"He Deserved a State Burial"
General China is Dead, Nationalism in Kenya Lies Dormant Still

(Originally published in Executive Magazine, Kenya, May 1993)
By David Blumenkrantz

"China was fighting for the soil, for the black man. He was a jaba. He commanded respect."

  • David Waititu, Mau Mau foot soldier, on the day of his leader's burial.

"If China thinks that I will mortgage this great struggle to save his life, he must be crazy."

  • Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi Waciuri, in a 1954 letter to General Kago, dismissing a captive General China's attempts to mediate a surrender and amnesty to end the Mau Mau war.

Tremendous dark clouds rolled over the ridges from the Aberderes, threatening to further dampen an already funereal mood. To the relief of the hundreds who had come to witness the burial, God's mercy permitted only a smattering of rain. Beneath the big tents, bereaved family members, politicians, a collection of aging Mau Mau "Generals," clergymen and other strange bedfellows sat in even rows.

Speaker after speaker eulogized the departed in as fine a manner as any common man could hope for-- avoiding questions of impropriety, highlighting the goodness of his heart and deeds. Yet the passing of Waruhiu Itote is an event that begs many questions, and a lingering air of incompleteness hung over the ceremony. In death, as in life, General China hovered somewhere between man and myth.

On Friday, April 30, the newspapers were filled with the usual-- stories of a country struggling to get a grip on itself, to hold together a disintegrating economy in the face of growing discontent and ethnic strife. Appearing almost as an afterthought, on page 16 of the Daily Nation, a one-column headline announced: "General China is Dead."  

Four days earlier, Warihiu Itote had gone out on his usual rounds, visiting the workers on his 100-acre Gichigirira Farm at Kibibiri, just across the narrow Marewa river near Ol Kalou. That afternoon he was gone, having passed away while being rushed to the hospital after suffering a severe asthma attack.

 At seventy-one years of age, the former leader of the Mt. Kenya faction of the Mau Mau freedom fighters, and retired Deputy Director of the National Youth Service, had chosen a life of relative anonymity. The much loved and respected cattle and wheat farmer was "development conscious," though somewhat apolitical, inasmuch as his status would allow. A simple man, he had allowed his wheat fields to lie fallow for the last two years. He lived alone (save for two female househands), in a large colonial-era farmhouse formerly owned by a Dutchman named Kruger. And by all indications, his was to the end a sparse existence-- the only decoration of a personal nature in the blue sitting room a framed Ramogi Studio portrait over the fireplace, taken in 1985. The photograph recalled a great man looking decidedly common, standing with his third and youngest wife, Margaret Wanjiru.

It was a property he had particularly wanted to be settled on, a neighbor confided, because "they had kicked the colonials out of it." Surely the Nyeri-born Itote had ample opportunity to fall in love with the rolling ridges of Nyandarwa during the war, when he swept through the area during raids, en route from Naivasha to meetings with Kimathi and other leaders, in the nearby forests of the Aberderes.

 Njoroge Ng'ang'a, a student at Egerton whose own life began long after General China had faced and escaped death several times over, made it clear as he arrived for the funeral service that his generation still revered his illustrious neighbor for his role in Mau Mau, moreso than the NYS. "People like him as a war hero." Another young man, living on an adjacent farm, boasted, "He was the FIRST Mau Mau General-- the FIRST!, adding conspiratorially, "he deserved a state burial."

 Thus to those around him, General China was larger than life, transcending the endless controversies surrounding the "myth" of Mau Mau. Most importantly, he can be seen as one of the few fully-fledged success stories among the former fighters. Aside from authoring two books on his war experiences, he was surely one of the very few who followed up his pre-independence war background with a high-profile position in public service. There is little reason to doubt the sincerity of words written in his eulogy, recalling the patriotic zeal with which General China approached his posting with the NYS in 1964: "Waruhiu saw the newly-created NYS as both a formidable challenge and a great opportunity. He had taken up arms so that future generations of Kenyans would be free to develop the enormous potential of the human and natural resources of the country. . ."

 The reward for his willingness to find a middle ground between the hardcore and the homeguards was thus greater-- certainly far greater-- than most of the former fighters, who suffered and still continue to suffer from the alienation which characterized the decolonization process. Though there are many former Mau Mau settled in the Ol Kalou-Nyahururu area, none landed as big a prize as China's 100-acre farm. The same is true wherever the fighters tried to settle. For example, it has been documented as part of the fractured history of the movement, that as late as 1964 Meru Generals such as Baimungi and Muchori returned to the forest upon learning that they would not receive entire estates. They were hunted down and killed for their troubles. . . This is not to say that China was unconcerned about the condition of the former fighters, nor that everything was handed to him unconditionally. In spite of having been interned with Kenyatta at Lokitaung (where Mzee taught him English), upon independence China was not given a commission in the Kenya Army. Instead, he was forced to enlist as a private, and endure the humiliation of taking basic training under the command of British officers. And while he, as a staunch Kenyatta supporter, spoke out harshly against the resurgence of oath taking, China was also outspoken on behalf of compensation and representation for the veterans. "It would probably not be wise," he wrote in 1967, "to assume that Mau Mau veterans will tolerate their present position indefinitely," citing land grants, pensions, loans, education, medals and honors, and government aid for those who were disabled, as some of the essentials veterans expected for their sacrifices. 

History has shown that little became of this, or the demands of others since. It is unlikely that much will ever be done, certainly not as long as the current regime, which fears a rekindling of a perceived Kikuyu militancy, remains in power.

Much has been made of General China's supposedly moderate role in the Mau Mau struggle. This seems to be largely a result of the events that followed his capture on January 1, 1954. While by all accounts Dedan Kimathi was the spiritual leader, it was generally acknowledged that the 32-year-old China was the leader of the Mt. Kenya forces, numbering some 5,000 men and women. In Edgerton's "Mau Mau: An African Crucible," he reports:

`When China was wounded and captured, he initially resisted interrogation skillfully carried out for 68 hours by Ian Henderson, a Kikuyu-speaking police officer. China eventually revealed some details of Mau Mau military organization and locations. General China said nothing that seriously compromised Mau Mau fighting ability, but with a death sentence hanging over his head, and believing that warfare had taken Mau Mau as far as it could, he agreed to write letters to his officers . . . the ceasefire and amnesty China tried to help arrange was violently opposed by Kimathi and received only lukewarm support from (Stanley) Mathenge, although many of the Mt. Kenya leaders loyal to China accepted it.'

A tragedy soon followed, when 2,000 of China's men and 1,000 others were heading to Gathuini in the hope that the amnesty offer was a sign of British weakness. When another, smaller independent force of Mau Mau, led by General Gatamuki were attacked and massacred at Gathuini by the 7th Battalion, KAR, it was seen as a callous trap, and the planned mass surrender was off. Needless to say, this did little for General China's credibility among the remaining forest leaders.

China 's 1979 book, "Mau Mau in Action" expressed sentiments that would seem to exonerate the embattled General from charges that he sold out the movement, citing divisiveness as the real downfall: "The freedom fighters were badly cheated by surrenderees, some of whom had been their former leaders. They feared each other and there was no unity. These people spoiled everything on the Mau Mau side because they were passing on secrets to the government. Mau Mau were very unlucky in this and started to weaken. But the true freedom fighters stayed in the forest until after independence."


At any rate, it's doubtful that China alone could have helped the government start any such negotiations, for as Rosberg and Nottingham concurred in "Myth of the Mau Mau,". . . `the factors that had impeded the growth of any effective unified forest command equally precluded the probability of overall surrender. . .'

It's unfortunate that because of this, China's accomplishments are often underplayed: his integral involvement in the civilian "War Council," at the earliest stages of planning; his training of some of the very first rebels on the Mt. Kenya slopes; the many successes in battle; and the respect he earned as a leader of men, even after the war. It seems that General China will be eternally relegated to the second rank of Mau Mau heroes, forever overshadowed by more charismatic and intransigent rebels.

Not so however, at Gichigirira Farm, where three widows endured the afternoon with a stoicism that relegated all of the politically-tainted speeches and sermons to the edge of tedium. Mwai Kibaki himself could not break through the pall, even as he evoked China's fighting spirit in answer to the encroaching persecution of his followers. "We shall not allow a few people to destroy our motherland, which people like China sacrificed so much for."

Anticipation was rife that the distinguished collection of elderly gentlemen, curiously all equally ranked as "Generals," would consecrate their comrade with a familiarity that had been lacking. But only one, General Kimbo, was given time, and his brief message amounted to little more than "we've lost a great hero." After which the Generals were paraded out next to the casket, so that all might see and remember the strength and power of a vanishing breed of warriors.

 All of this seemed lost on poor Margaret Wanjiru, the youngest wife. She had arrived dramatically, parting the swelling crowd in mid-eulogy as she was driven in late from the hospital, still nearly catatonic in her shock. Throughout the proceedings her face betrayed no hint of recognition, even when they led her by the elbows to lay a wreath on the tomb.

There he lay, the finality of death at last upon him, inside a fine casket-- mahogany with gold trim, ironically manufactured at the same Kamiti prison where Kimathi, perhaps his historical alter-ego, was hanged and buried in a manner so cruelly unceremonial that one could conclude his death left a permanent scar on the face of his country's nationalist landscape. At least-- at the very least-- Kimathi will remain a martyr to those who still care to romanticize Kenya's "first liberation," officially unburied. His mythical memory is today often mistaken for his soul, and thought not to be resting after all. As for General China, his memory and his soul will be allowed to rest, if not as a legend then as a gentleman and a patriot.

As the casket was lowered into a grave carved out of the rich red soil, so Waruhiu Itote, Elder of the Burning Spear, at last became one with the very land he had fought for. A visitor from outside, I felt a great sadness while watching the dirt being shoveled, the flowers laid. Not just sympathy for the grieving Wanjiru, nor wonder for the collection of aging "generals." For whatever political reason, not a word of condolence or greeting was sent by a leading member of the government in power, and I remembered the words of young Muiruri, a neighbor: "He deserved a state burial."

A near-total media blackout accorded the funeral. Paradoxically, last year's death of Sir Michael Blundell had inspired full-length editorials and much sentimental reminiscing. R.I.P., General China. A member of the Kings African Rifles in Burma. A military and civil patriot. A man who for nearly forty years served his country while walking with a bullet embedded in his chin. It was a sad day for Kenya.