NYERI, Nov 13 – Almost 60 years have passed since British colonial forces beat Wambugu Wa Nyingi and left him for dead, but neither the dark scars from years shackled in chains nor his tramautic memories have faded.,
“They told us to dig our own graves,” Nyingi recalled in a low voice of being held without charge for nine years in British-run labour camps during Kenya’s 1950’s Mau Mau uprising.
“When we refused, they beat us so hard that my skin was stripped off my back,” the white-haired grandfather added.
Now, aged 84, he is calling for an apology and a victims’ welfare fund from the British government in an ongoing court case in London with three other Kenyans who suffered in the bloody uprising.
The four say their brutal treatment included systematic abuse, torture, castration, rape and hard labour.
But time is running out for the octogenarian victims.
“Every day, week and month that goes by without the resolution of the claims, there is the worry that whatever happens our clients will not still be alive to see the outcome,” said their solicitor Martyn Day.
More than 10,000 people were killed in the 1952-1960 Mau Mau uprising — with some estimates even higher.
Britain contends it is not legally liable for the alleged abuses saying responsibility was transferred to the Kenyan government upon independence in 1963.
“Once they counted 12 bodies of people they had beaten to death, but they were wrong, because one of the bodies was mine,” Nyingi said, adding he had never carried a gun, but had only campaigned for independence and land rights.
“I would like the British government to compensate us, so that we don’t see every white person as a devil,” he said.
The rolling green hills and lush forests of central Kenya here — once dubbed the “white highlands” — were specially prized by colonial settlers, sparking bitter resentment from the ethnic Kikuyu people forced off the land.
“They took our land from us,” said Elizabeth Wamaitha, 79, detained in a labour camp for three years with her baby after her husband joined the Mau Mau forces in the sprawling forests in the foothills of snowcapped Mount Kenya.
— ‘Receive an apology’ —
Arrested without warning as she carried her three-month old son on her back, she was not allowed time to collect her four-year old son left at home.
“There was no time to say goodbye … a relative looked after him, but when I was finally released, I was told that he had died,” she added.
The guerilla fighters — often with dreadlocked hair and wearing animal skins as clothes — terrorised colonial communities. The 32 white settlers murdered received the bulk of attention but thousands of indigenous Kenyans were killed.
While the rise of the Mau Mau is now often seen as a key step towards Kenya’s independence, it also created bitter divisions within communities, with some joining the fighters and others serving colonial powers.
James Muchemi, 81, spent five years in a labour camp and shows thick scars across his head and legs where a Kenyan soldier cut him with a machete.
“My body still aches from the pain … but we have forgiven the Kenyan brothers, it was the British that gave the orders,” Muchemi said, adding that while he opposed colonial settlers he had never joined the rebels.
In July, the four claimants won court approval in Britain to sue the British government over the brutality they claimed they suffered in the struggle.
“The terrible treatment our clients suffered at the hands of the British has hung over them like a dark cloud for half a century,” Day said.
“If they could receive an apology and some compensation it would go a long way to dispelling that cloud, and to enabling them to live out their remaining years with a degree of dignity,” the British lawyer added.
A new round of hearings is due late February in London, when the court will consider the British government’s argument that the claims should not proceed to trial as they have been brought outside the legal time limit.
Britain is also nervous the case would open a floodgate of other claims.
“There are clearly hundreds of other Kenyans who suffered a similar fate, and who are still alive today, who would look to obtain resolution if these four claims succeed,” Day added.
At the Mau Mau Veterans Association in Nyeri, a simple brick building with walls plastered with newspaper cuttings and faded photographs of the uprising, elderly men still seethe with anger at the injustice they say they suffered.
“I know that the British people are a decent people,” said Bartholomew Wanyiki, aged 80, who was detained for five years, before living in Britain where he went to college. “Let them use their decency to help us before it is too late.”
At his home in the green farmlands of tea and coffee fields, Nyingi says that, at the very least, Britain should say it is sorry.
“If it happens that the British government apologises but says it has no money, then that is enough,” he said.