By AMOS KAREITHI
The opaque window throws back the light from the sinking sun, blocking the world from accessing its secrets, but the echoes of its dark past have been immortalised.
Except for the grey plaque whose tiny black letters engraved on the metal plate give a brief account of the proceedings that took place within its walls 60 years ago, the room is otherwise ordinary.
It could be mistaken as part of one of the many within the imposing brick-red building. This room inside Chewoyet High School was the theatre of Kenya’s most controversial legal battle, whose outcome changed the destiny of this country forever.
These were the times when every word uttered inside this room was repeated around Kenya, Britain and the rest of the western world as one of the most vicious legal battles were fought inside.
- 1 Brilliant lawyer who dared to defend Mau Mau accused
- 2 Thrill like no other as Kenya fetes heroes
- 3 No freedom yet as Kubai’s family fights for property
- 4 Veteran politician had colourful career
Standing out of the window just next to a solitary tree, one can almost imagine white hot-tempered police officers menacingly pacing up and down, on the lookout for troublesome blacks.
Inside, the voices of the defence counsel and the prosecutor were drowned by the gavel of the agitated judge who was eager to conclude the day’s session and retreat to his room in Kitale. Kenyatta and six other Kenyans were brought here as suspected criminals but became martyrs who attained national fame and became the rallying point for freedom struggle.
For 58 days, Judge Ainsely Thacker would be driven to the courtroom amidst tight security, while the men he was judging would be brought in shackles.
It was inside the small room that heated arguments erupted as the state counsel sought to prove that the six men on the dock were criminals who deserved to be locked away from the rest of humanity. After listening to the arguments presented by the opposing sides, Judge Thacker made his pronouncements.
The British Broadcasting Corporation at the time had unfettered access to the courtroom. It was to tell an expectant world that Kenyatta had been sentenced to seven years in jail and hard labour, being the leader of the rebel Mau Mau movement.
During the tension packed proceedings, the road from Kitale to Kapenguria was heavily guarded and one had to be given a special pass by the Government to access the town from other parts of the country. Members of the public and the media were searched by mean faced security agents before entering the building, while armed guards patrolled outside during the trial.
Judge Thacker specifically singled out Kenyatta, as he told the hushed courtroom: “You (Kenyatta) have plunged many Africans back to a state which shows little humanity. You have persuaded them in secret to murder, burn and commit atrocities that will take many years to forget. Make no mistake, Mau Mau will be defeated.”
His co-accused, Fred Kubai, Achieng’ Aneko, Bildad Kaggia, Paul Ngei and Kung’u Karumba were only given a footnote reference as the station reported how they too were sentenced to seven years of hard labour for assisting in the management of Mau Mau.
Throughout the trial, Kenyatta and his colleagues had vehemently denied the charges, insisting they had been championing the oppression of Africans, but the court was determined to nail them.
Immediately after the pronouncement, Kenyatta and his colleagues were loaded onto a heavily guarded vehicle and ferried to their tiny abode about three kilometres to Kapenguria town. With Kenyatta and his colleagues banished to prison where hard labour awaited them, the tiny courtroom faded from international limelight. A group of watchmen and grounds men are engaged in banter on the Sunday afternoon we visit, as they animatedly discuss contents of an old newspaper.
Inside the school and outside the classroom, nothing sets apart the room that served as the courtroom and adjacent rooms, except the metallic plaque capturing the historic moment.
It reads, “In this room on April 8, 1953, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, first president of the republic of Kenya and his five colleagues, Bildad Kaggia, Kung’u Karumba, Fred Kubai, Paul Masaku Ngei and Ramogi Achieng’ Oneko were convicted after a stage managed trial by the British Colonial Government for leading a persistence fight for Kenya’s independence.” The same message is replicated in Kiswahili on a separate plaque that is more legible, mounted on the same wall.
On the day we visit it, 59 years later after judge Thacker’s grand performance at the trial, the gate to Chewoyet High school is slightly ajar.
Emmanuel Matui, who is the gatekeeper, also doubles as an unofficial tour guide; he conducts us around the compound, expressing regrets that the courtroom is inaccessible. “It is used as a staff room but since it is a Sunday and the schools are closed, you cannot see inside. It is just full of books and other stuff used by teachers,” he says.
The high school, which has 979 students, has chosen the motto, “To serve as a leader in human resource, transfer and placement”. The school’s mission is a departure from what happened during the trial where the prosecution’s star witness Lawson Macharia lied under oath after being promised a grand life by the Government.
Lied to secure education
Macharia would later admit he had lied so as to secure education as promised by the colonialists, who also rewarded him handsomely for betraying the freedom fighters. Emblazoned on the school’s wide gate is the mission, “To nurture and produce people who are morally upright and constantly strong, to keep abreast with the dynamic global environment.”
Although Macharia died a few years ago, his thirst for knowledge is echoed by the school’s vision, boldly scripted on its gate, announcing what the institution stands for. It states: “To use human resource in developing and inculcating diligence and high academic excellence for optimal service to humanity.”
The road from Chewoyet to Kapenguria is less illuminating, as it is unpaved and passes through the abandoned part of the ancient trading centre, whose tarmacked streets are potholed and sparsely populated. The cells where the political detainees were confined as they awaited the conclusion of their case have been turned into a museum, and the heavily armed guards replaced by National Museum of Kenya officials.
Just like in the old days, the conditions for entering the place are not negotiable. During Kenyatta’s incarceration days, no civilian could be allowed in.
Today, the place is open to the public seven days a week, including public holidays, although at a non-negotiable fee. A notice inside the compound explains that the Kapenguria Six were flown there on October 20, 1952 and were confined within their respective cells for 48 days.
Francis Ereno of Kapenguria Museum explains, “The prisoners were kept in separate cells and were not supposed to communicate. If a prisoner breached this rule, they would be severely punished.” The doors of six cells measuring four and a half feet by eight and a half feet are all painted green. Each has a peephole and a solitary window.
Inside each room, a short life history of the occupant is posted on the wall, together with some pictures that illustrate their stages in political life.
The short histories are quite illuminating. Kubai’s names are given as Fredrick Poolworth Kubai, and his date of birth as 1918 in Kikuyu Escarpment. Kaggia’s room has literature on his life and claims that he at one point established his own religion, which was called Kaggia.
Inside Kenyatta’s cell, there are no surprises except for a picture of a young man in a vest, busy using a plane. The caption helpfully explains that at one time Kenyatta, whose year of birth is given as 1889, was a carpenter.
The room also has a mat that Kenyatta used to lie on at night as he agonised over what the colonialists had in store for him. A metallic bucket he used to relieve himself in also occupies a prominent position in the room. Away from the compound, in another secluded place, another cubicle that acts as an office of sorts has some dubious conspiracy theories.
Although there are no records, there have been allegations that one day, there was an attempt to finish Kenyatta as he slept in this cell. “The deep marks on the wall were alleged to have been made by bullets aimed at Kenyatta.
Fortunately, he had been warned and was not sleeping on his bed at the time,” John Silakwa explains. This theory, hotly contested by the Museums of Kenya, is further deflated by the fact that Kenyatta was a prisoner and was not accorded any special treatment at Kapenguria. The mat and the bucket show that he was treated as a common criminal.