On June 16, the Auschwitz Institute, in partnership with the Center for Memory and Development in Kenya, organized a Global Summit to support the transformation, restoration, and rehabilitation of the Nyayo House — a government building in Nairobi often referred to as Nyayo House Torture Chambers — into an official site of memory. The Global Summit brought together Nyayo House survivors and their families, leaders from the Center for Memory and Development, Kenyan activists, and officials from the Government of Kenya, alongside representatives from the United Nations. Experts representing several of the most symbolic sites of memory from countries around the world also participated in the discussions. These experts explored the necessity and power of public memorialization as a tool for education and atrocity prevention, as well as a vital process for transitional justice and reconciliation.
The Nyayo House Torture Chambers were created by the Kenyan state in the early 1980s in the basement of a 26-story government building. During the regime of President Daniel Arap Moi, thousands of activists and dissidents were imprisoned without charge in the underground cells. They were taken for interrogation in the middle of the night — to be tortured, dehumanized, and even murdered — as part of Moi’s efforts to consolidate and entrench his power after an attempted coup against him in August 1982.
Since 2003, the Nyayo House Torture Chambers survivors and their families have been fighting to preserve and transform the grounds into a national site of memorialization. Doing so would fulfill promises made by the Kenyan government, as well as official recommendations made by Kenya’s Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC). Former President Moi, who passed away last year, never addressed accusations of human rights abuses under his regime and refused to engage with the nation’s TJRC. In this context, the conversion of Nyayo House into a memorial space would also allow Kenyans to recognize, remember, and dignify the victims’ memory while educating new generations to prevent future atrocities.
Mr. Oduor Ongwen, who was imprisoned and tortured in Nyayo House for 16 days, reaffirmed the importance of spaces dedicated to the defense of human rights, stating:
The most important lesson we get here is that history can never be told by the oppressor. When in 2003 we came to reclaim Nyayo House, the new regime promised us these chambers would be turned into a monument of shame and a museum of our history of the struggles for human rights, […] to make (Kenya) a better place where we can say never again, never again we would have another Nyayo House in any corner of this country.
We are now 20 years down the line, and we are still struggling to open these chambers. We thought we would be able to create some center of memory and also of inspiration for the younger generation to be able to stand up to defend human rights and freedoms in this country. So for me, it is an inspiration. It is a call to struggle more, to remind ourselves that what we have been struggling for has not been achieved. And therefore, we need more than ever before to come together and say we will not allow this thing to happen again in our history.
Wangú Gathitú Ongwen, whose late husband was detained and tortured in Nyayo House for a period of three weeks, spoke about the struggles borne by survivors and their families after having been ostracized and rejected by a fearful society as a result of stigmatization. Mrs. Ongwen also echoed the urgency of preserving the site as part of their history and the importance of memorialization for future generations:
Generations will come, and generations will go, and in the future, we can suppose that a leader will come who does not know anything about the history of what happened… they are very likely to resort to the same style of trying to protect what they have. In the future, should there be a chance that it happens again, then it must never be left to the leaders to actualize the idea of using the torture chambers to repress their opponents. So this site should be accessible to the public so that they are conscious so that they are constantly activated and reminded that things like torture should not happen.
In addition to survivors and their family members, the Global Summit featured representatives from key sites of memory in Argentina, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Poland, Rwanda, South Africa, and the United States. These experts shared their own experiences, and those of their institutions, related to the work of memorialization and affirmed their support for, and solidarity with, the Center for Memory and Development’s work.
Jacqueline Mutere, Founder and Director of Grace Agenda, concluded by emphasizing the value of this type of collaboration and discussion. She remarked that:
The most important thing for us is to keep the memories alive because honest discussions start from a free society. We hope that the Nyayo House, together with all the solidarity and commitment you have shown us, will help us to achieve for future generations.
To view a recording of the event, please click here.