removed because it was lodged in a delicate location. In 1966, the general was employed as the assistant chief of Guama sub-location, a position he held until his retirement in 1994.

“He was passionate about education. He started Thumaita and Kavote secondary schools. He established several learning institutions. He was also a committee member of Baragwi Coffee Farmers Cooperative Society, where he championed members’ rights,” says Mr Erastus Njeru.

Mau Mau heroes say Magoto was a courageous person. “He never feared death; he fought gallantly for Africans’ land rights and freedom from forced labour,” observers John Kiboko, 85.

Magoto was first approached by the Mau Mau in 1947 while working in Nairobi. He turned them down due to his Christian faith, but in November 1952, he took the oath at Weru wa Nguuru in Karumandi area.

He changed his mind when colonial chiefs started forcing young men to clear bushes in settlers’ farms. This angered him so much that he started mobilising people against forced labour.