Located at Freedom Corner, Uhuru Park in Nairobi, the Mau Mau Memorial adds a new dimension to memorial architecture in the city. Mau Mau Memorial is its popular name but its official title is Memorial to the Victims of Torture and Ill-Treatment in the Colonial Era 1952-1960. It is a reminder of Kenya’s dark past but also a symbol of reconciliation. Officially opened on 12 September 2015, it has already become a popular landmark, with a constant stream of visitors.
Memorials are of different types, some being monumental objects, such as statues or, for example, the Nyayo monument, also in Uhruru Park. Others are memorial places for public reflection, such as the Bomb Blast Memorial and the Jomo Kenyatta Mausoleum. The Mau Mau Memorial is however unique in being a really public place that invites everybody in for the purpose of reflection, learning and relaxation.
Architect Diana Lee-Smith and her husband, Davinder Lamba, won the design competition organized by BORAQS, executed the construction guided by a steering committee from the Mau Mau War Veterans Association, Kenya Human Rights Commission, Nairobi City County, the National Museums of Kenya and the British High Commission. It was initially agreed that the purpose of the memorial was to connect the past to the present and preserve both for the future collective memory. The objective was to create a memorial place to commemorate the victims of torture and all those affected during the colonial era in Kenya: the men, women and youth who were among the people kept in detention for association with the Mau Mau movement.
Design for commemoration
Following an out-of-court settlement with the British government over the torture committed during colonialism in Kenya, a statement of sincere regret was announced in June 2013, including finances for victims and establishment of the memorial as a symbol of reconciliation between the British government and the Mau Mau. The memorial commemorates all the victims of torture who suffered and supported the Mau Mau Movement. In 2014, a building contract was awarded to Interpid Contractors through a competitive bidding process, with KHRC as the client acting on behalf of the memorial steering committee.
The memorial attracts attention through its gateway, ramp and sculpture. As the visitor approaches the podium by means of the larger ramp, the opening plaque is easily visible. To one side of the entrance arch is the Swahili and to the other side is the English version. Each is accompanied by a Braille version at a lower level, facilitating touch. On the other side of the archway are plaques recognizing those involved. These orient the visitor to the purpose of the memorial.
Going through the arch onto the podium, attention is attracted to the sculpture with its depiction of the Mau Mau men and women fighters. Designed and executed by the renowned artist Kevin Oduor, the sculpture shows a Mau Mau fighter being brought food by a woman fighter during the struggle for freedom in the forest. The sculpture plaque explains how, on instructions from the leadership, both fighters looked away as the food was handed over so they could not identify each other later even under torture.
This scene was re-enacted for the sculpture by the actual freedom fighters themselves, wearing clothes and carrying items used from the time in the 1950s. It was also re-enacted for the public and press photos at the official opening.
The three plaques on the State of Emergency, the Mau Mau Movement and Reconciliation are arranged in order on either side of another display wall, in both English and Swahili. As well as the benches near the plaques and sculpture there is informal seating for the casual visitor on the 30cm-wide ledge that constitutes the low parapet surrounding the podium. Similar benches accommodate visitors to the park outside the podium. These benches and the ledge are popular with visitors who can sit and relax and socialize. The sculpture also attracts people of all ages who love having their photos taken there, and being able to touch and relate to the figures in the sculpture.
The narrative memorializes an important period of Kenyan history, making it accessible to the public. It is particularly important to the victims of torture who brought the legal case against the British government. Many of them attended the official opening on 12 September 2015. It is also important to all Mau Mau veterans, their relatives and descendants in future, and to the Kenyan public for generations to come.
Exiting the smaller ramp to the park, the visitor sees the commemoration tree planted by Mau Mau veterans and the Nairobi County governor. There are more benches for relaxation around the tree. The Mau Mau memorial provides education through its easily readable plaques and relaxation through its inviting atmosphere and casual setting. The educative and entertaining sculptures give a pleasant experience alongside deep lessons conveyed by the narratives.
Planning and construction
This very small building contract, with no infrastructure services, was originally supposed to be completed in six months but took one year to complete due to the administrative complexities. Financing for the memorial for a total of £90,000 sterling came from the British government as part of the out-of-court settlement and was handled by Kenya Human Rights Commission acting on behalf of the Mau Mau Memorial Committee comprising a five organizations, four national plus the British High Commission. In parallel with construction, the wording of all the plaques was finalized by the same committee with meticulous supervision on all sides to ensure an accurate historical record. The memorial is in the process of being gazetted as a national monument, this being handled by the National Museums of Kenya.
The site was kindly donated by Nairobi City County, Governor Evans Kidero having understood its historical importance to the City of Nairobi. The surrounding landscaping and paths are managed by the City. One of the biggest hitches in the contract came early on when the site was found to have black cotton soil, necessitating additional excavation and stone foundation walls 2.5 m deep. The detailing of the fine granite surfaces and plaques was by the architects themselves using local suppliers and engravers to a high quality of finish. There is a mix of granite and granito on all horizontal and vertical surfaces of the memorial, with subtle colour variations designed for readability, to be easy on the eye and comfortable for sitting on.
Davinder Lamba acted as Project Manager for the construction, and both he and Diana Lee-Smith sat on the memorial committee throughout, generally meeting almost every week throughout the construction period, up to and including the inauguration on 12 September 2015. Towards the end of construction meetings were held on site. Given the national and international political and legal complexities of this small project, the committee worked with a great sense of mutual collaboration and respect, and the small contracting firm, Interpid, gave the contract their all, understanding its significance.
Use by the public
Above all, the Mau Mau Memorial is designed for the visitor, not only through the public education and messages engraved in the plaques but also through casual use of the space as members of the public go about their daily work and recreation in the city. Its befitting location is also symbolically linked in people’s minds to the meaning of the freedom struggle, being the site of the later struggles for freedom and democracy in the second liberation of the 1980’s and 90s.
If you go there any day, especially at weekends and public holidays, you will find people of all walks of life mingling on and around the podium. The public, now and in the future, will be able to read the truth and enjoy the freedoms liberation brought to Kenya while relaxing in a welcoming, informative public space in the city centre.