The history of Hola Irrigation Scheme started way back in the 1940s when a small portion of land on the River Tana banks at Hola was set aside for experimental purposes on crops by the colonial Government. There was a school of thought who argued that the district had never lacked land or water. There was no reason, as such, why the local population should not adequately engage themselves in agriculture. The experimental plots were to find out the most conducive crops that could finally be grown in this area on a large scale basis. The experiments were at first on a small scale basis.
After successfully carrying out experiments on a small scale basis for some time, the Government decided to expand the scope of the experiments. The local Pokomo were requested to offer more land to the Government in order to achieve this goal. In 1953, the Pokomo of Zubaki Location agreed to set aside 200 acres of land at Hola for the purpose of large scale experiments in the economics of rice growing using pump irrigation. The land was handed over to the Government initially for four years on the understanding that if within this period it was realised that irrigation using water pumps would not be economically viable to grow the rice, then the 200 acres would revert to their original owners.
The expansion of the experimental plots at Hola coincided with the insurgence of the Mau Mau activists and the declaration of emergency on 20th October, 1952. The Mau Mau activists were bundled into detention camps. The Government later took advantage of the emergency regulations to get free labour from the detainees. Under the Emergency (Detained Persons) Regulations of 1954, every person for the time being detained in a special detention camp could be usefully employed in work which the officer-in-charge of that camp was satisfied would assist in bringing the emergency to an end. The detainee was required by these regulations to do such work as was required to be done by the Officer-in-Charge.
Using the provisions of these regulations, some of the Mau Mau detainees were deported to Hola and Lango-la-Simba near Garsen. While the detainees at Lango-la-Simba were mainly used to construct the Malindi-Garsen-Lamu Road, the other detainees at the Hola Concentration Camp were used to offer free labour required in the expansion of the Irrigation Scheme. As days went by and with the increased acreage of the irrigation scheme, more and more detainees were taken to Hola. The increased number of mostly Kikuyu detainees in the district raised anxiety and fear among the local population. The Pokomo felt that their land would be alienated and given to these up-country people. This fear was genuine since by 1955, there were about 200 Mau Mau detainees at Hola alone.
Land consciousness grew among both the Pokomo and the Orma. When surveyors were deployed at Hola to survey the land in preparation for the issuance of plots at the irrigation scheme, the surveyors were treated with great suspicion. Nothing could convince the Pokomo that the surveyors were not carrying out survey work for the detriment of the local people. This fear was fuelled by the Pokomo elites who used every opportunity to warn their fellow Pokomo on the dangers of the intruders from up-country. On the other hand, the Orma feared that the scheme would deprive them of prime grazing land.
The Government, however, was determined to see that the scheme expanded and become operational for the benefit of the local people. By the end of 1955, the detainees at Hola had already cleared and completed the budding of a 16-acre trial plot of the Hola Irrigation Scheme. This was the initial step to be taken before the locals were allocated five-acre plots to develop on their own with the assistance of the Government along-side the 16-acre trial plot, which would also act as a demonstration area. The Government’s programme was to have at least 500 acres of land under irrigation by the end of the year.
Then something terrible that put Tana-River District in the limelight happened. On 3rd March, 1959, eleven Mau Mau detainees died at the Hola Detention Camp. This happened when a group of about 120 detainees were sent out to dig trenches at the Hola Irrigation Scheme. They were under the supervision of a European Officer, Assistant Superintendent Alexander Cran Coutts. Out of these, 34 of them were termed as “cooperative detainees”; hence, they were assigned lighter duties of digging trenches measuring about 70 yards. The rest were termed as “hard core detainees”, hence they were assigned heavier duties of digging trenches measuring about 130 yards. The hard core Mau Mau detainees apparently refused to work as instructed and instead, hurled abuses and insults at the prison warders.
In retaliation, the prison warders descended on the detainees with batons and gun-butts in the presence of Assistant Superintendent Alexander Coutts. The beatings resulted in the death of 10 detainees on 3rd March, 1959 while the eleventh one died on 6th March, 1959. Out of those who died, ten were Kikuyus. Their names are Kabui Kaman, Ndirangu Kibaki, Mwema Kinuthia, Kinyanjui Njoroge, Koroma Mburu, Karanja Munuthi, Migwi Ndegwa, Kaman Karanja, Mungai Githi andNgugi Karitie. The eleventh detainee who died was a Turkana by the name Ikeno Ikiro.
They were buried in a mass grave at Hola, next to where Mau Mau Girls Secondary was built.This incident took place at mid-day when the sweltering heat at Hola was about 48deg C. The Government denied any brutality and quickly issued a statement saying that the detainees died as a result of drinking contaminated water from a water cart at the work site which was aggravated by the heat exhaustion. However, the Government statement was withdrawn eight days later on 12th March after the autopsies indicated that there were several injuries on the bodies of the dead detainees which were most likely caused by violence. Moreover, according to the findings by the Police Pathologist, Dr. M.G. Rogoff, in each case, death was found to have been caused by shock and haemorrhage due to bruises caused by violence. Seven of the deceased persons, according to Dr. Rogoff, were found to have had either fractured jaws, fractured skull, and fractured knee-caps, laceration of the mid-brain or fractured arms.
The deaths of the eleven Mau Mau detainees raised a hue and cry from all over the world. The Kenyan press described Tana-River as “this teeming Tana Jungle”. For the first time, Hola received more V.I.P.s than ever before. Other officials from the Foreign Office in Britain came to Kenya specifically to tour the district and see for themselves the so-called jungle country. While the colonial Government was just about to forget the incident, two months later on 12th May, 1959, there was a general hunger strike staged by 145 Mau Mau detainees at the Hola Detention Camp. The detainees took advantage of the deaths of their colleagues to arouse more interest on the inhuman conditions under which they were subjected to.
Once more, attention was focused on the detainees at Hola. It became too apparent that there was definitely something wrong with the Hola Detention Camp. It forced the Governor, Sir Evelyn Baring, to visit Hola on 19th May, 1959 to assess for himself the threatening situation on the ground. The detainees refused to abandon their hunger strike even after the assurances given by the Governor. So as not to create more problems for the country, the Government decided that if the detainees continued with their hunger strike, then there would be no choice other than to feed them using force. It was not, however, elaborated how this forceful feeding would be effected without fresh troubles from the detainees.
The detainees depended on a mixture of glucose and water but they declined any other type of food or fluids. When they eventually gave up the hunger strike after two weeks, they were so weak that they had to be given medical attention. The Government realised that Hola was a trouble spot. The hard core Mau Mau detainees were eventually taken away and the last detainee left the district in July, 1959. All these events which happened at Hola within a span of only three months had a catalytic effect on the local Pokomo. Local politicians took every chance to stir up opposition to the proposed irrigation scheme.