Mau Mau Ally
We’re on Manda Island, in Lamu. The heat is thick. Mosquitoes hang in the air; on the ground, scorpions and snakes.
The year is 1955, three years into the State of Emergency that the British colonial government declared in Kenya to suppress the Mau Mau insurgency. Detention camps—created to interrogate, torture, and punish Mau Mau suspects—have cropped up all over the colony.
Most camps were set up in Central Province and around Nairobi, where the Mau Mau were most active. But Manda Island was different. Here, you didn’t even need a guard tower—there was nowhere to run. You were surrounded by the ocean, and if you were lucky enough to reach the mainland, there was only desert.
When the British rounded up hundreds of thousands of Mau Mau suspects, they put them in three categories: Africans labeled “white” were considered safe enough to be returned to the reserves. “Grey” meant they could be reformed in detention centres.
But “black” suspects were beyond reform. This was the beating heart of Mau Mau, the blackest of the black. They were so threatening to the British that they could not just be locked away. They had to be taken to Manda Island.
They were the most dangerous because of their political knowledge. They were the most dangerous because of their ability to organize many others, even within detention camps.
In Manda, hundreds of African detainees spent years here, sleeping on sisal mats. But there was one Asian detainee—and because everything then was segregated by race—he was separated from the rest, all by himself.
[Gitu wa Kahengeri] Pio Gama Pinto was with us for the all the time. He
was one of the Asian origin detainees who sat with us.
Gitu wa Kahengeri is 98 years old. He was detained at Manda Island. He lives near Kilimambogo, and he is one of the last surviving Mau Mau fighters. He considered this Asian man to be one of their own. One of the few non-black allies who was all in.
[Gitu wa Kahengeri] He was exactly with us completely in mind in activities. [Pio Gama Pinto] was our person.
In 1965, only two years after Kenya gained its independence, Pio Gama Pinto was shot and killed on his driveway in Nairobi. This was Kenya’s first political assassination.
My name is Stoneface, host of “Until Everyone Is Free.” In this series, me and our producer April Zhu will tell the story of Pio Gama Pinto, a Kenyan freedom fighter. But we tell the story of Pinto to answer a very important question: How did the country of Kenya become free…without the people of Kenya becoming free?
Pinto was a land justice advocate. He was a trade union supporter. He was a radical journalist. He was a political mastermind. But, from the beginning of the Mau Mau insurgency, he was an ally of these radical freedom fighters.
Our story begins in 1952, with a series of gruesome murders....
<clip of Lari Massacre re-enactment from “Mau-Mau” documentary (1955)>
“That evening while the men are still away, a mob of Mau Mau sets fire to their huts. Mothers, sons, and daughters, awakened by heat of flames, frantically trying to escape. Only to be met by Mau Mau guns. Young children are torn from mothers and torn to pieces. Fire roasts those too weak to escape.”
The colonizers believed that Mau Mau were sick in the mind. They were crazy. They were wild. Colonizers believed that Mau Mau was gaining support by fooling poor, stupid Africans into oathing.
[Narrator, Mau Mau (1955)] “The power of Mau Mau begins with the oath of initiation, cunningly devised to prey upon childlike fears of simple, uneducated people, long steeped in a primitive dread of death.”
What the British did not know—or perhaps what they were not prepared to believe—was that Mau Mau was not just a few violent forest fighters. It was a grassroots movement.
Ithaka na wiyathi. Land and freedom.
By September 1952, almost the entire Kikuyu population, plus many in Meru and Embu communities, had oathed.
On one hand, there was a military war, being fought with guns and airplane bombers. But the British also had to fight a huge grassroots movement. This was much harder. How do you fight an invisible movement of over one million people?
You round up everyone. And screen them. One by one. The British set up detention camps around the country and detained over 90,000 people, mostly Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru, were detained.
[April] When I first learned about these detention camps, it changed how I saw everything—
[Stoneface] This is April Zhu, freelance journalist and producer of this show. Early on when we were making this show, we spent hours in the library, in her living room—doing research.
[April] —Because it’s not even just about the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were detained, screened, tortured, forced to do hard labor… it’s about the fact that this history was erased. The fact that, Stoneface, even though you’re done with school, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that you learned about the camps.
[Stoneface] Yeah, this was not something that we were taught in school.
[April] We can call this sanitizing history. Life is messy and complicated. But what gets called “history”—what is archived, what is documented, what is taught in schools—history is always written by whomever is in power. And often they sanitize history. Like pouring Jik on it and just rubbing it until it even burns off the color.
[Stoneface] Yes exactly. So much of the history that we’re taught in schools is actually based on a curriculum from the perspective of those in power. We learned a “sanitized” version of Mau Mau, but definitely we didn’t learn about the mass detention camps. But! The thing about sanitized history is that...it has holes.
[April] ….what do you mean?
[Stoneface] If you go to Kimathi Road in town, you see that statue of Dedan Kimathi. He was one of the Mau Mau Generals, he commanded the fighters in Mt. Kenya.
[April] Ah, yes, I’ve seen that statue. He’s carrying an automatic rifle, he has these long dreads. The way he’s put on a high podium, cast in bronze—he looks like a hero.
[Stoneface] He is a hero. But, here’s the thing. We too often forget that the government could not have set up these detention camps without the Home Guard.
[April] That’s fair. For example, in Algeria, the French were not able to recruit a “Home Guard”-type group of loyal Algerians. What sets apart Kenya’s independence struggle from other countries’ is that in Kenya there was a Home Guard. This prevented Mau Mau from spreading; it meant that Mau Mau had to fight a guerrilla war from the forest.
[April] When we read history, we always imagine that if we were there at that time and place, we would be on the “right” side of history. We would be the good guys. No one imagines that, if they were in the middle of the struggle for independence that they would be a Home Guard, working for the colonizer. Everyone wants to claim Mau Mau history now, they want to see themselves as descendants of someone brave like Dedan Kimathi.
[Stoneface] But we forget that, at the time that the Mau Mau were fighting this war, many disavowed the Mau Mau. Many were saying they were too violent, too bloody. For example, even Jomo Kenyatta himself—even though he was seen as a symbol of independence by many Africans then, including by Mau Mau, who sang about him in their wartime songs—Kenyatta strongly and repeatedly disavowed them.
[April] That part of history—sanitized.
[Stoneface] Yup. You see that statue of Dedan Kimathi. What is he carrying? He’s not carrying a petition. He’s carrying a rifle.
[April] Wow, yeah… Can you imagine what it must have felt like in 1953? When there is an outright war like that, guns on both sides, it is just so clear: everyone needed to choose a side. There is no such thing as neutral.
[Stoneface] Sometimes we forget that some of those who did not support the Mau Mau—and yes, the Mau Mau was violent—those who did not support the Mau Mau made that decision not because they didn’t want independence, but because they did not believe that Kenya could become independent. They were practical. They wanted to protect their property, create a better life for their children, maybe they were also poor.
But, they sided with the oppressors. Like you said, in a war for independence, there is no neutral. Just the oppressed and the oppressors.
[April] So the Mau Mau were…we can say they were radical.
[Stoneface] The Mau Mau were very, very radical. At a time when it was very dangerous, very risky to support them… At a time when many people with businesses and property opposed Mau Mau—one Indian-Kenyan man, who had just been kicked out of India by the British and the Portuguese, had returned to Kenya.
He was with the Mau Mau all the way. This man was Pio Gama Pinto.
[Pinto] It had become increasingly obvious that “constitutional,” “non-violent” methods of fighting for one’s rights were absolutely futile with the settler-colonial administration. Organized violence was the only answer.
Fitz de Souza. Does this name sound familiar?
In later years, he would become famous nationwide as the lawyer who represented Jomo Kenyatta and the others of the Kapenguria Six at the Kapenguria Trial. These African leaders, which also included Bildad Kaggia, Kung’u Karumba, Fred Kubai, Paul Ngei, and Achieng Oneko, were tried and sentenced to years in prison for organizing for independence.
But that was later. Right now, he was a fresh, young 23-year-old lawyer who had just finished his studies in the UK and had just returned to Kenya. De Souza hadn’t seen his family in a long time and wanted to surprise them, so he didn’t tell them he was back. (De Souza’s father was a well-known doctor in Magadi.) So when De Souza landed in Nairobi, he didn’t know anyone—except the family of his flatmate in London, Abdul.
De Souza’s family was originally from Goa, a small island off the southern coast of Indian subcontinent. Goa was a Portuguese colony—which is why de Souza and other Goans had a Portuguese name like Fitzval Remedios Santana Neville de Souza.
When de Souza was studying the UK, he received some letters from another Goan in Kenya, a young journalist just a couple years older than him called Pio Gama Pinto. They had never met, but Pinto wrote to ask de Souza to bring some books for him when he came back from the UK.
De Souza did. And when he reached Nairobi that year, all by himself, he arranged to meet with Pinto for the first time.
As soon as they met, Pinto gave him a warm embrace, as if they’d known each other for years—not just meeting for the first time.
Pio Gama Pinto. He was a handsome man. Full black hair. Eyes that smiled. He was athletic, almost represented Kenya as a track and field runner at the Commonwealth Games.
At that time, both young men were “shabbily dressed.” They were excited about the same things, and became fast friends.
That first day, de Souza and Pinto spoke for hours. De Souza learned that, even from Pinto’s early days, he was already getting into trouble.
Pinto was born in 1927 in Nairobi. His father, an immigrant from Goa. When Pio was 8, his father sent him to India for his education, where he studied journalism. But, more importantly than this was his political education.
It was in India that Pinto learned about colonialism—and more importantly, how to fight it. India was Britain’s largest colony. India was the core of the British colonial project, it was the economic engine. Independence in India would mean dismantling the entire empire.
Pinto was only 17 years old when he helped organize a strike in Mumbai. But he didn’t stop there. Though he had been born in Nairobi, he had Goan roots, and got involved with the struggle to liberate Goa from Portuguese colonization. He helped found the Goa National Congress.
All of this organizing made him a wanted enemy in the eyes of the colonizers. In order to even travel to the island of Goa from the mainland, other Goan freedom fighters had to secretly sneak him in.
The Portuguese issued a warrant for his arrest. So did the British. They threatened to detain him at Cabo Verde, a small island, also a Portuguese colony, off the coast of West Africa. So Pinto returned to his home. Kenya.
That day, when he met with de Souza in Nairobi, 1952, he was still only 25 years old.
That night, de Souza decided that he didn’t want to stay with his friend Abdul’s family. He didn’t know them, and plus, they kept trying to set him up with Abdul’s sister. He asked where Pinto was staying. Pinto said he shared a small place in Pangani with two other Goan bachelors.
Jokingly, de Souza boldly invited himself: “Well now you’ll be four.” Pinto laughed and very warmly invited him in: “You are most welcome. I’ve only got one bed, but you can have it. I’ll use a spare mattress on the floor.”
And, for the next couple of weeks, de Souza stayed with Pinto, every night switching off sleeping on the floor.
De Souza and Pinto used to eat at a restaurant owned by an Ismaili called the Blue Room, one of the only kinds that would serve both Asians and Africans. There was always this regular there, a well-known man who would always pop on over and say “Hello! Hello!” to de Souza, Pinto, and their friends. His name was Jomo Kenyatta.
The whole country was buzzing with the energy of change. And not just in Kenya. In the US, the civil rights movement was breaking ground. Colonies throughout Asia and Africa were beginning to wobble and topple.
Pinto knew that the racial oppression—things as small as racial segregation in restaurants to things as big as landgrabbing—could not be fixed by asking oppressors nicely. These were all symptoms of the same illness, colonialism. The only cure to the sickness of colonialism is to seize political power.
[Stoneface] Many who owned businesses, owned farms, frequented the country clubs, were getting nervous. Many white settlers returned to Europe. Many were saying Kenya did not need a full overthrow, perhaps only more Africans in colonial government. Others just wanted to be safe, just wanted things to go back to the way they were before, even if it was not ideal. Mau Mau was striking fear and chaos into the fabric of everyday life.
[April] Hm. This is the messy, unsanitized history, isn’t it? That the Mau Mau committed atrocities against innocent people. That not everyone supported Mau Mau. That even Kenyatta disavowed the Mau Mau.
[Stoneface] Yes. A lot of people, especially those who had something to lose, did not support Mau Mau. Europeans, Asians, and Africans. People were whispering too. Most Goans in Kenya were whispering. They were saying that Pinto himself was a communist. A socialist. Even if they didn’t know what those words meant, they assumed those were bad things. But they knew for sure that the Mau Mau were scary and violent—they knew for sure that the Mau Mau were bad. And they were whispering that Pinto, he was even a Mau Mau himself.
They weren’t wrong.
[Cynthia] To me, Mathare is a place that people speak of badly. It's a place people speak of badly. Like if someone asks you where you live and you say Mathare, they think it's a place for the mentally ill, but no, if you live in Mathare, you know that it is a place of power, among many comrades.
[Calvo] I'd say Mathare is a place where people like Dedan Kimathi hid, and where Pio Gama Pinto routed weapons.
[Stoneface] So we're at Mau Mau Road. Here there's a sign that says Mau Mau Road. Why do you think this place is called Mau Mau Road?
[Cynthia] It has its own meaning. It has a strong meaning. It means "Mzungu Arudi Ulaya, Mwafrika Abaki Uhuru" (The white man should go back to Europe so the African can remain free) so when someone hears that they think of Mau Mau, or freedom, so I feel comfortable here.
[Calvo] It's a powerful name. Just that.
[Stoneface] So when people ask you about Mathare, why is it like this and this and this, what can you tell them?
[Cynthia] Mathare is a powerful place, with many people in industries like dance, music, etc. There is so much talent, like you wouldn't even be able to imagine.
[Calvo] If you hear Mathare, people think it's just street kids. But if you hear Mathare, I would tell those people: Mathare is a country of power.
[Stoneface] Have you heard of Pio Gama Pinto? Explain for us.
[Cynthia] Pio Gama Pinto was an Indian but he loved Africa, so he was a Pan-Africanist. He saw the betrayal that happened, he didn't like it. So he helped those like Dedan Kimathi, Mau Mau, etc. So when he was paid—he was a journalist for Sauti ya KANU—and whatever money he earned he put towards weapons.
[Stoneface] He stood in solidarity with Mau Mau?
[Stoneface] The point is this road, Mau Mau Road, explains to us exactly what happened. Mathare has the history of how Mau Mau helped Kenya to get independence.
Not all wars are fair. In fact, most wars are very uneven. Usually, one side has a lot more power, more resources, more weapons than the other. The war that the Mau Mau fought was definitely unfair.
On one hand, you had the British military. The same military that had fought World War Two less than one decade before. A world power. A world empire.
By 1953, Britain’s 39 Corps Engineering Regiment arrived in Kenya to construct roads to Aberdares, Mt Kenya to fight Mau Mau forest fighters. Royal Air Force bombed forest fighters from the air, force them out of the forest. As in, they had the resources to literally build infrastructure in order to fight the Mau Mau.
[Narrator, Mau Mau (1955)] On airports surrounding the Aberdare regions, RAF units of Harvard airplanes, slow-flying aircraft with great maneuverability, are armed with fragmentation bombs and machine guns for bombing and scraping missions.
The Mau Mau forest fighters? They had almost nothing. They only had some WWII veterans who had fought alongside the British and then trained young Mau Mau fighters in the forest. They didn’t have a government backing them. But they had people power. And where there is a will, there is a way.
The Mau Mau made their own weapons.
There was an “Engineers Group” whose job it was to obtain arms, ammunition, material for manufacture of homemade weapons. Later in the war, when General China was caught by the British and detained, in his interrogation, he reported how many weapons they had:
14 automatic rifles, 361 rifles/shotguns, 4 grenades, 1 Bren gun, 23 revolvers/pistols. And 1,230 homemade weapons.
Where did these come from? How did they get to the forests? Some came from police station raids, or picked off of killed home guard. But almost all were routed through Nairobi. Through the headquarters in Mathare.
And Pinto was a key coordinator. Pinto had contacts with illegal South Asian gun-traders who secretly sold firearms and ammunition to Mau Mau. Pinto coordinated with the Muhimu to transport people and supplies, sent information back and forth, and raise money for the fighters in the forests and towns… When money was collected in sacks, it was taken to trusted people. Pinto was one of those trusted people.
But remember earlier, we mentioned that this was not a pure military war. It was a mass movement. The British bombed and fought the forest fighters in Mt. Kenya and Aberdares. But they also had to suppress what was a growing grassroots movement both upcountry and in the city. In Nairobi, taxi drivers helped spread messages. Gang members and black marketeers helped move money, supplies, and weapons from Nairobi to the forest. Nubians in Kibra hid Mau Mau fighters during raids. Even in Nyanza. Some “hard-core detainees” were kept on Mageta Islands and Sayusi Islands. Some managed to escape, and nearby Luos sheltered, fed, and clothed them, and got them safely back into the forest. It was all hands on deck.
The British were getting very, very worried. The resistance was becoming more and more difficult to control, especially because it was coming from all directions: trade unions, criminal groups, official organizations like the KAU, The governor sent a telegram to Britain, which said: “The movement has many heads. We are dealing with a hydra.”
It became increasingly difficult for the government to tell whether an African was loyal, or if they were Mau Mau. The British devised a crazy plan. It seems impossible, but it is as you imagine. Round up every single African in Nairobi and screen them. One by one by one.
It is 24 April 1954. It is a chilly, overcast morning in Nairobi. You’re in Mathare, awoken by the sound of shouting outside. The sun isn’t even out. You can sense that something is very, very wrong.
You look outside. Everywhere you look, police. Police everywhere. On rooftops, there are machine gunners.
Later, you will discover that the entire city of Nairobi has been sealed in. No Africans could leave or enter. By the end of that day, no African would leave Bahati, Pumwani, or Kariokor, except in the back of a caged lorry.
This was “Operation Anvil.”
You are told to gather some key documents. Don’t forget your kipande; put it on your neck. There’s a banging on the door. You leave your house, and find you and other Africans are herded into a queue like animals.
They want to see your kipande. It has your tribe written on it. If you were Kikuyu, Meru, or Embu, you were automatically treated as a Mau Mau supporter. You would have to prove your “innocence.” But, for now, you were guilty. You are put into a caged lorry. You will be sent to a detention camp.
At the camps, they would do screening. This word—“screening”—there was no translation for it in any of the African languages. It was a chilling, frightening, evil process. It was just called “screening.” The first screening is done by what looks like a ghost. It is a person wearing a long robe with a hood that hides their face—they were called gikunia.
The gikunia takes a look at you. If they shake their head, that means they don’t recognize you as a Mau Mau—then you are released. But they look at you. They nod their head.
Then there were other screenings. Physical torture. Beatings. Forcing people to recant their oath. Forcing people to give up names of other Mau Mau. At these detention camps, unspeakable things—that should never, never be done to a human—were done.
By the end of Operation Anvil, more than 20,000 detention orders were given. And by the end of the year, over 70,000 Africans—mostly Kikuyu, Meru, and Embu—would be put in detention camps.
Later that year, Pinto would also be detained. He was one of 700 suspects designated as “active terrorists.” “Hard core.” Blackest of the black.
[April] His charges: Knowledge of illegal arms traffic. Assisted Mau Mau in drafting documents, arranged for printing of “African Liberation Army” membership cards. Assistance to non-military wing of Mau Mau in planning its subversive campaign.
[Stoneface] Imagine, these things were happening right here in Eastlands, less than 70 years ago. Some of the people who were alive during Operation Anvil are still alive now.
[April] But Operation Anvil, the detention camps, the screenings… these are not mainstream history. And that’s because history is always written by those in power. Those in power will always sanitize, remove some things.
[Stoneface] They will. But there’s more. Imagine history is a room full of books. But imagine that, in every book, there are pages torn out. Somebody tore them out. Some pages might be lost forever. But some pages are just scattered in the room. If you can find even just some of those missing pages, you not only learn about what’s on those pages, you also learn something about the somebody who tore out the pages. What don’t they want us to know? Why don’t they want us to know it? You get?
[April] I see. So by figuring out the parts missing from the “sanitized history,” we can learn about the fears of the sanitizers.
[April] You know what this reminds me of. During the Holocaust, Nazi Germany put millions of Jews in concentration camps, where they were made to do hard labor, and executed. But everyone knows this story. Not just Jews themselves, everyone around the world, even us two sitting here in Nairobi.
[Stoneface] Yes. That page of the book was not torn out, because those in power wanted to—and could—tell that story. Those who won WWII, they defeated the Germans, so they could freely tell the story of the terrible things that the Germans had done.
[April] So then what about Kenya? Why was the Mau Mau page of the book torn out? Why doesn’t every single Kenyan know about the fact that the British tortured and executed and detained thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Africans?
[Stoneface] And, more importantly, the fact that that page was torn out, what does that tell us about those in power in Kenya? To answer that, let’s go back to the Mau Mau war. General China—who commanded the Mau Mau fighters in the Aberdares—was captured by the British. They were going to hang him, but they said that if he could convince Dedan Kimathi to surrender, that they would spare his life.
General China tried to persuade Kimathi that perhaps an agreement could be reached with the British, and then maybe this whole violent, bloody war could come to a close.
But Kimathi refused. He said that the war was about land.
[Dedan Kimathi] We are fighting for all land stolen from us by the Crown through its Orders in Council of 1915, according to which Africans have been evicted from the Kenya Highlands…. The British government must grant Kenya full independence under African leadership and hand over all land previously alienated for distribution to the landless. We will fight until we achieve freedom or until the last of our warriors has shed his last drop of blood.
[April] Land and Freedom.
[Stoneface] Exactly. The Mau Mau fought for Land and Freedom. Now, take a look at the Kenyan people today. I’m not talking about the elite, I’m talking about wananchi. Do we have land and freedom? Even look at some of those same same Mau Mau fighters who are still alive today in 2020. Did they get land and freedom?
[Stoneface] So. You had asked why the Mau Mau page of the book was torn out. Those who tore out the page of Mau Mau—maybe the reason they tore out those chapters is because, if we read those pages, we would understand that the Mau Mau never got their land and freedom.
That the war was never won—
[April] That the war was never won…..
[Stoneface] —That the war is still going on. That maybe, Kenya is still a colony. And that would tell us all we need to know about who the new rulers are.
[April] Eheh. That independence is not the same as decolonization. That….Kenya is still ruled by an elite. That… the nation of Kenya became “free” without the people of Kenya getting free.
[Stoneface] Yes. Pinto understood this.
[Pinto] If, when we have achieved independence, we only have black Lord Delameres instead of white Lord Delameres, we will have achieved very little.
[Stoneface] The colonizers put Pinto in detention. They put him in Manda Island, because they knew his ideas were dangerous. But for the new colonizers, those who came to power after Kenya became “independent,” simply detaining Pinto was not enough. They had to kill him.
In our next episode, we talk about the thing that Pinto spoke out about. The thing that made the new colonizers realize they needed to kill him. Something over which many Kenyans have lost their lives. Land.
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