Fifteen Years Later
The Last Mau Mau
Nderitu stood outside a public toilet in Mathare Valley, looking business as usual. A young boy playing with a soccer ball smiled up at him and Nderitu scowled. The boy picked up his ball and ran away scared. The big man lit a cigarette and glanced at his wrist watch. The time was 5.30pm. He was supposed to meet Kamandu and the men at 6pm.
“How much do you charge to use the toilet?” A woman’s voice asked, bringing him back to his job.
“How much do you have?” he asked in a growling voice that was intended to scare people into paying. Standing at 6 feet tall, Nderitu looked down at the woman as he zipped up his black jacket. The days in Nairobi were hot but the evening breeze was usually chilly.
The woman placed some coins in his hand and Nderitu let her through the door with a grunt. She looked to be in her late twenties with a dirty face and ragged clothes. Most Mathare Valley residents were too poor to afford the toilets but Nderitu's face and appearance was enough to make them part with their hard earned money. The irony of it all was that the toilets belonged to the City of Nairobi and were offered to the tax payers for free. Kamandu, Nderitu and a group of other men had taken over the operation, manning and charging for use of public toilets. Life in Nairobi was tough and doors closed on people’s faces, shutting out opportunities. The years had been rough on the men, and getting a job was a nightmare. Only the hustlers survived in the city and Nderitu liked to think he was one. The city askari workers knew what the men were doing but never interfered. Kamandu's men had a reputation of violence and residents referred to them as The Last Mau Mau, a name that made people afraid. The story of the Mau Mau rebellion was one that would live long in the hearts of men.
Mathare Valley was one of the largest and worst slum areas in Nairobi and the degree of poverty was unimaginable. One public toilet was shared by up to 100 people and those who couldn’t afford to pay were forced to use alleys and ditches between the shanties. ‘Flying toilets’ were popular, with residents using plastic bags at night and throwing them into the Nairobi River, which was also the source of the residents' water supply.
Nderitu looked at his watch again and sighed, it was time. He whistled for a small boy to take over manning the toilet and made his way between shanties to go and meet with Kamandu.
Mathare Valley was located a few kilometers from the center of Nairobi with hundreds of people living in an area of three square miles with a high death rate from diseases. Along the way, Nderitu saw women selling fruits and vegetables; their produce spread on the ground, the smell of fried fish strong in the air.
Freedom – an open door to limitless opportunities. That’s what they had said. That’s what Jomo Kenyatta had promised the people after he was released from jail and elected president. Nderitu had longed for it, almost died for it. And now, all he could see where shanties made of mud and tin. All he could smell was shit, stagnant water and fish.
He had tried many times to formulate a plan and get a job at the Industrial Area to no avail. Thousands of people worked in factories in the Industrial Area producing goods that sold in world markets; an industrial revolution full of promise. It hurt that he couldn’t stand up and be counted as a man. It was why he had vanished from his own village; why he refused to think about his siblings. He wondered what part of his failure to communicate resulted from his own brokenness. He felt alone, and it frightened him.
Nderitu hadn’t seen much front line action with the Mau Mau. He had supported the course to fight for stolen land stripped away by the British whole heartedly. While the young boys trained to fight in the forest, the Mau Mau had raided white people’s homes and done horrible things. They had brought back stories of disemboweled white women and beheaded children, and yet many years later, Nderitu looked at the statistics and wondered whether it had all been propaganda. While thousands of Mau Mau and Kikuyu natives had died in the struggle for independence, only a few British settlers and soldiers had been killed.
The arrest of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi in 1956 in Nyeri forest, exactly four years to the day after the start of the uprising marked the end of the forest war. In the early morning of 18th February 1957, Kimathi was executed by hanging at the Kamiti Maximum Security Prison and buried in an unmarked grave.
Nderitu could sometimes hear the planes in his sleep and smell the blood in the raging wind. They had come all day and night, dropping bombs in the forest, destroying hideouts and killing hundreds of Mau Mau soldiers. The boys had fled for their lives and those who had made it like Nderitu, were scarred. The physical war for independence had officially ended, paving way for aggressive dialogue.
Nderitu walked between shanties and found himself in someone’s home. “Sorry,” he mumbled and quickly dashed out. It happened a lot. The houses in Mathare were so close together and walking pathways had been grabbed and converted into homes as more people flocked into the slums.
"Harambee!" President Jomo Kenyatta's voice constantly boomed over the radio, trying to rouse the people towards nation building. His voice relentlessly promised job creation, better health, education, security and service delivery. The people believed his words less every day.
Nderitu walked with an athletic spring that conveyed youth. The house he was looking for was a ten by ten shanty, much bigger than the regular six by eight feet. Inside, he found Kamandu and two other men lounging and drinking beer. Nderitu paused under the doorway and looked at the men - The Last Mau Mau, as people called them. They looked disheveled with dreadlocks, thick beards, and over-sized clothes. The room smelled of dirt and body odour. The house was never cleaned, and most of the men showered three times a week.
Kamandu was sat on a chair while the other two men had their elbows on what looked like a mat on the floor. Nderitu fist bumped the men and pulled up a chair next to Kamandu.
“Here’s the money for today,” he said, and handed Kamandu some cash. Kamandu looked older than he really was with a rough beard and dreadlocks. Many years after independence, he continued to run his hands through his carefully maintained shoulder-length dreadlocks. It was an image he was trying to maintain; a don't care attitude that instilled fear in the general population. All the men in the room wore jeans and overcoats, and looked a little more anxious than usual. Nderitu was the only one without dreadlocks, although his afro looked to be on the verge of turning into something else. While Kamandu had never cut his hair since independence, Nderitu had cut his while trying to secure a job.
“Did the city council workers show up?” Kamandu pocketed the cash without counting.
“Yes. I gave them their cut and told them we will only pay them on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays,” Nderitu said.
Kamandu cursed. “This is peanuts men. I’m tired of making small change. We fought for the independence of this country and yet we are the ones suffering. Other people are getting fat and rich at our expense. We need to take back what belongs to us.” Kamandu sighed. “What happened to the Africa we grew up in? Look at them now, living like the very white people we got rid of. Look at them wearing mini-skirts and worshipping their God. I promise you, one day the Mau Mau will return and those who will have abandoned our African ways will suffer.”
The faces in the room were indifferent. Kamandu was the controversial leader of 'The Last Mau Mau' group and was wearing the very same western clothes he condemned. Judging by his speeches, it was also very clear that he favoured a return to indigenous African traditions; vehemently rejecting Westernisation and all things he believed to be the trappings of colonialism, including Christianity. Most of the members of Kamandu's group were ex Mau Mau soldiers from Kenya's biggest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. Most of the members, including the two men on the floor, were poverty stricken slum dwellers, who had been brain washed by the doctrines of the movement. The truth though was that none of the men in the room really fought for independence. They had all been too young, and yet one could not deny the effect the Mau Mau life had on them; a streak of violence and an easy to anger attitude.
One of the men on the mat reached out and took a swig at his beer. His name was Silas and he was the shortest in the group. Kamandu liked him because he was not only a fast runner, but also a good liar, and these were traits that came in handy in the men's line of work. Silas raised his beer and spoke out practised words. "We salute the freedom fighters, Dedan Kimathi, Waruhiu also known as General China, Bildad Kaggia, Fred Kubbia, Stanley Mathenge, and Field Marshal Mwariama who sacrificed their lives for their people and the land."
"To Mau Mau!" the men in the room uttered in low growling voices.
The other man reading the old newspapers plastered on the wall was called Patrick. He was quiet with an innocent face that fooled many. He had the ability to keep a straight face even in the funniest situation and a poker face was something useful in the men’s line of work. Patrick raised his beer and cleared his throat. "To Africa," he said. "The promised land flowing with milk and honey. May we love and believe in ourselves and in our fight against injustice. To put our shoulders together and overcome any hindrances and obstacles established by the Colonial British, in the journey to finding our true identity, to perfect the union of all African tribes!"
"To a perfect African!" the men replied.
And then there was Nderitu and Kamandu, two six feet tall men, masculine and tough fighters. Due to their emboldened consciousness, The Last Mau Mau members carried themselves with a certain confidence which the people found to be arrogant and threatening. All together, the men formed an A-Team that terrorized the people of Mathare Valley and kept the police at bay.
“Tonight is the big night," Kamandu said. "Are we ready?”
“We have the wire cutters in the bag ready to go,” Silas said. “Do we need something to break the door?”
“No,” Kamandu replied. “Nderitu is good with locks."
“How will you find the safe, and how do we open it?” Patrick asked.
Kamandu pulled out an old pistol and kissed it. “We will ask politely."
The men laughed. Patrick and Silas always worked hard to impress Kamandu, and it was mostly because Kamandu's name carried a lot of weight in Nairobi. Kamandu provided a sense of stability and purpose. He had been arrested a few times by the police, and people had seen him walk on the streets the following day, and nothing scared the residents more than that; an untouchable man.
Kamandu stood up and paced the small room. He stopped in front of an old picture of President Jomo Kenyatta plastered on the wall and stared at it. People in Nairobi said negative things about the president, but they respected him like a god, and that was obvious looking at the admiration on Kamandu's face.
"Let's go over the plan to make sure we are all on the same page," he said, without turning around.
Nderitu, a day old beard on his face, lit a cigarette and smoked pensively. He had helped draw the plans and the other men had helped with reconnaissance. Nderitu knew how much his best friend Kamandu liked to run the show and so he let him. They had been doing this for years and knew the drill all too well. They would hit a shop or a rich person’s home and steal a lot of money. There would be drinking and celebration afterwards. The men would appear in new clothes, shoes and happy faces. They would spend a few weekends bedding girls at fancy hotels in town, and then the money would run out and it would be right back to square one in the slums.
He was 27 years old now, but he felt like 30. When did it all end? This vicious cycle called hustling? Always chasing after that big win. When did it end?
"This is not the usual hit and run job we are used to," Kamandu said, turning to face the men. "We are going to be living in this small town for a few months until the job is done and we are fully paid. If we do this right, we may secure an income that could last us a long time. I'm talking about money that can buy someone a house and a wife. But first thing first, tonight..." He made eye contact with the men. "Nderitu and I will hit the chief's home and clean out every penny. We will then give the chief a chance to raise the alarm and alert the police. Patrick and Silas?"
"The police will come running to save their chief," Patrick said, stroking his beard and grinning. "They have no car and it will take them a long time to find one or walk there. Meanwhile, Silas and I will break into the police station and steal their payroll money."
Kamandu grinned. "Good. You will break in through the roof and not the door. The police station lock may be tough to pick. The safe will be a cheap one since nobody expects a robbery at a police station. Use the 'bouncing a safe' technique if you have to, or whatever method you can to open it. You pick up the safe and drop it straight down. One of you turns the knob as soon as the safe hits the ground. Silas, you are very good at that kind of a thing. Nderitu? Do you have anything else to add?"'.
Nderitu exhaled smoke into the air. "Nobody gets hurt and nobody gets caught. This is a clean job guys," he said with eloquent simplicity.
“It’s settled then.” Kamandu pocketed his hands and shrugged. “Let’s meet here at 10pm tonight. The town is almost an hour and a half drive from Nairobi. Get some sleep guys.”
The meeting was over and the men were dismissed. It was getting dark outside, a pretty twilight shattered with worry. Nderitu went back to his tin hut and noticed that one corner of the tin roof was peeling off. He cursed and threw a black plastic bag on the roof, to prevent rain from dripping through. Finding heavy rocks to anchor down the plastic took a little bit longer and Nderitu was sweating by the time he was done. In a few days’ time he would be living in a small town up in the mountains where rent was a lot cheaper. He would get a nice place and make the most of it.
Nderitu got on his bed and closed his eyes. Anything outside the rule of law was unpredictable and that was the mystery that ignited the men. For Nderitu, it wasn't about him, and he liked that. It was like living someone else’s life and that kept him from thinking about his own. Nevertheless, there were times when he thought Kamandu went too far - looked at the world differently and judged it harshly. Like the time they had shot and wounded a cop, and called it collateral damage. Kamandu had fully believed in the course of Mau Mau, and now tried to model his group on the violent Mau Mau principles. Simply put, Kamandu was a prisoner of his own past.
At 10pm that night, the four men met in Kamandu’s house and headed towards Kariobangi South where a black Toyota pick-up truck was waiting. They were all dressed in dark hooded clothes and hugged the shadows to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
The streetlights in Kariobangi South did not work - not even one, and the night was still with darkness. The truck was stolen and Kamandu drove it along back roads to avoid being stopped by the police. That was the beauty of Nairobi: there were no traffic policemen at night and the regular night patrols were mostly on foot.
The town they were headed for was located 150 kilometres north of Nairobi, along the Nairobi-Nyeri Highway. There were no other cars on the dark winding road and it took an hour fifteen minutes to get there. Nderitu looked through the window and saw forest ascending towards a dark sky. Not much else was visible but silhouettes of brushes and trees nearby.
Amka Town, the destination, was situated at the edge of a large plain at the southern foot of Mt. Kenya. The land here was green with grazing grass and people's gardens embodying serenity. The vehicle headlights picked out reddish-brown soil where the road had been dug out, confirming the fertility of the land. Kamandu parked the truck at the bottom of a small hill and the men stepped out with a sense of purpose.
"It's a little chilly," Nderitu said under his breath. He got no answer. It was almost midnight. All the men wore their game faces and looked focused. Silas jumped in the back of the truck and threw a small bag at Kamandu. Each man strapped a bag on his back containing tools necessary for the job, like knives, flashlights and wire cutters.
"The town is on top of the hill," Kamandu stated the obvious. While it was Kamandu and Nderitu who had drawn the plan, all four men had been to Amka Town before, casing out shops and mapping out houses. They knew all the streets and landmarks a quarter of a mile in every direction.
Kamandu looked at Patrick and Silas. "The police station is next to the shopping center as you remember. Drive the truck up the hill and hide it in the shadows. You must wait for the signal before you break in. The police station is closed at night, but when the screaming starts, everybody will head for the chief's home. Empty out the safe and only take the money. You got it?"
"We are ready," Silas said shivering a little.
"I'm ready," Patrick said. "We will drive back to Nairobi after the job is done, clean the truck and abandon it somewhere. Tomorrow we will take public transport and return here."
"Perfect," Kamandu said. "Ngai be with you."
"And with you too."
Patrick and Silas got back in the truck and drove slowly up the hill. They had a lot of time to canvass the town and polish their plan.
"You ready?" Kamandu said, grinning at Nderitu. "You think you still got it?"
The two men were the same height with Kamandu being slightly older at 31 years of age. Kamandu was also the huge one, with a logger’s torso; a thick waistline and a burlish appearance. Nderitu looked more like well-built sprinter, with a well-toned body and a straight walk. He laughed easily at Kamandu's challenge and started running. "Are you going to talk or run?"
Kamandu laughed and chased after him, and for a moment they both felt young. They ran north 45 degrees away from Amka Town and headed for the chief's house. The journey took them through a low density forest with open habitats that supported shrubs and long grass. Silent running. Nderitu leaped over a drying shrub and looked like he was about to ram into a tree trunk. He calmly put out a hand and pushed himself off, without loosing pace. Beside him, Kamandu moved between trees at an easy pace, both men seeming to be one with nature. Eventually the trees ended and they emerged on what looked like a plateau dotted with a few wooden and mud houses.
"Over there," Kamandu said with a pointing finger. He took in big gulps to steady his breathing before he spoke again. "The big house in the middle, that's the chief's house. The other houses belong to the wives and sons."
How much property could one man have? Nderitu wondered as he admired the large acres of land covered with tea. Some of the chiefs who worked for the Colonial British had been rewarded with land and after independence had continued to maintain claim on those same lands. The wrongs committed had never been righted and most of those who had lost their land had never gotten them back.
"Ski masks on," Kamandu instructed, and Nderitu pulled a black mask over his face. They had also taken extra precaution and sprayed themselves silly with mosquito repellant to cover their real body odours. They would be living in this town for the next few weeks or months and could not risk being recognized.
With Kamandu leading the way, the men walked through the tea plantation and stopped outside a five foot hedge. In the absence of moonlight, everything looked pitch black and animated silhouettes made the men's hearts jump.
Using shears, the two men cut a big hole in the hedge and crouched low to listen. It took a whole minute before they heard the growl. Kamandu quickly fished into his bag and came up with a chunk of fresh meat. Two eyes appeared in the darkness moving fast. The growl turned into a bark and it was the loudest thing in the quiet night. Kamandu tossed the steak and both men pulled out their daggers. The barking suddenly stopped and the dog started chewing on the meat. Kamandu cautiously crawled through the fence followed by Nderitu. The dog, feeling threatened, grabbed the meat and dashed behind the houses.
"He'll be back," Nderitu said.
"Good," Kamandu said. "In time to make the kind of noise we need."
The two men found themselves walking through a dirt-covered compound. The houses sat very quiet, the lights out, the women and children inside obviously asleep. They zigzagged through smaller houses until they reached the chief's home. It was a lot larger with a modern bungalow architecture that looked too expensive for someone living in the countryside. The walls were built with well sanded logs and the roof was covered with red metal sheeting.
This was it! To proceed or turn back? The arrogance of men and the thought of success prevailed and the two men carried on.
Kamandu pulled out his pistol and turned on a small flashlight. Using the light, Nderitu started picking the lock, the concentration on his face showing the level of professionalism. It took a good fifteen minutes before the door swung open into a well-furnished living room. Kamandu went in first with a pointing gun and Nderitu followed hesitantly. The sight of the living room with its expensive couches brought back memory flashes and for the first time in a long time, he remembered Alex, his white childhood friend at the Mathari Orphanage. Was Alex still in the country or had he left along with the other Europeans? He wondered. And then a feeling of self-loathing filled his body as he remembered; they had killed Alex's father, the director. The boys at the orphanage had killed him. For what? To prove their radicalism? For freedom? Not a day had passed in the forest without Nderitu feeling regret about what had happened on that horrific night.
“Get up!” Kamandu's yelling voice brought him back to the present.
Nderitu dashed through a hallway that led to a bedroom. The sight that met him under a dim table lamp made him pause. The chief, a fat black man with a bald head had both hands raised in the air and was standing protectively in front of his wife. He was short too, like 5'6", wearing nothing but a pair of blue underwear and a look of fear. The wife wore a long t-shirt and looked very frightened behind the man.
“Take the money and go,” the chief said in a scared voice. “Take anything you want, just don’t hurt my wife.”
“Open the safe!” Kamandu said calmly. His voice croaked and Nderitu saw him pinching the soft part above his Adam’s apple to distort his voice.
“Y-yes,” the chief said stuttering. "It's in my office in the next room."
“Let’s go then. Juma? Take care of the wife. We do this nice and slow and nobody gets hurt.”
"Please don't harm my wife!" The chief cried as Kamandu frog-marched him into the hallway.
Juma? It took a few seconds before Nderitu realised that he was Juma. He rushed forward and pushed the wife on top of the bed. She was short like the husband but a little plump. She fell, face forward and her t-shirt rode up, exposing a naked behind. She wasn't wearing any underwear! Nderitu stared in shock. He started fumbling with his belt and the wife turned over with a panicked face. Nderitu dove on her and flipped her back on her belly.
"No!" she cried, voice muffled by the pillow. "Please, nooo! I'm old enough to be your mother."
Nderitu pushed her head deeper into a pillow. “Shut your mouth woman! I need the belt to tie you up. I’m not going to rape you!” After that it was easy. The wife stayed still while he tied her up. He left her mouth ungagged on purpose and grinned mischievously under the mask - it would take her a while to gather the courage to scream. With the wife secured, Nderitu dashed after Kamandu.
It was now officially a break-in, and burglary and criminal trespassing charges could be brought against them. Nderitu tried not to think about it - the possibility that their next meal could easily be served to them through a small hole in a cell door.
Kamandu was standing in the office doorway, a gun pointing at the kneeling man. Chief Karui as he was called looked a pathetic sight on his knees. The safe was built in the wall behind the desk, and the chief's hands shook as he punched the numbers.
"Open it!" Kamandu touched the gun on the chief's head and the man reacted instantly, punching the combination numbers faster. The next few seconds were tense and the men's breathing loud. Nderitu held his breath as he watched the safe swing open. The sight of bundles of cash made him gasp and he knew instantly that they had been right. Most of this money had been robbed from the people of Amka Town through extortion and bribery. Chief Karui did not have an honest bone in his body.
Kamandu hit the chief with the pistol on the back of the head and the man went down with a groan. "Load up!" he said as he pocketed the gun.
There was no money bag! In a well-planned out robbery, the men had overlooked the simplest thing of all - a bag. They pocketed as much cash as they could and also loaded their tool bags, and five minutes later the safe was empty but for a few confidential files.
Nderitu's flashlight caught the chief's face and saw the fat man pretending to be unconscious. He grinned and reminded himself to laugh about it later. He had been Kamandu's wing man for a long time and they had broken into every kind of building and stolen a lot of money. For Nderitu, he had made it clear from the word go that harming another human being was where he drew the line. Kamandu had softened the blow on its way down, for Nderitu's sake and also as part of the plan. They needed the chief to wake up and call all the policemen over.
"Let's go!" Kamandu growled.
Nderitu led the way through the front door and into the compound. They ran at an easy pace between the houses and headed towards the hole in the fence. Everything felt familiar. They had been doing this for a long time.
It took thirty seconds for the chief's wife to scream, followed by the barking of a dog. The scream, even though expected made the men jump ... and then giggle.
"Here we go," Kamandu said, adrenaline pumping through his blood.
A light came on in one of the houses and a second screamed pierced the night. They had been spotted! The men sprinted through the fence and headed for the trees. There was blood on Nderitu's hand but he didn't know where it had come from.
"Split up!" Kamandu yelled. "Let's meet tomorrow at my new house!"
Nderitu didn't wait to hear the rest. He took a hard left and quickly vanished into the dark trees. He was happy they had succeeded in neutralizing the most powerful man in town. They had a lot of money and the chief had nothing. Money was power in Africa, and now they could take over the little town of Amka just as they had controlled Mathare Valley in Nairobi.
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...