Barack Obama’s plane will land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport this evening. He will be welcomed on the runway by Jomo Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, Kenya’s fourth president. Both men were born in 1961, three years after the Embakasi Airport was opened (it was renamed in 1978). The website of the Kenya Airports Authority has a page about the airport’s history. It says that it was ‘constructed in the mid-1950s’ before going into considerably more detail about its World Bank-financed refit in the 1970s. It doesn’t mention that the airport was built with the forced labour of thousands of men during the Mau Mau uprising that began in the early 1950s.
In Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (2005), Caroline Elkins points out that Britain’s decision to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy based on mass detention dovetailed with the governor Evelyn Baring’s desire to ‘modernise’ the country through large-scale infrastructure projects as a way of deepening and prolonging British rule:
Colonial officials at [Embakasi] were under enormous pressure to complete the airport, a massive project that had a limitless need for labour, before the end of the Emergency. Camp commandants... seemed to consider it their duty to work the convicts to death. Production pressures combined with the pervasive exterminationist attitude toward Mau Mau to create a uniquely perverse environment.
Elkins says that many detainees referred to Embakasi as ‘Satan’s Paradise’. In his memoir, Mau Mau Detainee (1963), Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, the socialist politician assassinated in 1975, wrote:
They also told me about Embakasi. When the Government could not find sufficient evidence to bring against us in the courts, we were detained. But not much evidence was required to convince administrator magistrates and so early in the Emergency many thousands were convicted and sentenced to terms of imprisonment for taking the [Mau Mau] oath. While we had been organizing our own resistance in the Detention Camps, our convicted brothers had been doing the same in Kenya’s prisons. Of these the most notorious was Embakasi which was built near the site for the new Nairobi Airport. The convicts there felt no more inclination to help the Government than we did and the Government took strong action to force them to work. Kiongo and Marungo told me that life there was so tough that in order to avoid being sent to the runways some would deliberately slash the tips of their fingers: others stabbed the inside of their mouths with pins so as to spit blood and be admitted to the hospital as TB suspects. Let us never forget that Nairobi’s Embakasi Airport, clean, modern and bustling centre of Africa's communications system, was built on the sweat and blood of our people fighting for freedom and it will remain a permanent memorial to those who died in the prison during its years of construction.
Kariuki’s prediction didn’t come true. Instead the airport carries the name of Jomo Kenyatta. ‘Mau Mau was a disease which has been eradicated and must never be remembered again,’ Kenyatta wrote in his memoir, Suffering Without Bitterness (1968).
Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, is said to have been detained and tortured by the British in 1949 at Kamiti prison, to the north of Embakasi. ‘According to his widow,’ the Guardian reported two years ago, ‘British soldiers forced pins into his fingernails and buttocks and squeezed his testicles between metal rods.’ There is no known documentary evidence for this, possibly because the British disposed of many of their official records in bonfires, acid baths and the Indian Ocean. The forms of torture described by Sarah Obama are consistent with the accounts of former detainees quoted in Elkins’s book, and in evidence given at the high court in London.
Paulo Muoka Nzili, 88, was among the lead claimants in the successful compensation case brought against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2010. According to Nzili’s written testimony, he was taken to Embakasi in 1957. A white settler identified as Mr Dunman held him to the ground and castrated him using pliers. ‘It took years for me to find any hope,’ Nzili wrote, ‘but I have never really recovered from what was done to me at Embakasi on that day.’