The story of Luka Murage, and his deft shoe making skills during the Mau Mau war, is without doubt one of the greatest hallmarks of the war period. Sadly, Murage’s story has remained hidden under a pile of the post-independent British-controlled Mau Mau narrative – and then by failure to memorialize Mau Mau narratives. But not anymore.
The story starts in 1952, or thereabout, when the Mau Mau War Council identified Murage’s dexterity in making shoes in the city. Murage had left his rural village, to ostensibly escape poverty, and travelled to Nairobi which promised labour and good life. But due to discrimination of Africans, Murage, like many other Kikuyu youth, did not secure meaningful employment. He started making shoes and selling them in the streets.
What Murage did not know was that his new craft would be a solution to a biting problem for the Mau Mau: ease of movement by the Mau. Within the harsh mountain terrain, the Mau Mau war was not conventional, and fighters had to walk bare foot for long distances exposing themselves to injuries in the forest.
It is for this reason that the War Council decided to incorporate Murage into the Mau Mau regiments – but as a service provider. He was now the Mau Mau cobbler – a story that reveals the supply chain within the Mau Mau network.
Mau Mau shoe shop
Murage did not resist the offer. The Council established a shoe outlet in Nairobi’s River Road and installed Murage as the lead shop attendant. But this approach had several challenges. One of the biggest concerns with the Council was how to keep the shop operational without arousing government suspicion. The other concern was how the Council, through Murage, would sell shoes to Mau Mau members only without creating discontent from other communities – and non-Mau Mau members.
After opening the shop, a need for a code to identify Mau Mau members arose. How that need was addressed reveals the real degree of ingenuity in Mau Mau movement.
The Council developed a code for Mau Mau members. It was probably equivalent to contemporary discount codes issued by merchants.
Mau Mau members used to say: Wanyokabi, ndirenda iratu (Son of Nyokabi, I want shoes). They used to say that when there were no other people customers in the shop.
Murage understood this code as the unique identifier of freedom fighters. He would then proceed to sell shoes at a very low price. It was his contribution to the war.
Anyone without the code had a different price. Murage’s discriminative pricing model always kept non Mau Mau members out of the shop. Not many non members could afford the price.
For two years, the shop remained operational. It was a Mau Mau shoe store. It supplied shoes to many fighters in Mt. Kenya and Nyandarua Forests. According to records, Murage did not sell shoes for profits. He was in Nairobi making soft but important contribution to the Mau Mau war.
But in the late 1954, the government was informed of the shop’s activities. By this time, the British government had unsuccessfully employed many tactics, including crude methods, to contain Mau Mau. The country was under a State of Emergency but Mau Mau attacks remained live threats to Europeans living in Kenya.
Internationally, government capability to contain the war had a tainted image even after the incarceration of Mau Mau leaders in different prisons and detention centres across the country.
Murage’s arrest and detention
One morning, government troops descended on the shop and arrested Murage. The troops included white police officers and home guards. They thoroughly searched the shop and destroyed many pairs of shoes in the shop. The home guards stole some of the pairs of shoes while the White soldiers cut and destroyed many others.
Minutes after the government operation, Murage was taken to Langata Camp. When he arrived, the government ordered him to take off all his clothes. When he removed his underwear, he threw it to a white officer in a show of defiance to the colonialists. This landed him into immediate trouble.
The Europeans viciously beat Murage to unconsciousness. When he regained consciousness, he was forced into a pit filled with water. He remained there for three days. But the colonialists were not done with him yet.
Langata Camp administration decided to transfer him to Mackinnon Road Detention Camp. Before he left Langata, one European stabbed Murage on the back and shoulders with a bayonet. Murage boarded the lorry in pain and bleeding. There was more trouble ahead.
At Mackinnon Road Detention Camp, he met an old friend who betrayed him by disclosing that Murage belonged to Mau Mau. The government punished him by making Murage dig a hole 7 feet deep. Life in the camp became unbearable for Murage who lived as a marked man.
He remained unsure about his life and thought there was a plot to kill him. He did not wait for that moment.
Murage surveyed the Camp and identified a friendly warder and hatched an escape plan. With other two inmates, Murage raised Sh200 bribe for the warder. They escaped into the wild. But Murage changed his mind and returned to the Camp fearing being eaten by wild animals.
He was later transferred to Mageta in Kisumu.