When about 100,000 Africans were sent to Burma in 1942 – in what was known as the Burma Campaign – the British did not know that these soldiers would return to Kenya and join an uprising whose ramifications would be felt countrywide.
That the Mau Mau leadership was made up of ex-soldiers was well known and that is why the British had to send troops to try and quell it. But the leaders headed to the forest where the canopy and the harsh terrain gave them an upper hand.
After they returned from the Burma campaign, the African soldiers felt betrayed and unrecognized. While the British soldiers were rewarded with land, the Africans, and their stories, were abandoned.
Thus, the story of the King’s African Riffles – recruited soldiers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Somalia – remains buried, playing to the same script the British used in 1940s.
The British had recruited the Africans believing they were less susceptible to malaria and that they were naturally skilled in jungle warfare owing to life in Africa. It was the jungle experience in Burma that would come in handy for the soldiers who joined Mau Mau.
But for the Africans, the reasons for joining the British forces were more economic and personal. For a majority of Africans, being in the army provided employment. It was thought to be a route out of poverty.
Waruhiu Itote, widely known as General China, aptly captures this in his book Mau Mau General. General China writes that many people joined the British Army because Kenya was under threat of invasion by the Germans and Italians. The colonial administration had convinced many Kenyans that the looming invasion would complicate the lives of the people.
However, this was part of the British propaganda to blind Kenyans from the reality, after all Kenyans were already under an oppressive regime.
But upon arrival in Burma, Africans faced racial discrimination. They faced corporal punishment for being “undisciplined” and were whipped by their seniors; – a practice they found humiliating. While the British military was multi-racial, only Africans were being mistreated.
Unknown to the British, this period would later mark the turning point in Kenya’s Mau Mau war. Fighting in Burma exposed Kenyans to sophisticated military operations. They leant the art of combat and military strategy. They also learnt guerilla war.
These skills became essential when the Mau Mau war begun. The soldiers from Burma had just returned to Kenya. And without much compensation and recognition, let off the British military. They became disgruntled and expressed dissatisfaction by joining the Mau Mau.
General China talks of a British soldier who questioned the legality of the war. General China writes that while in Burma, one British soldier remarked to be there to fight for his “national independence.” The soldier implored on General China to free Kenya first before fighting for other interests.
The soldiers came back with new conscience and military skills. They convinced many people to join the Mau Mau movement and that is why some of the senior leaders were also Burma veterans.