Above: Kapenguria Museum – The Heroes Cells of the Kapenguria Six on trial. Copyright Maya Mangat 

Published: 19 January 2019

We’re at Barnley’s farm near Saiwa Swamp famous for its rare herd of sitatunga, the marsh-loving antelope with its water-repellent coat and splayed hooves when we learn that the road from Kitale to Kapenguria and beyond is now smooth as silk. It has the mind wandering to a destination that we hadn’t planned on doing because until recently the un-tarmacked road was treacherous despite the short distance.

Kapenguria Museum - the Heroes Cell of the Kapenguria Six. Copyright Maya Mangat
Kapenguria Museum – the Heroes Cell of the Kapenguria Six. Copyright Maya Mangat

Kapenguria was the place in the 1950s that the colonial government saw fit to have the famous freedom fighters arrested and tried in a place that boasted a path for a road minus any modern amenity like electricity and running water.

Kapenguria became the scene of the infamously famous trial of the Kapenguria Six –  Bildad KaggiaKung’u KarumbaJomo KenyattaFred KubaiPaul Ngei, and Achieng’ Oneko –who were arrested in 1952. The six-month trial took place between December 1952 and April 1953. The charge against the men was that they were members of Mau Mau which conspired to get rid of the white residents in Kenya.

The defendants were convicted, and sentenced to seven years imprisonment in an area even more remote than Kapenguria. It was Lokitaung near the desert shores of Lake Turkana where no one could reach them and where the convicts had no place to escape to.

sitatunga 1 in saiwa swamp copyright maya mangat (800x450)
Sitatunga peering through Saiwa Swamp. Copyright Maya Mangat

On the smooth-as-silk tarmac road it takes us 30 minutes from Saiwa Swamp to the prison-turned-museum at Kapenguria. My last visit to Kapenguria some two decades ago had a town that looked more like a village. It now boasts modern hotels and tarmac roads that are more in sync with contemporary times. Kapenguria is also the capital of West Pokot County.

Shujaa Cells

I can only imagine the horror of the six men when they were escorted into the cells that we enter. Measuring some five feet by 10 feet, each cell in the row has a tiny barred window so high up that it is unreachable and too small to allow an adult through. And in these tiny, dark cells on moonless nights the men must have wandered about their fate.

Kapenguria Museum - the Heroes Cell of one of the Kapenguria Six. Copyright Maya Mangat
Kapenguria Museum – the Heroes Cell of one of the Kapenguria Six. Copyright Maya Mangat

The tiny cells now cleaned up had simply nothing in them – no wash basin or toilet but only a corner to lie in. Each cell marks the occupant – a Shujaa (hero) – with their stories posted on the wall.

Outside the cells, it’s a bright afternoon and we walk through the exhibits of the local people – the Pokot and the Sengwer – with a peep at the snakes in the cages – the leaf-patterned Gaboon viper and the rare Rhinocerous viper supporting horns. Both are snakes of the area and Kakamega forest that’s 110 kilometers south of it.

the shujaa cell at kapenguria museum copyright mayai mangat (800x450)
Cell of the foundating father – President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta at Kapenguria Museum. Copyright Maya Mangat

Back to the infamous trial. The courtroom was too small and so a local school was used for the trial. The proceedings of the trial are at the museum including the faded black and white pictures of two other nationalists – Pio Gama Pinto the Kenyan journalist, politician and freedom fighter who became independent Kenya’s first martyr in 1965 and Makhan Singh. The fiery Sikh is credited for coining the term ‘Uhuru Sasa’, forming the first labour union in Kenya in 1935 and becoming Kenya’s longest serving political prisoner in Kenya where he spent eleven years in detention in the late 1950s in Lokitaung near Lake Turkana. There’s nothing to tell the visitor anything about these two men in the museum.

On Cherangany hills road looking at Turkwel Dam in the distance. Copyright Mayai Mangat
On Cherangany hills road looking at Turkwel Dam in the distance. Copyright Maya Mangat

With time on our hands, we take a scenic drive along the ridge of the Cherangany Hills, one of Kenya’s most important water towers. The new tarmac road winds its way higher along forest cleared for the construction. It’s a scenic drive with soil so pink that it’s looks unreal. The homesteads of the local people – the highland Pokot and the smaller Sengwer people dot the heights. Under clear sunny skies the horizons touch the watery surface of the Turkwel Dam near Nasalot National Reserve. The dam on Turkwel River is fed by the waters of River Nzoia that originates from the Cherangany Hills and Mount Elgon faintly visible in the west. The Turkwel River then flows into the world’s largest permanent lake in a desert – Turkana.

Fact File

Nairobi to Kitale is 400 kms and Kitale to Kapenguria is 27 kms. Kenya Wildlife Service has a beautiful campsite at Saiwa Swamp National Park including a tree house above the swamp. Or you can camp at Barnley’s Farm between Saiwa and Kapenguria. The campsites are inexpensive and great value for money – so make 2019 the year of great explorations.