The 1950’s Mau Mau revolt and subsequent State of emergency is one of the bloodiest periods in Kenyan history. Declared in October 1952, the emergency was instated to quell the Mau Mau uprising which grew in response to oppressive colonial rule and practices. One of the main tactics used by the British colonial government to ‘stop’ the movement was to setup detention camps and several forced villages where many were held, tortured and abused.
Detention camps were sub-divided into work camps, exile camps, holding camps, women and juvenile camps among others. Historians estimate that more than 100 such centres were setup during this period. What is surprising however, is that despite their prevalence, there is very little known about these camps within the public sphere in both Kenya and in the UK.
In our latest project – Museum of British Colonialism we attempt to document and reconstruct these centers and curate material around their tangible and intangible history. We believe that these camps played a central role in the struggle for independence and through our research we hope to shed some light on their location (Where they were), their physicality (How they looked), their composition (Who they held and where they came from) and their intentions (Why were they created).
Mapping, documenting and visualizing centers of detention
We started off by building an interactive map to position the camps in their respective locations to get a sense of where they were. Our preliminary research was both revealing and astounding. Seeing the camps spread out all over the country just showed the scale of the detention centers and that no part of Kenya was unaffected by the emergency
Our next step is to take this map to a level higher and incorporate more assets and cultural context to it We do this by using a combination of research sources.
Oral testimony from veterans and history passed down generations is crucial in providing personal testimonies, memories and experiences that are uncaptured in archival sources.
Archival sources which include newspapers, video, audio, letters and photographs have provided a key insight into the nature of the camps, their locations and the policies instituted during detention.
Evidence found in the physical camp sites. This include remains of buildings and materials used to construct the former camps
Field work diaries – What evidence of the camps exists today?
We intend to use archival footage in the form of photographs and videos, to piece together how different camps might have looked and create interactive visualizations of them. To start with, we picked individual structures from two different camps in Nyeri county, Mweru Works Camp and Aguthi Works Camp. We created digital models of each site based on remnants of the camp structures today, visual archival sources and oral history testimonies from Mau Mau veterans and local community.
Creating visual reconstructions
- Reconstruction by Testimony- Evidence based on oral histories, books, interviews, illustrations and other literary sources.
- Reconstruction by Objectivity – Sources based on existing plans, 3D scans, photogrammetry reconstructions
- Reconstruction by Deduction – Elements that can be deduced from in situ remains
- Reconstruction by Comparison – Evidence that can be found in one site but not found in another can help make deductions on missing information
Why digital reconstructions
We present these digital reconstructions not as final outputs but as initial visuals that can help us generate and continue conversations on the presence of detention camps in Kenya during the colonial period. Our initial aim was to create reconstructions of how entire camps would have looked and present a complete visualisation of a camp site. We soon realised that this would be an uphill task given that we are dealing with multiple historical sources and attempting to reconstruct multiple structures in multiple locations.