The hunt for (the trial of) Dedan Kimathi

Kimati's image has long stood in, symbolically, for the ideals and lost hopes of revolutionary decolonization in Kenya.

Statue of Dedan Kimathi Nairobi, Kenya. Image: Wiki Commons.

Dedan Kimathi’s face is inescapable in modern Kenya. Framed by bundles of dreadlocks pulled into two long horns, it appears on t-shirts, in larger-than-life murals aside Nairobi buildings, and in graffiti art on the sides of matatu buses. His image has long stood in, symbolically, for all the heroic ideals and lost hopes of an era of revolutionary decolonization.

The full photograph presents a much different picture: Kimathi, handcuffed, loosely covered in blankets, sitting in the defendant’s chair on trial for his life in November 1956. The “hunt” for Dedan Kimathi, an enigmatic leader of the so-called Mau Mau rebellion that engulfed Kenya in the 1950s – a movement that had many names, many faces, and even more interpretations – captivated global attention in the years leading up to his capture. In 1956, Kimathi pled not guilty to charges of weapons and ammunition possession, which carried the death penalty under the Emergency Regulations instituted in 1952. Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary leader. The trial ended in conviction, with Kimathi sentenced to be “hanged by the neck until he is dead.” After the failure of multiple appeals, Kimathi was hanged on 18 February 1957.

It has long been assumed that the record of Kimathi’s trial had been lost, destroyed, or purposefully kept hidden. Many have gone in search of it in archives across multiple continents, with little success. I recently came across a letter from no less than the late J.M. Kariuki, a former Mau Mau detainee and outspoken populist Kenyan politician assassinated in 1975, requesting the file from the High Court in 1971. The request was denied.

Why? The life of any “archive” can be strange and convoluted. The British destroyed and hid records, particularly in relation to their colonial past, as revealed by the recent activism of Mau Mau veterans seeking reparations from the British government. Various governments of postcolonial Kenya have also destroyed or denied access to archives based on their potential impact on contemporary conflicts over land, politics, violence and memory. But colonial trial records have, in general, been available in England and Kenya. The void left where Kimathi’s trial file should be, increased exponentially the popular myths and conspiracy theories that have long surrounded him.

A Kimathi mural by PAWA254.

The absence of this file is especially ironic, given Kimathi’s deep belief in the power of words and his dedication to the bureaucratic work of historical documentation. Kimathi excelled in school debating clubs and was known for his oratory flair. In the forests of Central Kenya, he lectured the Mau Mau itungati (troops of young warriors) on the necessity of historical records: each camp kept an accounts log, wrote histories, issued new identity cards, and carefully recorded lists of loyal fighters and traitorous others.

He established the Kenya Parliament in the forest and marked his official decrees with a stamp: “Marshal D. Kimathi.” He was also a prolific letter writer, producing eloquent tracts that compared the struggle in Kenya to those in Indochina and Rhodesia, quoted biblical scripture alongside Kikuyu proverbs, and called on the British to live up to their own moral claims: “Mtoto umleavyo ndivyo akuavyo” (roughly, “As you bring up a child, so will he grow”).  Although the British painted the Mau Mau as atavistic, anti-modern savages who spurned civilization, the state Kimathi built in the forest demonstrates that his Mau Mau was not the rejection of modern governance, but the building of an alternative to the colonial version of it.

My search for Kimathi’s trial emerged circuitously, inspired by an earlier discovery of the revealing, but mislabelled, trial file of Elijah Masinde, another anti-colonial, rebel prophet. Tales of ephemeral encounters and partial glimpses of the Kimathi trial led me to a multi-year, multi-continental, and multi-archival search, filled with false starts, fraudulent (or at least poorly transcribed) copies and growing suspicions.

Last year, there was a breakthrough. I followed leads to the British lawyers, Sir Dingle Foot and Ralph Millner, who had taken up Kimathi’s appeal to the Privy Council in London. Millner, often described as a “socialist” or “communist” lawyer, had defended several African trade unionists and liberation leaders against colonial prosecutions. Ralph Millner’s papers, held in the Royal Senate House Library in London, had only recently been catalogued and opened to the public.

And there it was: a complete, certified, original transcript of the trial of Dedan Kimathi, under embossed seal of Her Majesty’s Supreme Court of Kenya. Working with Kenya’s Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and the dedicated staff at the Supreme Court, the file has now made a long anticipated return to Kenya.

The revelations from the trial are too numerous to list here: from the controversial retelling of the capture and shooting of Kimathi by Homeguard Ndirangu s/o Mau to Kimathi’s own testimony, which tells of his painful personal history with epilepsy, internal struggles within the Mau Mau movement and his desire for peace in Kenya. The return of this critical piece of lost history will no doubt shock many, its content unsettling many popular and historical assumptions, and spark much-needed debates on a far broader range of issues than those raised purely from the pages of the trial.

Will Kimathi’s trial papers raise the dead? Probably not. But they do provoke unsettled issues. Like those of land and freedom (or self-mastery) for which the Mau Mau fought and on which many feel independent Kenya has not delivered. Kenyans may ask: land and freedom for whom?

Further Reading

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