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Light on British colonial abuses in Kenyan museum thanks to Mau Mau fighter

Nearing 100 years old, Gitu Wa Kahengeri clearly remembers the day when, as a prisoner of Kenya’s colonial occupier Britain, he wanted to die.

“I was beaten the whole day until I did not feel pain any longer,” he admitted, remembering one episode of abuse during the seven years he spent in the camps that the British ran in the decade before Kenyan independence in 1963.

The camps, where tens of thousands are thought to have died, are a traumatic but largely forgotten part of Kenya’s past. They were set up to jail activists and sympathisers during the Mau Mau uprising of 1952-1960, in which Kahengeri, born in the 1920s and now a Secretary-General of the independence movement Veterans Association, participated.

Chao Tayiana, a digital historian, and her grandfather Daniel Sindiyo, whose mother was in the British detention camps of the pre-independence Mau Mau rebellion, look at the reconstructed 3D models of the detention camps, during a Reuters interview in Ngong, outside Nairobi, Kenya. Image credit REUTERS/Edwin Waita

Using eye-witness accounts, documents and field visits, Kenyan and British historians from the Museum of British Colonialism are now setting up an online archive of the dramatic colonial period, an opera created with 3D installations of some of the camps.

They will also include 27-year-old Chao Tayiana Maina.

“I’ve been through the public education system ... and not once I remember hearing about detention camps,” she denounced. “There was a sense of betrayal. I didn’t understand how this was not taught.”

Maina recalls the shock she felt when, a few years ago, she read “Britain’s Gulag”, an account by American historian Caroline Elkins, who estimates more than 100,000 detainees may have died in the camps, victims of the combined effects of exhaustion, disease, starvation and systematic brutality.

Other historians have confirmed that the death toll in the camps could have been higher than ten thousand.

Chao Tayiana, a digital historian, looks at the reconstructed 3D models of the British detention camps of the pre-independence Mau Mau rebellion, during a Reuters interview in Ngong. Image credit REUTERS/Edwin Waita

“The British government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration, which we sincerely regret,” a British High Commission spokesman in Nairobi declared on customary condition of anonymity. “We must live with, and honour, the U.K. and Kenya’s shared history, and the pains and joys that it has brought. The work of our people and institutions to share that history is an important part of our relationship.”

In 2013, Britain tried to excuse itself for the atrocious actions committed by making an out-of-court settlement of 20 million pounds to five claimants represented by the Mau Mau Association, and a public statement of regret for abuses committed.

However, when Maina dogged deeper, she discovered her great-grandmother was a prisoner for seven long years.

Her grandfather Daniel Sindiyo was only 16 when his mother was taken away and brought to work in the camps. “If anyone collapsed (there), it was none of your business. If anyone died there, too bad,” the 82-year-old former civil servant explained.

Image credit REUTERS/Edwin Waita

Founded in 2018, the online museum is getting a second lease of life from the Black Lives Matter movement catalysed by the May 25 murder of George Floyd in U.S. police custody, and its questioning of “official” versions of history.

“We have neglected or silenced certain voices,” pointed out Maina. “Thinking we can continue to live without understanding what truly happened is an injustice.”

However, when will we be able to announce that this “injustice” has been taken care of and put an end to?

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