On February 28th, 1992, Mothers of Political Prisoners, aged between 60-80 years presented a Petition with a list of 52 political prisoners (among them students, journalists, lawyers, and human rights advocates who had been imprisoned for perceived anti-government statements, ideas, and actions) to then Attorney General, Amos Wako as they proceeded to a now famous corner at the Uhuru Park in Nairobi for an undefined hunger strike. The mothers were supported and led by the late Nobel Laurent, Prof. Wangari Maathai.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the political atmosphere in Kenya was characterized by brutal government repression and terror. Under the de-facto single-party rule of President Daniel arap Moi, any form of political dissension was swiftly met with government interrogation, detention, and torture, using the justification of the Public Order Act, the Chiefs Authority Act and the Sedition Law.
The year 2022 is exactly 30 years since the Mothers Heroic Action which began on February 28, 1992 and came to an end in January of 1993 after the release of the last political prisoner, Apiny Adhiambo. The Mothers action forever ended the streak of political prisoners in Kenya, leading first to the 1992 Constitutional Amendment that reduced the Presidential Term to a maximum of two terms and to subsequent amendments in 1997 repealed all the major oppressive laws in the Kenya Constitution, including the Public Order Act that allowed detention without trial and the Chiefs Authority Act that restricted freedoms of association and in the same year the Sedition Law was removed from our Penal Code.
All this happened because of the momentum set by the mothers when they began their very ‘simple’ hunger strike on the 28t of February, 1992. The momentum continued until Kenyans gifted themselves with a new constitution in 2010.
So the celebration of the Mothers Hunger Strike is a celebration of various milestones made in this country since February of 1992.
The mothers set up camp in the Uhuru (Freedom) Park that is located across the infamous “Nyayo House Torture Chambers” and not far off is the Parliament Building. There, they staged a hunger strike and waited for the release of their sons.
The striking mothers soon garnered much support for their cause. Several sympathizers set up a tent under which the mothers could sleep, and many frustrated Kenyans came forward and openly recounted their stories of torture. These supporters joined in on the mothers’ singing of traditional Kenyan songs, which included such lyrics as, “Go and take the child back…” The mothers set up banners and handed out flyers to curious Kenyans as they continued their vigil.
On March 3, the Moi government decided to forcibly disperse the demonstrators. Government police forces beat protesters with batons, fired gunshots into the air, and hurled tear-gas into the tent where protesters were gathered. To ward off the police, two of the protesting mothers stripped their clothing and dared the police to kill them. They shouted “What kind of government is this that beats women! Kill us! Kill us now! We shall die with our children!”
The police forces responded by turning away and leaving the scene. According to Maathai, the tactic of disrobing was particularly effective in stopping the police because, “In the African tradition, people must respect women who are close to their mother’s age, and they must treat them as their mothers. If men beat mothers, it is like sons violating their mothers, and the mothers respond by cursing them. And they cursed them by showing them their nakedness.”
The violent beatings of the mothers and their supporters made newspaper headlines, and the news sparked riots all over Nairobi. Transportation workers boycotted their work in protest of the government’s harassment of the mothers, and large crowds of stone-throwing demonstrators had to be dispersed by tear gas-firing riot police. The U.S. and German governments even directed criticism at the Moi government for its violent beating of the mothers and for its abuse of human rights. In defense, the Moi government denied using excessive force and attempted to trivialize the mothers’ campaign.
The next day, the mothers regrouped at the All Saints Cathedral, which was located one block away from Uhuru Park. Because the government prohibited the mothers from returning to their previous location (by then christened “Freedom Corner”), the Provost of the cathedral (now Emeritus Bishop) Peter Njenga granted them sanctuary. There, the mothers continued their campaign.
Over the next 11 months, the mothers held daily meetings outside the cathedral to speak with their growing numbers of supporters. They held open forums and spoke about democratic procedures and citizens’ rights. They asserted that individuals should not be placed in jail because of their political beliefs. Thousands of supporters visited the mothers, and many political opposition groups (including the Forum to Restoration of Democracy and the Release of Political Prisoners pressure group) and women’s groups and organizations (spearheaded by the Democratic Party women league, Mothers in Action and the National Council of Women of Kenya) openly lending the mothers their support. To further pressure the Moi government, the Forum for Restoration of Democracy called for a national strike to begin on April 2, 1992. On March 31, the mothers attempted to deliver a petition to President Moi to give him an opportunity to avoid the strike, but they were turned away by police forces.
On the evening of April 1, government police raided the All Saints Cathedral and occupied the grounds for three days as the mothers barricaded themselves in the church bunker. On April 12, Archbishop of the Anglican Church Manasses Kuria declared that “idlers” were officially barred from the cathedral grounds, and that the cathedral was “…a sanctuary for the mothers of the political prisoners.”
With this protection, the mothers were able to continue their campaign. On April 16 and 17, the mothers distributed 6,000 leaflets containing information about their sons and the conditions under which they were arrested. In addition, the mothers regularly participated in several actions related to the release of their sons in the 11months of their action.
On June 24, 1992, four of the political prisoners were released, and by January 19, 1993, all of the mothers were reunited with their sons.
THE MOTHERS (Defiant mothers between the ages of 60-80)
- Marianne Nyabola: Mother to the late Titus Adungosi. Titus Adungosi, chairperson of the Students Organisation of Nairobi (SONU) died in police custody!! “We did not know where they had put Titus, an I was not able to go look for him. I could not afford to travel since I am poor. His elder brother Yuronimu Adungosi went. He went to Shimo la Tewa Maximum prison in Mombasa first. We had been told that Titus was at this prison, but he did not find him there. He came back home and for one year, we did not know where Titus was. We were later informed that Titus was being held at the Naivasha Maximum prison. Yuronimu went there and this time, he actually found my son and spoke with him. Thereafter, he visited Titus frequently. One such visit was in 1987, Titus told him that he would be released in a month’s time. They spoke in Iteso though the prison warders would stop them. He was in good health and did not show signs of ill health. He had told the brother to have a house built for him in preparation for his release. This was the last time a family member saw Titus alive. My son Titus died suddenly and mysteriously.
- Monica Wangu Wamwere: Mother of former Subukia MP, Koigi wa Wamwere and Charles Kuria Wamwere, who had been detained since 1990. Mama Koigi is said to be the starter of the Release Political Prisoners movement “When I finally realized Freedom was not forthcoming, I went outside the High Courtand prayed to God to show me the way, it was then an idea struck me, that of starting a pressure group for the release of my son. It was hard to get support, but I met the late Prof. Wangari Maathai and Njeri Kabeberi, together we traced other mothers and hatched the plan to go to Uhuru Park (aka Freedom Corner)’. Despite these gallant efforts, Mama Koigi’s compensation petition for atrocities of 1992 was dismissed on April 15, 2016, alongside that of Priscilla Mwara, mother of lawyer Gitau Mwara. “They never tendered medical reports proving they suffered torture” at ‘Freedom Corner,’ ruled High Court judge Isaac Lenaola.
- Milka Wanjiru Kinuthia: Mother of lawyer Rumba Kinuthia who (with daughter Margaret Wangui Kinuthia) were compensated with Sh1.5 million for torture at ‘Freedom Corner.’
- Leah Wanjiru Mungai: Mother of Kang’ethe Mungai who had been sentenced to 20 years for distributing Mwakenya leaflets! “After staying at Freedom Corner and the Cathedral for lon with a lot of sacrifice and suffering, the son was released after serving 6years on prison. We secured our sons release not through an appeal but because of our stay at Freedom Corner. This was good for me because at that particular time all my other sons were in exile”.
- Gladys Thiitu Kariuki: “The pain of bearing a child does not allow me to let my son continue suffering in prison,” said the mother of the late Nakuru Town MP, Mirugi Kariuki. The third arrest drove me to join the other mothers at Freedom Corner. At the Freedom corner, we had one demand, the release of our sons!
- Veronicah Wambui Nduthu: Mother of University of Nairobi student leader, Karimi Nduthu, who was later killed in 1996. The woes of Karimi started when he and his fellow student leaders Tirop Kitur and Mwandawiro Mghanga were expelled from the Nairobi University.
- Ruth Wangari Thungu: Mother of Wakaba Thungu, whose famous picture daring police with her womanhood remains an enduring image of this political crusade. All their sons were released by January 19, 1993. The last time stripping in political protest happened was 70 years earlier in the case of Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru, who planted germ seeds of nakedness as a weapon of ‘political consciousness.’ But she was shot dead while demanding the release of freedom fighter Harry Thuku along what is today Harry Thuku Road on March 16, 1922.
- Wahu Kaara: Wife to the late Kaara Macharia. Kaaras activism began while he was still at University “This was the time of high-level university politics – The University had become the Black-Belts of political resistance”. Kaara went into exile in 1986 at the height of Mwakenya crackdown and following his brother (Ngotho Kariukis detention). He was in exile for four years.
- Elizabeth Wanjiru Matenjwa: Mother in Law to Wanyiri Kihoro. My children Wnajiru and Wanyiri Kihoro had gone into exile and lived in the UK between 1982-1986. Only for Wanyiri to be arrested on 31st July, 1986. “Those days were politically bad; if a person was arrested and especially accused of betraying the government, one was considered dangerous and very few people would want to associate with you. We knew that the challenge and consequences of his arrest solely rested on us”.
- The late Marcell Ojuka: Paddy Onyango’s mother – I was stunned and very confused at the arrest of my son.
- Margaret Opiata: Odindo Opiata’s mother – the government crackdown on Mwakenya led to the arrest of my son – eventually we discovered that Odindo was being held at the Nyayo House torture chambers – to this day, I get shock shivers every time I imagine my son in the dreaded undergound of Nyayo House.
- Joyce Wafula: Wafula Buke mother – When my son was at the University, it was some unhappy season for me. We were surprised to learn he had been arrested – we learnt his arrest was connected to his involvement of student leadership – I asked myself “What was wrong in being a leader”?
- Beldina Ojwang Adhiambo: Apiny Adhiambo’s mother – Apiny had escaped to Tanzania following the 1982 attempted coup, but the government of Tanzania deported him. Apiny was the last of the 52 political prisoners to be released.
- Octavia Muthoni Mutahi: Mother of the late Wahome and Njuguna Mutahi – A relative from Marsabit telephoned and informed me that my younger son Njuguna had been arrested and that they suspected Wahome too had been arrested. After their sentencing, we were informed they had been taken to Industrial Area police station – we went to the prison and for the first time I was able to see my sons after one month! They told me the Industrial Area was much better than the place they had been (Nyayo Torture Chambers).
- Ricarda Wahome: Wife to the late Wahome Mutahi – A month after Wahome ha disappeared, he was tried at the High Court. I did not know about his court appearance, so I was not present at his trial. He and his brother Njuguna Mutahi appeared in court only once and were sentenced to 18months in prison. Upon release my husband who was held in Kodiaga prison told me upon his release that for the one month before he had disappeared, he was undergoing torture at the Nyayo torture chambers.
- Rael Kitur: Mother to Tirop Kitur. When the University was closed and Tirop did not come home, I went to look for him in Sotik, Kitale and Nandi where some of our relatives live. After a visit to Sotik to collect money owed to me without success – “The next morning before I left to collect the debt again, the police came in and arrested Tirops wife (Anne Chekoech Kitur), Tirop’s father, Karimi’s parents and were now coming for me. One of the officers antagonized me and hit me on my forehead with a baton – the scar is still visible up to today”.
- Rose Barasa: Mother to Lumumba Odenda “After my son’s arrest, his father sent people to look for him and find out in which prison he was being held. After a lot of searching, we finally heard that he was held at Kamiti Maximum prison – this made my life very hard, I went through mental anguish wondering what would become of him and when he would be released”.
- Phoebe Ong’wen: Mother to Oduor Ong’wen “Oduor was picked up from home, the first time (1982). Several police officers went to the family boma and went straight to Ong’wen house and arrested him “Before, he left, he told me [Mother, stay in peace, I am now going – these people have arrested me] – The operation had been fast, I could not believe what was going on, until I saw him under tight police security. I asked the police to allow Oduor to eat before he left, but he hesitated, telling me that he was going eat [the plentiful government food]!!