Unmasking the colonial concentration villages of terror

by Julie Ngigi

For the Colonial government, countering Mau Mau became a full time job. In 1954, a decision was made to stop the recruitment of youth into the movement and cut supplies by establishing “protected villages.”

These villages were established across Kiambu, Murang’a, and Nyeri districts. By 1955, according to official records, about 1.1 million Kikuyu were living corralled inside about 800 official villages containing over 230,000 huts.

The decision to call the villages protected areas as opposed to “concentration villages” was a carefully crafted public relations strategy.

Granville Roberts, then public relations officer, marketed villagisation as a government agenda to protect the communities from “radicalisation” perpetuated by the Mau Mau adherents –but in essence, it was a bid to stem any more support of Mau Mau.  The government allocated very limited resources to the Rehabilitation and Community Development Department and that meant that the villages turned to be punishment camps.

Here, the police and home guards executed some of the most inhumane acts against the Kikuyu, Embu and the Meru people.  

At this time, two in three Kikuyu men were locked up in various detention camps – and the camps were dominated by women-led households. The home guards, government loyalists and the administrators turned to sexual predators and there many cases of rape of women and girls.

There were two types of villages; the common villages for ordinary people and special places where loyalists lived. The concept of these open prisons where the entire communities suffered curtailed freedom of movement and free association w had been a well thought out colonial plan.

Dr. J. C Carothers, a psychiatrist who had worked in Kenya since 1938, designed the villagisation programmme in 1954 based on an unambiguous government assignment. The imperialists asked him to explore “how far some experience and knowledge of psychology and psychiatry might help to throw light on Mau Mau movement.” Among the deliverables of the assignment was to identify solutions to the Mau Mau rebellion.

Dr. Carothers assignment appeared academic on the surface but his recommendations were far reaching. He published “The psychology of the Mau Mau” and recommended a replication of Briggs’ Plan in Kenya. The Plan, a military strategy formulated by General Sir Harold Briggs after his 1950 appointment as Director of Operations in the British  Colony of Malay Peninsula and the Island of Singapore, forcibly transferred thousands from their land to newly-constructed settlements known as “New villages”. This move was meant to cut links between communities and members of the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA).

Although MNLA interests matched Mau Mau’s pursuit for freedom from the British, the wider community lifestyles were dissimilar. Therefore, when Dr. Carothers recommendations were implemented, the government inefficiencies in executing the plan came to the fore.

Weeks before full-blown enforcement of villagisation in 1954, the Council of Colony Ministers noted “while the Kikuyus could not be expected to take kindly a departure from their traditional way of life, such as living in villages, they need and desire to be told just what to do.” Many members of the Kikuyu community refused to move from their ancestral land to the villages.

But the government was determined to enforce the programme widely thought to be a coup de grâce on the Mau Mau movement. The process became brutal. Some historians have compared it to the Nazi concentration camps where diabolical human rights violations happened at the behest of the British colony.

Villagisation, just like expected, begun on a hard start.

Hunger sets in

The people were forced to dig deep, spike-bottomed trenches surrounding the villages. The government registered their win against the people forcefully taken to the villages. But less than a year into the programme, hunger struck across the Kikuyu land. Starvation and malnutrition became common in the villages because of the disruption to the agrarian life of the community triggered by the established villages.

However, even in such circumstances, the government found a way to absolve itself from the mess created. It instead blamed the victims of a forthright bad policy.

Barely six months after commencement of the programme, one provincial commissioner blamed parents in the villages for deliberately denying food to children saying the community was alive to the “propaganda value of apparent child malnutrition”.

A colonial minister blamed mothers in Central Province for “not realizing the great importance of proteins” on children.

On 6 November 1954, the Meru District Commissioner noted that, “from the health point of view, I regard villagisation as being exceedingly dangerous and we are already starting to reap the benefits.”

In fact, the government acknowledged the gravity of the hunger. Governor Evelyn Baring’s medical department decried “the alarming number of deaths occurring amongst children in the ‘punitive’ villages.” About half of the 50,000 deaths attributed to the State of Emergency were from children below the age of ten.

To mitigate the food crisis, the government sought the support of the Red Cross and Missionaries to distribute food in the regions. However, there were stark shades of discrimination in the food distribution chain. The Red Cross was told to prioritize “loyalist areas”.

Today, survivors of the villagisation programme have little approbation for their experiences living in the villages. 

Former Provincial Commissioner Joseph Kaguthi, who grew up in one of the villages, describes them as ‘very big areas fortified by barbed wire and deep trenches filled with spikes that a grown man couldn’t jump over safely. The houses were built in rows and there were watch towers around the villages.” He describes the period as “one of the most frightening” during his childhood.  

In one of the interviews with this writer, Margaret Waithera said: “We were required to leave our homes at daybreak for forced manual work like making roads. The government gave us one hour to fetch water and look for food. We were required to be back in the village before dusk when a whistle was blown signaling mandatory return to the village.”

According to Grace Wanjiku, a survivor in Murang’a, torture was rife and widespread in the villages. Wanjiku told Mau Mau Chronicles that her aunt was made to sit on a “heated piece of iron sheet” in a village at Kahatia as punishment for being a Mau Mau sympathizer.

Renowned scholar Prof Ngotho Kariuki also lived through the villagisation period. “When the villagers were not being tortured or out participating in forced labour, they had to contend with difficult living conditions in the villages. Our houses were infested with parasites including jiggers and fleas that made our lives difficult.”

In an interview with this writer, Mau Mau veteran Njagua Mweru from Murang’a opined: “the people in the villages endured a more difficult period than the warriors in the forest”.

Instead of breaking the people’s desire for self-rule, the programme energized the Mau Mau war.

By the end of 1955, Lieutenant General Lathbury, the commander of the armed forces boasted of quelling the Mau Mau war. He, however, noted that the Mau Mau movement had “not been cured but just suppressed. The thousands who have spent a long time in detention must have been embittered by it. Nationalism is still a very potent force and the African will pursue his aim by other means. Kenya is in for a very tricky political future.” He was right.

The Mau Mau fighters in the forest established a secret network with people in the villages, creating a strong food and intelligence supply chain. However, very few documents exist for reference on the villagisation  programme.

When Kenya’s freedom became imminent, Governor Sir Evelynn Barring and the Colonial Secretary of state Alan Lennox–Boyd conducted a thorough “purge of the archives” consequently destroying and shipping government documents on colonialism.

While there is little we will ever know about the brutal policies on villagisation, it is no doubt the programme heralded a period of suffering in the entire Kikuyu, Embu and Meru regions.

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Joshua Mimano May 20, 2021 - 3:13 pm

Valuable information. Thank you

Keige May 20, 2021 - 3:36 pm

Well researched.This is the similar narration given to us by our parents as we were growing up in n the sixties

Jane Maina May 20, 2021 - 8:24 pm

Yes! It’s not too late to expose the British colonizers for the diabolical terrorists that they were!


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