The Roots of the Fig Tree

The eyes of all Africa were on Nyasaland last week, but Kenya had its own special reason for feeling the tension. Back in the news was the dreaded name of Jomo Kenyatta, “Burning Spear,” the idol of the Mau Mau—and the man who put him there was the very same witness who helped put him in prison back in 1953.

Star Witness Rawson Mbogwa Macharia, a frail little Kikuyu shopkeeper, testified six years ago that Kenyatta himself had given him the Mau Mau oath, that he had been stripped naked and made to walk seven times through an arch of banana leaves and to drink human blood. Last spring, hoping for money, Macharia made the rounds of Nairobi newspapers showing a letter to him from Kenya’s attorney general written before the trial. In return for his testimony, the letter said, the government would reward Macharia with a round-trip air ride to England, a two-year college course in public administration, protection for his family when he was away, and a government job when he got home.

The Kenya government did indeed keep its promise, at a total cost of £1,500, but nothing seemed to satisfy Macharia. Found unfit for one job, he huffily turned down another. A beer shop the government helped him to open flopped. Blaming all his troubles on the government, Macharia decided on revenge. In November he signed an affidavit for People’s Convention Party Leader Tom Mboya charging that the Kenya government had paid him to lie.

£29 a Month. The government, insisting that it had paid him only to testify, not to lie, promptly put Macharia on trial for signing a false affidavit. In its own defense it argued that some sort of inducement was necessary to get testimony, since 36 potential witnesses against Kenyatta had been murdered.*

Once again the prosecution was up against Kenyatta’s flamboyant old defense counsel, Denis Nowell Pritt, Q.C., this time representing Macharia. He would bring forth evidence, said Pritt, that would make him ashamed of being English. At one point he melodramatically exclaimed; “I think I may be physically ill.”

When the prosecutor produced an unpublished manuscript in which Macharia accused Kenyatta of being “the 100% leader of the Communist Party in Africa” and a man who had his own private Gestapo to kill enemies, Macharia insisted that the government had paid him £29 a month to write such lies. Finally Pritt called Kenyatta himself.

“I Told My People . . .” As a precaution against a Nairobi mob demonstrating in Kenyatta’s favor, the court was moved to Kitale, 200 miles to the north. Kenyatta’s seven-year sentence to “hard labor” is being spent as cook to six other Mau Mau leaders, and with a year off for good behavior, he is scheduled to be freed next month. Last week Kenyatta appeared in court in dapper leather jacket and carrying a silver-embossed ebony cane that was a gift of his followers. Whistling through a hole in his front teeth, he testified that he had never given anyone the Mau Mau oath. On the contrary, he had tried to stop the Mau Mau, but his own arrest had unleashed the bloody uprisings. Like Archbishop Makarios on Cyprus, he disowned but failed to condemn terror. “I did as much as I could,” said he. “I told my people to let the Mau Mau disappear like the roots of the fig tree.”

In the streets of Kitale, crowds cheered his every appearance, and Kenya’s nationalist leaders, led by Tom Mboya, came to pay him homage. In Nairobi a nervous government seized 34 nationalists, banned an extremist white-settler newspaper as well as Tom Mboya’s Uhuru (Freedom), which has been playing up Kenyatta as a national hero. The government insists that Kenyatta’s simile was not meant to be innocent: the roots of the fig tree seem to disappear only because they go so deep.

* A captured Mau Mau document vowed that those who tried “our leader” should be tied with sinews taken from their own ribs, and that “who assists the whites he must be castrated. We must take out his eyes and then hold him for seven days and then we will cut his head off and see if the whites can bring him back to life.”

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