Shadows of October: How Dedan Kimathi spent his last days


Shadows of October: How Dedan Kimathi spent his last days

Shadows of October: How Dedan Kimathi spent his last days
Freedom fighter urged church to take care of his wife and son as he awaited his fate with the hangman. ILLUSTRATION| JOHN NYAGAH

The day was only one hour old when the former most-wanted man and the scourge of the British, Dedan Kimathi, sat up on his thin mattress in his tiny prison cell at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. He pulled out his pencil and a sheet of paper. He had a lot on his mind.

“It is one o’clock at night,” Kimathi began his letter addressed to Father Marino of the Catholic Mission at Mathari in Nyeri. “I am so busy and so happy preparing for heaven tomorrow (sic).”

The letter addressed several other matters, prominent and most urgent being Kimathi’s desire to have his son, Wachiuri, acquire education, saying in part: “I trust that something must be done to see that he starts earlier under your care.”

Generations after the guns fell silent and the Union Jack was lowered, young men and woman walk through the college gates each year, to emerge later with certificates, those leaflets of legitimacy and empowerment. They stride with purpose past the gates and out into the world armed with the most potent and liberating of all weaponry: Education.

Kimathi went on. He asked the priest to see to the welfare of his wife Mukami, who incidentally was incarcerated in the female quarters of the same prison.

“I would like her to be comforted by (Catholic) Sisters for she too feels lonely.”

Kimathi, 36, concluded: “Farewell to the world and all its belongings. I say best wishes to my friends with whom we shall not meet in this busy world.”

For a man who had committed his adult life to a crusade against British imperialism and the banishment of alien beliefs and culture from the land, Kimathi’s epistle to the church and the molting of the carapace of his traditional belief in the Gikuyu deity, Ngai, who lived high on Kirinyaga mountain (Mt Kenya), was a jarring revision.

The dreadful date with death would fall on February 18, 1957. The ruling at the colonial court in Nyeri in October 1956 had been swift, the judge gaveled down the judgment: death sentence for possession of fire arms.

A subsequent appeal after Kimathi was transported to Nairobi was dismissed. Kimathi now chaptered into his last remaining months to wait out the scythe of the hooded angel of night.


The staccato of gunfire pierced the morning of October 21, 1956 in quick succession, pop pop, then pop! The echo rang up the ridge at Kahiga-ini in Tetu, Nyeri carrying with it dread. After the third explosion ripped the air, 17 year-old Meshack Wang’ombe and a friend raced down the valley, veal on their mind.

“The first thought was ‘buffalo’,” says Wang’ombe of that morning six decades later.

The two young men bounded into the forest just outside the village. The pair stopped suddenly after they ran dead into officers of the reviled tribal police.

“We thought someone had shot at a buffalo,” Wang’ombe attempted to explain.

“Well, there is your buffalo,” one of the men spat, gesturing to a figure lying on the forest floor, injured and in pain. The boys couldn’t believe it; here, lying injured was Dedan Kimathi, the man whose name was discussed in guarded tones. He wore a leopard hide. The policemen ordered the boys to make a stretcher fashioned from light tree posts bound with tree bark. They loaded the injured man onto the makeshift ambulance and began the climb out of the forest.

Then Kimathi spoke, seemingly to one in particular. “Don’t you know that this is the fulfilment of prophesy?” he said. That prophesy had come to pass, Kimathi continued, on the exact day it had been communicated to him during a visitation.

Wang’ombe remembers: “He was quite heavy, he wore a leopard hide and a wrist watch.” At Ihururu centre, someone tried to pry the watch away and Kimathi said, “Mundu ndagayaguo ee muoyo (you may not divest one’s belongings when he is still breathing)”.

In his book, The Hunt for Kimathi, Ian Henderson, a colonial police officer and the mastermind of the Kimathi operation, explains the scene at the Nyeri hospital where Kimathi was admitted for treatment after his capture: “A strong cordon of police had been thrown around the hospital, not to prevent Kimathi’s escape, but to stop crowds of angry people from dragging him out and tearing him out limb by limb.”


The hunt for Kimathi could not have fallen to more qualified hands than those of Ian Henderson. Henderson, who was born in 1927, grew up just outside Nyeri town where the family owned a coffee plantation. Friendly and curious, Henderson soon made friends with the native boys, leading them on boyish expeditions characterised by scrapes and derring-do. He also learnt the Gikuyu language, the beliefs and superstitions of the people; this knowledge would prove valuable in Henderson’s pursuit of Kimathi.

A born leader, Henderson’s young African friends conferred on him the name Kinyanjui, which, in a culture that placed meaning to nearly every name, might have been honorific or symbolic.

After leaving school, Henderson worked as a police officer in Nairobi where he soon gained a fearsome notoriety for his efficiency in apprehending criminals. As Henderson’s profile grew so did his responsibilities and scope. With the Mau Mau posing a credible threat to the colonial government, Henderson was tapped to lead an army platoon to flush out the insurgents.

Henderson’s singular focus was to nail Kimathi, a task he took up with a zeal bordering on obsession. Like J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, Henderson viewed the cause of eliminating Kimathi and his followers as a moral, if not entirely deified mandate, one characterised by an almost rabid disdain for the group.

“It was amazing how an avowed Mau Mau would turn completely overnight (to be on the government’s side),” he wrote.

Towards mid-October of 1956, Henderson had Kimathi within spitting distance. To the Scot’s chagrin, he was not there when Kimathi fell; it must have galled him that it was not his bullet that put Kimathi out of commission. Henderson had travelled to Nairobi to attend a ceremony in his honour.


Meshack Wang’ombe’s home perches a steep hill. The compound looks out a rolling vista of tea estates, quilted into a green carpet, beautiful beyond any singing. The sun fights against a light drizzle in the waning minutes of the evening. It is hard to reconcile the bloody theatre of the independence struggle with this bucolic, scenic land.

Wang’ombe, 80, is a lean man and appears a decade younger. Though reticent about reliving the event of that eventful October days moons ago, he has become a much-sought speaker at schools and groups in Nyeri County.

“They did what they could,” he says of Kimathi and his generation. He continues: “There have been many distortions to the story of the freedom struggle, falsehoods about the man, about the rituals.”

Antony Maina, the chief curator at the National Museums of Kenya, Nyeri chapter, has been instrumental in bringing Wang’ombe and others with direct linkage to Kimathi and those who lived through those terrifying years to talk to young people.

“Who better to tell the story?” Maina poses. “There is so much history that young people want to know.”

A few days after Kimathi was taken to the government hospital in Nyeri town for treatment, his antagonist, Ian Henderson, appeared bedside. It was the first meeting between hunter and quarry. The meeting was brief and history doesn’t record the extent of their conversation, but one can surmise that there must have been an exchange, a trading of grudging, tenuous respect.

And the end of an epoch. Kimathi departed for Nairobi, to Kamiti prison, never to come back home to a spot in his own soil. Henderson returned to Nairobi, to his policeman roles and a George medal for his role in the capture of Kimathi.

Soon after independence, as the country began purging the template devised by the colonial masters, the Scot was deported. He moved to Bahrain to manage the Bahraini General Directory for State Security, a post he held for 30 years. Trouble followed him. Henderson, referred to as the Butcher of Bahrain for authorizing torture while crushing dissent in that country, was put on trial but later controversially acquitted. He outlived Kimathi by 56 years.

While weighing his appraisal of Kimathi, Henderson, in the Hunt for Kimathi, opined: “The young Kikuyu children of the future would be able to stand outside their homes and say: ‘That is where an evil past is buried’.”

Tough luck. As a young man, before nationhood called, Kimathi had worked as a teacher, and from his final letter to the church, he insisted that his son go to school. It feels fitting that perhaps the most enduring legacy Kimathi left is the university named in his honour, Kimathi University in Nyeri.

Generations after the guns fell silent and the Union Jack was lowered, young men and woman walk through the college gates each year, to emerge later with certificates, those leaflets of legitimacy and empowerment. They stride with purpose past the gates and out into the world armed with the most potent and liberating of all weaponry: Education.

By Bill Ruthi



Shadows of October: How Dedan Kimathi spent his last days

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