May 6, Fred Roberts on Mama Waweru

Dispatch from Kenya

May 6, 2010

Fred Roberts


Since January the seniors have heard me talk on end about Kenya’s struggle for independence. They have read novels on the subject, read textbooks, and seen old newspaper clippings of the events at the time.  Nothing, however, could come close to hearing about life back then other than from someone who was there.


Yesterday afternoon we were privileged with a visit from Mama Waweru, as I fondly call her, a neighbor to Batian’s View. Mama Waweru as born in 1936 and her full name is Ester Wanjiku Waweru and is from the Kikuyu ethnic group.  Back then Africans were not allowed to own land in the White Highlands, this being reserved only for Europeans.  The Kikuyu either lived in the over crowded African reserves or worked on the farms of Europeans.  The traditional homeland for the Kikuyu was much of the land taken by the British government in the early 1900s as they felt that it was unoccupied.  Had they done some research, they would have found that the Kikuyu owned all of this land in family units, each called an Mbari.


Mama Waweru was married at the age of 15, not an arranged marriage, as was the custom back then, but through her heart.  She and her husband lived in the town of Nanyuki, her husband working as a clerk for the East African Power and Lighting Company. This was his day job, and at night he helped the freedom fighters, referred to as the Mau Mau, who lived in the forests of Mt. Kenya. The Mau Mau were referred to as terrorists, trying to scare the white settlers off their farms.  In response, the British Government declared a State of Emergency and began arresting and detaining any Kikuyu they felt was active in the effort of sympathetic to the Mau Mau cause.  Mr. Waweru was arrested in November of 1952 and sent to a detention camp, where he would remain for six years.  Being a single woman, Mama Waweru was taken from her home to live in a village set up by the British. The British claimed that this was done for her protection, but in reality it was the colonial governments way of tightening their control over the Kikuyu.  At the time Mama Waweru was six months pregnant.


In the camp Mama Waweru described how several families had to live in one hut. They were not allowed to leave the village, which was surrounded by a moat and barbed wire, except for three hours each week. During that time they had to collect firewood and water, and go to their small farms to gather their crops. This Mama Waweru had to do this with her load on her back and a child strapped to her breast.  What they gathered had to last for the entire week. The rule was that the children were to eat first, and the adults later. This meant that many of the older Kikuyu went hungry for much of the time.


During their sojourns from the village they were escorted by armed guards, who made sure that the Kikuyu didn’t deliver food and information to the freedom fighters.  This, of course, was the lifeline for the Mau Mau who depended on others to keep their campaign alive.  With each trip, however, Mama Waweru would carry food or even bullets in her baby’s clothing, undetected by the guards.  At a predetermined location she would leave the goods for the Mau Mau, to be collected later under the cover of darkness.


Armed with guns, planes and thousands of soldiers, the British government was no match for the Mau Mau, at least over the long haul. Eventually the freedom fighters were either captured or left the forest, and by 1959 the Mau Mau revolt was over.  Through the seven-year ordeal, however, the British government knew that it could no longer maintain a colony in Kenya, and the country was granted independence in 1963.


After Mr. Waweru was released from detention in 1958 he and Mama Waweru returned to Nanyuki where he was able to resume his work with the power company.  At independence 10 acre parcels of land were offered to the Kenyans at a fee of 10,000/= (10,000 shillings, which at the time was roughly $5,000.00), which could be loaned from the new Kenyan Government.  This had to be paid back with interest at a rate of 300/= ($150.00) per year, which back then was a considerable amount of money.

The Wawerus cleared the land, began farming and were able to keep up with the loan repayment, and by 1985 owned the land.  They had four children, all of whom went to Irigithathi Primary School, one of the schools at which the St. Gregory students are now teaching.  Mr. Waweru passed away in 2002 and now Mama Waweru lives on her farm with her eldest son and his family. 

Mama Waweru’s presence and her narrative of the events so long ago was like a character stepping out of a textbook and providing information first hand. But in this case she was not a character, and was actually someone who was a primary resource of the material the St. Gregory seniors had been studying all semester.  For any history enthusiast, this is as good as it gets.


Mama Waweru’s final words to the group were that at times life will be difficult, and at times it will be pleasurable.  The key to life is to work through the hard times with the support of one’s family and perseverance, and to relish the good times with those you care for and who care for you.