Mau Mau veteran Maina Muiruri
Caption for the landscape image:

Wilson Maina: Mau Mau veterans have nothing to celebrate

Mau Mau veteran Maina Muiruri outside his house in Utawala.

Photo credit: Macharia Gaitho | Nation Media Group

I press the record button on my device, but just before I can ask the first question, the interviewee asks for a pause. He explains that he wants his own record of the discussion, and goes into his small bungalow to re-appear moments later with an ancient Sony cassette player/recorder.

Mr Wilson Maina Macharia slowly and carefully slides an audio cassette tape into the deck and fiddles for a long time with the buttons, finally engaging the play button and finding that the tape already has a recording. He retrieves another tape from a bag, and it too is not blank. He goes back into the house and emerges with another cassette tape, and this time it is third time lucky.

But still there is a long period of testing as he presses play to confirm that the tape is empty, removes the tape to confirm visually that it has progressed, slots it back onto the machine and rewinds, then presses the record button to do the obligatory “hello, hello, testing, testing” ritual before satisfying himself that everything is kosher. The process is littered with delays as the Mau Mau veteran struggles to identify the record, play, record, rewind and fast forward buttons.

Again, before the interview can commence, he decides to set the stage by explaining a recent history of medals he has earned in recognition of his role as a freedom fighter.

First was the Head of State Commendation awarded by former President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2017, and then the medal of a National Hero awarded by President William Ruto on Mashujaa Day this year, October 20, in recognition of his role in the struggle for liberation from British colonialism.

He then pulls over his casual checked shirt a spotless white tunic that was tailored, at government expense, specifically for the Mashujaa Day fete, and proudly pins on his medals for a photo session.

Despite the pride he takes in the belated recognition, the freedom war veteran and pioneer trade unionist still does not believe that justice has been done for the thousands of independence war heroes who lost their lives, livelihoods and land for the cause of freedom.

He thanks presidents Kenyatta and Ruto for awarding him national honours, but insists it is not about him as an individual but about thousands of comrades, many of whom have passed away, and their families for whom success in the war for independence resulted only in neglect and poverty.

He notes that the colonial era ban on the Mau Mau traversed independence in 1963, remaining in force for 53 years until it was lifted in 2003 under President Mwai Kibaki.

He is grateful for such gestures, but still laments that no government has done anything meaningful for the freedom war heroes.  “We liberated Kenya from colonialism but have not seen the fruits of independence,” he asserts, “we are suffering without any help.”

Read: Muthoni wa Kirima: Mau Mau Field Marshall who wore independence struggle dreadlocks for 70 years

He says that despite the award of medals, Mau Mau leaders have received only the lowliest national honours, while the “gold standards”, such as EGH or CGH, have gone to colonial collaborators or others who never supported the war for independence.

He has not had a chance to visit the Uhuru Gardens Museum launched by Mr Kenyatta, which celebrates the freedom struggle, but says while the idea is good, the architects and designers should have sought input from Mau Mau veterans,

At the age of 95, Maina is still lucid and alert, switching fluently from English to Kiswahi and Kikuyu languages as he recalls the highlights of a remarkable life in the interlinked armed struggle and trade union movement throughout most of his adult life.

His encyclopaedic memory makes him a walking repository of a great deal of information that he is struggling to compile into a book, but fears it will go with him as he has not been able find publishers or scholars willing to help. The few who have expressed willingness to participate want payment, and he has no money to spare.

Although originally hailing from Mombasa and settled in Nairobi, his involvement in the freedom struggle actually began when he worked in Mombasa in the early 1950s, just before the declaration of the State of Emergency. He became a committee member of the local branch of the Kenya African Union, which was a cover for the Mau Mau, as well as the Mombasa branch of the Transport and Allied Workers Union. In both, he worked under coastal nationalist Muinga Chokwe.

He then moved to Nairobi on being forced out of his government job as a clerk in the Weights and Measures Department for consistently challenging racial segregation policies.

In the capital city, he came under the wing of prominent businessman Isaac Gathanju, who appointed him assistant principal and typewriting and English tutor of his Mumbi Tutorial College, by day, and by night chronicler and documentalist for the Mau Mau Central Committee secretariat.

Gathanju—who has a road named after him in the upscale Lavington suburb of Nairobi he could not visit during the colonial colour bar—was general secretary of the Mau Mau Central Committee, which after declaration of the State of Emergency, was remained the Mau Mau War Council.

The five-man team responsible for running the secretariat included Pio Gama Pinto, a Kenyan of Goan origin, Chokwe, a young student Johnstone Muthioira, and Maina.

Pinto is the most famous of the lot, and became Kenya’s first famous victim of political assassination after independence. Chokwe, on independence, became the first Speaker of the first Senate from 1963 until it was abolished in 1966. Muthiora went on to study medicine in the United States, and is most famous for dethroning President Jomo Kenyatta’s powerful political ally, cousin and personal physician, Njoroge Mungai, as MP for Dagoretti in 1974.

Maina is the only one still surviving, but even at his age, recalls with almost photographic memory activities of those days leading to his own arrest and detention.

Pinto, he recalls, did most of the drafting of Mau Mau minutes and reports, but was also the designated procurer of arms and ammunition for the freedom fighters. The Mau Mau War Council had put in place a system of collecting funds from sympathisers in Nairobi and adjacent parts of Central Kenya.

The money would be handed to Pinto who, because of his race, was able to go into official gun shops in the city, including the once famous Kenya Bunduki on the then Delamare Avenue and now Kenyatta Avenue, and make purchases.

He would be accompanied by a trusted acolyte, Lawrence Kagoine Kamau. The two would then transport the booty to a secret Mau Mau warehouse in the Majengo area of Pumwani where arms, ammunition, uniforms, boots and other provisions would be stored.

Arms and ammunition stolen from British soldiers, often after being enticed into drink and bed by Mau Mau temptresses, would also be stored there.

An underground network, starting with Nairobi taxi drivers like Gachanji Gikaru. Mwangi Maarira, Murage Kariuki and Ngare Kigecha, would transport the contraband from Majengo to a building in Bahati owned by Maina Manyire alias Gatika, who also owned a shop on River Road where Mau Mau leaders often hid.

Transport of arms as well as fighters from Nairobi to forests in Central Kenya and parts of the Rift Valley would start from the Bahati building, and a forested piece of land where Kimathi Primary School now stands, which was the Mau Mau parade ground.

The convoys would snake through Buru Buru, Kariobangi and Kasarani into the colonial plantations in Ruiru and Juja. Sympathetic workers in the colonial farms would then act as guides to lead the convoys deep into Kiambu, Murang’a and beyond.

Maina was first arrested in 1953 and spent the next eight years in various prisons and detention camps, serving time in Athi River, Mackinon Road, Manyani, Saiyusi Island on Lake Victoria, Kodiaga, Embakasi, Kajiado, Karaba, Mwea and Murang’a, from where was released in 1959.

Tales of his brushes with law enforcers, colonial courts and the penal system provide riveting accounts of a period when a few brave men and women took on the might of the British Empire, suffered death, torture, jail and expropriation of their lands and properties, but finally claimed victory with the coming of independence on December 12, 1963.

Only to see their dreams go up in smoke as the freedom fighters were neglected and marginalised by the Jomo Kenyatta government and subsequent regimes.

Maina, however, did not become a nobody after independence. He decided to concentrate on trade unionism, in 1964 becoming a full-time official of the giant Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers, which he served until retirement in 2001; an unbroken stint of 37 years.

Prior to that, he had, with Bildad Kaggia—a key Mau Mau leader and one of the famous Kapenguria Six arrested and imprisoned alongside Jomo under Operation Jock Scott—founded the Clerks and Commercial Workers Union, which later became the Kenya Union of Food and Commercial Workers Union. He was also a member of the Transport and Allied Workers Union and took part in a general strike that paralysed Nairobi in 1950.  

As official documentalist for the Mau Mau War Council, he has still in his possession a crumbling library of dog-eared files just crying out for preservation and digitisation, but he doesn’t know where to start.

An avid reader, shelves in his living room and a study at a small “borrowed” bungalow in the Utawala area contains hundreds of books revealing a wide array of interests ranging from freedom struggles in Kenya and beyond, the struggle for multi-party, trade unionism, law,  ideology, religion and civil rights.

Titles that catch the eye include books by or about independence war comrades such as Dedan Kimathi, Jomo, Tom Mboya, Oginga Odinga, JM Kariuki, Kaggia, Makhan Singh, Joseph Murumbi and Fitz de Souza. There are also books on Second Liberation heroes such as Wangari Mathai, Raila Odinga and Kivutha Kibwana, as well as international figures ranging from Barrack Obama to Nelson Mandela, Lenin and Mao.

Some of the most acclaimed histories of the freedom struggle by academics such as Caroline Elkins, David Throup and Montagu Slater also take pride of place in the overflowing shelves.

Born on March 10, 1928 in Gitugi ward, “Location 13”, Gakoe, present day Murang’a County, Maina was educated at local mission schools before moving on to the government school in Kagumo in 1946. He sat his Kenya African Preparatory Examination—a school examination for Africans somewhere between primary school and junior secondary under the segregated colonial system—in 1948. But regrets that he did not do well enough to join the education cream at Alliance High School.

Instead, he secured employment in 1949 as a clerk for the forthcoming census, and moved to Nairobi where he also joined St Pauls College on Victoria Street (now Tom Mboya), for a typing and office practice course. The following year, he joined the British Tutorial College for a correspondence course but dropped out, continuing his education journey in 1953 with a course in secretarial practice, matriculation English, and business studies at the East African Correspondence College.

After the census appointment, he briefly worked as a sales clerk at a Sclaters Stores in Westlands, before deciding that life behind a counter was not for him. He then joined government service as a clerk with the Weights and Measures Department, from where he began his entry into nationalist politics by questioning workplace racism.