By Rose Wangechi
The Mau Mau oath has remained a controversial exercise in the history of the movement.
While the supporters of the colonial government dismissed it as “a regression to barbarism”, it has also been seen as the most unifying factor in the movement.
The recruitment of thousands of people into the Mau Mau movement from 1951 required a code of ethics to bind the groups together and keep the troops from leaking information to the intelligence system.
Taking the Mau Mau oath of secrecy became the spine of the movement and all recruits were required to take an oath to be considered full members of the liberation struggle.
People who had not taken the oath were treated as outsiders and labelled thuya (flea). And because Mau Mau members lived in the community, they devised the word as coded language identifying non-members.
With their coded language, the Mau Mau supporters controlled the nature of discussion with the rest of the community.
Every Mau Mau veteran has a different story of how they joined the group – but the most common thread is that they first took the oath. But was it voluntary?
Some of the veterans say they were tricked into taking the oath. In his autobiography, General Kamwana narrates how his close friend called Kamau tricked him into taking the oath.
General Kamwana writes that Kamau led him into a strange room with unknown people that administered the Mau Mau oath and he was consequently recruited him into the group.
However, the majority of the Mau Mau fighters say they willingly took the Mau Mau oath. There were various types of oaths. The oath of unity was the first to be taken. It was open to all people, including children recruited as spies.
Done secretly, the oath process was not meant for the faint hearted. In his book, Mau Mau from Within: Autobiography and Analysis of Kenya’s Peasant Revolt, Karari Njama paints a horrific picture of the oath taking process.
Karari says he took the oath in a group of other Mau Mau recruits bound together “by goats’ small intestines on our shoulders and feet. Another person then sprayed us with some beer from his mouth as a blessing at the same time throwing a mixture of the finger millet with other cereals on us.”
According to Karari’s account, the oath administrator “took a Kikuyu gourd containing blood and with it made a cross on our foreheads and on all important joints saying, ‘May this blood mark the faithful and brave members of the Gikuyu and Mumbi Unity; may this same blood warn you that if you betray our secrets or violate the oath, our members will come and cut you into pieces at the joints marked by this blood’. We were then asked to lick eachothers blood from our middle fingers and vowed after the administrator : If I reveal this secret to a person not a member, may this blood kill me.”
Oath taking differed from region to region and recruits vowed to keep the process a secret. But Karari, who also served as Dedan Kimathi’s secretary, is one of the authors that give a detailed account of the oath process.
Those who took the oath had a duty not to reveal “this secret of the oath to any person who is not a member of our society” and never sell “land to Europeans or Asians or allowing intermarriages between Africans and the white community.”
Recruits also vowed that they would “never help the missionaries in their Christian faith to ruin our traditional and cultural customs” and always follow the “leadership of Jomo Kenyatta and Mbiyu Koinange.”
They were also not allowed to “spy on or otherwise sell my people to Government” in addition to a ban on using European manufactured cigarettes and beer.
Karari concludes that “although the oath clung on Kikuyu traditions and superstitions, the unity and obedience achieved by it was so great that it could be our only weapon to fight against the white community.”