Kunyiha Gakunju: Down memory lane of life in Kenya under state of emergency – The East African

Mzee Njagi Kunyiha in his Mukurwe-ini home in Murang’a County. He lived through the emergency and fought for independence. PHOTO | POOL
Born in 1929 at Tumutumu Hospital, a kilometre from his family home in Mukuruwe-ini in Nyeri County, central Kenya, Mzee Kunyiha Gakunju in a rich but soft voice, recounts Kenya’s turbulent era of the bloody fight for freedom. We’re enjoying a morning tete-a-tete under the massive 300-year-old tree, a Newtonia buchananii at Wajee Nature Park, which is part of his family’s heritage in the serene countryside that belies its turbulent past.
This bloody past is intertwined with Mzee Gakunju’s life, as a young man having just completed school at the Scottish missionary-run Tumutumu Secondary School. Like many young people then, he headed to Nairobi, 180 kilometres south, on the rough country lanes, in March 1950, the same year Nairobi town was awarded a city charter.
He soon landed a job at the Salisbury Hotel at the intersection of Waiyaki Way and Chiromo Lane (later Club 1900 and now occupied by the GTC Tower) as a trainee since he spoke good English. Then in 1953, he moved to the Stanley Hotel as a steward.
But it was the beginning of a turbulent time. Kenya under British colonial rule was ruled on the lines of apartheid, which led to the resistance war and the Mau Mau rebellion in 1952. The freedom fighters were demanding land back from the white settlers, a lack of Africans in national politics and the raging poverty of the black population. Thousands of Kenyans were incarcerated or killed and freedom heroes like Dedan Kimathi were arrested and executed and their graves remain unknown. A state of emergency was declared that would last until 1959.
Mau Mau fighters who had been arrested board a train to be taken to detention camps. PHOTO | AFP
As the Mau Mau freedom fighters intensified their fight for justice and freedom, general civil abuse from the colonial powers became severe.
“In 1953 we were detained,” recalls Mzee Gakunju. “We were picked up in Nairobi at night by soldiers from the tribal police searching door-to-door for Kikuyu men. I had a small rental room in Eastlands. In those days we were not allowed to racially mix. The colour bar kept whites, blacks and Indians separate at all times. There was a knock on your door and you were told to step out and line up outside. I had just bought a bicycle and had to leave everything behind. If you tried to escape, you were shot dead. It was frightening.
“We were then taken to a detention camp. We had no idea where we were and neither did our families.”
The detention camp was at today’s Uhuru Gardens on Lang’ata Road. Meanwhile, Mzee Gakunju’s older brother working in Nairobi as a driver for a transport company had been picked up too and taken to a detention camp in Manyani near Voi on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway. Here the men were interrogated by hooded men.
“It was a screening done by our fellow Africans. They questioned us and then we were handed coloured bands — white denoting the man was good; blue, was not sure about the man and red meant that the man was a hardcore Mau Mau, and transferred to the far-flung Manda Island on the Lamu archipelago on Kenya’s northernmost coast. These hooded men didn’t know anything, they were just guessing. I got a blue band.”
Langata Prison in Nairobi, where Mau Mau fighters were detained in 1954. PHOTO | AFP
At the same time, children and women of the detainees were repatriated to the reserves, according to Jagi Gakunju, Mzee Gajunju’s youngest brother in his book Living on the Edge. Life was no better there, guarded by colonial police just as in a concentration camp with trenches dug around so no one could escape as the colonial army bombed the surrounding forests to flush out the Mau Mau fighters.
However, what Mzee Gakunju and many young men rounded up then did not confess was that they had been forced to take the Mau Mau oath in Nairobi, which was the hotbed of Mau Mau activities.
“If you didn’t take the Mau Mau oath, you were killed. We were taken to hiding places and forced to take the oath. We had to drink blood and eat raw meat and swear some words.”
Suspected Mau Mau fighters walk towards a Githunguri court. PHOTO | AFP
From Nairobi, the men with the blue bands were taken by train under the cover of darkness, packed like gunias (sacks) to Mackinnon Road camp, 400 kilometres away on the highway to Mombasa, in what was then a remote land teeming with wild animals and tropical diseases.
“We arrived in the morning with no idea where we were. Life in detention was hard. It was hot and dusty; we slept on the floor with no blankets in congested rooms. We were like 2,500 men in one camp. We ate one meal a day of ugali and beans. Men died. There was no hospital.”
After four long months of idleness and uncertainty, the detainees were taken back to the villages where Mzee Gakunju was reunited with his family in the detention camp for families at the nearby Muweru Secondary School.
“We could not return to our homes because if you did, the Mau Mau forced you to fight with them. And if you refused, you were killed,” narrates Mzee Gakunju.
The patriarch of the family, Reverend James Gakunju was orphaned as a child and was raised by the Scottish mission in Tumutumu. A successful dairy farmer who built the first stone house with a solid mabati (iron) roof in 1941, was also forced into the detention camp despite having fought for the British in both the World Wars in Burma (present-day Myanmar) during World War II which was instrumental in the Africans agitation for their land and freedom. The colonial government was taking no chances.
“The Mau Mau took all our cows,” he recalls. “The Mau Mau uprising was terrible but we were fighting for our independence. The British saw what was coming and cooled down.”
African soldiers guard Mau Mau fighters in October 1952 at the Kikuyu reserve. Mzee Gakunju’s family was detained in Murang’a. PHOTO | AFP
In 1957, Mzee Gakunju returned to The Stanley and married in 1958. “I remember listening to the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan (1957- 1963) making his famous speech in Cape Town, South Africa in 1960. It was the Wind of Change speech where he stated, ”The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”
After retiring from The Stanley in 1965, Mzee Gakunju ventured into business and returned home to Mukuruwe-ini at the start of the millennium to live a quiet country life.
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