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
"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
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
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