7 February 2013

Kenya: Freedom Fighter's Ordeal With Gun Wounds in the Forest

Kenya turns 50 this year. To commemorate this important milestone, the Star will publish the untold stories of Kenya's clamour for independence which will culminate in the national celebrations on December 12. In the first edition, read about the gruesome story of freedom fighter Wambui wa Mbugua who was almost eaten by her colleagues. Read on to find out why.

As Kenya marks the 50th year of its independence, the majority of those who shed tears and blood struggling to free the country from the yoke of colonialism reel in despair and to them the golden jubilee anniversary may not mean much.

They fought for land and freedom, but when these were achieved in 1963, those who had corroborated with the British colonial masters and tortured them to the limit of human endurance became the new masters as their educated children took over public and private economic sectors.

The uneducated freedom fighters and their children became their servants. Fifty years down the line these freedom fighters remain mortally wounded in body and soul.

They lament that the African government should at least have recognised them with token pieces of land and the dignity of acknowledgement, but only the latter happened a few years ago.

Below is the story of Wambui wa Mbugua who, together with her now ailing husband, was a liberation fighter who was also imprisoned for the king and country. Now approaching her 90s, Wambui has nothing to show for her labour.

As the struggle for independence gained momentum and the state of emergency was declared in the early 1950s, a corroborator with the British colonialists was killed in Gatanga and a group of Mau Mau fighters operating from the Aberdare Mountains was suspected to be behind the killing. Wambui's husband was a member of this group.

The colonial administration considered Wambui guilty by association and was in the process of arresting her when the information was leaked to her. On learning about her imminent arrest, Wambui fled to an adjacent village with her youngest child.

There her child died of a disease she was not aware of, but she was not even able to bury him. "I cannot even tell you where they buried him, as I could not leave my hiding place for fear of arrest."

The colonial administration continued hunting her down and when she was informed they were hot on her heels, she decided to join her husband as a land and freedom fighter in the forest.

"While there, field marshal Dedan Kimathi came to our hiding place and saw me wearing a sweater he admired so much that he ordered a group of men to go back to the reserve with me to get him one just like it."

So Wambui and a group of 12 men embarked on the wearisome journey from Aberdare to Gatanga to get Kimathi the coveted sweater. On arrival they were to take refuge in the house of a woman Wambui knew, but unfortunately they soon found out that the woman was a turncoat who had betrayed them to the authorities.

"As we approached her house through a maize plantation, we fell into an ambush in which home guards started shooting at us from all sides." Wambui was shot just below her right breast, the bullet exiting below her shoulder.

She carries the scars to date. Though profusely bleeding, she did not lose consciousness. After the shootout, Wambui turned to one of her team members for help as her bullet wound had drained her of her strength.

"Please do not leave me here; I have been wounded," she pleaded with him. The man took her to Ndunyu ya Cege in the same Gatanga region and hid her in a bush and later that night came back with others to take her back to the depth of the forest.

There she struggled to stay alive for three months, nursing her wounds with lard (pig fat), a bottle of which somebody brought to her every two weeks.

Living in the forest was horrific, Wambui and her colleagues constantly battled the rainy weather that left them cold and starvation was their daily companion. So compelling was it that at some stage, some of the soldiers contemplated eating one of their own 'for the survival of many'.

"At one time our battalion was attacked by the colonial forces forcing us to flee in disarray to different directions. I was in a group of eight (one woman and seven men) that found itself on its own in uncharted territory with no source of food.

"We stayed for eight days without food and we were so hungry that my colleagues decided the only way to survive was to eat one of us and they settled on me. On the fateful day, they instructed me to go to a nearby stream to fetch water after which we lit a fire to boil it. What the water was for, I did not know."

But as the water bubbled, one of my colleagues briefly went to the bush to relieve himself. By a stroke of luck, he came across a carcass of an animal that had been half eaten, probably by some wild animal. He quickly came back to the circle and told us, "Forget what we have been thinking of doing - come let us pick a dead animal I have just seen".

The men picked themselves slowly, dragged the carcass back to the fire and it was sliced piece by piece and thrown into the boiling water. As the fighters feasted on the animal they revealed to Wambui that were it not for the miracle of the dead animal, she would have been the extensive meal they were enjoying that night.

"We had decided that we would start eating each other as we did not have an alternative and you were to be the first victim," they confessed. To date Wambui does not begrudge them.

During the interview she also talked of one of her colleagues who for months survived on monkey meat. The man had been severely injured in battle and when his battalion scattered, he found himself alone and unable to move.

"He would later tell us how he positioned himself quietly under a sloping bamboo and waited until a monkey came walking along. When it was directly above him, he would club the unsuspecting animal to the ground and skin it with a razor blade." That and a box of matches were his survival tools for the three months, before he was rescued.

Unlike those who were detained, imprisoned or employed by the settlers for slave wages, Wambui says nobody tortured the freedom fighters. However once they were attacked by the much better armed colonial forces, many of them died or were left wounded without the benefit of medicine.

When she came out of the forest (she cannot remember the year), she went to a man known as Caragu in Muranga's Location Four who got her a job as a coffee picker in a nearby colonial farm. There she stayed with her brother-in-law and his family, before she was betrayed by the turncoats and the authorities came for her.

"The white man, who was in charge of torturing our people at Kagaa in Location One, came for me at the coffee farm, but he could barely approach me fearing I had a gun and would shoot. I was arrested eventually and taken to Kagaa where they interrogated and mercilessly tortured me physically for days on end.

"The white officers even took me to the Aberdare forest insisting that I show them where the other freedom fighters were hiding, but when I adamantly denied any knowledge of their whereabouts, they beat me to the point of death." So badly was she beaten that the same officer who had arrested her had to take her to Murang'a hospital where she was treated for two weeks.

When her brother-in-law found out she had been arrested, he vowed to never tell anyone about her arrest and neither did he want to see her after the torture. He locked himself in the house and committed suicide. Wambui only found about the suicide when she came back from detention.

She was detained at Kamiti Maximum Prison where the prisoners were served morsels that barely kept them alive. "They served us bites of porridge and ugali with a very small bowl which we called 'bite'. At times they served us boiled potatoes but most of these had been exposed to the sun and were rotten. These potatoes were served with raw animal fat as was the ugali."

So disgusting was the rotten boiled potatoes that Wambui stopped eating potatoes when she was released from prison. She has not eaten them since.

Apart from the little food rations, the prisoners were constantly beaten and teased by their fellow African sisters who had been employed as guards. "They were Kenyans like the rest of us, but these were horrible women; very bad people."

Unknown to her, while Wambui was serving time in prison, so was her husband who was captured soon after her arrest. He was detained at Hola and because of the torture he endured, he suffered a stroke and can now barely walk.

"We went to the forest to fight for our dignity and we were treated as rubbish by the white man and the Indians. We also fought for independence and the return of our land which had been taken by the white man and his home guards.

"But 50 years down the line, we have not got our land back, we still hear our people glorifying the white man and his ways, the Indian still shouts at the African and the government has not shown its gratitude to those who fought for the liberation of this country. There will be no Jubilee celebrations for us."

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