Kariokor Cemetery: Where African World War porters lie in utter neglect


A section of Kariokor Cemetery. PHOTO | DOUGLAS KIEREINI


  • The graveyard does not have a caretaker, is an eyesore unlike others that are neatly manicured and part of it has been grabbed.

The concept of African porters originated from the slave and ivory trades in East Africa, perhaps as early as the 15th century AD.

Arab traders needed transport for their supplies when they ventured into the hinterland and porters were the only available means at the time because pack animals were susceptible to disease and the killer tsetse fly.

These porters would also help to ferry the quarry back to the coast be it human, ivory or precious stones.

The early European explorers found African porters to be invaluable for their forays inland, serving both as guides and porters.

A new division of British forces known as Carrier Corps was created during World War 1 to provide military labour to support the East African Campaign against the German military forces led by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.

The Carrier Corps consisted of a conscripted African labour force and the recruitment and pay centre was at a place that soon became known as Kariokor (a mispronunciation of “Carrier Corps”), next to what was then the racecourse.

Ultimately, over 400,000 Africans were recruited or conscripted, using local chiefs, to provide porterage and related services during the war.
The famous English writer, Rudyard Kipling, described the carriers as “the hands and feet of the army”.

The organisation of carrier corps fell under a District Commissioner, Lt Col Oscar Ferris Watkins, who was under constant pressure from British military forces’ excessive demands upon the carriers and requests to recruit more native manpower.

Native population

The effect on many of the native population, still largely tribal, of being mobilised and suffering for a remote and mostly irrelevant foreign cause was significant in the long term, both highlighting the fallibility of the European (armed askaris readily killed white men), and raising the political awareness that Africans needed to stand up for their rights.

It is estimated that over 50,000 Kenyans perished in this war either as combatant casualties or through disease and exhaustion.

A colonial office employee wrote that the East African Campaign had not become a scandal only “because the people who suffered most were the carriers — and after all who cares about native carriers?”

The carriers just fell short of slavery only because they were paid a measly stipend of six Indian Rupees per month.

In 1919, King George V formed a Commonwealth Graves Commission to recover as many bodies as possible of British soldiers in the battlefields and accord them decent burial.

According to John Wilson, a historian, as the remains of Europeans were being collected in 1922, it was discovered that Africans and Indians had been forgotten.

A cemetery was established for Indians at Maktau at the coast, while it was decided that the many African casualties, who did not have identification tags, be honoured by erecting statues.

This is how the Askari Monuments in Nairobi, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam came to be.

Some time in the 1920s, an area between Kariokor and Pumwani estates along Quarry and Kinyanjui roads was designated for cemeteries along religious and racial lines.

The groups accommodated here included Mohamedans, Parsees, Khojas, Bhoras, Ahmedirs, Mahes, native Anglicans and Catholics.

The native Anglican cemetery was grabbed many years ago and the native Catholic cemetery is today known as the Kariokor Cemetery where there are graves of civilian Africans from the neighbourhood dating as far back as 1929.

Ignoring African soldiers

Kariokor Cemetery is located on Kinyanjui Road, about one kilometre east of Kariokor Market. At the beginning of World War 11 the British were careful not to repeat the mistake of ignoring African soldiers.

Part of Kariokor Cemetery was reserved for burial of African war casualties. There are 59 burials here, three of which are unidentified.

It falls under the auspices of the Commonwealth Graves Commission whose East African headquarters are located on Ngong Road, near the Racecourse.

Kariokor Cemetery does not have a caretaker and is an eyesore compared to the neatly manicured site on Ngong Road featuring 1,941 graves of mixed nationalities.

Although today Kariokor Cemetery is a closed graveyard, unfortunately the portion containing graves of civilians has been illegally allocated to jua kali (informal) mechanics and Christ the Covenant Church.

Kariokor Cemetery was gazetted as a national monument in 2015 but, notwithstanding, the illegal structures and activities are still in place.

During my visit to the site I had the privilege to meet the family of the late Joseph Omunga who lived in Kariokor since the 1930s. Omunga, himself a World War 11 veteran, fought in Burma alongside British troops and luckily returned home unharmed.

One of his daughters is buried in the civilian section of the cemetery and it really pains the family to remember that one of their very own lies under that portion which has been invaded by land grabbers.

Appeals to the county government have not yielded results but the community living in the neighbourhood, led by the Omunga family, has not given up hope.

It did not escape my attention that the neighbouring, mainly Muslim, cemeteries are relatively well kept and free from the scourge of illegal occupation.

While we may not like the treatment of our kin by our colonisers in the two World Wars, it would appear we are our own worst enemies in the way we treat our dead in this place which was set aside in their honour, as their final resting ground.

It is instructive to note that whilst Armistice Day is celebrated with pomp every year on November 11, in other Commonwealth Cemeteries, Kariokor Cemetery, where our very own are buried, maintains a most eloquent silence on that day as if abandoned forever.

The author is a retired banker and motorcycle enthusiast. E-mail, [email protected]