The forgotten Kiburi House and its sheen on Mau Mau war of independence

by Stephen Macharia

Along Nairobi’s Kirinyaga Road, Kiburi House rests in historical obscurity. At its peak, the building served as the Mau Mau war headquarters and carried hopes of Kenya’s independence in its bowels.

Today, however, Kiburi House has lost a considerable amount of its historic shine and reverence from Africans, all inundated by commercial interests and years of neglect for Mau Mau affiliated monuments.

Despite the building being gazetted as a national monument, Kiburi house rarely gets worthy recognition as an integral cog of the independence war. And when mentioned, especially in history books and scholarly literature, the authors give the building nominal credit as a fortress of the Mau Mau resistance.

One example of the building’s honorary reference is Shiraz Durrani’s book, Kenya’s War of Independence: Mau Mau and its Legacy of Resistance to Colonialism and Imperialism 1948-1990, published in 2018. Durrani makes only a single reference to Kiburi House and, sadly, limits the building to an oath centre.

“As the conflict developed, Mau Mau leaders quickly moved to recruit Kamba members. This recruitment was achieved through the Mau Mau oath. KAU Nairobi branch which had been run by Mau Mau militants since 1952, though dominated by Kikuyu, included members drawn from other ethnic groups. Paul Ngei, Assistant secretary of KAU, was Kamba and a member of the committee. Nag [Ngei] invited “politically-minded” Kamba to Kiburi House to take the oath. Thousands of Kamba took the oath,” Durrani writes.

Peered from such tapering perspectives, today, Kiburi House stands drained off its grandeur, and even its importance as an aggregator of the forces that defeated colonialism in Kenya. It is a sad reality, to put it mildly.

When this writer visited the building in January 2020, printing and motor vehicle spare part dealers occupied the rooms where Mau Mau resistance was hatched and planned. Inside and outside the building, the role Kiburi House played in liberating the country remains largely unknown.  

Kiburi House was  first registered in 1946. Three years after registration, the building changed utility from lodging to an office suite. This change, outwardly harmless to the then colonial administration, allowed Kikuyus to secretly convert the building into a Mau Mau war nerve centre. However, the real consequences of a Kikuyu controlled and owned building in Nairobi later strayed from the expectations of the colonial government.

But Kiburi House has a richer history and legacy.

The Kenya Fuel and Bark Supplying Company, originally called Kiambu Fuel Supply Company, a controversial business enterprise where only Kikuyus were allowed shareholding rights, purchased the building in 1948 from Col Ewart Grogan – a colonial real estate and timber merchant.

However, unlike Grogan’s empire, the Kenya Fuel and Bark Supplying Company was an indigenous business. Founded by Thumbi wa Kiburi in 1945, the company merchandised charcoal and tree barks. It is widely thought Grogan’s dealings in timber matched Kiburi’s business interests. The two are said to have cemented their relationship before the latter bought the building.  Kiburi House is named after the company founder and chairman.

Hiding under the guise of business meetings, the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru found a meeting place away from the watchful colonial administration in the 1950s. They transformed the building into the capital of the liberation movement.

The building was home to the Kenya African Union (KAU); the Mau Mau War Council, a clandestine war strategy outfit; and several trade unionists opposed to the colonial rule. Kiburi House also housed indigenous newspaper publishers including the Mau Mau print media outfit Wiyathi, a Kikuyu word that loosely translates to freedom.

According to Gitu wa Kahengeri, the Mau Mau War Veterans Association national Chairman, Jomo Kenyatta held an office at Kiburi House. Other sources indicate Kenyatta and his wife Wahu Kenyatta held shares at Kenya Fuel and Bark Supplying Company.

While there are no many records detailing the events that took place at Kiburi House during the pre-independence period, partly due to the secretive nature of the meetings, Kahengeri cites Kiburi House as the convergence point of independence struggle.

But even with all that,  Kiburi House stands crying for an uplift to a national monument, or at the least, worthy acknowledgement as one of the outstanding venues from where the ideals to liberate Kenya hatched, bred and grew into an unstoppable independence movement.

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2 comments

Karanja WA Mukami June 10, 2021 - 4:44 pm

Great to start mau mau chronicles. Now mau mau has a home. An indigenous home. Will keep an eye and help any way I can.

Reply
Mwaura June 25, 2021 - 8:32 pm

So informative

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