Beatings and abuse made Barack Obama’s grandfather loathe the British
The President-elect’s relatives have told how the family was a victim of the Mau Mau revolt
By Ben Macintyre and Paul Orengoh
Barack Obama’s grandfather was imprisoned and brutally tortured by the British during the violent struggle for Kenyan independence, according to the Kenyan family of the US President-elect.
Hussein Onyango Obama, Mr Obama’s paternal grandfather, became involved in the Kenyan independence movement while working as a cook for a British army officer after the war. He was arrested in 1949 and jailed for two years in a high-security prison where, according to his family, he was subjected to horrific violence to extract information about the growing insurgency.
“The African warders were instructed by the white soldiers to whip him every morning and evening till he confessed,” said Sarah Onyango, Hussein Onyango’s third wife, the woman Mr Obama refers to as “Granny Sarah”.
Mrs Onyango, 87, described how “white soldiers” visited the prison every two or three days to carry out “disciplinary action” on the inmates suspected of subversive activities.
“He said they would sometimes squeeze his testicles with parallel metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down,” she said The alleged torture was said to have left Mr Onyango permanently scarred, and bitterly antiBritish. “That was the time we realised that the British were actually not friends but, instead, enemies,” Mrs Onyango said. “My husband had worked so diligently for them, only to be arrested and detained.”
Mr Obama refers briefly to his grandfather’s imprisonment in his best-selling memoir, Dreams from My Father, but states that his grandfather was “found innocent” and held only for “more than six months”.
Mr Onyango served with the British Army in Burma during the Second World War and, like many army veterans, he returned to Africa hoping to win greater freedoms from colonial rule. Although a member of the Luo tribe from western Kenya, he sympathised with the Kikuyu Central Association, the organisation leading an independence movement that would evolve into the bloody uprising known as the Mau Mau rebellion.
“He did not like the way British soldiers and colonialists were treating Africans, especially members of the Kikuyu Central Association, who at the time were believed to be secretly taking oaths which included promises to kill the white settlers and colonialists,” Mrs Onyango said.
In his book, Mr Obama implies that his grandfather was not directly involved in the anticolonial agitation, but his grandmother said that her husband had supplied information to the insurgents. “His job as cook to a British army officer made him a useful informer for the secret oathing movement which would later form the Mau Mau rebellion,” she said. The Mau Mau used oaths as part of their initiation ceremony.
Mr Onyango was probably tried in a magistrates’ court on charges of political sedition or membership of a banned organisation, but the records do not survive because all such documentation was routinely destroyed in British colonies after six years.
“To arrest a Luo ex-soldier, who must have been a senior figure in the community, is pretty serious. They must have had some damn good evidence,” said Professor David Anderson, director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford and an authority on the Mau Mau rebellion.
The British responded to the Mau Mau uprising with draconian violence: at least 12,000 rebels were killed, most of them Kikuyu, but some historians believe that the overall death toll may have been more than 50,000. In total, just 32 European settlers were killed.
According to his widow, Mr Onyango was denounced to the authorities by his white employer, who sacked him on suspicion of consorting with “troublemakers”. He may also have been the victim of a feud with an African neighbour who worked in the district commissioner’s office. Mr Onyango, notoriously outspoken, appears to have accused this official of corruption.
According to Mrs Onyango, her husband was arrested by two soldiers, and taken to Kamiti prison, the national maximum-security prison outside Nairobi.
“This was like a death camp because some detainees died while being tortured,” Mrs Onyango said. “We were not allowed to see him, not even taking him food.” She said her husband was told that he would be killed or maimed if he refused to reveal what he knew of the insurgency, and was beaten repeatedly until he promised “never to rejoin any groupings opposed to the white man’s rule”. Even after he had confessed, and renounced the insurgency, the physical abuse allegedly continued.
Some of Mr Onyango’s fellow inmates were beaten to death with clubs, according to Mrs Onyango. “In fact, my late husband was lucky to have left the prison alive without any serious bodily harm, save for the permanent scars from beatings and torture, which remained on his body till he died.”
Like all family histories, retold many years after the events, some elements of Mrs Onyango’s account are hazy. For example, the white men she described as “soldiers” are far more likely to have been Special Branch officers, who wore a uniform that was indistinguishable from military uniform to most Africans.
Mrs Onyango also described an incident of her husband’s “torture”, which was nothing of the sort. “The white soldiers would spray his body with an itching chemical. This, he said, could make him scratch his body till it bled.” Almost certainly, Mr Onyango was being treated for body lice but apparently he was so used to brutality that he assumed the routine chemical delousing treatment was another form of abuse.
During Mr Obama’s first visit to Kenya in 1988, his grandmother recalled the growing resentment against white colonial rule in Kenya, with rallies and mounting violence that would explode into full-scale rebellion in 1952. “Most of this activity centred on Kikuyuland,” she told him. “But the Luo, too, were oppressed, a main source of forced labour. Men in our area began to join the Kikuyu in demonstrations . . . many men were detained, some never to be seen again.”
The British colonial authorities began a sustained campaign to quell the Mau Mau uprising, establishing numerous detention camps that some historians describe as “Kenya’s Gulag”, where inmates were frequently abused. “There was torture in Kenya during the Mau Mau emergency, institutional and systematic, and also casual and haphazard,” Professor Anderson writes in Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (2005). “Violence . . . was intrinsic to the system, and the use of force to compel obedience was sanctioned at the highest level.”
At the height of the rebellion, an estimated 71,000 Kenyans were held in prison camps. The vast majority were never convicted. Letters smuggled out of the camps complained of systematic brutality by warders and guards. According to the Harvard historian Caroline Elkins, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her exposé of British atrocities during the Mau Mau uprising, there were reports of sexual violence and mutilation using “castration pliers”. “This was an instrument devised to crush the men’s testicles,” she writes in Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya (2005). “Other detainees also described castration pliers, along with other methods of beating and mutilating men’s testicles.”
Several hundred letters from camp inmates survive in the Kenyan National Archives, “chronicling camp conditions, forced labour, torture, starvation and murder”, according to Ms Elkins. One white policeman, Duncan McPherson, told Barbara Castle, the former MP, that conditions in some detention camps were “worse, far worse, than anything I experienced in my 4½ years as a prisoner of the Japanese”.
Mr Onyango was 56 when he was arrested, and he emerged from imprisonment prematurely aged and deeply embittered. In his memoir, Mr Obama described his grandfather’s shocking physical state: “When he returned to Alego he was very thin and dirty. He had difficulty walking, and his head was full of lice.” For some time, he was too traumatised to speak about his experiences. Mrs Onyango told her grandson: “From that day on, I saw that he was now an old man.”
Understandably, Mr Onyango held a lifelong grudge against the British for the way he had been treated, yet he was doubtful that the independence movement would succeed. “How can the African defeat the white man,” he told his son, “when he cannot even make his own bicycle?”
Barack Obama Sr, Mr Onyango’s son and the President-elect’s father, seems to have inherited his father’s attitudes towards the colonial power. He was also arrested, for attending a meeting in Nairobi of the Kenya African National Union (Kanu), the organisation spearheading the independence movement. Mrs Onyango told Mr Obama that his father, unlike her husband, had been held only for a short time in the white man’s prison: “Because he was not a leader in Kanu, Barack was released after a few days.”
Mr Onyango was a victim of the fight for Kenyan independence, but his son became a direct beneficiary of that movement. In 1960, Barack Obama Sr travelled on a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, as part of a programme (sponsored by John F. Kennedy) to train young Kenyans to rule their own country.
Mrs Onyango said that the combative spirit shown by her husband during Kenya’s bloody independence struggle has passed down through the generations to the future president. “This family lineage has all along been made up of fighters,” she said. “Senator Barack Obama is fighting using his brain, like his father, while his grandfather fought physically with the white man.”
Bloody birth of a nation
— In 1895, the British Government establishes the East Africa Protectorate and opens up the fertile highlands of Kenya to whites
— Kenya becomes a British colony in 1920. A year later, members of the Kikuyu tribe, angered by exclusion from political representation, form Kenya’s first African political protest movement
— In 1952, the Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule erupts and for the next seven years Kenya is under a state of emergency
— Uprising is put down by military action and the detention of thousands of Mau Mau suspects in prison camps. Only 32 European civilians are killed in the violence, but more than 50,000 Africans are believed to have died
— Kenya becomes independent on December 12, 1963, with Jomo Kenyatta elected its first President