Now We Are Free
                                   by Robert Mwangi

 

                                                  Chapter 1    

 

I loved being with my father and I loved the way his face softened when he told me that I looked a lot like my mother Njoki. Little did I know that he was about to be taken away from me.

The primary interest of the British in Kenya was land. My father’s land constituted some of the richest agricultural soils in the country, in districts where elevation and climate made it possible for Europeans to reside permanently. The first white settlers arrived in Kenya in 1902 after the completion of the Uganda Railway and their success highly depended on the availability of land, labour and capital. The colonial British seized about 7,000,000 acres of land from Central and Rift Valley Province and turned it into European farmland. My people who included the Kikuyu’s living in Kiambu, Nyeri and Murang’a districts of Central Province were the ethnic group most affected. Land was taken away from them creating a pool for wage labourers. Because they did not own land, natives were forced to seek jobs on white farms to make a living, and the demand for labour increased as more settlers moved in. Kenyan employees on white farms were often poorly treated and sometimes even beaten to death, with some settlers claiming that they were as children and should be treated as such. Opposition to British imperialism was always there from the start, but the British were too arrogant about their superior military capability that they gave it little thought.

The Kikuyus were a deeply divided people, increasingly in the conflict amongst themselves and with the Colonial British. An attempt to form a political solution between the British and locals who had lost their land was unfruitful, forcing young men to take up arms against the white people through a guerilla warfare that was for most part one-sided due to the British heavy artillery. And so started the Mau Mau rebellion, a violent uprising with a decentralized leadership whose primary zones were the Aberdares and the forests around Mount Kenya.
In 1952, a State of Emergency was declared in Kenya leading to the arrest of Jomo Kenyatta and 180 other alleged Mau Mau leaders within Nairobi. The arrests did nothing to decapitate the movement’s leadership as the real militants like Dedan Kimathi and Stanley Mathenge managed to flee and become principal leaders of Mau Mau’s forest armies.                                                                                                I was born in 1950 and lived with my parents and siblings in a mud hut in a small village under the hills of Aberdares. As a girl, history rarely smiles on us and the women’s role in the battle for independence is always underplayed. Other than being strong on the home front when the men went to war, women were in fact able to move through colonial spaces and between Mau Mau hideouts and strongholds, to deliver vital supplies including food, ammunition and medicine.
After the State of Emergency was declared, houses and families in my village were forced to live close to each other for ‘protection’ against the Mau Mau rebels hiding in the Aberdares Forest. The truth though was that it was easier for the British to manage ‘enclosed villages’ as opposed to scattered homes. A deep spike-bottomed trench and barbed wire separated my village from the forest, and we were watched over by members of the Home Guard, often composed of neighbours and relatives. For most part, the Mau Mau stayed away due to the British Heavy artillery and Home Guards, but when they eventually attacked, the onslaught was fast and brutal, targeted at loyalists without massive civilian casualties.                 My father, a tall man in his mid-forties was a Home Guard by profession and moved with the confidence instilled in him by years of service leading other men. As the British Empire expanded, the army was increasingly involved around the world, and local recruitments were enacted to lessen the burden on the army. Home Guards were natives hired by the Colonial British to ‘protect’ the villages from Mau Mau raids. In 1954 and at the age of four, I admired my father in his khaki shorts and shirt, which he wore every day to go with his wooden rifle. This was a time when clothes were a scarce commodity and a full attire constituted a suka tied above one shoulder and fastened around the waist with a belt. Most men had long uncombed hair since there were no mirrors or combs. Shoes were a dream come true for anybody and men coming from Nairobi city wearing shoes were admired for their upgraded fashion. Every day the Home Guards would escort the villagers to their gardens and watch them cultivate their lands. There wasn’t much land left for grazing and the few cows and goats that the British hadn’t taken for themselves were tethered to trees. At night, my father was part of a Home Guard team that worked on a rotation shift, protecting the villagers day and night. My sisters and brother – we slept well because we felt protected and loved.
            It was the wisdom of the Colonial British to pit the natives against each other in a divide and conquer kind of way. The tactics of the Mau mau rebels were well known and they mostly came out of the forest at night and raided the villages for food supplies and traitors. People were afraid of each other, and afraid of the white men.
          My father was never home mostly because of the demands of his job which earned him a small size of income and a lot of scrutiny from the other villagers. Men who worked as Home Guards were considered traitors but somehow my dad had managed to be a Home Guard and still earn the respect of the other men. I never understood how he did that but I assumed that he had earned the respect long before the fight for independence started; long before the death of his wife. The people didn’t like what he did, but somehow managed to overlook his uniform and judge him by the content of his character.
       “If I go into the forest and join the Mau Mau, what will my children eat?” Dad would say. "I don't have anyone to leave my children with."
     “But the Mau Mau will kill you for being a home gaurd?” A concerned voice.

“I agree that it’s a big risk. But if I go into the forest, then I will not be able to see my children and the British will mark my family and torture them.”
           It was a hopeless situation and there was no winning for my dad, and so he chose his children over his country. This so happened to also be his greatest fear in life; the one thing he could never handle was loosing his children. Life in my village was a frightful dream.
          I have very little memories of my mother Njoki, but I was told that she died giving birth to my small Sister, Wanjiru, who was like three years younger than I. At the age of thirty, my mum had looked and felt fabulous during her pregnancy, until she went into labour that rainy morning and they couldn’t save her from birth complications. At least, that was the trending version of the story. She died, and Wanjiru her daughter lived.
In total there were four of us: my brother Nderitu the oldest was eight years old, my sister Wairimu five, and then my small sister, one. I would later learn that our mother had lost other babies in birth before ultimately loosing her own life. Birth through midwives was never a thing of certainty. The death of my other siblings had left a scar in dad and he felt that his duty was beside us, so help him God.  
          We lived in a small hut with our stepmother, a woman who dad had hurriedly brought home to take care of us after our mother’s burial. It was expected of him to do this and rumours had it that my stepmother drove him wild in bed especially since she was a lot younger. As a man, my dad was not expected to perform the same duties as those performed by a woman, like cooking or bathing a baby.
         As far back as I remember, we were a happy family and I loved my brother and sisters very much.  Nderitu was a young boy of a light skinned complexion, ready to conquer the world. He liked running after the British trucks when the soldiers came to the village to 'check' on things and talk to the Home Guards. The British lived a little farther away from the forest where it was hard for the Mau Mau to reach them. They lived on fertile land which was kept so by hired locals. My sister Wairimu, at the age of five talked a storm, and had a personality that matched it. She talked to everybody in the village and didn’t shy away from intrusive questions that made the adults cringe. Like the one time when she called a fat woman pregnant and people laughed as they looked away. I on the other hand was regarded to as the docile child; indifferent and passive. I giggled easily and hid behind furniture when visitors tried to talk to me. I was short with little hair, but they thought I was adorable and pretty, and they worried whether I would one day have a strong personality like my Sister Wairimu.
      We loved our baby sister Wanjiru a lot, especially more so because she was the last gift from our mother. Even dad carried her sometimes which was very rare for a man in the village - to carry a baby.
       “I love you little angel,” he’d croon to the happy and bouncy baby.
See that’s the thing about my dad, people said nice things about him and he was easy to be around with. They called him Ribiru and even though they didn’t like his Home Guard uniform, they admired that he was brave enough to do what it took to feed his family.
       Sometimes our stepmother would take us into the forest to take food to our dad. She would carry Wanjiru and hold my hand and it would take forever to get there as the sun beat down on our bold shiny heads. Nderitu and Wairimu carried the food and water and set a good pace through the trees. In the forest, we would find dad sweating and grunting after working all morning.
          His skin was burnt brown just like ours due to the long hours we spend in the sun. The climate in our village ranged from very hot months to rainy seasons. On the ground beside him would be a pile of firewood ready to be transported back to the village. We would sit on the grass and eat as a family, the roast maize quickly disappearing from the bowl, the sugar cane rejuvenating us with the much needed boost of energy.
      “Are there any animals in the forest Dad?” I would ask with wary eyes.
      “No Wangechi. Not anymore,” my dad would reply as he wiped his face with a towel.
      “What happened to them?” Nderitu would ask taking a swig of his water.
      “They moved away. People used to kill them for food. As soon as a buffalo was spotted for example, villagers would rally and pursue it till death. Soon the animals became smart and decided to stay away from the people.”
      On the way home, we would divide the firewood amongst ourselves, with dad carrying the bulk of the load. Even I had a tiny bundle to through over my head, which I did with a lot of pride. I still remember the look on my dad’s face as he patted my head and smiled down on me. He looked tired but happy that he was with his family and that he was able to take care of them. It was a thing of pride for the men in the village and a man who couldn’t feed his children was not a man at all.
      Nderitu groaned as we headed home and my father gave him a disapproving look. Showing pain was not a manly thing to do. “Nderitu,” my father would say. “One day I will be gone and you will be the man of the family. Your sisters will need you then more than you know.”
      At these words, Nderitu would groan no more, and would carry the firewood like he was born to.
I still remember my father after we got home, as he tried to sit up straight in the kitchen to keep awake. His, was the dedication of a parent who knocked himself out to take care of his family.
     We would all sit around the fire and watch the water boil in the pot. My dad would then master the energy to fetch honey from the bee hive located next to the orange trees. The beehive was also meant to keep us away from the fruits and it worked like a charm since none of us wanted to be stung. The honey was placed inside the boiling water and grated sugar cane added. This was the first few steps towards brewing muratina, a local drink that made my father sing like a canary bird.
         Later on in the day, men would arrive and join my dad for a drink of muratina and we would take the opportunity to run out and play. But no matter how far we went, we would always be able to hear the laughter coming from our home as men shared a drink with Mr. Ribiru. My dad loved to host and his need for control was legendary to both his family and community. He fed men and reached them through their stomachs, and they in turn respected him.
        I loved being with my father and I loved the way his face softened when he told me that I looked a lot like my mother Njoki. His hair was always short, his cheekbones and jaw stern, and overall he had a rugged handsome look. Little did I know that he was about to be taken away from me.
        It happened on one Friday night when we least expected it. As usual, we slept with our stepmother at home while my dad slept in the big hut with the other Home Guards. The Mau Mau rebels came that night when least expected, and as usual with a particular mission.
    Their pounding footsteps woke us up and the glow of their torches invited us to peep through the windows. We saw their disheveled faces and dirty dreadlocks; we saw the loathing and kill in their eyes. The target was the Home Guards, whom they called traitors. My father and other men were locked inside the big hut where they slept and the door was bolted shut from outside.
      “Ribiro!” the Mau Mau yelled.
      “I’m here!” My father replied.
      “We are going to open the window so you can jump out!”
      “Okay!”
      They knew my father, for they had grown up with him and herded cows together. A window was opened and a man jumped out. The window was quickly slammed shut and the silence that followed was terrifying. The night came alive as the thatched roof was ignited. The fire spread quickly and men inside screamed for help to no avail. Soon the whole house was engulfed and the heat forced the rebels to move back. The traitors were dead, and victory belonged to the Mau Mau and the country.
     “Let’s go Ribiru!” a man yelled as the Mau Mau turned towards the forest.
     A moment of silence elapsed before another voice shouted in alarm. “It’s not Ribiru! The wrong man jumped out of the window.”
    “What?”
    Another man cursed, followed by the sound of walking men.
    “Let’s get out of here!”
    “What do we do with this guy?”
    “Kill him!” There was iron in the tone.
     From the safety of our home, we watched the hut burn down to the ground. I was too young to understand what was happening but I remember the grief on my big brother’s face. Nderitu looked afraid, sad and confused. Somewhere deep inside, he knew that our father would never come home again.

 

             

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