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"THE ATROCITIES WERE REALLY SHOCKING TO HEAR": MEENA NANJI & ZIPPY KIMUNDU ON 'OUR LAND OUR FREEDOM'

In their documentary Our Land Our Freedom (2023), filmmakers Meena Nanji and Zippy Kimundu document Wanjugu Kimathi's work between 2016 and 2023 as she carries on her mother’s legacy to locate the remains of her husband, Dedan Kimathi, the leader of Kenya’s independence struggle against British colonial rule. Following his capture and execution in 1957, Mukami Kimathi, herself a pivotal figure in the fight for liberation, tirelessly searched for his remains, which were never returned to her. The film chronicles Wanjugu's unwavering determination to unearth her father's remains and to advocate for justice and recognition for former Mau Mau fighters. 


Meena Nanji is a Kenyan-born director of Indian heritage, renowned for her award-winning feature documentaries and shorts focusing on women’s issues and social justice. She is the co-founder of GlobalGirl Media, training girls in citizen journalism globally. Nanji’s work has been supported by Sundance, IDA, and screened at major festivals worldwide. Zippy Kimundu is an acclaimed filmmaker from Kenya. She is the founder of AfroFilms International, a women-led film and TV production company and creative collective based in Nairobi and Kilifi and is a film educator for under-represented communities at I’ll Tell You My Story, who give storytelling workshops in Africa for teenage refugee girls. Her work is focused on igniting political consciousness, and action, across continents. Following their UK premiere at the Sheffield Documentary Festival, I had the opportunity to sit down with Nanji and Kimundu and discuss their project in depth.



Agnès: It’s remarkable that so much of the violence and oppression during the Mau Mau Rebellion, including concentration camps and raids, was documented. Can you discuss the process of gathering this archival material for the film? What challenges did you face, and what was it like working with such intense and historically significant footage?


Meena: First of all, we are really trying to shift the narrative around how the Mau Mau is described. In England and the States, it's often referred to as the Mau Mau Rebellion, but it wasn't just a rebellion. We want to emphasize that it was a national independence movement. The term rebellion diminishes its significance, reducing it to a local uprising, which is how the British propaganda at the time framed it.


In researching the visual archives, most of it was newsreel footage, accompanied by BBC voiceovers that described the members of the freedom movement as a bunch of thugs terrorists, or irrational, insane individuals—much like how al Qaeda is described now. This negative stereotyping, combined with the practice of collective punishment, contributed to the false perception that the entire Kenyan population were terrorists, which is what we see happening in Gaza today.


Our research also involved text archives, particularly drawing from Caroline Elkins' book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. Elkin, was actually the first to discover colonial-era documents that people believed had been destroyed or lost. She interviewed many elders in Kenya and scoured the archives for policy documents, uncovering a hidden trove of thousands of detailed documents outlining the systemic repression of Africans. What we show only scratches the surface. 


Unlike the Nazis, who documented their actions visually, the British either did not do so or those records have not surfaced yet. Early in our research, it was shocking to see the detailed architecture of how an entire culture was repressed, laid out in black and white.


Zippy: The Mau Mau were banned. They were not allowed to speak. As Meena said, they were considered to be a terrorist organisation, and so the people themselves had never really spoken because there was no evidence of what they were saying. When these documents emerged, it was the first time many felt they could share their experiences. For example, if someone said they were castrated, there was now evidence to back it up.


It was crucial to document this for the first time because there has been a culture of silence. Many were ashamed to have fought for the country and felt they needed to apologise for their actions. The emergence of these archival documents, which we thought had been destroyed after independence, was vital. The British had kept duplicates of records, which now provide the evidence needed to tell these stories.


Agnès: The BBC and British media have always been careful to marginalise dissenting voices from colonial territories and independence struggles in order to be able to shape public perceptions of these events. If we think of the BBC broadcasting ban of 1988 to 1994 – the voices of Northern Irish politicians were banned from broadcasting on television and radio and audiences would hear an actors voice reading a transcript of their words.


Meena: We decided to use this footage and subvert it by presenting it from the Kenyan perspective. It becomes personal when you hear a mother recount her experiences, and then see it on screen—it gives you such a contrasting view.


Zippy: I'm also concerned about how our education system largely presents history from a British perspective, even today, with little room for other viewpoints. Many people are unaware of the independence struggles of former British colonies or the cultural, historical or political context. When we started developing our film, I struggled to find local perspectives or materials for a fiction project, which just shows you the ongoing influence of colonial narratives in shaping what is documented and taught. Despite gaining independence, these structures of colonialism persist, now transferred to the Kenyan elite. It's a stark reminder that even 60 years later, the impacts of colonialism continue to shape our society.


Agnès: Dedan Kimathi is a central figure in the Kenyan struggle for independence. You explore his legacy and the aftermath of his execution on his family, as well as their activism. How did you initially connect with Wanjugu and her family, and was this the storytelling approach you intended to use for depicting the Mau Mau narrative?


Meena: The evolution of the project began when I was reading Caroline Elkins' book while living in LA, decades after growing up in Kenya. Discovering this history for the first time was a revelation. Initially I hadn't planned to focus on the Kimathi family. However, a friend in Nairobi suggested I meet Wanjugu Kimathi when I expressed interest in exploring the independence and colonial periods. Meeting Wanjugu was pivotal; she had been wanting to get the stories of her mother out for some time. From our very first meeting, she welcomed me to interview her mother. Another friend introduced me to Zippy, the filmmaker I had wanted to collaborate with. I invited her to join me for the interview, and she enthusiastically agreed.


Zippy: The turning point for us was when we interviewed Dedan’s wife, Mukami. Hearing her story firsthand was incredibly moving and often the whole crew would be in tears, then she would need to take long rests before continuing. We knew we had to tell this story. When we first started, we had completely different ideas for the direction of the film, much more experimental ideas. But we decided to focus on just documenting the stories. People started asking about how we were going to be able to sustain a 90-minute film and at this point Wanjugu was just our translator, we had never put her in front of the camera.


Meena: She was just translating between her mother and us. We planned to interview as many elders as we could and create a hybrid film by intercutting scenes from a play about the Kimathi trial, written by one of our collaborators, with firsthand testimonies from those who experienced the events.


Zippy: As we were pitching the project, people suggested that our character might be Wanjugu, but we had never put her in front of the camera. We didn't know how she would come across. The first time we filmed her was in that opening scene where she's digging up bones. She was incredible, asking the right questions, and we knew she was the one to lead us. Initially, we focused on finding the remains. But as she continued, Wanjugu realized this was not just about her family; it was about thousands of other families who lost loved ones. She began to think, 'As I look for my father, what else can I do to help those still alive?'

The issue of land became central. Everyone kept saying they wanted their land back—land taken during colonialism. Land is everything. The Mau Mau was the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, so fighting for both land and freedom. People were fighting for economic freedom. Yet, even after independence, they never gained economic freedom or their land. This realisation turned Wanjugu into a champion for the rights of freedom fighters and their families.


Meena: At one point, it seemed like Dedan Kimathi could be the focus of the film. His story deserves to be told in a dramatic, perhaps even fictional or biographical, way. Kimathi was a fascinating figure—Africa's Che Guevara—who inspired Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers. He was charismatic and intelligent, and, despite being formally uneducated, he even taught school. His wife, Mukami, was also a tremendous figure. Hopefully, someone will tell that story—maybe you, Zippy. Mukami would tell these cheeky stories, like lifting up her skirt to a British soldier, waving her leg, and getting him to talk and share stories with her.



Agnès: The extent of women’s participation in the freedom struggle is astonishing, it’s something I hadn’t been aware of.


Meena: That could be another focus of a film because the women have been marginalised as well. They were crucial for intelligence gathering, as the British didn’t take them seriously. Women could eavesdrop on conversations and relay information in the forests, in addition to providing essential support such as food and care for the sick or wounded. Their contributions were pivotal to the success of the freedom fighters. We’re women filmmakers and that’s an interest of ours, but we didn’t seek out women’s stories. The project is women-centred and women-driven, but at the time we weren’t thinking about that. It’s just that they came forward and were just so compelling. 


Zippy: Mukami’s stories were just something else altogether. There was so much rich material and history that we had collected over the eight years. We even considered using animation to bring these narratives to life. Our dream is to make an open archive where people can access this information because a lot of people are not around anymore. It’s a huge responsibility then holding this information and we want to safeguard it and share it with the next generation. This film really should be part of the education system. Without exposure to these stories, people won’t inquire about them. The idea is to give space for conversations to start.


Agnès: Do you intend to show the film in schools?


Meena: We're at the beginning stages of our impact campaign, which focuses on two main objectives. Firstly, we aim to enhance education by promoting not just our film but also others that offer a Kenyan perspective rather than a British-centric view. This is essential for both young people in Kenya, who have had their history suppressed, and young people in the UK, where historical narratives have also been limited. I believe there's now a growing interest in understanding the true history of Empire and its impact. While there will always be competing narratives, it's important for people to understand the actions of previous governments, the legacy they left behind, and how that has shaped the world today – because so much is still alive.


Agnès: Could you discuss the challenges and significance surrounding the search for Dedan’s remains, considering the historical secrecy and political complexities surrounding his burial?


Meena: He was executed in 1957, and since then, Mukami has been searching for his remains. It was common practice to dispose of bodies secretly at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison. They were buried with stone markers bearing numbers that don't correspond to any records, leaving them nameless. There must have been a filing system, but nobody knows what the numbers mean. They didn't want Dedan’s gravesite to become a hero's resting place where people could pay respects. I think that’s something they still don’t want. Kimathi's name still holds significant power. The present and past governments publicly revere his name and pretend to be on the right side of everything, but in practice, little progress has been made since the 1960s.


Zippy: In the 1990s, the government erected a large monument of Dedan in Nairobi, which seemed like a gesture of support. But, it felt more like a message urging people to be satisfied with what was given and just please stop. For Dedan's wife, Mukami, it was about the rightful burial of a leader. She said clearly, ‘I just want to bury him like a king because he was.’ He was the leader. For everyone, closure through burial is crucial. Yet, there's a lingering fear of what might be revealed, especially if the burial were to happen and his body found. There were markers used, and someone knows where the bodies are buried. 


In the opening scene of our film, we show bones being dug up from one of the graves. One of the interviewees was involved in burying people there and mentioned that they’d used tags on their toes. There are records then. There are thousands of people buried in the single mass grave they excavated in that scene, and there are 24 such mass graves in total. However, the whereabouts of these records remain unknown.


Meena: Some of these records were written down in handwritten ledgers, including the execution documents shown in the film. These were crucial for the family because they had not been available until very recently. We had already started filming in 2016 when someone from a UK university uncovered them, accidently.


The entire trial transcript was there, and reading through it, it's clear it was a farce. It wasn't a real trial; he was already condemned. He was tried for possession of firearms in what was clearly a kangaroo court. This is very evident. But seeing the sentence – someone condemned to die by hanging – is striking. The nature of the act is so horrific. But the language to describe this state-sanctioned act is so bureaucratic and cold, so calculated. It’s chilling. 


Agnès: In the film, we see both support and resistance from the state. Mukami campaigned her entire life for her husband Dedan to be properly buried, yet it was she who received a state burial for her contributions and activism, which is amazing. However, we also see Wanjugu facing significant resistance, receiving threatening phone calls and even being arrested. Did you encounter any resistance while making the film?


Zippy: We started making a film about an unknown woman. Wanjugu kept saying that she was an unknown woman with a name, the Kimathi name, which is what drives her. We didn't anticipate any danger initially. She would just answer calls at the airport, and it wasn't until she started actively searching for the remains that we realised the risks involved. She received threats, and we were very worried. The idea of resettling people, which many regimes have avoided, seemed feasible given the availability of free government land. Yet, people are still living in colonial villages today. This reality was shocking to us, even though we had heard about it before. 


When Wanjugu began getting threats, we thought that stopping the filming would be the best thing for her safety. But she felt that continuing to film offered her protection, knowing that if anything happened to her, we would have evidence. It became more intense with her being followed and arrested under false pretences.


With the film's release, we don't know how it will be received. We're taking many precautions for our team and the film's characters. The government may see this as a threat because they don’t understand our intentions. Unlike other revolutions where the aim was to expel colonisers, Wanjugu’s goal is to seek justice for freedom fighters, ensuring they get their land and a proper burial. She's just one person, and she can't do it alone. We hope this film can show the world the importance of this issue and maybe inspire our government to help. It's a big dream, but we hope for change.


Meena: We kept a very low profile while making the film. We didn't have any social media presence or a website. We're building our website now, but we kept things very underground to avoid attention. We acted almost like students; we got permits and everything but kept it low-key. Wanjugu also suggested doing things from a very underground perspective, and we agreed that it was a good tactic.


Still via IMBD


Agnès: The film addresses the long-term consequences of land policies on contemporary Kenyan society and reveals previously hidden atrocities from the colonial era. What new historical insights did you discover during the making of this film?


Meena: I’m of Indian origin and was born in that generation. We have a very different relationship to Africans. We were brought in as a merchant class, positioned between the white landowners and the Africans who became leaders, and we weren't allowed to do certain things. I knew that growing up, but the depth of it really didn’t hit me until I started talking to the elders. When we started, they were maybe in their 80s. The astonishing thing about almost everyone we met was their intelligence and self-education. They were in their 20s or 30s during colonial times and were incredibly savvy about politics, both then and now. They could see exactly what has happened to Kenya since independence. Their worldview is so human; they aren't looking for punitive justice but restorative justice. They don't want to see the British imprisoned or punished, but they seek justice, equality of access, and what is rightfully theirs, or at least compensation.


The atrocities were really shocking to hear. One man described bottles being used to violate women and men being castrated. Even if not officially documented, it was a common practice. The physical abuse and the splitting up of families were devastating. This still happens today in Kenya, where the underclass works as domestic help, living away from their families. This separation destroys culture and has a long-lasting impact. Indigenous religions were nearly wiped out, replaced by Christianity and Islam. Despite this wholesale destruction of culture, there is an incredible resilience among the people, who hold onto what they know is theirs and what they want to keep.


Mau Mau suspects being led away by British Police, Naroibi, 1956. Image courtesy of Getty Images.


Zippy: We've been told that colonialists brought us English, education, and mechanisation and that we should be grateful. This narrative keeps us from thinking critically about the past and the present. If not for this project, I wouldn't have known these stories. We're kept in this comfortable bubble, believing we're happy with colonisation, and it prevents us from questioning what's really going on.


Even for us, making this film was eye-opening. You start to see things and realise how much was hidden. And it’s not just about the British leaving; their influence continues through multinationals. The impact is ongoing. People working under these multinationals say it's worse than colonial times. They still have to carry passes and show licenses, which is so restrictive. There are many human rights abuses, but the government sides with the multinationals. When people report issues to the police, they're told the authorities are there to protect the multinational interests, not the people.


This continuation of exploitation needs to be understood by everyone. If people see this clearly, they will start fighting for better lives for all Kenyans. As they keep saying, if you want to understand the Mau Mau, just look at the poor people—the landless—who are still fighting the same battles today.


Meena: People were displaced from their ancestral land to barren, rocky areas where nothing could grow. Kenya’s land is incredibly fertile, but those who were moved lost access to that. They were forced into wage labor, earning very little. They want to live through their own means and grow their own food. If you're pushed off your land, you can't grow your own food and have to make money to buy it. This is why land is so crucial. This struggle is universal; we see it happening around the world.


Zippy: We want to educate people to understand the true version of history. We want to be able to right the wrongs that were done, not in an accusatory way. We’re not here to point fingers; we’re here to say, this is the truth. Can we start a conversation? Can we make changes and bring justice to the people?


 

Agnès Houghton-Boyle is a critic and programmer based in London. Her writing features in Talking Shorts Magazine and Fetch London.

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