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Island where 2,000 Mau Mau fighters were held now ruined

By Harold Odhiambo | October 15th 2021
Vandalised gates in Mageta Island at the site where some 2000 political detainees were held in 1953. [Harold Odhiambo, Standard]

A historic site on an island in Lake Victoria that is linked to the struggle for the country’s liberation is in ruins. 

In 1953, the site in Mageta Island was the home to some 2,000 Mau Mau detainees who later broke free and escaped. And just like other national treasures, attempts to turn the site into a tourist attraction and a national monument have been futile. Despite its potential as a tourist attraction site, the place is in a deplorable state, characterised by fallen fences, broken slabs and vandalised gates. Residents say historians and university students who have visited the place have left disappointed after finding it in ruins.

Siaya Governor Cornel Rasanga’s administration attempted to turn the site into a resource centre. They constructed a building, but it has since been abandoned and its windows vandalised. When The Standard visited the place, some boda boda riders were relaxing a short distance from the site, waiting for clients.

A number of the riders said it was unfortunate that a place had been neglected. A similar site in the nearby Oyamo Islands that has underground colonial cells is also in ruins.

Charles Obeko, a resident of Mageta, says if nothing is done to salvage the site, future generations will not know the roots of the country’s struggle for freedom. “The place is historic. When we were young, we were told of how prisoners escaped from the island,” says Obeko.

According to him, the deplorable state of the historic site is denying the island an opportunity to be a tourists attraction centre. “There is need to preserve the site,” he says.

Former Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki and former Cabinet Minister Waruru Kanja were among the 2,000 prisoners held at the island.

Historians have documented how colonialists alienated all the 2,500 acres on the island and made it a detention camp.

Then Nyanza PC CH Williams and some colonial rulers settled on the island to rein in political prisoners agitating for freedom. 

The colonialists believed the island’s terrain would make it hard for prisoners to escape.

There is no natural landing base at the site, and the route to the island from Usenge is a rocky cliff. Any stranger approaching Mageta from whichever direction could be seen from afar. At the time, crocodiles roamed freely.

Joseph Onyango, a resident, says the site’s history may soon be erased since the elderly who know the camp are in their sunset years. “We were hoping the county government would preserve the site,” says Onyango.

He is among the few residents who visit the site and believe it is an important landmark. He recalls how fishermen, Onimbo Haulu, Asura Ayau and Jariyo Ogutu, who had been frequenting the island, and 11 detainees, hatched the plot to escape from the colonialists in 1955 despite the strict surveillance. It is documented that some of the escapees died at the hands of irate residents following the killing of a fisherman who refused to surrender his boat to be used in the escape.

Jotham Njoroge, one of the escapees, was killed by residents in Alego and two others were lynched in Sakwa. After the escape, Mageta gained prominence in London as MPs demanded explanation regarding the detainees.

It is that history that residents are hoping authorities can preserve by protecting the site. The county government says it has great plans for the site and has already invited the National Museums of Kenya to visit it.

County Tourism executive Adrian Ouma say: “It is important that we preserve the site alongside the cells in Oyamo Islands. By December, we will have made progress to protect the site.”

Ouma claims the county government also plans to preserve other historical places, including Odera Akang’o cells.

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