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Politics of death: How Dedan Kimathi was captured

By -Peter Nguli
Updated Tue, June 4th 2013 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Peter Nguli

Nairo,Kenya:As we celebrate 50 years of self internal rule this week, let us remember the veterans who sacrificed their lives for this cause. One of the most notable freedom fighters was Dedan Kimathi. 

During the course of 1956 an extraordinary drama played out in the forests of the Kenyan Aberdare Range, as two men, Dedan Kimathi, a Kikuyu Mau Mau forest leader, feared in equal measure by friends and enemies alike, and Ian Henderson, a local Special Branch member and guerrilla hunter extraordinaire, enacted a deadly game of cat-and-mouse that marked the final death throe of one of Africa’s first authentic liberation struggles. The British colonial government that ruled Kenya at the time considered him a terrorist. 

Kimathi's early life

Dedan Kimathi Waciuri was born on 31 October 1920. He was hanged on 18 February 1957. He was a leader of the Mau Mau movement which led an armed military struggle known as the Mau Mau uprising against the British colonial government in Kenya in the 1950s. Kimathi was born in Thegenge Village Tetu division, Nyeri District. His father was polygamous and had 3 wives but he died before Kimathi was born. 

At the age of fifteen, he joined the local primary school, Karuna-ini, where he perfected his English skills. He would later use those language skills to write extensively before and during the uprising. He was a Debate Club member in his school. He was deeply religious and carried a Bible regularly. He worked for the forest department collecting tree seeds to help him foot his school bill. He later joined Tumutumu CSM School for his secondary learning, but dropped out for lack of funds. Notable was his enlisting with the army to fight in the Second World War in 1941. However, in 1944, he was expelled for misconduct. In 1946, he became a member of the Kenya African Union. In 1949, he started teaching at his old school Tumutumu, but left the job within two years.  

His plot of arrest

In 1956, he was finally arrested with one of his wives, Wambui. He was sentenced to death by a court presided by Chief Justice Sir Kenneth O'Connor, while he was in a hospital bed at the General Hospital Nyeri. In the early morning of February 18, 1957 he was executed by the colonial government. The hanging took place at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. 

To the white settler community of the time, anguished by a sudden and catastrophic rebellion against their very existence, the Mau Mau represented a reversionist, primal and unspeakably savage baring of the African soul. However, in contemporary Kenya, the Mau Mau has been reinvented as an inherently noble expression of native resistance, similar to many others that followed elsewhere in Africa, and sullied only in moments of extreme necessity by non-military violence.

The tale of the hunt for Kimathi, mounted by the Kenya Police, and spearheaded by one Ian Henderson, tells the story of one man’s utter determination to account for another against a backdrop of the generally bizarre and violent Mau Mau Rebellion.

By 1956 the offensive spirit of the Mau Mau had been lost. The imperial response had been so overwhelming and so accurately applied that the movement by then amounted to nothing more than a handful of remnant gangs roaming the vast forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares with no greater purpose than their own survival.  

Ian Henderson had by then began to deploy pseudo gangs to root out and run to ground these remnant units still remaining. The pseudos very rarely included blacked-up white men, but were in fact almost entirely made up of captured and turned guerrillas who returned to the forest to track down and capture or kill their former comrades. 

The operation to capture or kill Dedan Kimathi was undertaken on the understanding that only by his removal from the active theater could the matter of the Rebellion be finally laid to rest. Mau Mau no longer presented any particular threat to outside society, and in any case been superseded by the mainstream political process which was heading slowly but surely in the direction of majority rule, as it was throughout most of Africa, but so long as Kimathi remained at large the rebellion was active. 

Henderson, for his part, was quite obviously obsessed with bringing the famed guerrilla leader in, either dead or alive, quite as Kimathi was obsessed by his own survival. For this the guerrilla leader began to rely increasingly on his higher spiritual direction and the violent cleansing of his immediate corps of followers who needed only the most minor transgression of daily protocol to find themselves under suspicion of collaboration. 

The process to capture or kill Dedan Kimathi began with the capture of a pair of middle ranking fighters in the Aberdare forest in December 1955, in the broad vicinity of where Kimathi was known to be hiding. At that time it was estimated that there were fewer than 1500 active fighters remaining in the forest aligned to a handful of key leaders. Kimathi himself commanded a large following of extremely committed and ‘hard core’ fighters, with an inner circle of bodyguards whose loyalty was unimpeachable. 

‘Turning’ these two captures was not difficult. The development of pseudo gangs had shown from the onset that it was surprisingly easy to realign captured guerrillas, arm them and then send them back into the forest to operate against their former comrades. Part of the reason for this was that by the time pseudo ops came into concentrated use the balance had shifted and the Mau Mau were manifestly on the run. Survival in the forests had become extremely difficult once access to the Kikuyu Reserve had been cut by an airtight cordon, at which point continued existence became dependent on theft from white commercial farms or directly off the land within the forest. Internecine fighting had also become common as guerrilla units began to suspect one another, and as a consequence tended to keep as far away from one another as possible. The sheer difficulty of life, and the threat upon capture of a swift trial and the gallows, meant that when a reprieve was offered in exchange for cooperation it was rarely declined.

 

This small corps of able and knowledgeable men was added to over the course of 1956 as the loyal elements of the Mau Mau gradually diminished and more captures fell into the hands of Henderson and his force. Henderson himself played only a very limited active role, but it was he at the center of command who plotted the sequence of events the irrevocably tightened the noose around Kimathi’s neck. As more and more men were captured, and as Kimathi’s personal force diminished, his survival became dependent on his own reserves of personal cunning and incisive intelligence, along with what was universally recognized as extraordinary good luck – the luck that many around him attributed to his status of Ngai’s favored son. 

In October 1956 the drama ended with an isolated and surrounded Kimathi forced by hunger to leave the embrace of the forest and venture into the open country of the Kikuyu Reserve. There his luck finally deserted him and he was wounded by a Home Guard patrol and later arrested by elements of Henderson’s force. When he was captured, it is said that he was unable to urinate as the bullet had interfered with his bludder. He was finally executed. His subsequent trial in Nyeri and his execution were both events of intense international media interest, which in no small way helped to project a rather unpleasant and dangerous cult leader to the status of revolutionary and martyr to the cause of black liberation. His body was tossed into an unmarked pit presumably to destroy any chance that his followers may seek to make a shrine of it. 

Rest in preace Dedan Kimathi. In our hearts, you are still alive and you will never die. We will forever remember you for setting us free from the york of colonialism. We wish you a long live, Dedan Kimathi.


 

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