Mama Ngina Kenyatta.
Deep in the belly of Kenya’s biggest dungeon, Kamiti Maximum Prison, under a blinding light and on empty stomachs, the emaciated mothers congregated.
Each lost in her own private hell, the women hummed songs of freedom as their scrawny babies tugged at emaciated breasts, trying to coax milk from them with varying degrees of success.
When the relentless tugs of the hungry babes turned into frustrated bites, their mothers grimaced but stoically bore the pain of motherhood. Confined but defiant, the cellmates of Kambi Fisi (the hyenas camp) greeted each day with a prayer.
Kambi ya Fisi, an isolated cell block inside Kamiti before independence, was a special hellhole designed by the colonial government for a breed of women they considered too dangerous to be left to roam freely – wives of freedom fighters who had either been captured or were still waging a spirited fight against the white man in the forest.
According to Mukami Kimathi, the wife of freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi, the prison authorities derived pleasure taunting and inflicting pain on the women in the hope that they would break down and reveal secrets that would enable them to defeat the Mau Mau.
She should know – she spent some time in the hyena’s camp, she and the self-effacing Ngina Kenyatta, whom prisoners referred to as Nyina wa Gatheca.
Humour as Kenyattas gather for kin’s burial
According to Mukami’s recollections captured in her autobiography, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter, she shared a cell with Ngina at around 1957 while her husband, Jomo Kenyatta, was languishing in prison.
“Ngina Kenyatta was assigned to take care of all the children of the prisoners working in the gangs. She had more than 50 children under her care. My son was one of them,” recollects Mukami.
Ngina’s work was clearly defined; it was her duty to feed and clean the inmates’ children.
“I would come from the farms or the quarries and find Ngina with a child strapped to her back, another one in front while rocking two more with her hands,” Mukami recounts.
The conditions in the cells were deplorable and the warders cruel.
“Every half hour a warder would peep through the peep hole called Judas to make sure that Ngina and I had not escaped,” recounts Kimathi’s wife.
Food in prison was scarce and laced with sand. On one occasion, the warders refused to give Mukami and Ngina food for a number of days, forcing them to survive on soil mixed with water.
Besides starvation, the women prisoners were at times called to go and bury inmates who had been hanged.
Even when they were not conducting mass burials, the women would know when a freedom fighter had been executed by the hideous screeching sound made by the improvised gallows.
When the physical and psychological torture yielded nothing, the warders sent preachers to try to convert the women to Christianity with promises of immense riches if they renounced the freedom struggle.