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From thesis to record of unspeakable torture evidence that UK wanted buried

COUNTIES
By Machua Koinange | June 10th 2013
Mau Mau war veterans follow last week’s UK announcement on their compensation. [Photo: Tabitha Otwori/Standard]

By Machua Koinange

[email protected]

Kenya: Caroline Elkins stumbled on a box of files at the national archives almost by accident one day in 1990. She knew immediately there was something very wrong with her initial research brief. 

She went through the first batch of documents she found detailing the treatment of Mau Mau prisoners during the colonial era and was utterly shocked.

More than 20 years later, her research work is being credited with providing the crucial evidence that compelled the British Government to settle a multi-billion shilling lawsuit filed by Mau Mau war veterans out of court.

Her book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya was published in 2005. Its research laid the foundation for launching a full-scale investigation into atrocities committed by the British Government during the Mau Mau uprising.

Last week, the British Government reached a Sh2.6 billion settlement with 5,228 members of the Mau Mau war veterans association after a four-year battle in a London court. The suit filed by high profile British lawyer Martin Day, based its evidence against the British Government almost entirely on Prof Elkins research and subsequent book.

Momentous task

The settlement reached was as a result of a sustained onslaught by the law firm, Kenya Human Rights Commission and several lawyers who worked pro bono (for free) on the case. But Paul Muite, one of the leading activists behind the effort, credits Elkins for the successful outcome.

“Without her research work, we would not have been able to mount this suit,” Muite told The Standard. “The research portion was a momentous task and I credit Elkins for the success of filing the case. We recognised the research and preparatory work (to file the case) had to be perfect.”

Her book was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. In 2005, it was selected as one of The Economist’s best history books and was a New York Times editor’s choice. It was also a finalist for the Lionel Gelber Award.

What’s more, her research work was the subjects of the 2002 BBC documentary titled Kenya: White Terror, which was awarded the International Committee of the Red Cross Award at the Monte Carlos Film Festival.

The professor of History at Harvard University had arrived in Kenya in 1990, while doing her graduate work with Princeton University, with a preconceived notion.

“I arrived thinking the British Colonial rule and its handling of the Mau Mau had been greatly exaggerated. I certainly expected when I began my work that I was going to write a book about the success of British reforms with these camps. That was my pre-conceived notion,” she says.

She had based her notion on files she had seen in British archives. “They had detailed how the detention camps in Kenya had been successful with rehabilitation, and reforms and on the surface said nothing about torture. Or if they did it was a one off.”

Even more ironic, she had arrived in the country to work on something totally unrelated to the Mau Mau.

“I was researching on social change with Kikuyus from the period of pre-colonial to post-colonial. Somehow I just came across some of these files on detention camps.”

They were bits and pieces detailing treatment of Mau Mau prisoners in various detention camps. She was stunned. She looked for a book on this issue and found out nobody had written one.

So she spent about two years at the national archives going through documents and found one that confirmed systematised torture and that the British colonial Government knew that.

Her thesis suddenly did a sharp turn and went in a different direction. “It went from a thesis about social reforms to a thesis and a book about unspeakable torture and unimaginable cover-up in colonial Kenya.”

After her first visit, Elkins returned to Kenya in 1997, this time as a Fulbright scholar. “I spent about three years in the archives and several years interviewing victims who had been held in camps.”

She adds, “I was gathering pieces of historical evidence because the British Government had spent considerable effort to burn all the files and get rid of all the evidence.”

Which is astonishing because they were unable to destroy all the evidence. Even more, details of torture had over the years been lying in a nondescript box at the national archives for over four decades waiting to be discovered.

Her 10-year research work morphed into an exercise in historical reconstruction, says the mother of two boys. The painstaking work was brutally hard.

Sanitise conduct

A die-hard liberal, Elkins had her first dalliance with the Mau Mau during her university days. As an undergraduate student, she was fascinated with the way the movement was portrayed and misunderstood. “I was intrigued and I thought this is something intellectually and politically I was interested in.”

But something else had attracted her to the research. “In part, the politics played against Mau Mau victims. But also the nature of the historical evidence meant they took a considerable amount of time to put the story back together again.”

She debunks the fable that has done the rounds that she was first hired by the British Government to conduct research and sanitise the way the colonial Government treated Mau Mau.

Her research work used in court included more than 300 oral testimonies from survivors. She took hundreds of written documents and photographs.

These included newspaper and parliamentary reports as well as interviews with former colonial settlers, missionaries and police. “It took me ten years (to put all this together).”

It became the topic of her book. “My research proved the claimants were telling the truth. The suit was a combination of their testimony with actual documentation acquired over the years.”

Driven by the unshakable conviction that these veterans deserved justice, Elkins dived into her research work with gusto. The cause, she realised, was now much bigger than just her.

The spirits of such historical luminaries as Dedan Kimathi, General China and Stanley Mathenge were calling on her to take their battle forward. They were, after all, fallen giants who held a special place in Kenya’s pre-independence iconography.

She began her actual research for her book in 1997 and spent time in US, Britain and in Kenya in an effort that spanned three continents.

“I would spend time going through thousands of documents and sometimes find nothing. Nothing! And you despair and you think: Oh! There is nothing here.”

Terrible roads

And then there were days she would find one or two little pieces and it would inspire her to go on. Over the years, the mountain of evidence grew. “There was a lot of travelling (in Kenya). The most difficult miles were on the road when I did my interviews between Nairobi and Nanyuki.”

It was during the era when the Nairobi-Nyeri road was a microcosm of a lunar park. The road was in terrible shape and Elkins had to endure physical beating driving on the tortuous roads. “Those were the difficult miles going back and forth.”

The trip from Nairobi to Nyeri would take her six to seven hours. What’s worse, the road took its toll on an old battered Subaru car that she used on those trips.

Horrific torture

But the narrative from her research was amazingly consistent. It had woven into a tapestry of horrific torture, murder, fatal whipping, castration and even rape.

Despite the mounting evidence and the chatter created by the documentary and three years later her book, the British Government remained stubborn and impervious to demands by the claimants. The various stunning accounts of torture had over the years grown into an angry Mau Mau anthem.

Prof Elkins felt she had a moral responsibility in the case. “I felt I had a certain set of knowledge that nobody else did. It was a team effort, it required brilliant legal counsel. It was the perfect storm of all this coming together.”

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