Use of nicknames as a Mau Mau war strategy

by Evan Mbugua

The use of noms de guerre by the Mau Mau is perhaps one of the least studied subjects on the freedom movement.

It is usually argued that what you call yourself during the war can be an important weapon against your opponents.

One widely used strategies, although rarely mentioned, was the use of pseudo-names to conceal real identities of the Mau Mau fighters.

This was a non-combat war tactic that almost every Mau Mau veteran adopted.  In fact, most of the veterans alive remember one another by the nickname they used in the forest.  The use of nicknames had two main benefits.

One is that upon arrest, many Mau Mau fighters could not easily betray other members of the group. Since the colonial administrators did not know many local people by name, one of the defences used by those arrested was to name suspects by the nicknames, claiming they did not know any other name of the said persons. This always lengthened the identification process.

The other advantage was that the nicknames were unfamiliar to the home guards,  used to entrench the British rule, or to the locals.

Although there was no elaborate criteria of assigning the nicknames, the names usually came from one’s contribution in a battle, body physic, and the repeated statements people used to utter. Some of the veterans were named after places and events.

Take, for instance, Field Marshal Musa Mwariama, a top ranking leader serving in Meru. He acquired the nickname Mwariama after fighters realised he had a knack of always telling the truth. His name Mwariama translates to one who always speaks the truth.  His real name, Musa M’Kiribua M’Muchiri, remains unknown to many people.

Another Mau Mau hero Waruhiu Itote, who commanded fighters in Mukurweini, Nyeri County earned himself the name General China. Anytime his troop was involved in a fight, Itote psyched them up by shouting “macine, cina” which means, burn them down. Consequently, he was referred to as General China.

Grace Njoki, then a teenage girl who served as a food delivery girl during the war, was nicknamed Kanguniu. Coinage of this name has an interesting story behind it. She told this writer that British soldiers cornered Mau Mau fighters camping in Sagana one day. She was part of the group. The fighters went to hide in a forest called Nguniu. Unsure of how to navigate out of the forest, Njoki, who had lived in the area before and thus conversant with area geography, guided the fighters out of the forest. For the grateful gesture, the fighters named her after Nguniu forest hence the nickname Kanguniu.

In Othaya, Nyeri, this writer met Joseph Macharia Mwangi, a gallant Mau Mau fighter. The government had once placed a bounty of Sh6,000 on his head for organising and executing daring raids on administration offices. But not many people, even in his home area, know him by his real name. He was nicknamed General Kihithuki for his deftness and swiftness in the war.

General Wagoco Mwambura, another Mau Mau fighter in the Rift Valley who took part in the famous Naivasha Prison Raid, used the name Huria Ndaka. Wagocho told this writer that he acquired this name for his habit of scratching the ground (like chicken do) when excited for war.

Another Mau Mau veteran Virginia Wanjiru, who worked as a cook and women leader in one of the troops in Kinyona Forest, Muranga, was nicknamed Kabiti. The name implies small stature in body size, a name she uses even today.    

During the famous Mbaara ya Rui Ruiru (the battle of the black river)Kibara wa Miraro lured government soldiers into the caves of River Ruiru where they were slain by the fighters. Miraro did this with ease because he donned full colonial army uniform. The government officers blindly followed him to the caves where the government officers were killed. For his courage, the Mau Mau fighters named him General Chui loosely translating to a sharp leopard.  

Another general, M’Ikiara wa Nyonta planned Jomo Kenyatta’s first visit to Meru in 1948. Due to his determination and resilience in the war, he became well known as General Ruku which means a piece of hard, dry wood in Ameru dialect.  

The famous General Matenjagwo from Murang’a acquired this name for his long unkempt hair. Matenjagwo means one who does not cut his hair.  

There is no rich literature on nicknames as a war strategy. But creativity as a war tactic in the Mau Mau war came in many hues. Not many people, however, appreciate the ingenuity of the Mau Mau in distracting the government from easily identifying the real fighters.

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Cege Gacuhi April 16, 2021 - 11:59 am

The legacy lives on

Cege Gacuhi April 16, 2021 - 12:00 pm

The legacy leaves on.

kinyua wa macharia April 18, 2021 - 5:21 pm

Proud of your work, thanks for standing up among many and ensuring our history remains alive,Bravo!

Joshua Mimano May 20, 2021 - 3:17 pm

Very valuable information.


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