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Mwea at Thiba Detention Camp
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Wilson Gitangu Kibathi

Mwea detention camps evoke memories of dark colonial past

After three years working at the Indian High Commission, in 1954 my father realised that his career prospects were limited to serving a foreign country. His village mates, Wilson Gitangu Kibathi and Isaiah Mwai Mathenge, who at the time were being trained at Jeanne’s School in Kabete, encouraged him.They told him that there were good jobs in government for people with education like him.While he himself had been detained briefly at the Lang’ata camp, my father witnessed the inhuman conditions in which the African detainees were being held and he now felt he could do something about it if he got into government service.After obtaining the necessary recommendation letter from a government officer, he was offered a job in community development at the end of May 1955.In order to take up the job offer substantively he was also required to attend a three-month course in community development at Jeanne’s School, which he commenced in June that year.By the time I was born on September 12, 1955, my father had already been posted to Mwea at Thiba Detention Camp.In his book, A Daunting Journey, my father describes the difficult task of being part of an administration that believed that the detainees were possessed of a “forest psychology” which compelled them to be warlike and that the Mau Mau oaths were evidence of their primitivity and savagery, failing or refusing to grasp that the central issues were land and self-determination.

The official policy was that the colonial government had done nothing wrong and it was the job of African rehabilitation staff, like my father, to convince the detainees that this was the case notwithstanding the atrocious treatment meted out on them. It was an impossible task which at the very least required professional counsellors and the three months training that the African staff received was far from adequate.The ‘Pipeline’, as the scheme was called, was doomed to fail from the beginning.As the Mau Mau insurrection had largely been quelled by 1957, there was a lot of pressure to release the detainees.Unfortunately, some of the more enthusiastic colonial officers saw this as an opportunity to use brutal methods to break the detainees into submission, conveniently positing that the end justifies the means.This was a very dark part of our history.While at Mwea my father discovered that his job group entitled him to a car loan and he purchased a second-hand Vauxhall W yvern saloon car from one of his European colleagues.He soon discovered that this car was a bag of trouble — it was truly a case of fix or repair daily! The toolkit which consisted of a gunny bag contained all manner of tools, bolts, nuts, sisal rope and an assortment of spare parts as standard equipment.The car had been sold with a complete spare engine, which at the time appeared to be very generous on the part of the seller but it proved to be a vital part of keeping the car on the road as it could not complete the arduous journey from Mwea to our rural home in Kibichoi without a major overhaul.Fortunately, my father had made the acquaintance of one of the detainees who happened to be a qualified mechanic.During the week, this detainee would remove the engine from the car and put in the spare one, which he would have fixed the previous week and the car would be good to go for another week while he fixed the other engine.One Saturday when I was about two years old my father and I were heading home from Mwea when the car broke down in Kambiti (place of hyenas).The culprit this time was a broken water pump hose. The nearest town where we could get help was Thika, some 35km away. We hitched a lift to Thika town and purchased a new hose, which my father fixed using the well-equipped tool bag.This car was seen at the end of a tow rope on many other occasions until 1959 when my father purchased a brand-new Morris Minor 1000 panel van which he drove many times from Meru to Kibichoi without a hitch.

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