How Colonial Askaris ‘Borrowed’ Wives At the Coast

| February 22, 2013 | 0 Comments

Kenya turns 50 this year. To commemorate this important milestone, the Star is publishing the untold stories of Kenya’s clamour for independence which will culminate in the national celebrations on December 12. In the second edition in this series, read about how colonial askaris ‘borrowed’ natives’ wives at the Coast. 

During the colonial era, native Coast people were lorded over by the British colonial rulers and the Mazrui Arabs under the Sultan of Zanzibar. And both these masters treated the natives like slaves.

But it was in the land of the Giriama that in the early part of the last century, a courageous woman leader known as Mekatilili wa Menza led the first organised opposition against the British rule following the capture of her brother by Arab slave traders.

This led to the Giriama Uprising of 1913-14 at Chakama in Malindi, whose climax was the opposition of recruitment of the Giriama into the British carrier corps during the First World War.

For her ‘sins’, the British banished Mekatilili to detention in Kisii for five years, but legend has it that she miraculously escaped jail after only five months and returned home where she continued with the opposition to the British rule. The British and the Arabs however continued to lord it over the Giriama and Coast natives for the better part of a half century.

In 1954, Mzee Katana Shutu Masha, then a young man of 15 years was taken from his home in Malindi and forcibly made to work without pay as a messenger in the district officer’s office. Here he alternately served two masters – the British colonial administration and the Mazrui Arabs.

“I would push files daily between the DO’s office and that of the representative of the Sultan and at times was even forced to take a basket of mangoes from town to the airport, a journey of about 10km on foot, sometimes three times a day”. The mangoes that would be flown to Nairobi were a gift of the Sultan’s men to the colonial governor.

Despite the scorching sun and the sharp rocks on the road that badly blistered the feet, the servants of the British and the Arabs were neither allowed to wear shoes nor long trousers. “Our uniform consisted of khaki shorts and a long khaki shirt”.

Katana and the other natives were forced to address their masters and mistresses as ‘Bwana’ and ‘Memsahib’ and if they made the slightest blunder however innocent, an ‘askari kanga’ (administration policeman) would be instructed by the British DO to administer several strokes of the cane on their bare backs.

He recalls how the only vehicle that operated between Mombasa and Malindi simply known as ‘Posta’ (my guess is it belonged to the Postal Corporation) had segregated compartments partitioned with wire mesh. The natives, who would ride in the rear compartment, had to be disinfected before boarding.

After four years of forced ‘pro bono’ work Katana was formally employed, started earning a salary and with it came the payment of GPT. “On going home, an elder commissioned by the British would determine your age by the hair on your armpit, which graduated you into a tax payer whether you were employed or not. Then like a slave you were forced to hang a metal disk on your neck, as testimony of your tax compliance.”

But maybe the worst thing that happened to the Giriama people in that era, according to Katana, was the ‘borrowing’ of people’s wives by the administration police officers.

“If there were ten officers in a station, the headman would come to the village and order ten wives of the villagers to go and become ‘wives’ to the askaris and tidy up their camp. You would be told openly that your wife was going to entertain the askaris and do domestic chores for them for seven days and your meek answer was simply, “Ndiyo Bwana” (yes, sir).

After the seven days, the women would be taken back to their homes and another headman from another village would provide the next set of women for the askaris.

“We also suffered further humiliation from the askaris who would at leisure pluck us from our matrimonial homes at the crack of dawn, demanding prove that we had paid GPT. They would then in the fashion of the previous century’s slave trade, tie a group of ten of us together on the waist and in that difficult position, force us to sing and dance for them”.

The culprits would later be taken to the DO’s office and then to the ‘liwali’ (a fat Arab magistrate) who would clown, “Mwanangu una kodi ngapi wewe?” (My son, how many times have you defaulted on tax?). He would then sentence the young defaulters to wash his wife’s underpants for three months.

“Unaonaje ukienda kule kwa mamako ukamfulie nguo kwa muda wa kama miezi tatu hivi?” (How about you going to your mother’s (his wife) and washing her underclothes for about three months?” Only this was not a question he was posing but a sentence he was handing down.

The British treated the locals as virtual slaves and any time officials such as district commissioners and district officers were going for public meetings, they would travel part of the way in motor vehicles and then be carried for several kilometres by four locals in turns in a triumphal entry into the venue. “If the carriers made the mistake of dropping the official, they would be shot promptly.”

Headmen would also be instructed to pick ten able-bodied men from each village who were forced to work at the sisal plantations for a period of nine months without pay. Others would be forced to tap rubber in Magarini for months, also without pay.

“No ‘bushman’ (African) was allowed to own beach plots and woe unto those who worked in white men’s homes or hotels. In the white man’s eye, the African was lower than the dog and if one was caught drinking from a cup, the cup would be broken and burnt and the offender whipped or even shot.”

The African worker could only eat the leftovers served on a piece of paper and drink from disused metal containers.

The Mazrui Arabs traded in ivory but if an African was caught with elephant tusks, the askaris would kill the culprit, bury him in a shallow grave and then go sell the tusks to Somali ivory traders.

In the mid 1950s, as the freedom struggle gained momentum and stories of the Mau Mau exploits reached them, the Giriama people gathered the courage to threaten the British officials as they tried to cross rivers to address meetings on another ridge using bows and arrows, but this was quickly discouraged by the gun-wielding askari kanga.

Born in 1934, Kazungu Mudhengi worked in the hotel industry in the early days and remembers making food that he could not even taste and living in a workplace where his wife could not step into the isolated shed that was his sleeping quarter. “Even the leftovers we ate, we did secretly as the Mzungu would rather feed it to the dogs. We did not even eat such fruits as the mango that was grown by our people.”

A man he worked with was one day caught by the ‘Memsahib’ drinking coffee in the hotel kitchen and to this day, Kazungu remembers the brutal beating the man received.

“I have never seen a man so mercilessly whipped for eating food. And those who worked on sisal farms were even worse off; one worker was bitten by a snake resulting in a leg amputation and he was sent home without a single cent or medical care.”

Katana recalls the Arab absentee landowners would wait until the coconuts planted by the African ‘squatters’ were ready, then haul them to court on charges of occupying his land illegally.

Culled from :Here

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