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My encounter with the man who shot Dedan Kimathi

By MACHUA KOINANGE | Published Sun, October 20th 2013 at 00:00, Updated October 20th 2013 at 13:12 GMT +3
                                            People who arrested Kimathi are awarded in Nyeri

By MACHUA KOINANGE

I first met Ndirangu Mau one afternoon in late May 1985 in Kongaini village, about ten kilometers from Nyeri town. I was then a high school correspondent working for a local newspaper and looking for my first big story.

 Ndirangu, then 79, was a frail old man trapped behind a mask of pain, his faced wrinkled and aged with ordeal. He was like any ordinary elderly man in the sunset years of his life, probably waiting for a glowing epitaph to illustrious life’s journey.

But Ndirangu was no was ordinary old man. He was the man who on October 21, 1956 shot freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi and his life changed forever. For close to 29 years he had remained silent, living off his years under a cloud of resentment and shame that had also been transferred to his children.

He had been shunned and pilloried by local villagers for shooting the man who held a special place in Kenya’s history. His children had been treated as outcasts in school and his family had lived on a small piece of land under a cloud of suspicion and shame.

His existence had been tipped to me by Joe Kimathi, (now Al Amin Kimathi, chairman at Muslim Human Rights Forum - Muhuri) then a journalist based in Nyeri. Kimathi had intimated after a long search that the man was actually alive. Would I be interested in telling his story?

I jumped at the offer immediately.

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A set of intermediaries had been set up to convince the old man to tell all. This would be an opportunity to open his soul and explain why he had done “the unthinkable” and subjected his family to a life under a shadow of agony and pain. His neighbors were blunt and brutal and they let his family remember that every national holiday when Kenyatta day was celebrated.

Ndirangu was reluctant at first to tell his story. I arrived in Nyeri and waited for close to three days, growing impatient and close to disappointment as our intermediary negotiated with the old man. After persuasion from a neighbour and his family, I was informed that he had finally relented.

We hired a taxi and drove to Kongaini, a sleepy village on the ridges of the Aberdares where dairy keeping and subsistence farming was common. It was here that Ndirangu had lived in near isolation.

 The first time he came out of his house for a sit down interview, it was clear his health was failing. He was on his final lap. He looked frail and his face wrinkled. He wore a cap, sweater and jacket even though it was a sunny day.

He walked in feverish half steps, his body clinging to a walking stick. With great difficulty he somehow rested his tired body on a three legged stool. Several times he coughed, removed a handkerchief and wiped his face. His nose was crinkled, his eyes were misty and occasionally squinting.

“I shot Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi,” he announced to me in a hoarse voice, fighting an annoying cough. “I captured him and ever since then, my life has been different.”

His recollection of the events that early morning 57 years ago was astounding. Ndirangu was a member of the colonial homeguards, and was considered a traitor working for the colonial Government as a tribal police officer.

But he was granting me an interview, and the only media interview I believe he ever granted to any journalist because he felt it was the right time to speak about the events of that morning in the forest that changed the course of Kenya’s history.

“I am confessing what I did because my days are numbered,” he told me. “I feel the truth has to be told about Kimathi and the freedom movement in general.” He said he was doing this for posterity so that future generations could appreciate what happened in the forest.

Mau had joined the Tribal Police in 1940 at a salary of Sh60 a month to help the colonial government maintain peace in tribal settlements.  He patrolled villages around Nyeri, Karatina and Ihururu looking for Mau Mau. Ndirangu told me he joined the colonial forces and not the freedom fighters because he thought it would “help ease the tension between the two forces”. He hoped that he would somehow “help the white man understand Africans were angry about the loss of their land.”

As the crackdown on Mau Mau reached its zenith, Ndirangu remembered the hunt for Kimathi becoming more intense. He confessed to me that he never knew Kimathi and would probably not have recognised him if they met.

“The evening before we had spread out near Chania River along tree top salient as the hunt (for Kimathi) came to a close,” he told me. Ndirangu remembers that he had spent the night of October 21 on patrol in the forest looking for Mau Mau fighters.

After a fruitless night they had split into two groups and spent the night near a road. They woke up early to head back to camp.

Ndirangu was accompanied by another home guard, Njiru.

The Aberdare Forest was a tapestry of sickly wafting mist. As it cast an eerie pall over the forest, it slowly gave way to an ethereal glow of light over the swaying trees.

At around 6.30am they saw a glimpse of something. It was man attempting to cross a ditch carrying a bundle. He recalls: ” We shouted at him to stop but he started running. I fired and missed. I ran after him alone and fired again but missed as he disappeared into the woods.”

Ndirangu could hear the footsteps of his prey in the distance. He continued: ” I followed hot on his heels and caught sight of him as he tried to jump over a ditch. I fired, this time I caught him.”

He heard his victim howl in agony. He raced after him. “I followed cautiously as I wasn’t sure what condition he was in.”

Ndirangu found some disturbed shrubs that indicated his victim had passed there. He said he was scared to death. He approached the ditch, his view obscured by bushes. His gun was trained, ready and on the trigger. There was nothing. He thought his prey had escaped. And then he looked down and was completely petrified.  “I looked down and saw a man lying in the ditch bleeding.”  It appeared his victim had belly-crawled into the trench.

Recalls Ndirangu: “I had shot him on his right thigh. He was wearing a leopard skin. His bundle of sugarcane was lying next to him. He was holding a panga in one hand.”

The man had dreadlocks and looked everything Mau Mau. His leg was bleeding. Ndirangu towered over him, quivering in fear and his gun trailed and ready.

He studied the man, perplexed. Finally he asked in Gikuyu:

“Who are you?”

“Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi Waciuri”.

Ndirangu was stunned.

Here was the man whose very name sent shivers down the spine of the colonialists; the man lionised and revered as the leader of the insurgency.

There was an awkward silence.

Kimathi asked him:” Are you the one who shot me?”

“Yes.”

“Ni wega (Its okay).” Kimathi replied, resigned to his fate and in pain.

What followed next is what changed the course of the Mau Mau movement and Kenya’s history. Ndirangu yelled for back-up and several other homeguards appeared on the scene. They were astounded at Ndirangu’s catch.

They made a stretcher from wood and helped carry the wounded freedom fighter to the Ihururu camp where the news of the capture had already spread like bushfire.

The iconic image of Kimathi lying on a stretcher surrounded by colonial officers illustrates the importance of his capture. The colonial Government printed over 100,000 leaflets in Gikuyu and 20,000 in Kiswahili announcing Kimathi’s capture. They distributed them in Central and Rift valley province in an attempt to demoralise the remaining fighters.

The lives of the two men went different paths as they parted ways at Ihururu camp. Kimathi went on to assume heroic status, immortalised in the country’s history books.

Ndirangu retreated to life as a villain.

Kimathi was charged in Nyeri with being in possession of a firearm, a .38 Webley Scott revolver, even though Ndirangu never narrated finding one on him when he captured Kimathi.

On November 27, 1956 Kimathi was sentence to hang. He was subsequently executed on February 18, 1957 at Kamiti Prison.

Ndirangu received a share of the 500 British pounds (equivalent to Ksh1.4m at current exchange rate and adjusted for inflation) which was the bounty on Kimathi’s head.

During my visit, I spotted a dilapidated and abandoned truck in Ndirangu’s home. The truck was buried in a mound as it had not moved in decades. It was one of the many things he bought with the reward money but could not enjoy.

The community turned on him with anger and resentment, treating him like Judas. His family bore the brunt of the society’s rage.

His children were treated as outcasts in school and physically bullied. Ndirangu Mau died in 1986.

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