Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-KENYA: The “Mzungu” Called to Account, Decades After Colonial Abuses

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Oct 6 2006 (IPS) - For Jane Muthoni Mara, the memories of her experiences during British rule in Kenya are still horribly vivid – even though these took place more than half a century ago.

She recounts that women who supported the Mau Mau, a militant group opposed to colonial administration, were subjected to various forms of torture by African soldiers under the supervision of the “mzungu” (the Swahili word for “white man”) – this to force the women to disclose what they knew about Mau Mau activities.

“They inserted bottles in my private parts. I could not do anything since I was in the hands of the administration. I was humiliated and I cannot forget this torture,” Mara, who was arrested in 1954, told IPS.

“For older women the soldiers would use 750 millilitre bottles, while for young girls like me, smaller 300 millilitre bottles were filled with hot water, then pushed by the soldiers into my private parts using their feet.”

Mara, now aged 67, was 15 at the time.

Accounts of abuse mention instances of rape. Mara further recalls women being stripped naked in front of their children, and beaten while babies were still strapped to their backs. This brutality happened in camps where those accused of associating with the Mau Mau were sometimes placed.

Men were also targeted. “I lost one leg after being shot by the mzungu. I had defied orders to come from the bush where I was hiding. Others lost their hands, while some had their eyes gorged out in the process of resisting mzungu rule,” Kassim Njogu, who now hops on one leg with the help of crutches,” told journalists this week.

The experiences of Mara, Njogu and others like them have prompted the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) and the Mau Mau War Veterans Association (MMWVA) to claim reparations from the British government.

During a meeting with journalists in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi Thursday, British lawyer Martin Day, who is representing the claimants, said a letter of demand for compensation was to be formally delivered next week to British authorities, who would have three months to respond.

“We expect the British government to reach a resolution with us. Many of the Mau Mau survivors are in their 70s and 80s, and would like to see a resolution before they die,” Day noted, saying there was “overwhelming evidence that the abuses were not an isolated incident, but a systemic policy to try and break down the Mau Mau and ultimately freedom for Kenya.”

British soldiers cracked down on the Mau Mau in their mountain forest hide-outs, notably during a state of emergency from 1952 to 1960. While there are no confirmed figures for the number of Mau Mau adherents killed or detained in the independence struggle, certain reports indicate that some 13,000 supporters of the group died at the hands of the British, while a further 80,000 were kept in detention camps.

The KHRC, which is compiling a list of persons requiring compensation, says about 400 have been identified, and that more names will probably be added to the list. The lowest amount of compensation should be 20,000 British pounds (about 37,670 dollars) and the highest 100,000 pounds (about 188,340 dollars), said Day.

But, it is not only monetary reparation that is being sought.

“We want the British government to acknowledge and accept that it violated human rights. We want it to apologise to the people of Kenya and the world at large (because) it violated international human rights laws which prohibit acts of torture, including rape and physical beating,” said Mwambi Mwasaru, acting executive director of the KHRC.

While Kenya gained independence in 1963, the ban on the Mau Mau that was imposed by the British continued to be enforced for several decades afterwards under Jomo Kenyatta, and later Daniel arap Moi. It was only lifted in 2003 by the current government of Mwai Kibaki. This explains why it has taken so long for the Mau Mau to seek compensation, said Kenyan lawyer Paul Muite, an advisor in the case.

“How could the Mau Mau survivors organise themselves to file a suit earlier when they were proscribed as an illegal organisation in the first and previous Kenyan governments?” he asked.

The lifting of the ban enabled registration of the MMWVA, which in turn paved the way for a process of identifying persons in need of reparations that began in 2004.

This is the third time that Kenyans are seeking reparation from British Government for human rights abuses.

In 2002, more than 200 claimants from the northern part of the country were awarded about 6.75 million dollars in compensation for injuries they sustained from British army explosives left behind on training grounds in their area. They were represented in this matter by Day.

A year later, about 650 women from the same region sued the British Government for rape which they claimed had lead to the birth of mixed race children who have been shunned by the community.

Day, again acting as representative in the proceedings, is seeking up to 30,000 dollars for each proven case of rape. He told IPS that he was expecting a final word in this case from the British government on Oct. 17.

Even the venue for this week’s meeting about compensation – the 102-year-old Norfolk hotel, the first to be built in Nairobi – evoked memories of a painful past.

“In the colonial era, we would not imagine sitting in the Norfolk hotel, not even walking along the veranda. It was a criminal offence even to peep through the hotel. One would be arrested and jailed for six months with hard labour,” MMWVA spokesperson Gitu wa Kahengeri noted.

“Now we are sitting in the hotel’s conference room. It is amazing.”

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