From the late 17th Century until the mid 20th Century, the United Kingdom was the greatest economic and imperial power in the world, and although this dominance was principally achieved through the strength of the British Royal Navy, the British Army played a significant role.
The British soldiers came to Mathari Orphanage two days after the visit by the Mau Mau. There were ten of them brandishing rifles and semi-automatic weapons in a show of British power. The director Mr. Christopher had called them after the Mau Mau raid the previous night and they’d borrowed his office to ‘talk’ to the boys.
Everybody was lined outside the office and ushered in one by one. From where Nderitu was standing, he could see two soldiers guarding the office entrance while others patrolled the orphanage and looked around. Nderitu, just like the other boys was scared. At the age of twelve, his fear was one born from stories of torture he had heard performed by the British, and yet he knew he had no reason to be afraid since he was not in the wrong. He was in fact a victim of a Mau Mau attack.
Soon his turn came and he walked into the office with a heart full of dread. Dressed in brown shorts and a gray shirt that was tucked in for the meet, he looked very small and innocent. The smell of Mr. Christopher's perfume met his nostrils and he looked around, realising that he had never been in the office before. This was where the director spent most of his life, away from family, hugging his books, a coffee mug never too far away.
There were two soldiers inside, one sitting in the director’s chair, the other leaning against a wall smoking a cigarette. They wore brown uniforms, combat boots and pistols. Nderitu merely glanced at the standing soldier and instantly knew that he was the muscle; looking younger with a clean face and youthful hair. The one behind the desk wearing a beret was in charge.
Somewhere, a door closed shut and Nderitu jumped.
"Have a seat and tell us your names," the soldier behind the desk said with a voice of someone used to talking down on men. He was a Colonel, an army officer of high rank, Nderitu realized, because that’s what the standing soldier called him - Colonel Collins. The moustache moved when he spoke and the reading glasses couldn’t hide the hardness of the eyes.
Nderitu did as he was told. The chair was a little high but he wouldn’t let them see him struggle to get on it. "John. My names are John Nderitu." The room was very well lit thanks to the summer sun sipping through the open window.
Colonel Collins frowned and ran a hand through his white hair. "Nderitu. I see. The name sounds very familiar." He opened a file on his desk as though to confirm something.
"Are you the one who told the Mau Mau to come and steal from the orphanage?" The man’s tone suddenly hardened and the little boy was startled.
"What? No. I wouldn’t do that!"
"How then did they know that the produce was ready for harvest? Someone must have told them. Are you a mole Nderitu?"
"Yes, a mole. An animal that burrows into other people’s businesses and takes back information into the forest."
"I’m not a mole sir." Nderitu felt the perspiration dripping down his face and he was afraid like never before. This was supposed to be an easy question and answer session, but it already felt like an interrogation and his heart constricted.
The Colonel leaned back in a dramatic fashion and lit a cigarette. He took a long puff and let the boy squirm in the silence. He had done this before, one too many times, and enjoyed every bit of it. "So, have you taken the Mau Mau Tea?" he asked in a normal tone.
Even a small boy like Nderitu knew about the Tea, or Chai, or Kiapo. All these terms were used to refer to the oath administered by the Mau Mau swearing people into allegiance and declaring war against the British invasion.
"No Sir," Nderitu said. "I have not taken the Tea." Every question and word from the Colonel’s mouth was like a bullet, hitting him straight in the chest.
"But you know about it. How?"
"Back in my village. People used to whisper about it. That’s how I know."
The soldier who had been leaning against the wall suddenly crashed his cigarette under his boot and cursed under his breath. "He’s lying Colonel!" Nderitu didn’t see the hand as the man slapped him. The movement was as fast as unexpected and the little boy found himself on the floor lying on his back. He looked so dazed that the soldiers paused to smile, the absence of a moral conscience all too obvious. Hands grabbed him and sat him back on the chair. The slap had covered his left ear and his head was ringing.
"I will ask again," the Colonel said in a calm but deadly voice. "How did you know that it was Mau Mau who raided the orphanage?"
"I don’t understa… I don’t understand the question." The tears came involuntarily and it was mostly due to self-pity. In the haze of the moment, Nderitu felt utterly and totally impotent with the realization that these men were capable of hurting him. He heard the sound of rustling papers and looked up.
"Your roommate said that he opened the window and saw shadows. You asked him who it was and he said he didn’t know. Then you ran over, looked outside and told them that it was the Mau Mau. How did you know?" Colonel Collins closed the file, leaned forward and planted narrowed eyes on the boy.
"I have seen them before," Nderitu said in a voice full of panic. "The time my Father died. They came at night and burned down the Home Guards’ hut with my father inside. They have long and tangled hair and that’s how I recognized them."
The soldier who was standing moved again and Nderitu tensed. "He’s lying again Colonel. He knows something." The soldier walked over to a shelf full of books, grabbed a pair of pliers and walked back to the boy. "Let’s pull down his shorts and castrate him. Then we can see whether he’s telling the truth." The voice was youthful and reminded the little boy of all the bullies he had encountered in his life; brave only when under the protection of something.
Nderitu’s eyes bulged in shock and his mouth dropped open at the soldier’s words. He knew exactly what the British soldiers did to the Kikuyu captives. They castrated them, then pulled out their eyes and sometimes they went so far that the suspect died before information was retrieved.
"I swear I’m telling the truth!" Nderitu screamed. "I looked outside the window and saw men with long hair, and that’s how I knew it was Mau Mau. The other boys were too afraid to look. I wasn’t afraid because I have seen them before. Please don’t hurt me. Even if you hurt me, it will only be to cause me pain because that’s all I know. I’m not lying!"
The two soldiers paused and studied the crying boy for a minute. They waited as the boy’s crying and shaking subsided before they spoke. They had wounded him, they could see that, and it wasn’t just any kind of wound. This was the kind of wound that would stay with him for the rest of his life, and no matter how far under the covers he burrowed, he would never escape the pain. The Colonel threw a towel at the boy and told him to clean himself up. He looked disgusted by the tears.
"We believe you," the Colonel said. "Stay away from Mau Mau son or you will regret it. And if you hear anything, make sure you inform the Director so he can let us know."
"Yes sir," Nderitu said, anxious to bail out. "Thank you sir." For what the British soldiers had just done to him, he did not understand why he was thanking them, but deep inside he felt a gnawing hole that left him weak.
Outside, Kamandu and five other boys were waiting for him. Ever since that soccer game when Nderitu had stood up for himself, Kamandu had taken a new interest in the smaller boy. Right now he looked concerned as he studied Nderitu’s swollen face. He didn’t touch the smaller boy, and couldn’t bring himself to reach out to him. The boy looked too wounded and in too much pain.
"We need to talk Nderitu," Kamandu said as he jammed his hands into his pockets. There was a strange calmness about him that was frightening.
"What is it?" Nderitu asked.
Kamandu lowered his voice. "The white man is no longer our friend. The Director has betrayed us, the British soldiers have tortured us. Do you understand what am saying Nderitu?"
Nderitu raised pained eyes and met the other boys’ stares. Their connection was strengthened over their mutual hatred. It was time to balance the scale of justice. "I understand very well," he said. "We are at war with the white man."
Kamandu smiled. "Yes. We now look to the forest for help. This is war!"
The soldiers left the orphanage in the evening. Behind, shaken boys watched the cloud of dust vanish with a sigh of relief. But deep inside they knew that this was just the beginning.
Right before dinner, Nderitu found Kamandu and a few boys smoking grass behind the barn. He joined them and accepted the joint that was being passed around. It was his first smoke but he inhaled like a pro as the other boys watched him …counting the seconds down. Nderitu felt a sudden choke in his throat and started coughing hysterically. The boys burst out laughing and Nderitu knew that his secret was out. He was a rookie in a smoker’s world.
"What happened to you Mwaura?" Kamandu asked a skinny boy chewing on a grass. "You look like a truck ran over you."
The other boys laughed.
Nderitu looked at Mwaura and saw that one eye was swollen shut. There was also a streak of dried blood on the boy’s cheek. He seemed to have had it worse than everybody else.
"The soldier punched me," Mwaura said. "He called me a liar and I told him to go back to Britain and leave our land alone. He knocked me out cold and I only woke up when they poured water on my face."
"Those animals!" Kamandu cursed under his breath. "Wait until Kenyatta gets out of jail. Then we will see what they are really made of."
I could see that Kamandu was very mad. The encounter with the soldiers was one that we all thought of with terror. The ghastly ordeal had united us but the trauma we had experienced was hard to forget.
It wasn’t the first time I had heard the name Jomo Kenyatta, but it was the first time to hear it in the orphanage. Jomo Kenyatta was a Kiambu born man who had gone to pursue his studies in a college in London. While in Britain, he had written books and published articles in The Times and the Manchester Guardian, presenting on the Kikuyu land problems with the Colonial British. The name Jomo is translated in English to "Burning Spear" while the name "Kenyatta" was said to be a reference to the beaded Masai belt he wore. Kenyatta returned to Kenya in 1946 after almost fifteen years abroad and was elected president of the Kenya African Union (KAU). The Mau Mau Rebellion began in 1951 and KAU was banned, and a state of emergency declared on 20th October 1952. Kenyatta was arrested on October 1952 and indicted with five others on the charges of "managing and being a member" of the Mau Mau society, a radical anti-colonial movement engaged in rebellion against British rulers.
"How will he get out of jail?" One of the boys asked.
Mwaura, who was two years younger than Kamandu replied. "I hear people are collecting signatures in Nairobi demanding for his release. Over a million signatures will be presented to the Governor, as a plea to release Kenyatta."
"I don’t buy into all that!" Kamandu said in an angry voice. "The Mau Mau will free Kenyatta. That’s what I believe. The Mau Mau will storm that prison and kill all the white people."
Nobody could argue with that. Nderitu pondered about the man called Kenyatta. He truly sounded like the answer to Kenya’s problems. He was smart and educated. He was a leader of the banned Kenya African Union party, and his name seemed to be on people’s lips and hearts.
Nderitu closed his eyes. I can’t wait for the day they will set you free Kenyatta. It will be a beautiful day for Kenya. People will sing and dance on the streets in Nairobi. Our people will get their land back and I will return to my father’s home. Dear God, please free Kenyatta and let him go home to fight for his people.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...