During the struggle for independence in the 1950s, the British colonial administration divided native Kenyans in their attempt to ward off rebellion. One group comprised loyalists who would do anything for their colonial masters.
The other was the hardcore fighters determined to confront the mighty power of the colonial administrators. They did not only stand up against the British; they fought with the loyalists too.
Dedan Kimathi, the poster child for the struggle for independence, was one of fighters who fell victim to the loyalists.
On October 21, 1956, Ndirangu Mau, nicknamed Githimii, shot Kimathi.
Ndirangu was part of home guards sent out to track Mau Mau fighters. He had been employed as a home guard in the 40s with a salary of Sh60 a month.
Ndirangu did not know how Kimathi looked like, but he knew the colonialists would generously reward his captors.
A former editor at the Standard Group, Machua Koinange, recalls his encounter with Ndirangu in 1985. In an article he wrote as a budding reporter, Koinange described Ndirangu, then 79, as a frail man trapped behind a mask of pain.
For close to 29 years, he had remained silent, living under a cloud of resentment and shame that had also been transferred to his children.
The only thing he had to show for the betrayal was a heap of rusted scrap metal of what used to be a truck now stuck in his compound - that truck was never used.
Speaking early this year, Koinange said Ndirangu was reluctant to do the interview, but when he accepted, it was his chance for closure. It was a moment of catharsis for the elderly man.
Ndirangu revealed that at around 6.30am on that fateful day, they caught a glimpse of a man attempting to cross a ditch carrying a bundle.
“We shouted at him to stop but he started running. I fired and missed. I ran after him alone and fired again but missed as he disappeared into the woods.”
He caught sight of him as he tried to jump over a ditch. He fired.
“I had shot him on his right thigh. He was wearing a leopard skin. His bundle of sugarcane was lying next to him. He was holding a panga in one hand.”
He studied the man, perplexed. Finally, he asked in Gikuyu:
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“Who are you?”
“Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi Waciuri.”
Ndirangu was stunned.
Kimathi asked him: “Are you the one who shot me?”
“Ni wega (It’s okay).” Kimathi replied, resigned to his fate.
The book Mau Mau Freedom Fighter by Mukami Kimathi, her sister narrates the cloud of sadness that engulfed the family when Kimathi was captured. A police officer named Mathuka openly shouted at Ndirangu for shooting Kimathi. He ordered the crowd that had gathered to make a wooden stretcher for Kimathi.
“He then put Kimathi on the makeshift stretcher and hoisted him with others on his shoulder. The hundreds of people who had gathered pushed him out of the way, competing to be the ones carrying the wounded Kimathi. People were fighting to carry Kimathi, exchanging him from shoulder to shoulder every so often so that everyone could have a chance.”
Curse of rewards
Ndirangu was awarded £150 (about Sh25,800 today). Another officer, Njugi Ngatia, who helped him in his operation was rewarded £75 (about Sh12,900 today). The remainder of the £500 reward was divided among the rest of the team.
Ndirangu invest his money on a public transport minibus. Apart from the family, nobody ever boarded the bus.
At night, angry residents would deface the body of the vehicle using stones, writing the words muthirimo wa Kimathi (Kimathi’s shin - the front of his leg that was shot). He would repaint the vehicle, but residents would revisit.
He tried selling it, but nobody was willing to buy “Kimathi’s shin”. The vehicle ended up rusting in his compound.
Ndirangu then opened a restaurant and it met the same fate. Residents would deface the walls with the same words.
Ndirangu lived a life of regret and shame. He was treated as an outcast, and the treatment befell his children. They had a hard time coping in school.
In 1986, Ndirangu died a depressed man.
The others in his team combined their rewards and bought a lorry. The lorry, too, met the same fate as Ndirangu’s bus.
Mukami recalls that the day Kimathi was arrested, she was in Kamiti Maximum Prison. She heard Sirens followed by an announcement.
“Tangazo! Tangazo! Dedan Kimathi, the terrorist leader of the Mau Mau in Kenya has been shot.”
The colonial government even declared a holiday.
“Nobody in the colonial government worked that day. Even in prison, no prisoner was taken out to work. But it was a day of great sadness for mwananchi.”
Kimathi’s capture was a huge relief to the colonialists since law enforcement officers returned their guns to the stores and the British reinforcement battalions that had been brought in were flown out. Prisoners were asked where they came from and would be transported to markets or stadiums near their homes. The colonialists believed the war was over.
Trial and execution
Prof Julius Gathogo, a specialist in oral and ecclesiastical history, says Kimathi’s trial was not fair.
“His was a political case, his trial was supposed to be a political trial like that of Nelson Mandela, where by you do not hang a political prisoner, but they criminalised the case,” he says.
The first judgment was done in haste and when he appealed, the case was quickly dismissed.
An execution report that is kept at the Supreme Court Museum of Kenya indicates that Kimathi was hanged at 6am on February 18, 1957.
The report, signed by a medical officer, indicated that he examined the body and found life to be extinct. Death was caused by hanging and it was instantaneous.
A copy of the judgement that is also kept at the museum indicates that Kimathi was in possession of firearms a.38 Webley Scot revolver, contrary to regulation 8A (1) of the Emergency Regulations, 1953.
This contrasts Ndirangu’s account.
In her book, Kimathi’s widow recalls how prison warders would update her on the progress of the trial. And they would tell her that he will be convicted because everyone in the court apart from Kimathi himself was a colonialist or a sympathiser.
A day before he was executed, Mukami was taken to see him. Upon seeing her, his face lit up and he jumped and hugged her, she wrote.
“Kimathi had a finger on his left hand that had been partly cut while he was grinding grass for cattle. This happened while we were living in Ol Kalou. Many white people had checked his finger as proof that they had captured the right man,” Mukami says in her book.
The British colonialists had promised Kimathi acres of land if he disowned the Mau Mau. He defied. After all, that is what hey were fighting for; ithaka na wiyathi (land and freedom).
“He had two regrets,” Mukami wrote, “that he would not live long enough to see his children grow and that he would not live to see a black man raise a Kenyan flag.”
Kimathi requested his wife not to let the name Kimathi Waciuri die, even if she was to remarry.
It is an honour that Mukami kept.
She was told to bring the children to see their father for the last time. Little did she know that that was part of the psychological torture that the colonialists used. The children were never to see their father; he was executed at dawn the following day.
Before she died last month, Kimathi’s widow expressed one wish; to bury her husband.
For 66 years she had wanted the government to give her husband a heroe’s burial. During an interview early last year, aged about 93, she said her time was running out and she feared that she may go without seeing her lifelong wish come through.
“The first time she asked for the remains of our father was in 1963, just after (Prime Minister Jomo) Kenyatta was sworn in,” says Mukami’s last born daughter Evelyn Wanjugu, the chief executive of the Dedan Kimathi Foundation.
“Unfortunately, she left this world without giving her husband a decent burial.”
Her brother, Simon Maina Kimathi describes their mother “a hardcore Mau Mau” who never gave up. “Her only wish was to bury her husband. She had so much stress that he health deteriorated.”
Kimathi’s children recall their childhood as one that was influenced by parents who were traumatised by the past.
“Our mother kept asking us if they made a mistake going to the forest to fight for the nation. She kept telling us that it is like being on the field playing football but the trophy is given to the ones cheering,” says Wanjugu.