Lang’ata heroes’ museum: How Uhuru Kenyatta has outdone his father - Beaking Kenya News

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Tuesday, 14 December 2021

Lang’ata heroes’ museum: How Uhuru Kenyatta has outdone his father


By turning the former Mau Mau concentration camp in Lang’ata into a museum of heroes, President Uhuru Kenyatta has done what his father, Jomo Kenyatta, feared to do – recognise the place of Mau Mau in the liberation struggle.

At independence, and under pressure from both settlers and freedom fighters, Jomo took the middle ground -- ‘forgive and forget’, arguing that ‘there is no society of angels’.

When the Lang’ata ground was chosen by Governor Malcolm MacDonald as the best site to hold Uhuru day celebrations, its connection to the Mau Mau war was soon lost and it was later memorialised as the site where Kenya got its independence – rather than the British gulag.

When a proper study on both Uhuru Kenyatta and his father is done, how they viewed history will become an important aspect.

On Jamhuri Day, President Kenyatta seemed to radically look at history differently from his father: “Some will tell you that history is meaningless, unnecessary, useless and irrelevant … by looking back, we are able to look forward.”

But in 1964, Jomo, surrounded by a bevy of loyalists, had asked the nation to forget about history and “erase from our minds all the hatreds and the difficulties of those years which now belong to history. Let us agree that we shall never refer to the past ...”

In 1968, in his book, Suffering without Bitterness, Jomo expounded on his “forgive and forget” philosophy: “The foundation of our future must lie in the theme: forgive and forget. There was no point then (1964), and there is still less purpose today, in dwelling on the past, in stoking fires of revenge or animosity, in looking back on scenes of anguish.”

While Jomo saw memorialising of freedom movement activities – or showcasing these scenes of anguish – as divisive, President Kenyatta has looked at history as the unifying force and a central pillar in the creation of a national identity.

Uhuru Park

While Jomo – and subsequent governments – had preserved Uhuru Gardens as a site of memory, it became one of the lesser-known sites overshadowed by the less-historical Uhuru Park.

“By creating this garden as a place of remembrance, our founding fathers brought us to this place of national remembrance. Each time we gather here, they wanted us to face our national fears and demons with courage,” said Mr Kenyatta on Saturday.

But the Lang’ata grounds had over the years lost all memories and traces of pre-independence history, with the government giving the park a wide berth and leaving it to picnic lovers. That way, the memory and narrative of its traumatic past has been diluted and the monuments at the park marking the site where the Kenyan flag was first raised and commemorating 25 years of independence have not helped to preserve the memories of the Lang’ata camp.

Dealing with what historians call ‘places of pain’ as part of heritage has been an on-going debate for the last 56 years in Kenya. While governments have been shy, nay apprehensive, of unearthing certain histories, how a nation confronts the past is the hallmark of freedom.

At independence, some of the Mau Mau detention camps were easily handed over to churches to build schools, thus erasing the country’s memory. The prisons and police saw no break from the colonial past – and even today, they still struggle to find their place among civilians.

Notorious cubicals in modern-day Kangubiri (a corruption of ‘You can go free’) Girls school in Nyeri still exist, together with torture chambers. Even the Hola massacre site was turned into a girls’ secondary school – rather than preserve it as a record of the freedom struggle.

For the past 10 years, the country has been struggling to recognise the roles played by independent heroes, both radicals and moderates, to contextualise Kenya’s history.

Kenya’s third President, Mwai Kibaki, had started by unveiling the statue of Dedan Kimathi and recognising graves of various freedom fighters as national monuments.

But it was the place of Lang’ata that was always intriguing – because the construction of its history had deliberately been diluted.

Following the onset of Operation Anvil on the night of April 24, 1954, the Lang’ata camp was turned into the largest concentration yard and it is estimated that more than 24,000 Kikuyu, Embu and Meru went through the screening – and most of them were detained.

This is the place where informers, dressed in long hooded cloaks, would help identify the suspected Mau supporters. Within a month, most of these had been taken to MacKinnon Road detention camp or the nearby Manyani, which was holding an estimated 17,000 detainees. British army major Frank Kitson, who oversaw the screening, would later admit that evidence against the detainees was minimal.

Pictures taken at the colonial Lang’ata camp, showing frightened inmates subdued by the British, and squatting in the sun with hands up, capture the inhumanity of the ‘British Gulag’ in Kenya.

In the British Parliament, Lang’ata Detention Camp started to feature as moderate legislators started to question the detention of women and children. The most vocal was Fenner Brockway, a great friend of Chief Koinange. Mr Brockway had seen a report by a rehabilitation officer, Miss Eileen Fletcher, who had raised attention to the notoriety in Lang’ata and other camps.

Lang’ata Detention Camp

“There is the case of the Lang’ata Detention Camp, where Miss Fletcher found a boy of four and a boy of seven who had no relatives in the camp,” said Brockway.

Today, re-reading Miss Fletcher’s report is still shocking. She reported that during Operation Anvil, “Troops went into all African locations in Nairobi, rounded up all the African adults and took them to (Lang’ata). No one gave a thought to the children and as long as 48 hours after, tiny babies were found in cots who had no care, attention or food during the whole of that time.”

It was when she visited Lang’ata that she found something close to camps she had seen in World War II. Lang’ata stood in a class of its own:

“The officer on duty asked me which “Pens” I wanted to visit first and this word “Pen” set the scene for me. I have seen cattle markets in England, and places where animals are loaded on lorries to take them to slaughter houses, where the treatment was better than that accorded human beings in this camp -- humans, moreover, who as yet were innocent, merely being detained on suspicion,” she wrote before she quit.

“The camp consisted of old tents, and was divided into compounds holding several hundred people each, enclosed with barbed wire. The whole camp was also surrounded by barbed wire and high watch towers like a prisoner of war camp. As Mau Mau war is called an emergency, these Africans, held in British territory without trial, had not the rights to which they would have been entitled as prisoners of war.”

Some broke down in all these camps and got mentally ill and Miss Fletcher recounted seeing “a truck containing about 12 African lunatics, accompanied by armed guards, who were being sent to a mental hospital. They were making an appalling noise, shouting, gesticulating and grimacing. The officer, who was second in command at the gaol said he was glad to get rid of them as they had been a disturbing element in the prison for a whole year.”

How to capture those pains in a national memory was the difference between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Jomo.

Tricky balance

Jomo, unlike his son, was in a tricky balance. He had inherited a country torn between freedom fighters and loyalists, the later holding positions in the government as administrators or junior officers. Memorialising Mau Mau would have ramifications among the loyalists and their families.

On Saturday, President Kenyatta appeared to misquote his father’s ‘forgive and forget’ - and replaced it with “We will forgive them, but never forget’.

But for the first time, the government appears to accept that Kenya’s independence was through “armed struggle” and “through teamwork”.

“Once completed this place will rekindle memories of our armed struggle, but also the good, the bad and the ugly of our history,” said President Kenyatta.

By having the grave of an unknown soldier at the site, the government will be putting to bed calls for a proper memorial to celebrate those who died.

Certainly, Uhuru appears to have outdone his father in restoring sites of pain.   BY DAILY NATION    

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