Biography reveals intriguing details on Dedan Kimathi

Freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi. (Photo:File/Standard)

By Kiundu Waweru

Kenya: Mau Mau fighter Dedan Kimathi was born of the Ambui clan, one of the nine clans of the Agikuyu tribe.

Ambuis are hot-tempered and fearless that at one time they attacked the waters of River Gura with simis and spears after it had broken its banks and swept away their arrowroots.

This anecdote is one of the many revelations contained in Dedan Kimathi; The Whole Story, a book hot off the press. The author, veteran journalist Joseph Karimi, says what is in the public domain about the freedom fighter is 10 per cent. He claims to reveal the other percentage.

Mr Karimi started writing for the East African Standard in 1966. The following year, he says he met a Mr Paul Njeru, a cousin to General Stanley Mathenge. Njeru discussed the inside story of the Mau Mau, opening a lifelong quest in the journalist to document the freedom movement proscribed by the colonial government as a terrorist group.

Kimathi is known as a tough guerrilla fighter with long hair. But Karimi takes the pain to show that he was human, tracing his roots from childhood.

He was son of Wachiuri, born in October 31, 1920. However, according to Karimi, Wachiuri left to fight in the First World War from 1914 to 1918, but never returned.

At this point, one wonders if the author got his facts right.

However, Karimi solves the mystery by revealing the little known fact about Kimathi.

Raise furore

Ng’aragu, son of Wangima, an age mate of Wachiuri, fathered Kimathi.

In the Agikuyu custom, age mates would “drop in at the house of an age mate and even sire a child without raising furore”.  Karimi says the book is informed by self-funded research, which included interviewing several former Mau Mau members, who are legendary for not giving information as they are bound by oath, and people who knew Kimathi.

One of them, Yunis Nyamuhiu, Ng’aragu’s daughter, confirmed that indeed Kimathi is her half-brother.

Kimathi joined Karunaini Primary School aged between 12 and 14, and went on to show intelligence. He was good in poetry and English that at one time a teacher gave him a goat, says Karimi.

He narrates that Kimathi, having embraced education, shunned some traditions but when it came to circumcision, together with his close friend Wambugi Gichomoya, whom Karimi interviewed, went to the Ihururu clinic instead of the river. The book also refutes the claim that Kimathi fought in the Second World War, as is widely believed.

Kimathi was recruited at King’s African Rifles to join World War II soldiers. However, he became rebellious to colonialists for what he termed injustice.

He later joined Tumu Tumu School in 1942, where he became a prefect and went on to change things he did not like. Karimi says he left the school in protest against dictatorial ways of the principal, Rev William Scott Dickson.

He would later be recruited into Mau Mau in 1951 by Paul Njeru, who had seen great leadership qualities in him.

He was soon elected secretary of Thomson Fall’s Mau Mau Branch. Kimathi took into Mau Mau activities with fervour and became a fierce oath administrator. 

Mr Fredrick Owino, publishing manager at Jomo Kenyatta Foundation (JKF), which published the book, says there are new and intriguing aspects about Kimathi that made them decide to publish the book.

JKF mostly publishes school texts and Karimi’s book is their third biography. He believes the book would add new information on Kimathi. “On Dedan Kimathi, we realised that Karimi had done thorough research, and he gave fresh information especially coming from Mau Mau members who knew Kimathi,” he says.

Two revelations stand out in the book: Kimathi’s burial site and the origin of the word Mau Mau.

Most people hunger to see Kimathi’s grave, which is believed to be at Kamiti Prison, where he was hanged. Karimi gets new information from his interviewees and is convinced that the actual burial place of the Mau Mau hero is at an unmarked grave at Langata Cemetery.

Over the years, there have been mixed stories about where Kimathi was buried, including King’ong’o Prison in Nyeri.

The book gives insights into the clamour for Kenya’s freedom, some of which are bound to be controversial, like the relationship between Kenyatta, Kimathi and the Mau Mau freedom fighters. Karimi writes that through the prominence of European missionaries, Christian groups emerged as the mouthpiece of the African public.  The associations gave birth to conservative parties like Harry Thuku’s East African Association formed in 1921, which clamoured for better pay for African workers.

Thuku’s supporters in Murang’a would start an offshoot, Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) in 1924, headquartered in Kahuhia and with its main objective being reclaiming the land taken by Europeans.

KCA sent Kenyatta to London in 1929 on the recommendation of James Beauttah. The first mission was unsuccessful and he was sent back again in May 1931. Before he left, writes Karimi, “it was a considered opinion that he took the KCA oath”.

In November 1931, Kenyatta met Mahatma Gandhi, who shared his ideology of non-violence. Karimi says Gandhi inscribed in Kenyatta’s diary: “Truth and non-violence can deliver any nation from bondage.” This ideology would years later humiliate Kenyatta in the presence of the freedom fighters.

The fighters were young and unemployed men going by the name Riika ria bootie (the age group of 40), who protested against forced labour and other inhumane treatment.

Succession plan

Some of them had returned from the World War II with revolutionary ideas exacerbated by the fact that after returning home, they were racially segregated by the same British whom they had faithfully fought for.

The freedom fighters, in a Kenya African Union (KAU) rally at Ruring’u showground, in which Kenyatta chaired on July 26, 1952 said armed struggle was “the only language the British understood”. In response, Kenyatta asked the gathered crowd of 50,000 if they would withstand the kicks of a donkey if he held its jaws. “The rally roared back affirmatively.”

However, a month later, during a three-day KAU delegates conference, Kenyatta advocated for non-violence. He angered the freedom fighters, and he was forced out of the chairman’s seat.  Kenyatta sat on the floor as directed for the next three hours.

Soon after, Kenyatta and his colleagues in the famous Kapenguria six list were arrested during the State of Emergency. Behind bars, there was bad blood between Kenyatta and KCA. The colonial government at the same time was painstakingly plotting for a succession plan.

Karimi writes that in wondering who would take over, there was the choice of Dedan Kimathi, who after arrest was popular with the Mau Mau members, and Kenyatta. However, the prospects of a Kimathi leadership sent “shivers down the colonial government’s spine.

They wanted to groom a man who would bring about political equilibrium the moment they relinquished power. The compromise candidate was Kenyatta”. 

The book will be officially launched soon. JKF’s editor David Ndung’u says unlike other biographies they have published, the narrative style and new information makes it an interesting read.