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How prisoners broke free from Mageta island

By | December 11th 2011

By Amos Kareithi

The impregnable volcanic rock provides unshakable foundation for an island that nature never intended to support much life. Armies of mosquitoes and tsetse flies jealously guard the land to discourage any form of human habitation.

The rocky grounds occasionally support patches of dense thickets where the rock grudgingly gives

Some of the remaining cells where Mau Mau detainees were locked up. They were forced to perform hard labour by constructing roads and schools.

way to arable soils, as scary gigantic monitor lizards and snorting hippos patrol the waters.

Mageta Island was never meant to be a holiday destination; the colonialists who exploited its natural settings put up what they perceived to be an impregnable prison where escape was impossible.

When Nyanza PC, C H Williams, and his bosses alienated all the 2,500 acres of land, transforming Mageta into an island of political illusion and desperation, they thought nature had gifted them a prison for hard-core Mau Mau freedom fighters. But they were wrong.

The island, located three miles off the shores of Yimbo, and about eight miles northwest west of Port South, was chosen in 1953 as the best spot to lock up 2,000 political prisoners who were agitating for freedom.

A tour around the island demonstrates why the colonialists were convinced it was not humanly possible to break away from this natural prison.

There are no natural landing bases within site and the route to the island from Usenge is a high rocky cliff. Any stranger approaching Mageta from Lake Victoria from whatever direction can be sighted from a very long distant.

Historian William Robert Ochieng’ in his book, Historical Studies and Social Change in Western Kenya: Essays in Memory of Professor Gideon S Were, describes the state of the prison designed for political undesirables.

The late Nyandarua North MP, J M Kariuki captures the hopelessness of his colleagues: "Grim waters full of hungry crocodiles surrounded the detainees. There was no question of escape and we despaired of ever seeing our blue hills, red soil and crumpled valleys."

Hopes for rehabilitation

When the Government shipped off the political detainees to the island, it hoped to rehabilitate them by making them work hard in a strange land where they were linguistically and culturally isolated.

Stephen Dodo, whose father was a chief when Mau Mau detainees escaped from Mageta Island.

To the locals, the longhaired, dirty looking prisoners appeared dangerous and the Government outlawed any form of socialisation to avert political contamination.

As it turned out, there is no fence that is high or strong enough to separate human beings from interacting. The Government’s best-laid plans came to waste after two years when some of the prisoners cultivated friendship with the residents of Usenge.

Although the prisoners were always under guard, the Government on various occasions ferried prisoners from Mageta to Usenge where they were forced to perform hard labour by constructing roads and schools.

Ochieng’ explains that some of the prisoners were forced to dig Usenge Bondo Road while others worked at Usenge and Sanda Primary schools.

One of the detainees, Waruru Kanja, a former Cabinet minister, is recorded as using this budding friendship to explain to the locals that the prisoners were not criminals but freedom fighters.

In the meantime, mutual needs between fishermen and prisoners defied Government’s strict surveillance especially when some fishermen visited Mageta where they were strictly supposed to deal with officers manning the camp.

Such a relationship enabled a clandestine barter trade where fishermen brought rare items such as tobacco, cigarette and sugar to the prisoners in exchange of cash and pangas, utensils and blankets pilfered from the camp.

In the course of a casual relationship, the prisoners and fishermen conspired to stage a prison break.

Three fishermen, Onimbo Haulu, Asura Ayau Jariyo Ogutu, who had been frequenting the island and 11 detainees in 1955, hatched the plot.

Hatched plot

The deal was that the fishermen would assist the prisoners’ bolt from the island and be paid with an undisclosed amount of money and blankets.

However, there was a hitch because Onimbo, who historian Ochieng’ describes as a mountain of a man with a quick and unpredictable temper, refused to co-operate.

Onimbo, too, jeopardised the operation because he refused to allow his canoe to be used in the escape, to the disappointment of his two colleagues. Details of Onimbo’s refusal to co-operate were communicated to the prisoners, who vowed to tackle the problem immediately.

On February 5,1956, as Onimbo was unwittingly resting by the shores of Lake Victoria in Mageta, 11 prisoners emerged from a thicket and descended on him with machetes, hacking him to pieces.

According to Ochieng’s account of the event, what followed was a brutal attack of the defiant fisherman and his body parts and blood used in a ritual to bind all the conspirators to the crime.

His dismembered body was hidden in a bush and that night, under the cover of darkness, the prisoners eluded the prying eyes of their warders and escaped through a canoe to Usenge. Once they hit the mainland at Usenge, the Mau Mau detainees vanished but a massive hunt by the authorities led to the killing of three fugitives.

One of three of the escapees, Jotham Njoroge, was killed by irate residents in Alego while his two colleagues were finished in Sakwa. However, sympathetic residents assisted the rest to escape. Stephen Dodo, 75,vividly remembers the palpable fear that hung over Usenge on the day Onimbo was killed and security agents pursued the escapees.

Recalls Dodo, "We did not know who to fear most between the Mau Mau and the police. Everybody was very frightened. We had been told that the Mau Mau killed and drank human blood as they had done to Onimbo who was a well-known fisherman. My village was swarming with security agents searching for the escapees."

In the midst of all this confusion, Dodo recalls his father, Blasio Mbira, pleading with the people not to antagonise the escapees, as they were dangerous and armed.

"My father feared there would be a lot of bloodshed and told the locals not to resist the Mau Mau detainees as they escaped on foot.

That is why no more blood was shed," the old man adds.

After the escape, Mageta gained prominence in London as Members of Parliament demanded explanation regarding the detainees living conditions.

On July 24, 1956, Viscount Stangate demanded to know the reason for increased security in the island and whether Mau Mau detainees who had not been convicted of any offence were being subjected to forced labour.

The secretary of colonies, Lord Lloyd responded that the special detention camp in Mageta was at the time holding 1995 Mau Mau adherents to maintain public order.

Refusal to work

"Those now on Mageta Island have hitherto shown little response to rehabilitation. Mageta Island is a potentially valuable agricultural area covered with thick bush that is being cleared by detainees who are paid for the work they do".

He however explained that since June 22, some of the detainees had refused to work, frustrating the Government’s commitment to rehabilitate them.

"Experience has shown that it is difficult to rehabilitate any detainee not given work to do, and an investigation was therefore carried out in order to identify the ringleaders."

Consequently, security authorities identified and isolated 209 ringleaders so as to prevent the passive resistance erupting into an open violent rebellion.

This sparked a riot that saw an estimated 800 prisoners confront their jailers with wooden planks and pieces of firewood while the security agents used batons and guns.

Ultimately, the Government won the battle by denying the rebellious prisoners food and later succeeded in isolating the ringleaders who were later dispatched to other camps.

Commenting on the issue of forced labour, JM Kariuki is quoted saying that withholding of labour by the detainees was a tool to pressurise the Government to stop exploiting detainees who had not been found guilty of crime.

The Government explained to Parliament in London that it had invoked detention without trial powers because it had been extremely difficult to get witnesses to sustain charges against Mau Mau suspects."

Owing to the hue and cry raised over the mistreatment of detainees at Mageta, as way back as March 1957, the Government was contemplating closing it down.

Allan Lenox Boyd told Parliament on March 13, 1957 that the Government was planning to close down the infamous camps within six months. It has been 55 years since the Onimbo tragedy and the bloody confrontations witnessed in Mageta but little has changed. The roles played by Ayau and Ogutu, who died from unknown causes, have since become distant memories.

Majority of the cells that housed the unrepentant freedom fighters have crumbled down but a few unkempt tin and brick shacks remain, dotting the Mageta, overlooking Sirigombe Island. Mageta Island today has an estimated population of 5,000: it is served by10 motorbikes and a tuk tuk that acts as the ambulance.

No conventional vehicle has plied the village’s unpaved paths. But like Onimbo and their ancestors long before them, fishermen still visit the island where they relax by telling tales of the island, and the powerful spirits hovering all over.

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