The shrill cry of a kite rising in the hot current pierces the air above the desolate sun-baked grounds of Manyani Detention Camp where an endless line of A-frame tin huts shimmer in the midday sun.
A State of Emergency had been declared in October 1952 and Manyani, measuring almost three miles long and half a mile wide, was one of the biggest camps where many Mau Mau rebels, supporters and suspected sympathisers were held without trial.
Located on 1,000 hectares of land within a semi-arid area, some 38km west of Voi town, in the harsh wilderness of Tsavo West National Park, Manyani Detention Camp was opened in April of 1954. It is surrounded by the Manga hills in an area with a large population of the famous man-eating lions which certainly discouraged any detainee who may have entertained thoughts of escaping from the camp. As with most other camps within the “pipeline”, Manyani was surrounded by barbed wire. The name “Manyani” is derived from the Swahili language in reference to the baboons found in the area.
The camp consisted of two compounds, A and B, which were divided by barbed wire, featuring high watchtowers along the middle manned by guards armed with machine guns, police dogs and powerful search lights to make sure no one escaped. Detainees were housed in low A-frame tin huts with no windows or lighting each designed to accommodate 50 inmates.
Compound A was reserved for lower grade detainees who were likely to be co-operative while B featured solitary confinement facilities and housed those who were considered hardcore and more difficult to break into submission.
The pipeline process would begin at the transit camps in Central Province, Rift Valley and Nairobi where teams of European officers and African warders screened and classified each Mau Mau suspect according to his level of perceived cooperation.
Those headed to Manyani were shackled and huddled into goods wagons on the train to Mombasa and were offloaded at the camp which was close to the railway line, in a journey that took two days.
Others were loaded onto lorries and enclosed buses making the journey over bumpy, unpaved roads. Many of the victims already had broken limbs and open wounds from beatings inflicted during arrest and screening.
During the ride to Manyani detainees would suffer more torture with Johnnies (European officers) using their army boots to trample on their heads, hands and testicles.
Upon arrival at Manyani, the detainees were ordered to crouch in five lines with their hands on their heads and counted like sheep in a pen. They were then strip-searched and all valuables confiscated. The search was humiliating and dehumanising as the wardens pried into all the detainees’ bodily orifices. From there they were herded into a dipping tank full of disinfectant as the warders forced their heads into the solution continuously beating them with batons.
Further humiliation was to follow when the detainees were assembled in a large open area and forced to remove all their clothing which was placed in a collective pile and burnt; never to be seen again. They were then provided with uniform comprising a light shirt, one pair of yellow shorts and two blankets for the entire duration of their stay at the camp. The average length of stay was two years.
The screening teams consisted of Europeans and Africans from the Prison Department, Special Branch, CID, the Community Development and Rehabilitation Department as well as dozens of Kikuyu loyalists.
The colonial government set the propaganda machinery into full gear, spreading the narrative that the Mau Mau movement was barbaric, backward and savage. Those who had taken the Mau Mau oath were deemed to have submitted to some form of occultism.
The arrest and detention of suspects was believed to be a way of restoring the persons to sanity through torture and punishment. The detainees were beaten, whipped, sodomised, their beards set on fire, forced to eat faeces and drink urine in a bid to force them to recant the oath. Detainees were regularly bludgeoned to death.
Camp hygiene was poor as the detainees were made to use the same buckets for lavatory and bathing. The subject of hygiene, diseases and lack of medical care was foremost in many of the letters detainees managed to smuggle out of the camp. A large number suffered from diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid.
Towards the end of 1954, Manyani had more than 20,000 inmates against a designed capacity of 10,000 resulting in a very serious outbreak of typhoid and other infectious diseases. At the time, 63 detainees had died of typhoid while another 760 were infected with the disease.
Although the colonial administration took remedial action by mounting a mass vaccination campaign, improved medical care and running down the number of detainees at Manyani, there was a determined effort to cover up the atrocities that took place.
While the government was successful in quelling the Mau Mau uprising by 1958, the tempo for freedom had nevertheless increased to such a level that it was now clear that independence for Kenya was inevitable.
The story narrated here about Manyani is not a work of fiction but about real events which happened to real people who made great sacrifices to win us the freedom that we enjoy today.
Have we surrendered our right of self-determination to a clique of individuals who are hell bent on disinheriting us and our children of our national wealth? At the rate we are plundering our nation’s resources we are reversing the gains that were made, at great cost, by our forefathers and plunging the country back into the abyss. As our forefathers sacrificed for our sake, so must we stand up to protect our posterity. It has been said often enough that the one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history.
Freedom is not free; it comes with obligations.