I was excited last week when I learned the High Court in London had ruled that a group of ex-fighters, now ageing and mostly ailing, could sue their former colonial master. It was through an old teacher of mine, Mr Gacahau, that I heard firsthand about the torture, brutality and general injustices committed against him and thousands of others during Kenya’s darkest years, 1952 to 1960. I last saw Mr Gacahau some 12 years ago in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, He was part of a noisy protest made up of a group of old men and women – all ex Mau Mau fighters and detainees – who had just presented a petition at the British High Commission with the support of human rights lobbies.He had taught me Swahili in high school, way back in mid 1980s. He barely barely remembered me, but he was excited when I told him I was a former student. Although he was happy, I was saddened to see how he had aged and how weather beaten he looked. Memories of the stories he used to tell mid Swahili lesson came flowing into my mind. He had joined the Mau Mau struggle for independence in 1953 as a teenager, barely 17, and had his education abruptly cut short to answer the call of duty to his country, joining fighters in Mount Kenya forest where he served and a messenger and ‘doctor’ to his brigade in the jungle.
He told us he attained some formal education and how, as well as drafting letters and keeping records for his brigade, he would serve as a ‘doctor’, mainly dressing the wounds of injured guerrilla fighters. What captivated me most about the tales he narrated to us was how he would, at times, collapse while walking due to exhaustion and days of sleepless nights while fleeing the bombardment of advancing British colonial troops and local loyalist police – the despised ‘home guards’.
Also enthralling to me were the tales of sheltering under trees during nights of heavy downpour and his later arrest followed by cruel prison life, torture and punishment for being a Mau Mau fighter, guilty of agreeing to sacrifice and join the quest for land and freedom. Many of these people went on to live in abject poverty, deprived of the basics of peasant life, such as land, after it was shared out in their absence while they engaged the superior British forces in combat – a huge irony considering that it was the theft of millions of acres by colonial settlers that had prompted them to take up arms.
Many also have to contend with poor health and, being elderly and with no health insurance, thousands have succumbed to disease in a country where a welfare system does not exist. While the British government has stated that it will be appealing the decision, I would wish to see, like their lawyer Martyn Day of Leigh Day, an out-of-court settlement on the matter before it is too late for these veterans.
They have had few opportunities in life. Independent Kenyan governments have ignored their plight, only making mention of their gallant efforts each year during the Mashujaa (heroes) Day celebrations. As a Kenyan, who knows many ex-fighters leading miserable lives even in my own village, I know the suffering these people have faced. I call on the authorities in London to do the right thing and drop the appeal.