Among the men and women of high value that had respect for Kenya’s Dedan Kimathi was the African continent’s hero and South African President Nelson Mandela. Mandela expressed his disappointment with the way Kenya had treated its illustrious son when upon his release in February 1990, made a tour of the world and Kenya was one of his stops.
A specialist in Oral and Ecclesiastical history Prof Julius Gathogo says Mandela’s inquiries about Kimathi’s burial place and whereabouts of his widow upon his arrival in Kenya confirmed that indeed Kimathi had been an inspiration to African National Congress’s own militant activities in the late 50s. Gathogo says Nelson Mandela’s stopover in Kenya, pricked the conscience of Kenyans regarding that matter.
“In 1990, six months after Mandela was released he came to Kenya and asked where Kimathi was buried, because he inspired them,” says Gathogo.
According to political activist Wafula Buke, Dedan Kimathi was a political operative of an era of change in the political history of both the world and Africa. His was a post-World War II period; the British empire was crumbling, it had lost the most illustrious colony of India (which included current Pakistan and Ceylon), independence of its colonies was being debated.
The British Prime Ministers after Winston Churchill, Antony Eden and Harold Macmillan, as from 1955, were in support of the idea of self-rule for British colonies. Change was knocking.
Kimathi was among the young people of the time who stepped forward to respond to the call to liberate Africa. He remains special because the movement he led inspired a lot of changes in Africa.
“South Africa’s uMkhonto we Sizwe is among groups that were inspired by Kimathi,” says Buke.
“uMkhonto we Sizwe was a paramilitary wing of the African National Congress led by Mandela and was fighting the apartheid Boer government,” he adds.
Kamiti Maximum Security Prison may forever remain linked to Kenya’s history of freedom struggle. The prison was apparently used for mass burials at the height of the Mau Mau uprising. That is where victims of executions by colonial forces were buried during the state of emergency.
“When I was talking to Mayor of Kerugoya, Mr Mwangi,” Says Prof Gathogo “he told me that when he was a prisoner at Kamiti they would be woken up at night to bury bodies. They could have buried Kimathi with other bodies to cause confusion. But his hands were handcuffed so maybe that could be a trace followed by a DNA test.”
Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima, believes that for a person to be considered dead, his body must be provided and later buried. Asking her how Kimathi’s death affected them in the forest, she asks “Is Kimathi dead? Where are his remains?”
We met Muthoni at her home in Nyeri in March 2022 weeks before she shaved her famous locks. At the time she was 92.
We walked into her compound and found her seated on a wooden stool near the gate under an iron sheet garage. She greeted us with tiny spits on our hands which is a sign of blessings in most African cultures.
As our conversation ran amid lots of questions, Muthoni said: “He was a good leader who delegated duties. He was fair. He gave us nicknames so that our identities would be safe. For example, I was called Ng’ina wa Thonjo or mother of the bird.”
Political history researcher, Prof Julius Gathogo says Kimathi created an army from scratch.
“On 5th February 1954, Kimathi created a complete parliament in the forest, and that made some people uncomfortable. They had a constitution. They were keen on who would be their friend when they get their land back. They wanted it divided fairly. Their plans were far better than what we got in 1963,” he says.
Before going to the forest he was the Secretary General of the Ol Kalou branch of KAU (Kenya African Union). In 1950 KAU sent Achieng’ Oneko and Mbiyu Koinange to London with a memorandum to the colonial office that consisted demands among them return of native land to rightful owners and political representation in their own country.
The British refused to accept their memorandum. This annoyed Kimathi and he decided that the only way to conquer the colonialist was through war. Kimathi would later run into the forest and begin leading administration of oaths and recruiting members.
“Kimathi’s impact is indisputably great,” says Buke.
“I think if we were to be fair, I would call him the first Prime Minister of Kenya. He is the bearer of the vision that eluded us all this time, I think if Dedan Kimathi went to the Lancaster discussions the issue of land would have been resolved differently.
The basis of the struggle was land, having been denied the opportunity to go and participate in those discussions, we ended up having a neo-colony instead of a colony. He’s the best leader we ever had.”
Buke believes there were two sets of leaders during that time; those fighting or participating in politics within the framework of the coloniser, and another set who said they cannot participate in politics as drafted for Kenyans by the coloniser, such Dedan Kimathi, Elija Masinde of Dini ya Msambwa.
“All those who embodied revolutionary ideas were excluded by colonialists, those included in discussions were part sellouts, the graduates of neo-colonial education. They were picked because they represented a future that would be neo-colonial,” says Buke.
Buke is among Kenyans who hold the view that the government set up in 1963 and beyond, was designed to fail the family of Kimathi and push them into oblivion.
Due to his prolific literary skills Kimathi took to himself the responsibility of maintaining contact with a war council that operated in secret in Nairobi (the council affairs were overseen by the party Kenya African Union).
Kimathi briefed the council on new recruits, firearms, clothing and medical supplies.
In his book, Dedan Kimathi Speaks, historian and author Maina wa Kinyati says from the time Kimathi was made leader of KLFA (Kenya Land Freedom Army) he made it a habit of writing down his daily observations about the independence struggle in a diary.
He also filed all communications he received and copies of letters and documents he wrote.
The documents were stored in an underground archive in Nyandarua forest in 1953.
He appointed a team led by General Omera to man it. Omera was said to be good at guerilla war fare.
Unfortunately he was captured in 1955 and after being tortured he surrendered and led the British Army to where the documents were stored.
The documents in four sacks had been written mostly in Gikuyu language, some in Kiswahili and English. They were later translated and collated into 4 volumes of 30 pages each.
They were titled ‘The Dedan Kimathi Papers’. The documents were sent to the Public Office in London and a copy to the Kenya colonial archives in Nairobi.
According to Kinyati none of these documents have been made public.
The most famous and iconic photo of Field Marshal Kimathi Waciuri, is him lying on a makeshift wooden stretcher taken after he was shot and captured.
A black and white video of his capture shows him lying bare chest and handcuffed, there are flashes of photographers trying to capture the famous Mau Mau leader, considered messiah by his people and a terrorist by the colonialists.
Beside him is a colonialist displaying the leopard skin Kimathi was wearing before he was shot.
When one finds themselves in such a state, fear is a normal reaction, but there was no fear in Kimathi’s eyes.
Neither does his body language reveals signs of fear. Much as he was shot and in pain one thing was constant, he was not afraid.
Body language expert, Wangui Munywa says to understand his body language as seen in the video it is important to understand the type of person he was.
“The people who knew Kimathi say he was a free spirit, he could not be caged,” she says.
Kimathi knew the end had come, says Wangui. He did not get into the struggle to come out alive, his life was a price he knew he had to pay.
“When you look at him, you can see rebellion in his eyes, he regretted nothing. In fact, fear and discomfort was with those around him.”