Legend says that the Mau Mau were not real people, they were ghosts!
Mr. Christopher was a popular director at Mathari Boys Orphanage in an ambivalent kind of way. Some boys were grateful to him for the free education, food, shelter and an opportunity at a new life. A few boys feared him because he was quick to punish and slow to reward. His, was a story of a white man who came to Africa and received too much respect. In the process, power erased humility and a new Mr. Christopher was born.
In Nderitu’s opinion, Mr. Christopher was just doing what he thought was best for the children – protecting them against the Mau Mau and molding them as future leaders. But Mr. Christopher had not been inside that office when the soldier had slapped him... the feeling of hopelessness and humiliation. He had felt like nothing!
The sound of a dog barking brought Nderitu back to the present. Slasher in hand, he looked up and a boy hiding behind a tree gave him a thumb up sign. Nderitu nodded at the boy in acknowledgement and stepped forward, just as Mr. Christopher appeared around the corner.
“Good morning Director,” Nderitu greeted in a pleasant voice.
“Good morning John,” the director replied with a straight face. He always called the boys by their first English names. “How is work going?” The director took his eyes off the boy and looked around, at the trees, at the gardens. He wore his standard white shirt tucked into black pants and looked like someone taking a break from an office job. The boys had concluded that it was this very reason why white people had so much money; they did not waste it on clothes. Mr. Christopher wore the same colour of clothes every day and still managed to look important.
“It’s going well sir. We will finish cutting the grass before noon.” Nderitu held the slasher like he was born to, sweat pouring down his face and soaking his shirt. The morning sun felt like a hot blanket and made the job more difficult than it was.
“Good,” the director said, looking satisfied. "Keep up the good work John."
Nderitu startled at the compliment and gave the director a second look. He noticed something soft in the big man's eyes. It was a rare sight and a vulnerable moment for the director. An epiphany! Nderitu's eyes widened, and he saw the truth as clear as daylight - the director liked him!
"What do you want to be in life John?" the director asked, his right hand holding his chin as he studied the boy.
"A manager sir," Nderitu said without pause.
The big man smiled. "Do you like to lead John? Do you like to tell people what to do or do you sit there and agree with what everybody else is saying?"
The boy shrugged. "We should all have a say in life, that’s what I think ... but there can only be one leader. I have a lot of good ideas."
The director pocketed his left hand and sighed. "You must believe in yourself John, always."
"Yes sir," Nderitu said, thinking about the things he couldn't say to the director. He had been brought up in a farm and had never been conflicted about what he wanted in future. He wanted a farm. He wanted a job that would get him a farm; love, laughter and lots of animals.
The director suddenly looked up and seemed distracted. His head moved on a swivel as he took a few more seconds to study the surroundings. “I don’t see Joel Kamandu, where is he?”
The director's brown dog was sniffing around Nderitu’s legs and the boy looked very nervous. Mr. Christopher noticed but didn’t call the dog away.
“Kamandu went to drink some water sir, he will be right back.”
As the oldest boy in the orphanage, Kamandu’s absence was hard to miss and Nderitu prayed the director wouldn’t ask further questions.
“I will let you get on with it then. Have a good day,” the director said.
“Have a good day sir.” It was Nderitu’s cue. He gripped his slasher and started cutting the grass with new energy. The director smiled as he walked away, the sound of the slasher striking the grass giving him assurance that order was in place.
Nderitu took a moment to think about the director's son Alex, and wonder how he was doing. He imagined Alex working under the hot African sun, doing manual labour next to the other boys, and smiled. He would have loved to have Alex with him. He thought about Caroline, Alex's friend, and wondered whether he would ever see her again. He had not told anybody about the kiss, for that's what Caroline had become, a kiss that never was. He had come so close that sometimes it felt like a dream.
Ten minutes after the director left, Nderitu could still smell the white man's cologne in the air. An all-clear-whistle pierced the air and Nderitu dropped his slasher. Boys emerged from behind trees and bushes and headed for the barn where tools were stored. The barn was also where boys learned carpentry skills, meant to help those who didn’t make good grades in school find a vocation.
Inside the barn was dark. “Is he gone?” a voice asked. It was Kamandu’s.
“Yes. Nderitu made him go away.”
Kamandu’s face appeared under the light and he smiled down at Nderitu. “Thank you. I always knew you would come in handy. You have an innocent face that hides your true strength.” Nderitu beamed at the older boy. Kamandu looked like a regular healthy sixteen year old boy; smart, nice and good looking. But just like the rest of the boys, he was someone’s son … no more. The boys just like Nderitu were bound to life without the love of a family.
More boys trickled into the barn and the door was locked from inside. Darkness. A mysterious silence loomed in the warm air. The only light was that leaking through the cracks and a high open window. A man suddenly appeared from the shadows and all the boys gasped.
“Do not be afraid,” Kamandu said with raised hands. “This man is here to help us. Most of you were interrogated by the British soldiers the other day. You all know what they did to us. Each one of you was treated horribly in a different way.” The boys nodded but none of them took their eyes off the silhouette of the man standing behind Kamandu. It was a Mau Mau rebel!
The man suddenly stepped into more light and the boys subconsciously fretted. The man’s eyes were red and the locks of his long unkempt hair hang on his shoulders. He was dressed in old military regalia; brown pants and a green jacket. The rifle in his right hand and the dagger hanging around his waist were hard to miss.
“Contrary to what you may have heard, we are not rebels,” the man said in a hoarse voice. "The colonial British took our land and turned us into slaves. Now that we have refused to work for them, they call us rebels.” The man pounded a fist on his chest. "We are soldiers! We are the people's soldiers."
The boys edged forward, a bunch of dreamers ready to feed their brains. There were almost twenty including Nderitu and all of them were circumcised which signified manhood. The uncircumcised boys had not been invited.
"I want you to say it with me," the man said. "We are soldiers! We are not rebels!"
The boys pounded their small chests and roared out the words. "We are soldiers! We are not rebels!"
The Mau Mau soldier took a step forward and continued speaking in a pained voice. “I joined the British Army and fought alongside white soldiers in World War two against the Germans in North Africa. When we returned home, the white soldiers were rewarded with land and money, while we were ignored. Nobody remembered us and we were left with nothing. Nevertheless, I worked hard and became a teacher. The British came and took over the school I was teaching at. They dismissed us, accusing each of us of something different. They said that as a former soldier I was not fit to teach children and just like that sent me home. Is that justice?”
“No,” the boys said. “No.” The replies were scattered all over.
“Is that justice?”
“No!” The barn shook a little.
"Sit down, all of you," the Mau Mau soldier suddenly said in a dead calm voice that couldn't be disobeyed. The boys sat, legs stretched in front of them and gave their undivided attention. He took a minute to let the air settle and grab their full attention.
"Some of you will make good soldiers and fight for the freedom of this land. Some of you will betray our tribe and become home guards fighting for the colonialists." He sighed. "I will tell you a story now that will help you in the right direction."
The barn could not be any more silent than it was then. Nothing stirred in the air.
"This is a story of an African man who was placed in charge of farms by the white man not far from here; and because of his loyalty was promoted to position of chief. This chief's job was to collect taxes from the people and hand the money over to the colonial government. But this particular chief did more than that. He forced people to go and work on the white man's farm so as to raise taxes. He was ruthless and would seize cattle, keep some for himself and surrender others to the government as default penalty." The soldier raised hands and dropped them on his sides, shaking his head at the same time. "We warned him and told him that the people were complaining but he did not stop. The Mau Mau warned the wives because of the husband's collaboration with the colonialists but nothing changed." The Mau Mau soldier went down on one knee and leveled eyes with the boys. "One night, the Mau Mau armed with rungus, machetes and guns visited the chief's homestead. The women and children were killed in cold blood, the cattle slashed to pieces and the houses set ablaze. The villagers woke up to the sound of screams and gun shots."
Nderitu closed his eyes briefly and remembered what had happened to his own father. He opened his eyes and kept them glued on the soldier, not wanting to miss a single word.
"Did the chief get away?" The Mau Mau soldier asked. "No. He got it worst. His body was chopped into small pieces and taken to the market for all to see as a warning of the repercussions that awaited anybody who betrayed his people. That night, more than 100 people especially colonial loyalists and their families were killed by the Mau Mau fighters. The following morning, led by African home guards, colonial police went door to door searching for those suspected to have taken the Mau Mau oath, rounding them up and taking them to the police stations where they were tortured and killed." The soldier stood up and softened his voice. "I want you to pay attention to my next words because they will change your perspective forever." He waited for a few seconds and then continued. "The Colonial British splashed the bodies of a few dead white families on the front page of the newspapers and called it a massacre and yet most of the people dead were Africans. In retaliation, hundreds of colonial British police officers and home guards arrived and attacked innocent civilians within a radius of 50kms from the chief's home. More than 5,000 people were killed. Let me say this again. The Mau Mau killed less than 200 people on that night; the following morning the colonial British assassinated more than 5,000 Kikuyus in retaliation. And yet, we are the barbarians. We ... we are the animals." The Mau Mau soldier sighed, walked over to the high window and looked outside. The next words that came out of his mouth were uttered with a lot of bitterness.
“I joined the Mau Mau because I want freedom. This country is being built on the blood of our people. Everyday people are rounded up in villages and forced into labour - they are building an airport in Embakasi Nairobi as we speak, a massive project that demands for a lot of labour. Our people are overworked and not fed well. The weak ones die first, and the strong ones follow. Every day, women and children collapse digging roads and foundations for the white man. The sick ones are taken to 'hospitals' to never be seen again, the dead are loaded on the back of trucks and damped into ditches. Nobody gets a proper burial!" The soldier shook his head and looked sad. "They say they came to Africa and civilized us. They say we are returning to the jungle like savages and yet they are the ones who have lost contact with their humanity. We need all Kenyans to stick together in solidarity to fight against the tyranny of the white man. Are you with me?”
“This is not a time to hide, it’s a time to rise and make a stand for our freedom! As long as the white man lives on our land your path will never be easy.”
For Nderitu, the decision had been long coming to join the Mau Mau. Somehow he had known and it had started the night his father had been killed. The story had spread around the village like wildfire and people had asked why the Mau Mau had tried to save his father. For Nderitu the answer was clear and nobody could change his mind, his father had been Mau Mau.
The desire to join Mau Mau had started small and he had never been able to translate his desires to a clear-cut vision about the future. But after the British soldier had slapped him, it had been a time of epiphany and transformation, and in that moment he had known that he too was Mau Mau.
Nderitu’s childhood had been a tough one. He had lost his parents and his sisters had been taken away from him. But up until now, nothing bad had happened to him personally and he had never been sick. The humiliation by the British soldiers was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He was so stunned by it that most of the time now, he just didn’t know what to say. Kamandu his friend had explained it as a rite of passage…his time at the orphanage. Nderitu felt comfortable about what he was doing now. Sad, but it felt right. He was a soldier, not a rebel!
The boys lined up, and one by one walked over to the Mau Mau soldier, who claimed to be a lieutenant of the Forty Group, a military wing of the defunct Kikuyu Central Association. When it was Nderitu’s turn, the man asked for his hand and the boy gave it willingly. The Mau Mau soldier stood above six feet tall and smelled of sweat like someone who had been running for a long time. A shiny knife appeared in the man’s hand and Nderitu encountered his first moment of panic. His eyes darted from the knife to the man’s red eyes and it took all his inner strength not to pull his hand back. There was anger and pain in those eyes – the man had been to hell and back.
“Repeat after me,” the soldier said as he placed something cold and wet in Nderitu's hands. The young boy looked down and saw a liver, a goat's liver dripping with blood. His eyes instantly searched the floor behind the soldier and saw the white goat lying there - dead! Its stomach had been cut open and the intestines were sticking out.
“If I ever reveal the Mau Mau secrets, may this oath kill me. If I fail to steal anything from the Europeans, may this oath kill me. If ordered to kill, no matter who, even my own father or brother, I will do it.”
The list was long and Nderitu repeated every word. The man’s English was really good, evidence of a secondary school education. The purpose of the oath as explained by the Mau Mau was to unite, discipline and foster political consciousness amongst the Kikuyu, with the ultimate objective of satisfying the political aspirations and its leaders. Nderitu soaked it all in. All his life he had been told what to do until now. He had listened to his father, the director and what everyone else expected him to do. He had been the perfect boy and he was sick of it.
"Eat," the soldier said. "Eat and be counted as one of us."
Nderitu bit the liver and chewed with a straight face. He had eaten cooked goat liver many times, but this ... the cold slimy taste in his mouth was horrible. He swallowed quickly and it was done. He was now a Mau Mau soldier.
"Arise my brother," the soldier said. "Arise as a warrior. May this blood cleanse and mark you as a faithful servant of Ngai our God."
When all the boys had taken their oaths, the Mau Mau soldier addressed them for the last time. “Today you have taken a stand. Nothing that happens in life is random. Every path is created and you are the sleeping giant that the white man has awakened. Your struggle to set this country free will be spoken by generations to come. I will come for you when the time is right.”
Without waiting for a reply, the big man took a few steps back, opened the door and walked out. The boys rushed outside to take one last look at the soldier but couldn’t find him. All they could hear was the sound of the wind rustling the long grass. And finally they believed it. The Mau Mau were not real people, they were ghosts!
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...