General Kamwana: The highs and lows of a Mau Mau fighter

by Rose Wangechi

War in the Forest, Kiboi Muriithi’s book, is much about storytelling as it is about his life in Mau Mau movement.

Nicknamed General Kamwana in the forest, Muriithi writes movingly about the years he spent in the organisation and details the highs and lows of the liberation war. It is also a meticulous report about the Mau Mau movement. The book, however, is much about his personal experiences. 

General Kamwana opens the book with high drama recounting how his childhood friend tricked him into taking the Mau Mau oath – and how the oath turned the hitherto passive observer into an adherent. After that, he got a worldview on colonialism and an understanding on the depths of exploitation. But that was not all.

In detail, General Kamwana takes readers inside the oath ceremonies. With vivid descriptions, he explains why the oath was indispensable in uniting the community against an oppressive British establishment. His descriptions leave readers with an in-depth understanding of this process, a departure from other writers who gloss over the subject. 

To understand his book, readers are, in some instances, required to read between the lines. General Kamwana’s passion in describing the oath, its import and its impacts is the core of his writing.

Like many other Mau Mau veterans, General Kamwana escaped to the forest as the police marked him for being an oath administrator. He settled rather quickly since had previously been imprisoned and released. He had also survived worse conditions in police custody.

In the forest, General Kamwana met many Mau Mau leaders including General Tanganyika, Waruhiu Itote alias General China, and Colonel Kourugo. They were among the most revered Mau Mau honchos. His interactions with these leaders were not mere posturing. Together, they moved from one bushi (guerilla camp) to the next – organizing raids. 

The author, in his classic descriptive ability, says that Mau Mau battalions in the forest camps were run like military camps. All fighters had to wake up early in the morning for vigorous training. It is in these camps that he was taught how to use a gun. He also received training on various war strategies. The camp leaders, most of whom had previous military training, equipped fighters with camouflage tactics. From his description, the training was intensive and covered a myriad of war tactics.

But the war needed more than fighting techniques. The fighters did not grow any food in the forest. As such, they relied on food supply from external sources. General Kamwana’s explanations reveal the ingenuity of the Mau Mau. 

They conducted raids to acquire food. The writer explains how the food was cooked and shared. At times, community members sent food to the fighters. Interestingly, as the writer points out, the fighters abhorred hunting wild animals for food. But that does not mean there were no exceptions. 

General Kamwana reveals a nasty experience that forced him to eat a wild animal. After going for days without food, General Kamwana and General Tanganyika stumbled on a dead buck in the forest. Hunger was biting. They threw caution out of the window and ate the buck. In justifying their actions, the duo said God had sent the buck to save them from dying of hunger.

The book introduces a rare twist to the Mau Mau food chain. General Kamwana says that he once separated from other fighters in the forest, finding himself alone. Before navigating and finding his way to where other fighters were stationed, General Kamwana set up traps to catch wild animals for food.  

On intelligence gathering, Mau Mau had established an elaborate system. He also points out that some police officers and home guards were Mau Mau sympathisers. Behind the scenes, some of these government officials were double agents who declassified information on government plans to the fighters. Such officers were of more use to Mau Mau than they were to their employer – the government. The story of Mau Mau agents doesn’t end with these double agents.

Children were used by Mau Mau as spies. General Kamwana says that the police rarely suspected children of any involvement in Mau Mau. Some boys trained by Mau Mau could follow the police for miles eavesdropping on their conversations. Later the boys would relay that information to the fighters.

But how did the Mau Mau treat sick and wounded soldiers? Well, the book has sufficient answers. General Kamwana writes that Mau Mau had their doctors who had the skills to remove bullets from the body. But that was done with neither formal training nor pain management procedures like anaesthesia. 

During the war, General Kamwana participated in many battles and raids. He explains all in his book, ably taking readers through the battles. He makes you see yourselves in the battle zones.

The book is a solid ten rating for lovers of Mau Mau history.

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