What interactive maps and 3D digital models reveal about Mau Mau detention camps in Kenya

Until now, remarkably little has been known about the estimated 100 detention camps that were set up by the British in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion.
Awakening Britain's colonial ghosts
Awakening Britain's colonial ghosts
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In a new documentary released last month in the UK, Kenyan and British historians describe how Britain secretly used torture against prisoners in Mau Mau detention camps during the anti-colonial uprising movement in the 1950s. One of the Kenyans featured is historian and digital heritage scholar Chao Tayiana, the founder of the African Digital Heritage Project (ADHP), an organization focusing on the use of technology in preserving and sharing African heritage.

“It really flipped the script as to who is uncivilized,” Tayiana says in the film, which reveals details from a secret archive known as the “Hanslope Disclosure” that remained hidden from public view for over 50 years. The archive contained damning evidence on Britain’s use of torture including murder, rape, and forced castrations against Mau Mau prisoners. Surviving veterans of this period are also featured in the film, and describe the appalling conditions they endured in detention.

“Oral history is treated as second rate compared to written knowledge, and so it hasn’t mattered in many years that veterans and people who lived through this period have been saying that this happened,” Tayiana tells Quartz. “It was only until the disclosure of the archives proving that there was torture that people really started listening.”

History of the Mau Mau uprising

The Mau Mau was an armed rebellion launched by the Kikuyu people demanding the return of stolen land from white British settlers as well as money for independence. The British declared a State of Emergency in 1952 to counter the uprising, with the executive order to put in detention camps anyone who opposed colonial rule. Unofficial figures estimate that tens of thousands of Kenyans were executed, tortured, or maimed during the crackdown, which lasted until 1960.

Historians estimate that more than 100 camps were set up during this period, yet remarkably little is known about their history in both Kenyan and British public spaces today.

The Mau Mau were eventually defeated, but the uprising is regarded as one of the most significant steps towards Kenyan independence in 1963.

Digitizing Britain’s detention camps

Since 2019, Tayiana has been working in collaboration with volunteers and colleagues in Kenya and the UK to document, digitally reconstruct, and curate an exhibition that sheds light on the Mau Mau detention camps that were built by the British in the early 1950s.

“Visual language and imagery is very powerful in informing our understanding of the past but also helping us get a sense of where things are located in time and physically,” says Tayiana. “So [the ADHP] asks how this data can be communicated in multiple ways, through multiple mediums to audiences across the board.”

The ADHP works with museums, archives, and communities to document African histories through innovative technology that centers human experiences and oral histories. The project has so far created a number of open source digital assets including 3D digital models and interactive maps that show the detention camps were spread out all over the country, and included exile camps, detention camps, work camps and women and juvenile camps.

These digital reconstructions rely on extensive research and sources including oral and written testimonials, existing plans and 3D scans, as well as some physical remains from the campsites. The goal is to create a better representation of shared history and to make these assets more accessible to more people, regardless of their literacy levels or knowledge of English.

“The biggest knowledge gap regarding that period is really around the human experience,” says Tayiana. “We are aware of the camps, we’re aware they existed, but we don’t really know much about what took place. The human experience is very abstracted from the nationalist story of how the Mau Mau fought and they got independence.”

A ‘lifecycle’ between digital and physical work

Despite the opportunities in using technology to reproduce cultural value and meaning, Tayiana says the ADHP faces limitations with resources and infrastructure to carry out its digitization efforts. Digital reach is also a factor, she says, as many target audiences in Kenya still do not have easy access to digital technologies.

“We ended up reaching a very specific demographic, which is 18 to 34 year olds who are on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook,” she said. “One of the things we think of is how can this primary audience then reach another secondary audience, so maybe their grandparents or their parents. We try to create a lifecycle between digital work and physical work, because I don’t believe they should be separate.”

Tayiana acknowledges that digital reconstructions will never be completely accurate, and she says remaining open to feedback and input is crucial. Next year, the team will begin incorporating more assets and cultural context to the map, beyond the epicenter of the violence in central Kenya. They are also currently working on a physical exhibition in Kenya about the approximately 800 concentrated villages that were set aside for around 1 million women and children during the Mau Mau uprising.

These villages were managed by British officials and ‘home guards’—armed non-Mau Mau Africans that were falsely branded ‘loyalists’ by colonial rulers. Tayiana says women and children were subject to cruel treatment including forced curfews, and they were not allowed to grow their own food or manage their own land resources.

“The exhibition really centers on what that did to the societal fabric of these villages … and how the officials treated women.”

Tayiana says the exhibition will include the physical remains of a trench that was dug around the village, as well as the archives and oral histories collected from survivors.

Documenting history before it’s too late

Tayiana’s work with the ADHP is mirrored by her other initiatives that center human experience and value oral histories. In 2018, she founded the Museum of British Colonialisma digital platform which facilitates global conversations on Britain’s colonial legacies. She is also the founder of the Open Restitution Africa project which gathers data on current restitution processes across the African continent.

There is a sense of urgency in much of her work to document these histories before it is too late. This is particularly true for the Mau Mau detention camps, as there are fewer veterans alive today to tell their stories.

“This history is not being taught to the extent to which it should be taught in Kenya,” she said. “There are still a lot of wounds and silences here in the country regarding this period. But what’s interesting about this history, I think, is that there are so many factors that are working against it. And so the very fact that it did make its way to light…is something we really need to pay attention to.”