Mau Mau Rising

January 13, 2024
6 mins read

The British War in Kenya
Tuesday, July 31, 2007.
By Patrick Gathara
Now that the Kenyan government has taken the step of honouring Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi (main picture) more than 50 years after his hanging by the British colonial government, I think it is also time that we had an realistic appraisal of the uprising, its leaders, causes and effects.
Over the course of half a century, the Mau Mau war has entered into the realm of legend, with little to distinguish between fact and fiction. Many who then opposed or shunned the insurgency nowadays proclaim themselves to be at its forefront, while the real fighters languish in long-forgotten and overgrown graves or are still awaiting the recognition and rewards they insist are due them.Basic facts, such as the source of the term “Mau Mau” have yet to be settled. Kimathi himself preferred that his army be called the Kenya Land and Freedom Army and Josiah (JM) Kariuki, who was also interned in prison camps from 1953 to 1960, and later murdered by Jomo Kenyatta’s agents, talked about the Land and Freedom Army saying that: “The world knows it by a title of abuse and ridicule [Mau Mau] with which it was described by one of its bitterest opponents.” The Kikuyu themselves called it Muingi (“The Movement”), Muigwithania (“The Understanding”), Muma wa Uiguano (“The Oath of Unity”) or simply “The KCA”, after the Kikuyu Central Association that created the impetus for the insurgency.The statistics of the war itself are also a source of perennial controversy. Some sources have the Kikuyu death toll at nearly 20,000 with, according to Wikipedia, 10,527 Mau Mau killed in action, over 2000 arrested and between 70,000 and 100,000 Kikuyus interred in concentration camps. The British losses were remarkably light, with less than 100 dead.
What accounts for this discrepancy? Was the conflict, as some (including the British) have termed it, a civil war within the Kikuyu community? In a paper entitled “Emergency in Kenya: Kikuyu and the Mau Mau Insurrection”, Major Roger D. Hughes of the US Marine Corps says about the conflict:
“The Mau Mau movement is usually viewed strictly as being politically motivated toward national independence. The less popular view is endorsed herein, that two separate, multi-facted movements existed, one motivated by nationalism, and the other by a blind, irrational quest for revenge. In the process of each attempting to exploit the other for self-serving purposes, they became uncontrollably intertwined, which resulted in near disaster for the Kikuyu tribe.”
“Totally lacking in quality intelligence regarding the origins of Mau Mau at the outbreak of hostilities in 1952, colonial forces struck out blindly to suppress the violence and treated the movements as one. Thus, the Military resolution is traced through 1956, when the preponderance of hostilities were finally suppressed in what seemed at that time more like an intra-tribal civil war than a war of independence.”
And what of tactics?
Both sides utilised the tactics of terror and neither spared innocents. Just compare these two accounts, one by Peter Swan, a British policeman who guarded Kimathi after his capture:
“The Mau Mau ‘Freedom Fighters’ were no more than thugs whose terrorist activities were directed mainly at their own tribesman than at the ‘whites’. Having come across Meru women, gutted with an unborn child torn from them; children whose heads had been cracked open; an old couple that where burnt alive after being ham-strung to make sure that they couldn’t get away, it was difficult for me and the twenty African policeman to have any sympathy for those Mau Mau that we encountered. We took no prisoners. To hear them classed as heroes’ of the day goes against the grain.”
And another from an Australian living in Kenya during the British imposed ‘emergency’:
“We were joined by two of [a settler named] Bill’s mates in another Land Rover and just about dawn we seen two Africans crossing the road ahead. Bill fired a shot across their bow and they put their hands up. I tried to tell Bill that those lads, hardly more than boys they were, didn’t look like Mickeys (Mau Mau) to me but he says, “They’re Kukes and that’s enough for me”. Well he roughs them up some but they say they don’t know where the gang of Mickeys went to, so he gets some rope and ties one to the rear bumper of his Land Rover by his ankles. He drives off a little ways, not too fast you know, and the poor black bastard is trying to keep from ploughing the road with his nose.
“The other cobbers are laughing and saying, “put it in high gear Bill” and such as that, but Bill gets out and says, “Last chance, Nugu (baboon), where’s that gang?” The African boy keeps saying he’s not Mau Mau, but Bill takes off like a bat out of hell. When he comes back, the nigger wasn’t much more than pulp. He didn’t have any face left at all. So Bill and his mates tie the other one to the bumper and ask him the same question. He’s begging them to let him go but old Bill takes off again and after a while he comes back with another dead Mickey. They just left the two of them there in the road.”
Even accounts of Kimathi himself tend to differ with this TIME Magazine article, published in 1956 and titled “The Terrorist” saying of him:
“There was no fiercer character in all the jungle than Dedan Kimathi, a scarred, stocky ex-clerk who had fought and jockeyed his way to the leadership of all the guerrillas. Not content with his popular title, “General Russia,” Dedan capped his arrogance by calling himself Field Marshal Sir Dedan Kimathi and appointing a parliament of his own to preside over….A refugee captured by Kenya police as he left Kimathi’s camp recently has provided a vivid picture of the once great chieftain in his twilight hour.
“Broken in health and mind, 35-year-old Dedan Kimathi now spends his days making wild speeches to the jungle trees and his nights raving endlessly. He lies on a litter of branches, blubbering and blabbering about reform in the Liberation army, while his friends search the woods for monkeys to eat. Whenever a police patrol comes near, the 20 loyal henchmen (and teen-age henchwomen) who still surround him hustle Kimathi into a nearby cave and gag him to keep him quiet.”
While Peter Swan, quoted above, paints an entirely different picture of the man:
“Our first hours together were almost silent. My command of Kikuyu language was reduced to the long drawn out greetings ‘Moogerrrh’ which should have elicited the reply ‘Moogerrhni’. His command of Kiswahili and mine were similar, in that we were both well versed in what was loosely termed Kaffir Swahili. He was, I discovered, soon after joining him in the hospital, well versed in English and we later spent time swapping tales of our bush activities in that language.”
“His wound was in the thigh and he had to be stretchered everywhere. Up to then he had received rudimentary first aid and he was still dressed in the leopard skins that had been his trade mark during his Mau Mau operations….Dedan Kimathi and I sat and read the books that I brought in to pass the time. Our conversations were occasional and without animosity or conflict on either side. He knew the penalty for his activity was death, and he expected that sentence. He believed that the sentence would not be executed and that he would survive. There was a quiet and distant confidence in his belief.”
I think Kenyans deserve to know the truth about what has come to be known as the fight for Uhuru and why it is the sons of the homeguards, not the “freedom fighters” who reaped the fruits of independence. Why is it that the Mau Mau continued to be a proscribed organisation up till 2003? Why do we insist on honouring dead fighters while ignoring the plight of those still alive?
The blog What An African Woman Thinks has an informative interview with some of these fighters including Field Marshal Muthoni, in which one General Karangi, “is hard put to understand why those who successfully evaded bullet, bomb and grenade are less praiseworthy than the one who got caught”.While the Mau Mau lost the military fight against the British, they lived to see the White Man ejected from Kenya. However, 50 years on, their land and legacy is now being stolen anew by those who collaborated with the colonialists.
It seems to me that Kenyans have striven to erase from their minds what should be a heroic chapter in our common history. Instead we seem determined to construct a new tale in which the villains of yesterday become the heroes of today while the real fighters, their accomplishments, and eventual betrayal is consigned to history’s dustbin.
A Physics and Maths graduate, Gathara is a Kenya-based cartoonist and journalist. He blogs at Gathara.
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