Jesse Kariuki, ‘Chirang’a’ and the Mau Mau

by Macharia Munene

The Mau Mau War put Kenya on the world map in new unexpected ways. As a crown colony, it was a contradiction of two images; “White Man’s Country” and “Mau Mau Country”. White Man’s Country deprived Africans of freedom and created poverty as governing mechanism. It acquired the image of wildness and a glorified brothel where every white man was king served by ‘boys’ who knew their place at the bottom of the human ladder. The Mau Mau rejected the notion of “white man’s country” and replaced it with one that was complex. It became a constant global issue, giving various intellectuals work to do, partly because of the mystery and audacity of happy “natives” challenging the might of the British Empire where the sun never set. A few men responsible for the Mau Mau War ensured that the sun did set in the empire.

The men involved in the Mau Mau War, those who helped the imperial sun to set, continue to attract interest. They included Jomo Kenyatta, Dedan Kimathi, Mathenge wa Mirugi, and Jesses Kariuki. Kenyatta’s role stays contentious; Kimathi capture, hanging, and missing grave dumbfounding; Mathenge’s presumed death or presence in Ethiopia an emotional affair; and Kariuki’s invisibility as deep Mau Mau unexplained. Kenyatta is the most controversial, Kimathi the least divisive, Mathenge the most confusing, and deep Mau Mau Jesse the most mysterious.

Kenyatta is controversial because he was oratorically inspirational, sure of his political goal, and knew how to make different audiences believe he was one of them. This explains his purported different roles. While one group insists that he knew little/nothing about the Mau Mau War, others vow that he commissioned the fighters and even gave guns in preparation for war. There are those who assert that Kenyatta and KAU were innocent victims of, or benefited from, colonial manipulation/protection. Another group, represented by veteran James Theuri, claims there supposedly was pre-Mau Mau bad blood between Kenyatta and Kimathi which rarely features in Mau Mau discourses. In the bad blood theory, Kimathi was seemingly disappointed in Kenyatta because the legendary man fell short of his anti-colonial reputation. As the KAU point man in Nyahururu, Kimathi expected to be involved in Kenyatta’s area visit but he instead went to a well to do Kimathi rival close to the establishment.Kenyatta’s behavior, Theuri asserts, was partly because he had an English wife, contrary to his KCA oath before he departed for England. This is Theuri’s man and in-law hunting leopard theory/logic, ngari ihitagwo ni mundu na muthoniwe. Kenyatta was probably all of the above.

Kimathi was himself another one, whose fame increased in the forest. Kenyatta had reportedly summoned him and Mathenge to Nairobi and had presumably commissioned them to prepare for war. It was Kimathi who loudly answered Kenyatta back at Kaloleni saying that people were ready thereby making Kenyatta shed tears and point out that the tree of freedom is nourished by blood and not water. When he then asked people to withstand the kicks while he held the horns, they cheered in readiness agreement. In the forest, Kimathi had started as Mathenge’s clerk before organizing a coup, quarreled with other commanders, brooked no disagreement, and had a bounty on his head. Kimathi had virtually surrendered and alone in 1956 when a home guard called Ndirangu decided to shoot him seemingly to collect the bounty on Kimathi’s head. Carried to Chief Muhoya’s camp, news of his capture quickly spread everywhere and people were allowed to see their leader in captivity.

Kimathi died a legend, having accepted Christ as his savior just before the hanging at Kamiti in February 1957, and a source inspirational speculation. Someone outside the government, so a belief evolved, assented to the hanging and his grave to become strangely unknown. Yet Minister of State Mbiyu Koinange stated in 1968 in Parliament that he knew exactly where the grave was and that Kimathi would be given appropriate burial honours within two months but it was never done. Could the reputed bad pre-Mau Mau blood between Kenyatta and Kimathi have stopped Koinange, a Kimathi admirer, from fulfilling his public commitment to bury Kimathi as a national hero?

The victim of Kimathi’s organized coup was Mathenge, the initial and officially commissioned overall commander. Mathenge, though lacking inspiration and being virtually illiterate, had deep experience fighting in World War II, probably in Ethiopia and Burma and in organizing fighters. Reports that he had served as Emperor Haile Selassie’s body guard made him attractive to big wig pre-Mau Mau anti-colonial operators who included the emperor’s good friend, Kenyatta. On returning to Kenya, Kenyatta sent for young men with war experience among them Mathenge, Kimathi, and probably China. Mathenge became a source of intellectual contention as to whether he died in battle, ambushed into death, became food for wild animals on the way to Ethiopia, or actually reached and settled in Ethiopia.

While much is known about Kenyatta, Koinange, Kimathi, Mathenge, Kaggia, several key players remain mysterious and they included Jesse Kariuki Chirang’a, ‘Maitho ma Ruriri/Bururi. When Kenyatta returned from England in 1946, Chirang’a was the man that he turned to and relied on to convert KCA followers into KAU members. He was among those who twice sent Kenyatta to England and was deeply involved in developing and administering Mau Mau oaths. His authority in militant anti-colonial circles was wide spread. In policy meetings at Kiburi House, Chirang’a tended to be in charge, could reprimand others into repentance, and even ordered Kenyatta to stop kwaria ta nyukwa. He was the linkman between Mau Mau policy makers on one side and such warriors as Mathenge, China, and Kimathi on the other.

Diminutive in body size, Chirang’a was right from inception the equivalent of Mau Mau ‘deep state’; the deep mover, mysterious, influential, and invisible. He was among the founders of Kikuyu Central Association, KCA, at Muriranjas and Kahuhia meeting and as Joseph Kang’ethe was elected president, Jesse Kariuki became vice-president. He travelled widely telling people that the European opposed women circumcision so as to marry and use irigu to grab additional African land. Despite his nickname of ‘maitho ma bururi/ruriri’, he remains invisible and mysterious which is characteristic of influential intelligence operators. Yet he was the one who inducted Mathenge and other Mau Mau warriors into war mind-frame. “Chirang’a”, along with Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia, reportedly on Kenyatta’s instructions, performed the rituals of commissioning Mathenge into the war and in turn Mathenge recruited Karari Njama. At independence, ever the mysterious man, Chirang’a settled in Ndunduri area of Nyandarua where he remained deeply invisible.  

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Momo June 15, 2021 - 10:32 am

Excellent narrative. Question; is the Karari Njama mentioned above a relation of Kariri Njama who is currently a parliamentary hopeful in the upcoming by election?

Mugo Theuri June 15, 2021 - 12:20 pm

No. The two are not related, unless perhaps very remotely. Karari Njama comes from Mahiga in Othaya, Nyeri

Múnjirú Nyúmba Ya Ndumo June 15, 2021 - 5:40 pm

Kimathi had been spied on and they knew he always visited their home. His demise aroused from the trap set for him. Gather info from his home area if you may.

Lawrence Muragu macharia June 19, 2021 - 1:45 pm


Macharia Muhoho June 21, 2021 - 8:52 am

Awesome,Insightful read! Connecting with our founding fathers.


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