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Where did Mau Mau fighters hide from colonialists?

My Man
 First President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta with the Mau Mau: Photo; Courtesy

Many know the names of the fighters who so relentlessly resisted colonial rule but little is known of their perilous efforts to survive nights and days spent in dark, bat infested caves deep inside the forest.

Tomorrow is Mashujaa Day, the day when we celebrate heroes living among us and those gone from us. It is also the day we remember the struggle for Kenya’s independence.

A key part of doing this is looking at all that went towards making Kenya a sovereign state and more-so the role played by a rag-tag outfit who called themselves Mau Mau, who were responsible for widespread resistance against colonial rule.

So far reaching was their influence that in October 1952, the British colonial regime in Kenya announced a state of emergency and launched a spirited effort to flush out the men, and a handful of women, who had left their homes and retreated into the nearby Mt Kenya and Aberdare forests.

From deep within these forests and often under the cover of darkness, the Mau Mau would launch their offensive against the colonialists and their loyalists, agitating for independence.

To survive, they transformed some naturally occurring caves within the forests into strategic hiding spots and base of operations, catering to guerrilla fighters from Nyeri, Meru and Kirinyaga Counties.

 Mau Mau engaged in hard labor: Photo; Courtesy

The caves, at the foot of Mt Kenya, also served as hospitals for wounded fighters and home to hundreds others.

Nyeri is home to arguably the most revered Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi, who hailed from Tetu. Other renowned fighters include Stanley Mathenge and Waruhiu Itote alias General China.

Sadly, apart from the names of these fighters, little else is known of their perilous efforts to survive nights and days spent in dark, bat-infested caves deep inside the forest.

Mathenge Wairigi, 84, who was part of the insurgency alongside Gititi Kabutu alias General Kariba, said they often had encounters with wild animals as they hid in the caves.

Wairigi says he was part of the team that took cover in caves located in Naru Moru, which served as the makeshift headquarters for the Hika Hika battalion that carried out raids on settler farms around Nyeri and Nanyuki.

The freedom fighter says they played a cat-and-mouse game with colonial soldiers who would often accompany home-guards in an effort to trace their hide-outs.

“Our hideout was discovered after one of the people sent to find out our location saw smoke coming out of the caves. We had no idea that we had been spotted until we heard planes flying overhead and bombs being dropped as they flushed us out. Many of our soldiers lost their lives that day,” he says.

 Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima and Dedan Kimathi: Photo; Courtesy

Today, huge boulders block the entrance to these caves, leaving just a tiny space for one to maneuver their way through. Inside, one can see sections dug out to serve as sleeping areas.

The Naru Moru Caves are just one of several naturally-occurring caves that served as hideouts for the freedom fighters. There are similar ones in Nanyuki, near a waterfall along the Burguret River.

In Marua, on the Nairobi-Nanyuki Highway, are another series of caves connected with tunnels also said to have been the hideout and base of operation of General Kariba.

The Kariba caves are located in a wetland with a rocky and treacherous terrain along River Ruui Ruiru in Mathira sub-county. They are shielded by a canopy of nearby trees and are strategically located near the river that flows into tunnels running underneath connecting the numerous caverns.

One of the tunnels leads to a nearby village and according to Charles Mathenji, a local guide, was used by the Mau Mau to replenish their supplies before retreating into their hideouts.

“Kariba and his fighters would use this tunnel to get to a nearby African settlement where he would get medical supplies and food. The fighters had spies, who mainly included women and children, who would whistle to warn them when the collaborators and members of King’s African Rifles were approaching,” Mathenji said.

The Kariba caves are shielded from view by small waterfalls and inside the biggest cave there is a table and chair fashioned out of rock.

At weekends, Mathenji says, the site is popular with local tourists - mainly adventure-seekers - who visit to hike and picnic.

The caves would have been mostly inaccessible in the 1950s at the height of the state of emergency, but even now with the mountainside cleared to allow for farming, it takes a decent amount of effort to access the site.

Apart from coming in through the tunnels, Mathenji said, the Mau Mau entered the caves using dangling roots that acted as ropes and ladders.

From their hideouts, they would launch surprise attacks on European farms, security posts and individuals who were loyal to the colonialists.

“They had a vast knowledge of the forest and had the caves to shield them from attacks. The fighters were at an advantage and were able to resist colonialism for a long time,” Mathenji said.

However, in October 1954, General Kariba was arrested. His trial formally opened on November 10, 1954 and was found guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition. He was sentenced to death. His appeal was quashed on December 20, 1954 and he was hanged on January 6, 1955 at night.

On September 4, 2012, the Kariba caves were gazetted by the National Museums of Kenya as a national heritage site.

Nyeri has an abundance of sites where the uprising was staged. It is estimated there are 50 gazetted sites and monuments in the region. They include the place where Dedan Kimathi was shot in Karunaini, the Mau Mau Graves in Kiawara and a Mugumo tree which was used to send messages in the Aberdare Forest.

Riringu Stadium has also been marked as the site where freedom fighters assembled from the forest to surrender their arms, signaling the end of the uprising.

The Mau Mau Museum in Nyeri has attempted to preserve some of the relics of the fight for independence.

 Mukami Kimathi widow to former freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi: Photo; Courtesy


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