BY KAMAU MUTUNGA
Women suffered most as their husbands were detained or jailed as others joined Mau Mau fighters in forests
The State of Emergency in Kenya created a social crisis and split up families. Men who were repatriated to the Native Reserves (read home districts) after being screened out of Nairobi later learnt that their wives sought reunion. But there was a problem: Gacheri now had seven children, up from three before Kang’ethe left during “Operation Anvil” that was meant to weed out Mau Mau informers, sympathisers and potential ‘passive’ recruits in the city.
The four additional mouths were likely sourced from different men in the years the State of Emergency lasted.
For the ‘Kikuyu Women in Nairobi’ who were knotted in the “system of concubinage” as they called it, “there is a tendency for the fathers of the resulting children to accept no responsibility for their offspring”.
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This was according to District Commissioner PM Hughes, writing on Christmas Eve 1958. The Kikuyu Women in Nairobi numbered over 3,000 and if not checked, would lead to “juvenile delinquency”.
While women in Nairobi were forced to cohabit as “temporary wives” as the only way of having a colonial government passport to stay in the city, those in rural areas around Karatina, Aberdares, Nyeri and Murang’a were grappling with biological ratios.
The State of Emergency saw men forcibly oathed into joining Mau Mau’s ‘Land and Freedom Army.’ Most took to the forest armed with homemade guns fashioned out of pipes, bolts and springs. This led to a surplus of women without potential husbands in the concentration camps created for not only further screening of suspected Mau Mau elements, but also for protecting the loyalists who were against Mau Mau’s armed struggle.
The disparity in male-to-female ratios in the camps was sorted by the ‘screened’ city men flocking from a one-way ticket to say, Mwea Camp. There, they mopped up the ‘surplus.’ Three to four wives was a standard household before the Emergency ended – and the wife in Nairobi came calling with surplus children. This created a reunion headache, with hilarious asides for government officers tasked with carrying out the Kikuyu Family Reunion Scheme. Those seeking reunion with husbands in Nyeri were in a fix as JD Campbell, the DC, wrote to RA Wilkinson, the officer-in-charge Nairobi Extra Provincial District, clarifying that their husbands had remarried “and do not consider their relationships with their former wives binding”.
In any case, Campbell wrote on January 14, 1959, “An unhappy urbanised woman will never settle in the reserve and will spend a life in jail for returning to the city without permission and the children will suffer considerably.”
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And even if they did not wish to return to Nairobi, Wilkinson observed that for the Kikuyu women there would be a “possibility of getting into trouble owing to the presence of a large number of additional children”.
Measures were taken to ensure reunions continued cheek by jowl, just like the ‘system of concubinage’. The Machakos DC wrote that “Kikuyu wives of Kamba men may be permitted to join their husbands provided that the husbands applied for a permit.” This June 1957 directive warned that the “Committee decided the wives would not be allowed to enter the district and search for their husbands”.
PM Hughes, Nyeri DC by 1959, wrote on April 1 that husbands must be willing to accept their wives (with excess baggage) and that the wives must be willing to return.
“Under these conditions I am perfectly willing to co-operate fully” despite the many cases of fake relatives that was aggravated by communication barriers as “it is almost impossible to obtain from illiterate Kikuyu women the exact whereabouts of their relatives”.
The DC in Murang’a was not enthusiastic as the problem of “landless, homeless destitutes is as acute in Fort Hall (Murang’a) as anywhere else” and he did “not wish to aggravate it here,” he wrote to Wilkinson on June 5, 1957.
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Despite reaching “saturation point” the DC in Naivasha experienced no heartburn reuniting families from Nairobi as long they were “checked” by the Special Branch.
The only people in the colony he could not accept were “young men as I already have a surplus who are a constant embarrassment to the Labour Office and myself. By young men I mean anyone of kipande age.”