How Kimathi’s burial site in Kamiti Prison turned into a grave matter

Dedan Kimathi

The late Freedom Fighter Dedan Kimathi. Parliament was told that his grave was "fenced and looked after" in Kamiti and that "plans were afoot to see how a better grave could be prepared.

Photo credit: File

In 1968, the Jomo Kenyatta government admitted that it knew where Dedan Kimathi was buried and that they were looking for a place to bury the body.

Kenyatta's Minister of State, Mbiyu Koinange, told Parliament that the grave was "fenced and looked after" in Kamiti Maximum Prison and that "plans were afoot to see how a better grave could be prepared…in a better place."

It was the first and last admission by the government on the location of Kimathi's grave which has now become Kenya's struggle with Mau Mau memory.

On Saturday, President William Ruto, perhaps unaware of Koinange's 1968 admission, said the government would rely on the Mau Mau elders to locate the grave. Actually, no speaker recalled Koinange's 1968 promise – which has since faded into memory.

Some intelligence sources once told me that when the matter was discussed in the Kenyatta Cabinet, it was decided that Kimathi's exhumation be shelved, for it could have created a new point of interest at a time when Kenyatta's government was going through various political challenges following the fall out between him and Oginga Odinga. And from then, the narrative shifted to the fact that the British government did not indicate where Kimathi was buried.

Now that President William Ruto has agreed that the government will search for the body of Dedan Kimathi –it will be the second time that a search will be conducted by the government. President Kibaki's government brought together some Mau Mau veterans to pinpoint the grave, but after a few false starts, the search was called off. Instead, they agreed to erect a monument.

In all the efforts, the government has been relying on fading Mau Mau veterans' memory rather than employing modern scanning technology, which has been used elsewhere to locate graves. Ground penetrating radar has been used in various countries to trace hidden graves. For instance, the same was used in Canada last year to locate graves at former residential schools.

If there is evidence of Kimathi's grave, it should be concealed in the 1968 Kamiti documents – or those who worked there in those years know its location. More so, it could be contained the 1968 Cabinet papers held by the government.

Three years after Koinange's promise, the Embu East MP, the late Kamwithi Munyi, by then an Assistant minister in the Office of the President, told Parliament that to single out a single freedom fighter for a ceremonial reburial would not be consistent with the spirit of building a united nation. As such, the reasoning within the government was that the Kimathi saga was divisive. Munyi said such an endeavour would be a "waste of public funds and time to locate graves and exhume their remains."

That was the first time a narrative started as the government pushed back attempts to exhume Kimathi's body. In the same year, assistant Minister S.M Balala said the government had no plans "at the moment" to build monuments for national heroes. In 1971, there was a Daily Nation report that discussions were underway between the Nairobi City Council and the Ministry of Local Government to convert or replace the King George Fountain at the junction of City Hall Way and Parliament building into Kimathi Fountain. That was also shelved.

The Moi government – and in the Nyayo spirit of following Kenyatta's footsteps – continued with the same. When Lawrence Sifuna raised the issue of Mau Mau veterans with no places to be buried, an MP interjected, "Dedan Kimathi is already buried."

With multi-party politics, in July 1993, the Minister for Home Affairs, Francis Lotodo, told Parliament that "it is not possible to identify the late Dedan Kimathi's grave at Kamiti Prison. The colonialists buried the late Dedan Kimathi in a mass grave along with others who then faced similar fate."

But Kiraitu Murungi, who had asked the question, said: "I would like to inform the Minister that the mass grave at the Kamiti Maximum Prison is outside the prison walls and the late Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi was not buried in the mass grave.

He was buried under one of the walls of Kamiti Prison. Since the Kanu government is not able to identify and accord the late Kimathi a hero's burial, would the Minister give permission to Ford-K, at their own cost, to exhume the body of the late Kimathi and accord him a hero's burial next to the late President Jomo Kenyatta?"

The matter turned into a shouting match, with the Minister asking: "If the honourable member knows (where Kimathi is buried) why is he asking the question?"

Then Langata MP Raila Odinga told Parliament that "the minister knows as much as I do that the prison officers in Kamiti know where the Mau Mau prisoners were buried."

Lotodo: "We do not know … If you go and dig everywhere you will only end up getting skulls and you will not know which one belongs to Kimathi."

Another minister of State, Julius Sunkuli, told the Opposition to stop pushing the Moi government on the exhumation of Dedan Kimathi: "Members will remember that Dedan Kimathi did not die when Moi became President..."

During Mwai Kibaki's government, the Gatundu North MP, Mr Kariuki Muiruri, revisited the matter and told Parliament that there are four prisoners who offloaded the body from a lorry and buried it somewhere within Kamiti. "One of them has identified himself. These are the only people who can identify the spot."

The then vice-president Moody Awori acknowledged that "there are four people who stated that they are the ones who actually transported the remains...One of them has approached the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs (Kiraitu Murungi) and we are waiting for the other three to come forward. After this, we will exhume the bones and use the current methods of identification to confirm whether they are the right bones. Once we do that, we will accord our hero a decent burial."

Whether the body will be traced is now a matter of waiting.

[email protected] @johnkamau1