Stanley Mathenge: The man who vanished into thin air

by Rose Wangechi

Stanley Mathenge is the man who vanished. He was never captured – was never found. He just, mysteriously, disappeared.

While the British- like in other cases – would have presented Mathenge’s death or capture as a war victory, they also did not seem to know his whereabouts.

Stanley Mathenge had shot to fame for his leadership qualities during the Mau Mau war – and his disappearance has always perplexed the war veterans, seven decades after the war. 

But, while Mathenge’s whereabouts remain unknown, his life is not. Born in 1919 in Nyeri District, he became the leader of Mau Mau military unit called Nyeri District Council in 1953. In the forest, Dedan Kimathi was Mathenge’s secretary but they later parted ways due to ideological disagreements and Kimathi would become more pronounced than the man he toppled.

Mathenge, an astute Mau Mau leader commonly referred to as Mathenge wa Mirugi,  was about six feet three inches tall and slender and with a commanding demeanor.

In the forest, he always carried a 303 rifle everywhere he went.  Mathenge had learnt to shoot when he joined Kiama Kia 40, a militant offshoot of the Kenya African Union (KAU) political party.

Translating to Council of 40, the organization membership was largely drawn from members who had served in the British Armed Forces. Number 40 represents the year the organisation was formed. Before he joined Mau Mau, Mathenge had travelled to Burma as part of the British soldiers.

He rose to become the leader of Kiama Kia 40 and later founded Kenya Rigii which was a militant group comprising uneducated freedom fighters.

But Mathenge’s leadership in the Mau Mau war went beyond military command. He was known for coordinating Mau Mau oath-taking ceremonies in Nyeri area. The oath catalysed the Mau Mau recruitment exercises. Mathenge was also a staunch believer in Kikuyu traditions. Nick named Kirema Thahu (one who towers over ill motives of others), Mathenge was a prayerful man.

However, Mathenge had many interests to balance in the war. His junior Dedan Kimathi had grown uncomfortable with Mathenge’s war leadership. Kimathi was a radical and believed the quest for independence did not have room for negotiations. Armed resistance was the only path to freedom.

Mathenge, on the other side, was open to all means to freedom, including negotiated end to the war. The two leaders disagreed and their differences threatened the unity of the Mau Mau troops in the forest. 

Mathenge had reasons to remain vigilant. The police in Nyeri knew him as a Mau Mau adherent. Unlike Kimathi’s image that was all over the police networks, not many people including the police could identify Mathenge in a crowd.

During his time as a Mau Mau fighter, Mathenge was arrested twice. The first arrest was in Thika in 1953. He was travelling to the Aberdare Forest from Nairobi in the company of over 400 Mau Mau recruits.

The police failed to identify Mathenge and it is reported that one Wachira Thumbe, who was part of the group, bribed the authorities to have Mathenge released.

Two months later, bad luck befell Mathenge. He was arrested leaving the Aberdares for Nanyuki. He was released and went back to the forest. After these narrow escapes, Mathenge rarely left the forest except during raids.

On June 1953, at a meeting held in Gikae in Aberdare Forest, Mau Mau leaders were being promoted and given ranks. Mathenge refused to accept a rank saying it was premature for him to have a rank before independence was achieved.

In 1955, Mathenge unceremoniously exited the Mau Mau scene. Details about his exit remain contested. There are as many explanations to why and how he left Mau Mau.

The most popular version is that he left Kenya for Ethiopia after he disagreed with Dedan Kimathi. Some account of his whereabouts claim he died in the war after the authorities shot him. The controversy runs deep.

General Wagocho, a Mau Mau veteran told this writer that Mathenge had intimated his desire to leave Kenya for Ethiopia. Wagocho, however, says that Mathenge was killed before leaving Kenya. Other veterans say Mathenge died in battle while others speculate that he was killed in Ethiopia.

Mathenge’s disappearance and the mystery surrounding his life played out in the public gallery 30 May 2003 after the Kenya Government flew in a man believed to be Mathenge from Ethiopia.

Upon landing in Kenya, a section of Mathenge’s family members said the man was not their kin. Others said he was Mathenge.

In a bid to dispel the mystery and save itself from embarrassment, the government ordered for a DNA test on the man. And two weeks after, the indictment was raw and shameful for government; the Ethiopian was not Mathenge.

To date, the search for a man who diligently led Mau Mau regiments in the forest continues. The jury is out on whether he died or is still alive.

However, there is no contest that Mathenge played a key role in the liberation of Kenya.  

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zidii kenya May 13, 2021 - 5:32 pm

Interesting facts!!! Write more!!

Edwin Wainaina September 17, 2021 - 4:22 am

Very insightful


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