Layers of the Mau Mau war

by Macharia Munene

Reflecting on the Mau Mau War is apt and refreshing as the major event that shocked the colonial world in Africa, particularly colonial Kenya, into independence. The War was part of the post-World War Two global forces whose anti-imperial ferocity scattered an emerging world order that global power brokers desired. Imperial powers, like Britain and France, had wanted to regain and entrench their control over the colonies but the colonial subjects wanted destruction of those colonial states. The outbreak of the Mau Mau War in the presumed ‘White Man’s Country’ in Africa symbolized that intense conflict. Since then, debates arose about the internal and global impact of that unique anti-colonial war, the Mau Mau War.

The debate stimulates the need to ‘recast’ the War as part of the continuing Africa’s struggle to liberate its past from lingering imperial control. The recasting shows that there were layers in the Mau Mau War raising the questions as to who was responsible for or did what. In the process, the War evokes intellectual binaries that involve blame shifting vs credit appropriation, down playing its role in Kenya’s independence vs claims it inspired global anti-colonialism, beneficiaries vs losers. Exploring Mau Mau by asking veterans and survivors, whose number is depleting fast, brings up hidden pains. As a result, remembering is itself an exploration into frustrated expectation and sense of betrayal by people the Mau Mau participants trusted. Their memories, individually and collectively, make it clear that most participants were in the third or fourth layers of Mau Mau policy making and operations. They were not at the top.

The occupants of the top, the conceptual and inspirational level, Mau Mau veterans included Jomo Kenyatta, Mbiyu Koinange, James Beauttah, Fred Kubai, and Jesse Kariuki alias Maitho ma Ruriri. These were among the first to take the various oaths before having them administered to regular people. Beauttah, for instance, became good in organizing ‘action’ men to handle perceived mzungu collaborators. Beauttah, partly responsible for sending Kenyatta to Europe, received his friend back to Kenya in 1946 at Mombasa and briefed him.

The returning Kenyatta had established his global credentials as an anti-imperialist and an intellectual of good standing. As a Pan-Africanist, Kenyatta had participated in the 1945 Pan-African Congress at Manchester in which he stressed the need to grab political power first, signed anti-colonial petitions to the United Nations. He returned to Kenya in 1946, being larger than life. He inspired people into activities that included oath taking to drive out the mzungu. It was Kenyatta, the veterans insist, who told them to do it. 

Second Mau Mau war layer

Below that was the layer of policy planning and recruitment that operated at Kiburi House. It initially involved, Gitu Kahengeri asserts, youngish people prodding their elders to organise and act forcefully. They had the ears of Kenyatta and his KCA buddy Kariuki. General Karari Njama remembers attending an invitation only policy meeting at Kiburi House; no gate crushers allowed. He attended the Kiburi meeting as a guest of his Alliance High School mate Julius Gikonyo Kiano whom he later escorted to the airport going to America. He also contributed five shillings to Kiano’s educational ‘harambee’.

Mau Mau War Veterans Association Secretary General Gitu wa Kahengeri

Kariuki, with Kenyatta, recruited people to create the fighting wing. It was Kenyatta, veterans say, who summoned Dedan Kimathi and Stanley Mathenge Mirugi to Nairobi and reportedly instructed them on what to do. Kenyatta, they claim, also gave Kimathi the gun portrayed in the Kimathi statue at Kahiga-ini, where Kimathi was captured. Kenyatta reportedly also met such people as Waruhiu Itote, best known as General China. Kariuki and Mathenge then engaged in heavy recruitment of potential fighters. It was Mathenge who recruited Karari partly because they were from the same neighborhood and he also needed a learned person as his secretary.  

There were tell-tale signs of the linkage involving Kenyatta, Kariuki, and future Mau Mau veterans. Veterans assert that in private and public meetings, Kenyatta committed himself to getting rid of the mzungu and that he could undo in two or three days what the mzungu had done in ten years. At the Kaloleni meeting, for instance, Kenyatta reportedly asked Kariuki whether there were enough people to fight and it was Kimathi who shouted in the affirmative. Shedding tears, Kenyatta warned the audience that the tree of freedom was not nourished on water but on blood. The public agreed. At Ruring’u stadium in 1952, he challenged the people to withstand the kicks as he held the horns; the audience cheered readiness.

The third layer, with Kenyatta and the KAU leadership in jail, was the actual fighting as people, some fearing arrest, flocked to the forest and took up arms or were rounded up and sent to detention camps. Initially, Mathenge was the leader but since he was illiterate and somehow limited in oratory skills and long term planning capacity, Kimathi gradually took over with his oratory and scheming prowess. That made him a living legend. Irrespective of rank and location, however, all veterans believed they were fighting for what Kenyatta told them, land and freedom. The same belief was found in various detention camps all over the colony; that Kenyatta had inspired to fight for land and freedom and possibly die doing so. In the detention were such luminaries as JM Kariuki and Pio Gama Pinto. Women were also in detention, many at Kamiti where Ngina Kenyatta and Miriam Mathenge, wives of Kenyatta and Mathenge, spent time digging marram in the quarry.

The fourth war layer: The chiefs, home guards and the Johnnies

The fourth layer was that of those herded into concentration camps called villages where chiefs, home guards, and Johnnies enjoyed torturing and harassing women. While one or two wazungu were humane, such as Wamwega alias John Nottingham, most were cruel and believed that a good kuke was dead. It is mostly the experience of the women and the youth in those villages that inform the fourth layer of those who survived the atrocities. One notorious home guard, so remembers Professor Kabiru Kinyanjui, had a habit of forcing people into trenches and then walking over their heads. In other instances, after killing a Mau Mau, they would drag the corpse to the village and force people to go and see their dead ‘independence’. We shall beat you now, some home guards reportedly boasted to their victims, and beat you some more when independence comes.  And some did.

The worldwide reaction to the shock of the Mau Mau destroying the image of a colonial paradise in Africa, White Man’s Country, varied. It went beyond the colony and created different layers in Mau Mau discourse. For Britain, managing the narrative was critical and so it went out of its way to control knowledge flow. First, it staged a kangroo court in Kapenguria, with a bribed retired judge presiding. Since the case attracted global attention, the political consequences were the opposite of the official intention to make Kenyatta a non-person and to create new compliant leaders for Africans. Second, Britain and the United States agreed to keep the Mau Mau War out of United Nations discussions. The problem was that the Mau Mau War remained the subject of global interest partly because it shattered the myth of a Happy Valley. Third, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill rejected US President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s suggestion of promising future autonomy to colonised people. He had no intention, he replied, of giving votes to the ‘hotentots’. One of the hotentots he probably had in mind was Kenyatta who in December 1952 was the subject of discussions in the House of Commons as to whether he wanted to expel white settlers from Kenya. It was wrong, so argued an MP to lock Kenyatta up simply because, like the prime minister, had mesmerizing oratory. Churchill simply wanted helicopters to drop a lot of bombs in the forest to flash out the Mau Mau.

In the world of imperial oppression, however, the Mau Mau War was thrilling and encouraging that it could actually be done. The African-Americans generally cheered the Mau Mau with a few, like Malcolm X later, claiming that the United States needed a Mau Mau to liberate the blacks in the South. In Southern Africa, so asserted Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe, Mau Mau showed them the way to earn freedom and so they mounted prolonged armed struggles. To all of them, Kenyatta, in his multifaceted attributes which included an intellectual assault on colonial benevolence, was their inspiration on how to end oppression. 

Debates about the Mau Mau War continue to arouse emotions partly because the home guards were seemingly correct in predicting their continued exercise of power in postcolonial times. Although they had supported continued colonialism, they were largely the beneficiaries of what they had fought against. Those who had been inspired to fight were disappointed. Kenyatta, observed Mau Mau survivor Professor Ngotho Kariuki, thwarted their plot to hang the home guards on December 12, 1963 with a plea not to give the hyena twice. Since just a few veterans and survivors got land and jobs, the narrative of neglect and betrayal picked up and still generates open and subdued resentment.

The debate on the Mau Mau War responsibility makes Kenyatta innocent and guilty; innocent because he did not go to the forest, guilty because he inspired and reportedly recruited those who fought. The guiding principle to Kenyatta’s thought is in his 1945 statements at Manchester, grab political power first and worry about the rest later. The method of grabbing power became the subject of decades of debate as to his role in the Mau Mau War. He was at least guilty of inspiration to action.

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