The British Mau Mau fighters torture centres

by Evan Mbugua

The mass detention of 80,000 Kenyans – in what is now known as “British Gulag” – appears to have escaped the media attention.

Why the international community remained indifferent from the killings and incarceration of communities in villages has yet to be rationalised.

But despite escaping international attention for years, we now know that the detention of Mau Mau members by the British was an entrenched strategy to weaken the Mau Mau and deal an economic blow to the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru communities by detaining the working population.

While official British records showed that there were 80,000 detainees in Kenya, the figures are very conservative owing to the scale of documents the British destroyed prior to independence – and the number of those within the village camps. Some estimates place the number of detainees in Kenya in the range of 300,000 people. 

It was, more than anything else, the death of 11 detains at Hola Detention Camp on 3 March 1959 that exploded in the international media scene. The ferocity of anger and interrogation it received was overwhelming.

But it was the attempt by the British to cover up the killings that led to the uproar.

The Time Magazine splashed what it called the Hola Scandal.

“In Kenya’s sweltering sun one morning, husky African warders herded 85 ragged prisoners out of the inner compound at Hola camp, 220 miles east of Nairobi, and into an adjacent field,” the magazine reported.

The publication also noted with concern that: “From the start, investigation of the brutal slaughter at Hola seemed strangely half-hearted, often clouded by deceit and outright lies. Day after the incident, an official Nairobi communique said the prisoners had died after drinking water from a water cart.”

A motif of media stories were published in Kenya and abroad with one underlying theme; the detention centres were torture chambers. 

Henry Kahinga Wachanga confirms this in his book The Swords of Kirinyaga. In his work, Wachanganarrates his ordeals at a detention camp in Nyeri.

Wachanga, who was detained at Nyeri Works Camp which was christened Ngai Ndeithia (God help me) by the locals, gives vivid descriptions of what happened in these detention camps. 

In descriptive style, Wachanga singles out one David Mathu, a fellow bearded detainee at the camp who was forced to pull out every beard from his chin with his hands. When Mathu failed to obey the orders, he was beaten until he plucked all the facial hair.

The following morning, the detainees were taken to a field to dig in the sweltering heat. They worked from 6:00 AM to 7:00 PM without any break.

Another notorious detention camp was Kangubiri Works Camp also in Nyeri. Right from its entrance, the living conditions were clear. The facility carried some scary word at the gate- mwiteithia niateithagio (he who helps himself will be helped).

And true to these words survival chances were low, especially if one lived by the Mau Mau oath. All detainees were subjected to vigorous screening and interrogations.

No “unsatisfactory answers” were allowed. Records show detainees were forced to dig holes of about ten feet deep and ten feet square as punishment. Once done with digging, the detainee would then fill the hole with soil. This humiliation continued until the officers felt one had provided satisfactory answers.

The situation remained the same across all the detention camps. At Embakasi Detention Camp, detainees were used to build an airport runaway in Nairobi.

In an interview with this writer at his home in Narok, Mau Mau leader General Njuguna Ndaiga, illustrated the suffering detainees went through at Embakasi Detention Camp. Ndaiga said some wardens killed detainees at will.

He spoke of a Maasai prison warder called Jole who killed detainees on a daily basis. Every day, the prison warden called Jole reported the number of detainees he had killed to the camp authorities. This means these killings were sanctioned by the state.

General Ndaiga observed that the state paid Jole Sh5 for every person killed. Failure to kill at least one detainees meant the warden was not doing his job.

“Jole was too bitter with anyone who had grey hair. Detainees with grey hair did everything including plucking it to escapes Jole’s wrath,” General Ndaiga revealed.

In his book the Mau Mau Detainee, Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, tells the story of his experiences at Nyangwithu Detention Camp in Rift Valley. The camp administration used to castrate detainees.

A warden called Kimaru reveals how he castrated men in an experiment to determine whether they could develop like castrated bulls did.

As a result, and as the world turned the other way, the British camps served as institutionalised torture centres.

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peter gitau October 7, 2021 - 10:38 am

This was horrible.Britain should own up this atrocities.apology to the people of Kenya is the least they can do.

Cege Gacuhi October 10, 2021 - 1:57 am

We hope young Kenyans learn from the struggles of these brave men and women

Cege Gacuhi October 10, 2021 - 1:59 am

We hope our youth learn from these brave people


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