July 11, 2020, marks exactly 30 years since Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie arrived in Kenya in 1990, five months after his release from prison on February 11, 1990.
Mandela made his reasons for prioritising Kenya clear. “I have come to pay homage to freedom fighters who waged a liberation war against the British colonialists.” At a rally hosted by then president, Daniel arap Moi, Mandela said; “In my 27 years of imprisonment, I always saw the images of fighters such as Dedan Kimathi and others in the Mau Mau as candles in my long and hard war against injustice and consider it an honour to pay homage to the freedom fighters.”
Mandela then made a request. He wanted to see the grave of Field Marshal Dedan Kīmathi Wachiūri and meet his widow, Mūkami.
Many of us have been waiting with bated breath after Belgium’s King Phillipe sent a letter of regret over the country’s colonial past in the Congo and France returned 24 skulls of Algeria’s anti-colonial fighters. Will Britain follow suit and tell us where the body of freedom fighter Kīmathi was buried?
Kīmathi led the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, the armed wing of the Mau Mau freedom fighters against the British colonial regime from 1950 until his capture and execution in 1957. Kīmathi’s army of voluntary peasants, often armed only with courage and homemade guns against the power and might of an empire that had just won the Second World War, was bombed regularly by British Lincoln Bombers.
Mandela had led Umkhonto wa Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress. Ronnie Kasrils, Umkhonto we Sizwe’s intelligence chief, later Minister for Defence in independent South Africa, wrote of Mandela’s inspirational stories on Kīmathi’s bravery.
Kīmathi’s father, Wachiūri, died uncompensated fighting for the British in the First World War. British soldiers fighting alongside Wachiūri would ironically be gifted with land in Kenya, displacing millions of Wachiūri’s community and others across the country. This and other injustices inspired Wachiūri’s son Kīmathi to take up arms against the colonialists, rallying his army with the call “let’s fight for land and freedom.” Kīmathi too, fought for the British in the Second World War, serving in India and Egypt, where he gained knowledge he used to create formal military structures within the Mau Mau.
It is unlikely that the British do not know what happened to Kimathi’s body after they hanged him on February 18, 1957, as the colonial power’s efficient bureaucracy kept detailed records of all its activities.
Belgium’s King Phillipe, on June 30, on the 60th anniversary of Congo’s Independence, wrote to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, expressing his “deepest regrets” for his country’s brutal colonisation. Writing in King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild documents the horror of Belgian rule and exploitation of Congo’s resources by, especially, King Leopold II resulting in the deaths of 10 million Congolese.
King Phillipe’s letter also rightfully pointed out issues of continuing racism and discrimination in Belgium. Statues of King Leopold II have been removed across the country. A parliamentary commission is expected to scrutinise Belgium’s colonial past, and hopefully neo-colonial exploitation too.
A weeping Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune received the skulls of 24 freedom fighter fighters from the Museum of Man in Paris, following years of advocacy by Algerians, particularly historian Ali Farid Belkadi. The 24 were given a hero’s funeral on July 5, Algeria’s Independence Day.
President Tebboune, in a symbolic gesture, handed over flags covering their coffins to young military cadets, signifying the battle is far from over as Algerians are demanding the complete archives of their revolution. The macabre display of people’s skulls since 1849 as war trophies paints a picture of colonialism excesses as an institution that robbed Africa of its resources, including its dead.
In December 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron said, “colonialism was a grave mistake.”
One can only guess the reasons given to Mandela on why Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi’s post-colonial governments had not found and reburied Kīmathi’s body.
It was also only in 2003, that the Mwai Kībakī government lifted Subsidiary Legislation 913, gazetted on August 12, 1950, declaring the Mau Mau an illegal and dangerous organisation.
Mandela only met Mūkami, Kīmathi’s widow in 2005 through the efforts of human rights activist Kang’ethe Mungai and then Planning Minister Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o.
We are living in interesting times of global reckoning with the legacies of racism and colonialism.
Will President Uhuru Kenyatta take up the gamut from Kībakī and launch a formal request to the British for information on the location of Kīmathi’s body for the hero to be granted the funeral he deserves?