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Society

How colonists set the stage for Lari Massacre in wake of land dispute

Sir Evelyn Barring
Governor of Kenya Sir Evelyn Barring with a police officer at the scene of the Lari Massacre in 1953. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Many historical accounts report the Lari Massacre as a spontaneous event but in truth, it was a well-planned incident executed with military precision. In equal measure, the reasons for the brutal attack on perceived “loyalists” had been simmering for a long time.

In his autobiography A Daunting Journey, J.G. Kiereini states “What is little known, however, is that the Lari Massacre had its origins in the early 1900s, when members of the ten “mbari” (sub-clan) families and their tenants were evicted from their land in Tigoni to make way for white settlers, initially without any compensation”.

It will be recalled that Limuru was one of the first areas that were occupied by settlers. G.W.L. Caine is on record as having planted Kenya’s first tea in Limuru in 1903 while the likes of A.B. McDonnell, W.D. Knight and Colin Campbell settled there soon after. By 1914 Three Trees Farm (later Brackenhurst) had been established.

According to my friend Owen Koimbori, he remembers his father, Felix Njenga, telling him how their huts and crops, in the area today known as Kabuku, were burnt down in 1916 to make room for European settlers.

The displaced families were dispatched by rail to work on farms in the Rift Valley (ruguru rua ngaari) as squatters.

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In 1932, the colonial government appointed the Morris Carter Commission to look into native land grievances, which were threatening to erupt into violence.

The report of the commission defined the boundaries of the White Highlands and those of Native Reserves and recommended, among other things, that natives should receive compensation where land was taken from their reserves for occupation by white settlers.

Lari was next to the forest, which was formerly occupied by the Ndorobos.

The residents of Limuru considered land in Lari to be inferior because it was not developed, but this is the area that was being awarded by the colonial government in exchange for the more developed land in Limuru.

For a long time, Luka Kahangara was one of the prominent senior elders advocating to retain their land in Tigoni and opposing the relocation to Lari. Even to this day, there is a part of Lari known as “Kwa aregi” (of those that declined).

However, in 1927 Kahangara realised that the settlers were hell-bent on taking the Tigoni land and he indicated that the elders had agreed to consider an exchange of land, provided that the new lands were equal in every respect as concerns acreage, fertility and most especially, water supply, as in Tigoni.

Kahangara appeared to co-operate with the colonial authorities and settlers, accepting the land at Lari. It is understood that he was promised power and wealth if he persuaded his people to accept relocation to Lari.

The people became bitterly divided because by settling in Lari, Kahangara and his relatives had taken the best land and benefited the most.

As a reward, the colonial authorities also appointed Kahangara chief for Lari and he used very crude methods to collect colonial taxes from the locals.

This made him even more unpopular in the 1940s. By the late 1940s land in Lari had been exhausted and Limuru residents were being settled in Ndeiya where the land was virtually barren.

A surviving resident of Lari, Ernest Kabira Muranja, remembers the home guards who were identified and despised by the locals because they betrayed those that they believed had taken the Mau Mau oath.

Muranja recalls that, in the full moon on the night of March 23,1953, a gang of more than 400 Mau Mau congregated in Gichungo, many wearing head scarves for identification, from where they spread out in a pincer movement to surround the homes of Chief Kahangara, Chief Makimei, known loyalists and “komerera” (spies and double agents).

Their huts were set on fire while the families were still inside and those who attempted to escape were butchered with machetes, not even sparing women with babies on their backs, in a most gruesome orgy of violence.

While Chief Kahangara was killed during the incident along with most members of his family, Chief Makimei escaped following a tip-off from a relative of one of his wives.

Muranja recalls that most of the attackers had been recruited from the Murang’a wing of Mau Mau for maximum effect because it was thought that local Mau Mau may have been tempted to spare relatives and people they knew. It is said that about 120 locals lost their lives that night and huts were still smouldering the following day with bodies strewn all over the compounds.

The British colonial government used the attack as propaganda and showed the massacre to journalists, painting the Mau Mau as a bestial lot to justify their brutality against the Mau Mau.

The following day the colonial government rounded up thousands of Africans in Lari and the surrounding areas resulting in the loss of more than 400 lives, in a retaliatory attack.

According to Muranja, many Africans were transported to Githunguri where they were executed in public as a warning against further acts of resistance.

Needless to say, this event was not shown to journalists but in the eyes of many observers, this was the true massacre.

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