Despite a wealth of scholarly literature on Kenya’s liberation war, there is probably no other issue shrouded in more mystery than the origin of the word Mau Mau.
At the moment, there is still no consensus on the origin of the name that defined the gallant fighters and community support that ended colonialism in Kenya.
Mau Mau is inextricably linked to liberation, and is still sticking to our national dialogue – decades after the war ended. While the name has stuck for generations, it would come as a surprise to many that the initial group of revolutionists called themselves the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) ; and not Mau Mau.
While the origin, perhaps origins, of the name Mau Mau is fraught with multiple explanations, the mission of KLFA is not. KLFA was the militant offshoot of Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), a political party that drew membership from the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru communities. They spearheaded the interests of the aforementioned communities.
The name KLFA unambiguously represented the organisation’s mission; the armed struggle for land and freedom. Against this backdrop, then, where did the name Mau Mau come from?
To add more puzzles to this mystery, the etymology of the name Mau Mau cannot be linked to any language. The name, with two monosyllables, came from a linguistic void.
In his book Mau Mau: a revolution betrayed, Prof. Maina wa Kenyatti, one of Kenya’s foremost Mau Mau historians, gives an account that has been seconded by other historians and scholars on the origins of the name Mau Mau.
According to the scholar, a group of 39 Kenyan farm workers were arrested on 12 May 1950 in Naivasha for participating in an oath ceremony.
To understand the oath, the colonial administration decided to subject the suspects to a long and torturous interrogation process that they hoped would shed light on the activities of this secret movement.
The farmworkers, bound by the oath not to reveal anything regarding war plans, remained silent and opted to face the wrath of the colonial administration. It was a hard task for the government. The mystery only deepened as the government could not unravel meaningful details from the farmworkers.
On this realisation, the colonial administration decided to take the farmworkers through a court process. The police and the administration officers hoped that the suspects would soften and disclose to the court what the oath was about. Again, they were wrong.
During the court proceedings, one of the accused kept on vowing never to reveal maundu mau (those things of the oath).
The book quotes him as saying: Ndingikwira Maundu mau mau nderirwo ndikoige ni Kiama. Ni hiitho iitu. Ningi we uri thu iitu. Ni inyui mwatutinyire bururi na hinya; mugitutua ngombo cianyu….bururi uyu ni witu, twatigiirwo ni agu na agu tutikaurekia.
This excerpt translates to “I cannot tell you those, those things I was told not to tell by the movement. It is our secret. Besides, you are our enemy. You (White people) took our country by force and made us your slaves…This is our country, we inherited it from our ancestors. We shall never abandon it.”
The British colonial press, desperate to learn more about the organization, and particularly its name, settled for the name Mau Mau (those, those).
From then, the name Mau Mau was proscribed and constantly repeated and used by the government, media and the public. The appellation ‘Mau Mau’ became irrevocably linked with underground movement and revolt.
The British government immediately commenced propaganda models to alienate the fighters from the local and international community. They, once again, failed as Mau Mau earned a big name from constant raids on government installations.
But the government needed to justify harsh colonial policies. As such, Mau Mau people were labelled as anti-British native insurgents who possessed retrogressive views. The British helped to build the name Mau Mau through negative publicity accorded to the group by the government.
Realising the name was popular with locals, the fighters and the entire war leadership decided to own the name, Mau Mau.
In the eyes of the British, the Mau Mau people were savagely and uncivilized people who committed beastly acts. Peered through the eyes of the local communities, especially the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru, Mau Mau were heroes, liberators and supermen championing the rights of oppressed societies.
But that did not solve the desire of the people to know where the origins of the name.
In the course of the resistance, the term Mau Mau took different meanings and interpretations. Some believed it was an acronym for Mzungu Aende Ulaya, Mwafrika Apate Uhuru, a Swahili phrase that translates to “the white man must go back to Europe for Africans to get independence.”
All efforts to brand Mau Mau a bad movement failed. The efforts instead yielded opposite results from what was intended.
Today, the word Mau Mau conjures up images of courage and patriotism. The Mau Mau movement is associated with positivity, great courage and sacrifice from the fighters. Mau Mau calcifies the spirit of triumph against odds.
Mau Mau remains the greatest revolutionary movement in Kenya and beyond.