When the British colonialists declared the State of Emergency in 1953, it marked the start of what were called colonial villages in many parts of Central Kenya.
One such case is Gicagi village in Nyeri, Mathira constituency, which was used as a detention camp by the British during the emergency period.
Afterwards, people were relocated back to their lands but there are some who still live there and in poverty.
Not far away in a place called Kiricu, still in Nyeri county, and Warazo Jet colonial village, in Kieni constituency, where residents are still demanding for title deeds of the small pieces of land they live on.
At least 840 villages were set up by the colonial government across the Central region with Nyeri hosting the highest number at 220.
Documentation at Nyeri Lands offices as of 2021 showed by 2013,116 villages — occupying 983 acres — with 6,583 households were still in existence.
On July 18, 2017, then President Uhuru Kenyatta — whose father was Kenya’s Founding President — said there would be no squatters under his government, a promise that remains unfulfilled.
THE MAKING OF COLONIAL VILLAGES
At the height of the Mau Mau Rebellion, British colonialists resorted to the concentration camps as a strategy to weaken the fighters.
The idea was to create a barrier between residents and the fighters in the forest reserve area, which was around the Mt Kenya Forest. This is because the residents would give support, feed and hide the Mau Mau fighters.
As a result, people living on their own land were rounded up – the old, women and children – and taken to concentration camps. Some live in these villages to date.
Interviews pieced together from the elderly still living there and those who have since moved out show the extent of the violations of human rights that happened.
The British government in 2013 apologized for the atrocities, saying it recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration”.
“The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place,” then British High Commissioner to Kenya Christian Turner said.
Once people were forcibly removed, their houses were torched and the forest reserve that had been occupied bombarded with bombs to kill the Mau Mau fighters who might have hidden there, David Gitari, 84, recalls.
They were taken to Gatung’ang’a, Ruguru Ward, Nyeri county. This is the ward that produced the first professor in Central Kenya Prof Godfrey Maina Nyaguthie, and Marathon Champion Catherine Ndereba and the current Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua.
This particular concentration camp still bears the name Gicagi (village).
“It was brutal. First, there were no houses and we were divided into three sections of the village – Kwa Gatangi, Kwa Reuben and Kwa Kiama – to make our own houses,” Wanjiru Githui, who said she is almost 90 years at the time of the interview, said in an interview.
These sections were named after individuals who acted as their headmen.
Gitari collaborates this, saying within these sections, people were grouped into five households to make a house. “So squeezed was it that the place you would use as kitchen would later be used to put sacks that were used as mattresses,” Gitari said.
“During the day, we were forced to dig a 20X10 feet trench to border the settlement areas and the forest reserve as communal punishment. In this wide trench, we were also to erect wooden spikes (nyambo) so that the Mau Mau would not cross over to where people were for food and other supplies,” Gitari explained.
The spikes were made by sharpening sticks and erecting them on the ground level so that if you jumped in to the trench, you were immobilised.
Within the camps, there were no toilets. People were thus forced to dig a trench on which logs were placed across to act as latrines. People were to collect the human waste every morning as punishment and if you refused, you would be whipped by the home guards. There were also no hospitals and if one died, they were buried in shallow graves just behind the village.
Wanjiru remembers that at one time she was arrested and taken to what were called screening camps in a place called Kiamachimbi near Karatina town. It was a torture camp where anyone suspected to be a Mau Mau fighter or supporter/ sympathiser were taken there for questioning.
In her case, she was suspected of taking the Mau Mau oath (kunyua muuma) and after days of “screening” she and her child fell sick. They were released but, on her way, back, her child died. With nothing else to do, she buried him on the roadside and placed a sisal plant on the shallow grave (which was the practice). She would not have had an opportunity for a decent burial back in the camp.
The home guards were used to instil fear among residents.
Gitari and Wanjiru separately recalled an incident where a home guard called Gititi wa Kibaara aka Karoba killed seven people, one whom he knew personally, for being suspected of being Mau Mau fighters.
Their bodies were taken round the colonial village to instil fear. Other villages around included Ngaini, Kianjogu, Matathiini, Kiamariga and Kabiruini all within the district.
After years of torture and suffering, the state of emergency was lifted and people were allowed to go back to their farms. However, there was demarcation or what they called the land consolidation. This is where if you had several parcels of land in different places, they were merged. This is how homesteads changed.
There are those, however, who did not manage to go back to their land because their houses were destroyed or their parents died in the village.
Wanjiru says the land left by the husband was too small that she opted to remain in the village and divide the parcel into two for her two sons.
Gitari explains that the Mau Mau plan was to chase the colonialists from the White Highlands they had grabbed and the land be redistributed among them and those who had been displaced. This did not happen.
So, when the fighters came out of the forest, they found their land redistributed and had nothing for themselves.
Those who were arrested and hanged, jailed or killed in the battlefield had nothing to leave for their families. That also informs why many generations of the Mau Mau are landless.
Among the Mau Mau fighters known in Nyeri include General China (Waruhiu wa Itote), Gen Tanganyika (Muriuki wa Kamotho), Brig Batabatu (Mitambo wa Gichuki), Kimathi and Gitu wa Kahengeri. They were spread across GEMA (Gikuyu, Embu, Meru).
Despite then President Kenyatta’s promise, the process of demarcation has been slow and painful.
In Gatung’ang’a, the demarcation happened but there were delays in issuance of titles at the Nyeri Lands Office.
Nyeri county Department of Lands, Physical Planning, Housing and Urbanization said it had acquired three units of SP80 GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) equipment and Automatic Level Machines to carry out survey of the colonial villages.
The exercise would help resettle citizens living in eight colonial villages in the second phase of the project.
“Mapping has been tedious in the past with a lot of delays and inaccuracies reported by residents. The beneficiaries have been living in dingy houses posing fears of evacuation from private landowners since independence. Those benefitting are drawn from Kiamwathi, Gitathini, Ihwagi, Gitero, Gikomo Mweiga, Ragati, Miiri and Chorong’i with a population of 4, 790,” the county coordinator said.
It said six colonial villages residents in Gatitu, Kihatha, Riamukurwe, Muruguru, Kihuyo and Kiarithaini were issued with 400 title deeds which benefitted about 2, 000 people.
There are ongoing plans seeking to give land to Mau Veterans through the Dedan Kimathi Foundation. The foundation, which is headed by Freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi;s daughter Wanjigu Kimathi, seeks to buy 12,000 acres of land in Rumuruti, Laikipia County, to resettle those rendered jobless by the British. The foundation is an initiative of sons and daughters of former freedom fighters.