Mothers petition, pray and fast; and the birthing, naming and living spirit of Freedom Corner
The adapted excerpt below from Wangari Maathai’s autobiography, Unbowed: One woman’s story (buy the book), tells of how a slice of Uhuru Park – Freedom Corner – came to carve itself out, taking for its first name the English translation of the park’s name, and of how elderly mothers decamped their upcountry homes and came to camp in Nairobi, finding themselves unwittingly sucked into the vortex of the struggle and taking the danger-fraught frontline in the fight for political freedom that characterised the early 1990s.
In Kenya in the early 1990s, outrages and abuses happened wherever you looked, and often simultaneously. Many young men landed in prison for [so-called] political agitation. In January 1992, as I was still in the hospital recovering from my time in a police cell, Terry Kariuki, widow of murdered politician JM Kariuki, acting as a firend of the mothers of these political prisoners brought the mother of one of the several dozen political prisoners then held by the regime to the hospital to visit me. The mother, Monica Wamwere, told me that she and a few relatives and friends had formed a group called Release Political Prisoners to appeal to the government to release their sons from detention, all detained for advocating for greater democratic space.
The mothers hoped, they said, that I would join them and put pressure on the government to have these men released now that it was no longer a crime to advocate for multipartism. Some of the women were members of the Green Belt Movement, and I knew that the Release Political Prisoners campaign was an issue Green Belt was concerned about and was part of the movement’s mandate to promote democracy and respect for human rights. As I listened to these women, I felt compassion for them. As a mother myself, I wondered what it would be like to have your child thrown into a cell with no sense of when he might be tried or released. I thought of my own sons and brothers: what wouldn’t I do for them?
We met at Uhuru Park and walked together to the office of the Attorney General (AG) on Friday, February 28, with our beddings. “When we see him, we’ll tell him, ‘We will wait in Uhuru Park for three days for all the sons to be released. During that time we’ll go on a hunger strike and pray.'” We were prepared to sleep in Uhuru Park while they [the mothers] waited. The AG was taken aback. “Don’t go to the park,” he said. “Go home. We’ve received your petition and we’ll review the cases and we will take action.” But we knew all about the government, how it never really listened or did what it promised.
We returned to the park and lit 52 candles, one for each mean we knew was in prison. We almost caused a traffic jam as people slowed down to look at the flickering lights in the park.
The mothers had many supporters in ordinary people. An Indian man gave us a huge tent because he was worried it might rain and several of the mothers, who were between 60 and 80 were frail. Some donated money, while others brought water, juice or glucose to keep the mothers healthy since they were not eating. Still others joined us as we sang freedom songs and hymns to keep our spirits up.
On Sunday, we decided to hold a church service which Rev Njoya and other clergy conducted for us in the park. As people left their own churches after Sunday services, many joined us and the gathering swelled. We decided to erect a sign, so I asked my friends to prepare a large board and write FREEDOM CORNER on it and bring it to us. We planted it where our encampment was, so the spirit of the corner matched the spirit in which the park had been named. That section of Uhuru Park has been called Freedom Corner ever since.
Many people who had been victims of torture came to Freedom Corner and began to tell their stories. “What you do not know,” they said, pointing to to Nyayo House, a government building opposite the Nyayo Monument in Uhuru Park and immediately across the road from Freedom Corner, “is that underneath that house are torture chambers. Men have been maimed. Some of them have died after what they have gone through.”
As the victims related their horrific experiences, others, including grown men in their forties, embraced the freedom of that corner and found the courage to speak up. “Let me tell you my story,” “I have never spoken of this before. I’ve been out of prison now for 10 years, and this is the first time I have told anyone that I was tortued.” Some related that they had been abused and beaten to the point where they would never be able to father children. While we listened to the men, we prayed and sang for comfort and courage.
Lay people and the clergy bore living witness to what the government had been doing to its citizens behind closed doors. While some of us knew, or at least suspected, that such things were happening, it was nevertheless shocking to hear the details. However, some were hearing this information for the first time, and people could hardly believe the horrific sotires that were being told by fellow citizens.
END OF EXCERPT
Twenty-one years and two presidents later, Uhuru Park and Freedom Corner are both back in the news this month, for the same wrong reasons revolving around free speech and good governance.
- It is at Uhuru Park that Boniface Mwangi was recently roughly manhandled, beaten and arrested in front of the President (Uhuru Kenyatta), while exercising his freedom of speech on Labour Day, May 1 (see story and video here; another story here; and photos here). EXCERPT: “There is fire in my belly, but my feet are trembling….My feet can shake all they want, but all I need is my voice.”
- And it is at Freedom Corner that patriots will be gathering in two days’ time (May 14) to protest the runaway greed of overpaid elected public servants pushing for ever higher pay (see tweet below).
Meantime, the unbelievably steadfast and courageous Boniface Mwangi is continues his one-man-army constant crusade against corruption, even if he’ll be the last one standing. See video below related to this outrage.