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By Angela Kabiru The recent discovery of mass burials in Machakos has left people wondering what caused the deaths of so many people. Shallow graves have been discovered in areas where people have lived for long without knowing what lay hidden in the ground. Most graves are shallow pits and trenches, which appear to have been dug in a hurry, and in which bodies were thrown carelessly, with men, women and children buried together.The graves have been accidentally discovered in the course of digging trenches to lay water pipes or foundations for buildings. What is surprising is that the graves have lain undiscovered for long yet the bones are less than a metre below the surface.It is not easy to conclude what caused the deaths, especially when no records are available. Even where there are visible signs of damage on the skeletons — bullet wounds, cuts and fractures — the absence of records makes it difficult to establish the cause and circumstance of events.It is, however, known that most mass graves were dug and filled during the colonial era when people were forced to live in concentration camps as a form of punishment or in reserves for ease of administration.Although it is believed that early funeral customs developed as cultural components of communities that adopted agriculture and sedentary lifestyle, many African farming communities did not bury their dead until the late 1800s or early 1900s when missionaries came. Instead, they dumped the bodies at particular places or simply threw them away in the bush where wild animals fed on them.But when Europeans came, they used some of the land to build stations and farm, and forced communities dispose of their dead properly. The practice is, therefore, not older than the advent of the missionaries or the colonial administration in the early 1900s.During the State of Emergency in the 1950s, people around Mt Kenya, especially where the Mau Mau was active, were forced into what the colonial administration called villages. The residents were easily monitored to reduce contact with the Mau Mau. This was meant to weaken the fighters because they relied on villagers for food and other supplies.The dead and the sick from such villages were buried in trenches. The land on which the graves are located is now under farming, and bones have been uncovered in the course of building roads.But Mau Mau activities were not restricted to Central Province. A 1954 report indicates that oath-taking happened in Mombasa, and each of the adherents swore to kill a white man. In Kamba territory, a gang of screaming tribesmen, shooting pistols and poisoned arrows, attacked a veterinary inspector at Machakos. They screamed: “We want your head!” One settler remarked: “If the Wakamba have now gone Mau Mau,” the position of Kenya may become desperate.”By 1954, anyone thought to be Mau Mau was captured and executed. By May 24 of that year, the British were reported to have killed 4,600 Mau Mau in fights and execution. In ‘Operation Anvil’, 35,000 Africans were rounded up in Nairobi and 26,500 sent to concentration camps in Manda Island. Most concentration camps were in hot and dry areas where conditions were inhospitable. Manyani was such a place. In her book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya, Caroline Erskin indicates that part of Hola Prison was used as a remote punishment camp for ‘hard core’ Mau Mau insurgents who refused to recant their oaths or affiliation to the movement. Physical and psychological abuse was used to ‘break’ detainees so that they could be ‘rehabilitated’ and moved out of the concentration camps and back to the reserves. Placed in a hard labour camp, guards severely beat the victims when they refused to work. Undoubtedly, many men died in the camps and only mass graves, which fellow inmates dug, could hold the bodies. Much of the story of the British and colonial administration was covered up and many official documents destroyed during the transition to independence.Disease outbreaks led to mass deaths and burials. An account is given of one Englishman, Henry Liddell, who established the Order of Sophia. He settled and married in British East Africa, but died of dysentery in 1924 at the age of 38. He was buried in a mass grave outside a village near Machakos. It is not indicated exactly where the mass grave is, but it could be assumed that it was in use at the time of his death. Disease outbreaks usually occur in areas of high population, the most common, as a result of improper waste disposal, being cholera, dysentery and plague. At the time, Machakos was a small urban centre, having been established in 1889, 10 years before Nairobi. It was the first administrative centre for the British colony before it was moved to Nairobi in 1899.Since it is difficult to find records on every mass burial (except where there are witnesses), the easiest way to find out would be to dig up the bones and make certain assumptions. In a reserve or village, skeletons should belong to old people with few young people. At concentration camps, the victims should be young men, most likely with visible signs of damage, including bullet wounds, cuts and fractures, on the skeletons. If the deaths were a result of a disease outbreak, all ages, male and female, would be represented, with a high percentage of children. But with most records destroyed or missing, we might never know who lies in mass graves.The writer is an archeologist with the National Museums of Kenya 


About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.


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