How Mwea was immortalised as Kenya's headquarters of torture

1,000 hardcore Mau Mau freedom fighters were broken in Mwea, Kirinyaga County. [iStockphoto]

When controversial Embakasi East MP Babu Owino was driven to the nondescript Wang'uru Police Station in Mwea, Kirinyaga County, his travails evoked memories of a dark era which had a while back catapulted the area into the national limelight. 

Mwea, conjures up images of tortured freedom fighters being stripped naked by overbearing white colonial officers hell-bent to make them disown their freedom struggle.

It was in this same place, 66 years ago where 1,000 hardcore Mau Mau freedom fighters were literally broken.

The evil genius who was given the task of breaking up these battle-hardened men was a 35-year-old Indian-born Irishman, Terence Gavaghan. He recruited 200 Kikuyu collaborators to work on the freedom fighters.

Gavaghan had been recruited in March 1957 at the age of 37 to experiment "The Dilution Method". This was a physical and psychological method of torture which secret government memos describe as “use of force in enforcing discipline in detention camps.

One of Gavaghan's most illustrious assistants was Jeremiah Gitau Kierieni.

He demonstrated this method to awed senior government officials during a visit to Mwea. The officials meticulously documented the procedure as Mau Mau detainees poured their guts out.

“…. after shaving their heads with clippers, the detainees were forced to change into camp clothes. Any who showed any reluctance to do so were hit with fists or slapped with open hand... in some cases, defiance was more obstinate. Three or four European officers immediately converged on the man and 'rough-housed' him.

The 'rough housing' meant stripping the man naked by tearing his clothes hitting him and on occasion wrestling him to the ground.

If the freedom fighter still resisted more punishment was administered on the head and abdomen and ultimately mud would be pumped into his mouth as one of the officers stepped on his neck

“The performance was deliberate, calculated and robust assault accompanied by constant imperative demands that the man should do as was told and change his clothes, reads a secret memo prepared by the Attorney General to the governor and the colonial secretary.

Gavaghan was so effective in crashing the Mau Mau detainees that he was honoured with a Member of the Order of the British Empire. He had to go to Buckingham Palace to accept it from the Queen. The governor, Evelyne Barring, justified the award with a citation: "You did an extremely difficult key job admirably."

His understudy, Kiereini would later rise to become head of civil service although he was never able to completely shake off the ghosts of Mwea up to the time of his death in May 2019, aged 90. 

His former boss, Cavanagh, was equally haunted by his misdeeds in Mwea even after he was later promoted to be an undersecretary and ironically led an independent Kenya in Africanisation where 10,000 Civil Service jobs were assigned to Africans, including the former Mau Mau freedom fighters he had tortured.

In a BBC documentary 'Kenya: White Terror', he graphically described the manipulative force he had used such as rape, explaining that at times some of the detainees were hung upside down while being shaved... and with the trousers pulled off. 

Although he confessed to having processed over 20,000 Mau Mau detainees, he menacingly stared at the BBC interviewer and at one point declared that he had no regrets about what he had done in Mwea, insisting that no prisoner ever died from his manhandling.

Cavanagh is dead, Kiereini too and all the 200 collaborators who made detainees' lives hell in Mwea.

Some of the detainees who could not be broken by Cavanagh were condemned to labour in Mwea Irrigation Scheme which is now the headquarters of Kenya’s pishori rice. However, the struggle for greater human rights in Kenya continues.