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Dedan Kimathi: Kenya's heroic freedom fighter

James Shimanyula
May 11, 2021

Dedan Kimathi was the leader of Mau Mau, Kenya's armed independence movement. He is regarded as a revolutionary leader who fought against British colonialists until his execution.

African Roots | Dedan Kimathi 1 | Porträt

Dedan Kimathi: Kenyan freedom fighter

How was Dedan Kimathi brought up?

Dedan Kimathi was born Kimathi wa Waciuri on October 31, 1920 in Thege village near Nyeri in central Kenya. He entered elementary school at the age of fifteen and went on to join the Church of Scotland Mission Secondary School in the region but later dropped out.

Kimathi received early education during the colonial period under extremely difficult conditions. His father died before he was born. However, his school records show that he was exceptionally intelligent. He was particularly good in English and poetry and an ardent member of the debate club.

Although Kimathi was smart in class, he was known to be very naughty and stubborn. Some historians have attributed his rebellious character not to his hate for white rule but rather the unfair treatment he felt he was given by black people. His playmates nicknamed him ‘Njangu', a Kikuyu word which means ‘rough and treacherous'. He was eventually expelled from school for indiscipline in 1944.

Which ethnic group did Dedan Kimathi belong to?

Kimathi belonged to the Ambui clan, one of the nine clans that make up the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest ethnic group, which is concentrated mainly in the central part of the East African country. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's founding president, was also a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group. Some historians argue that Kenyatta and Kimathi were not on the same page regarding Kenya's path towards independence. Whereas Kenyatta preferred a non-violent approach, Kimathi was of the opinion that only guns could secure Kenya's independence.

How did Dedan Kimathi turn into a freedom fighter?

Young Kimathi tried his luck in various jobs such as fulfilling clerical duties, tending after pigs and teaching. Armed with a good command of the English language, Kimathi charmed his way in and out of many jobs. By this time, he was getting agitated with the way the colonial masters were running the country.

Around 1951, Kimathi joined other Kenyan freedom fighters in an armed independence movement, which later came to be known as Mau Mau. He quickly rose in ranks and started administering the obligatory ritual oath to new members. In 1952, when the British administration declared the state of emergency, Kimathi took to the forest close to Mount Kenya. He was considered the most feared among the three so-called field marshals who led the movement. As part of a unit named the Kenya Defence Council, he set about organizing armed attacks against the British colonial government.

African Roots | Dedan Kimathi 8

What is the story behind Mau Mau?

Mau Mau was a movement founded with the purpose of removing white settlers who had taken up land previously owned by Kenyans. Initially, Mau Mau fighters were mainly Kikuyu, whose territory was preferred by the white settlers, but later, Meru, Embu, Kamba and other ethnic groups joined in the struggle.

It is uncertain where the term Mau Mau originated from. Some say it was coined as an anagram of the Kikuyu word ‘uma' which means, ‘go'. However, members of the movement preferred to be referred to as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA). Later the term Mau Mau came to mean: ‘Mzungu arudi Ulaya, mwafrika apate uhuru', a Swahili phrase which means: Let the foreigner go back to Europe, so the African can regain independence'.

The fighters acted on the basis of an oath which bound them to the goals of the movement. Various former members would later speak of forced enrolment. The insurgency instilled fear in British settlers and moderate Africans alike, who were targeted for allegedly betraying the movement's cause and collaborating with the settlers.

How many people died during the Mau Mau uprising?

Official records at the Kenya National Archives show that more than 10,000 Kenyans were killed by the British colonial security forces and nearly 50,000 were detained after the colonial administration declared the State of Emergency in October 1952. The British colonial government also carried out 1,090 executions, making it the largest wartime use of capital punishment by the British Empire. On the other hand, several hundred people, most of them Kenyans, were allegedly killed by the Mau Mau fighters.

How did Dedan Kimathi die and where was he buried?

On October 21, 1956, the self-styled Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi was captured following a manhunt led by Ian Henderson, a British intelligence officer. By the time of his capture, a bounty had been placed on Kimathi. It was however not Henderson who first caught him: He was captured after having been wounded by gunshots from two Home Guards belonging to a self-defence militia of his own Kikuyu ethnic group.

Kimathi was quickly put on trial and finally executed on February 18, 1957. The colonialists then dumped his body in an unmarked grave at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, presumably to stop Kenyans from turning the grave into a shrine.

For several decades, the family, relatives and the Kenyan government pleaded with London to reveal the location where Kimathi's remains lay but to no avail. It was only in 2019 that news of his burial site being discovered was released.

How is Dedan Kimathi remembered?

A street in Nairobi has been named after Dedan Kimathi and in 2007, former President Mwai Kibaki unveiled a two-meter bronze statue of Kimathi on the street that bears his name. Dedan Kimathi University of Technology and Dedan Kimathi Stadium in Nyeri are amongst several institutions that honor the legendary Mau Mau fighter.

Scientific advice on this article was provided by historians Professor Doulaye Konaté, Professor Lily Mafela and Professor Christopher Ogbogbo. African Roots is supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.