The setting of this story is in the beautiful Kenyan highlands of the 1950s, where British colonists had fallen in love with a beating sun, fertile earth, and the majestic Mount Kenya at the heart of it all in the 1920s. The highlands were not just beautiful they also lacked a plethora of obstacles to European settlement in Africa.
The highlands had a milder climate, similar to the Mediterranean region, rather than the hot and dry climate of most Africa. Even tropical regions such as the Congo were not fertile due to the rapid rate of debris decomposition which made nitrogen build up in soil nearly obsolete. Without nitrogen rich soil agriculture had little success. Additionally, a milder climate meant a substantial decrease in malaria which had created a real barrier to European explorers venturing further into the “dark continent.” It was a utopia for British underclasses and upper classes alike. British underclasses sought a new start, upper classes appreciated big game hunting, missionaries appreciated the opportunity to Christianize the “savage” Africans. Settlers appreciated these personal benefits and built up an ideology to justify their colonization: they were “charitably” bringing “civilization” to the “primitive” and “savage” Africans.
Land was also important to the Kikuyu in Kenya, the main ethnicity of people living in the highlands. As mentioned, agriculture was difficult in most of Africa. The ability to produce so much in the highlands meant that land became valuable to Kikuyu peoples in a way it did not for many African populations. It was a central part of their belief systems, their transition into adulthood, and their livelihood. The Europeans wanted the land; Kikuyu peoples depended on it.
British settlement rule meant that Kikuyu’s could not be allowed to have the land they needed. Instead, massive acres of land were “reallocated” to incoming British colonists. Kikuyu peoples were given tiny plots of less arable land to provide for themselves, their families, their entire community; as result they were unable to live off the land. This intense poverty forced Kikuyu men to work for criminally low wages on colonists farms. When technology replaced Kikuyu labor on farms they were forced into cities. It was the same economically enforced labor as existed in Apartheid South Africa where people had little economic option but to be servant labor for the minority white population.
Dedan Kimathi, a Mau Mau leader and himself illiterate, had a diary dictated for posterity in which he recognized this forced labor and intense poverty as the core of Mau Mau. “The cause of everything is a concrete situation,” and the concrete situation was clearly an impoverished Kikuyu society without land and without freedom (Kimathi). The Kikuyu formed the Kenya Land Freedom Army (KLFA), which was labeled “Mau Mau” by the British Colonial Government, to fight for land redistribution and against the corruption and crimes of the British government and their Kikuyu supporters. Mau Mau had complex theories about what the perfect end result of the guerrilla war would be. It was a struggle with many actors capable of independent thought and unified action. Leaders such as Dedan Kimathi, Steven Mathenge, and Waruhiu Itote, better known as General China, all reacted differently to the end of the conflict and had different theories throughout it. Kimathi held many other philosophies concerning Mau Mau. He supported pan-African ideals and deeply resented the fighters who were “only seek[ing] the freedom of their region” rather than the freedom of Africans against colonial oppressors. Mathenge had objections to what Kimathi saw as Kenya’s only legitimate Kenyan leadership, the Kenya Parliament (Kimathi). Waruhiu Itote gained infamy when he betrayed the Mau Mau movement in order to gain power in the conservative move to Kenyan independence led by people like Jomo Kenyatta. These complexities in the movement that contrasted sharply with the British official’s image of blood thirsty superstitious unsophisticated savages.
The British government portrayed Mau Mau as a one mind, one goal, one superstitious philosophy, cult-like terrorist insurgence that was killing innocent white settlers in their homes. They used stories of the oaths that Mau Mau fighters would take to substantiate their claims of a “savage” race mired in superstition. However, these “savage” Mau Mau oaths were symbolic of their, again, concrete issues with land, poverty, and de facto slavery. The oath was tied deeply to the land “I stood naked, held soil in my right hand, and bit the chest of a ram several times (Kimathi).” It was not primitive superstition but instead a way to unite the Mau Mau fighters by reinforcing the tangible reasons for their war; and Kikuyu peoples did in fact believe it was war, albeit an asymetrical war they fought through guerrilla tactics.
The British fought hard to obscure the reality of Mau Mau as a revolution, the symbolism of Mau Mau to the Western World was British officer’s main concern. They had to make the conflict seem unjustified and their aggressive responses to the conflict seem justified. Mau Mau was terrorism, it was barbarism, it was not a revolutionary war, Africans were too barbaric and unsophisticated to begin with. However, Kimathi and others had fought in World Wars for the British Colonial Government before joining Mau Mau pointed out that “a people who can hold secret political meetings, organize a political army, and conduct guerrilla warfare are not ignorant” (Kimathi). In fact, many academics are shocked by how long Mau Mau was able to last (1952 to 1960). Not declaring it a war also allowed the British government to treat Kikuyu fighters and peoples as terrorists rather than soldiers and civilians in wartime without judgement by the international community. This was an important distinction due to the Geneva convention which had emerged in 1949 in response to widespread warcrimes in World War II and had begun changing the culture surrounding warfare. A State of Emergency was declared by the colonial powers in October of 1952.
During this period of Emergency from 1952 to 1960 hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu peoples were persecuted, detained, tortured, and killed in the ultimately successful attempt to shut the Kenya Land Freedom Army down. While the numbers are difficult to determine Blacker provides a more reliable estimate of 50,000 excess deaths (Blacker). The British created prison and work camps and completed wide sweeps of the Kikuyu population looking for any who may be involved in Mau Mau. This included women and children, not just the guerilla soldiers hidden in the forests. In fact, women were a vital part of the Mau Mau effort bringing supplies to men hiding in the forests (often sacrificing their own meager resources), spying on British soldiers and officials, and in some cases actively fighting (Otieno). Additionally, during this period the Kenyan British government doubled down on previous efforts to end the practice of female circumcision in order to control Kikuyu women (Thomas and Presley). Efforts that had been suspended when the British feared a depletion of Kikuyu labor reserves as a result of the policies effects on Kikuyu birth rates. The British policies began to take on the flavor of genocide as they targeted Kikuyus and their culture en masse, often capturing people who had little or nothing to do with Mau Mau and torturing them to admit to oaths they never took.
The absurdity of the violent British effort to understand and deal with Mau Mau is portrayed by the capture and imprisonment of Jomo Kenyatta in connection to his supposed leadership of Mau Mau. Kenyatta was a political activist for a free Kenya and helped develop Kenyan nationalism. He studied in both Moscow and London and was a fervent believer in many Western ideals. He had in fact criticized Mau Mau and believed in non-violent political and legal means to ending colonialism in Kenya. His approach was significantly less radical, almost conservative in nature. Additionally, as part of an educated elite he was closely associated with the people Mau Mau actively targeted.
Contrary to British propaganda the Kikuyu were not murdering white settlers en masse; Mau Mau fighters focused on the Kikuyu elites who they believed had effectively sold the Kikuyu populations down the river for their own benefit. I use this specific idiom as it denotes the slave trade in America; in the same vein Kikuyu rebels believed these elites had sold them into de facto slavery for profit. In many ways these complaints were entirely factual. Academics do defend some of Mau Mau’s targets; but there was a significant number who did support British Loyalist policies. The British had utilized the colonial strategy of divide and conquer. Utilizing “Kenyan leaders” to enforce their policies on the Kikuyu people. These were Mau Mau’s main targets, with “only 32 Europeans among the 30,000 white settlers killed by Mau Mau.” (Engler)
The British Loyalist Kikuyu’s had, in Mau Mau’s eyes, selfishly betrayed their country men and made colonialism worse. Some were not Kikuyu leaders previously and by working with the British colonial government had gained wealth and prestige. There are repeated instances of this throughout Africa, such as in South Africa where “Big Men” were used to enforce policies beyond the settlement of Cape Town. Many times these “Big Men” even made up traditions to further their power when “informing” the British of “African life.” For instance, the “endemic” sexism that Western powers often believe has always existed in Xhosa and Zulu cultures was created. Women had significant power and respect in their villages before colonialism that the Big Men took from them simply by miseducating British officials. This is not to say these cultures had no sexism or gender roles previous to colonialism; however, it is to say what we think of as “African traditions” are often anything but “traditional.” Thus, the Kikuyu hated loyalists more than British Officials because the loyalist Kikuyu’s had literally betrayed their people and cruelty from colonial officials was basically expected.
Kenyatta’s arrest was caused solely by British political interests and his connection to Mau Mau was as farcical as the myth of Mau Mau boogiemen obsessed with a sinister cult like operation, engaging in acts of terror, and slaughtering white settlers. Still, it was this myth that helped Kenyatta use Mau Mau to his advantage in elections. It was the same myth of the Mau Mau boogieman that has enlivened the West’s active imagination when it comes to who Africans are. The idea of Mau Mau being savage, bestial terrorism leaked into children’s bedtime stories and popular culture in Britain. “Eat your peas or Mau Mau will come and get you.” It is so important to understand this period in Kenya’s history as the complex struggle it was because it was used to enable myths about African savagery that still continue to this day. Because the myths surrounding Mau Mau are still used to manipulate Kenyan populations. Because the same methods of obfuscation and colonization were used all over Africa and create similar problems and violent conflicts.
Future posts will be dedicated to analyzing the complexity of Kenyan colonization, its treatment of women particularly in relation to Female Circumcision, and Mau Mau; but knowing that almost everything Western populations know about Africa was purposely concocted by colonizers is an important start to shedding our stereotypes. The victims of the British Colonial Government’s violence were memorialized in September of 2015 after London issued an apology to the victims, including compensation for 5,000 of them; this is not enough. We must adequately disseminate the truth of their history as historians and academics continue to recover it.
Blacker, J. ; (2007) The demography of Mau Mau: Fertility and mortality in Kenya in the 1950s: A demographer’s viewpoint. African Affairs, 106 (423). pp. 205-227.
Waiyaki Otieno, Wambui. Mau Mau’s Daughter: A Life History. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1998.
Thomas, Lynn M. Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Presley, Cora Ann. “The Mau Mau Rebellion, Kikuyu Women, and Social Change.” Canadian Journal of African Studies 22 (1988), 502-527.
Engler, Yves. Canadian Complicity in the Massacre of Mau Mau 2015. http://dissidentvoice.org/2015/09/canadian-complicity-in-the-massacre-of-mau-mau/