In search of heroes: A discourse

by Macharia Munene

As a country, post-colonial Kenya has been in constant search for heroes, and at one time created a Vincent Simiyu led Committee to go around looking for them. Although Simiyu found people who had participated in the Mau Mau War in the 1950s scattered all over from the lake in the west going eastward to the coast region, those people hardly feature in Mau Mau discourses. Those, however, are just a segment of people who disappear into forgotten-land. Those in the forgotten-land are people as well as historical places.

Historian/Journalist John Kamau is angry because post-colonial Kenya seems to have its priorities wrong. It is a shame, he asserts, that Kenya has neglected/forgotten Kiburi House on Kirinyaga Road, the Mau Mau engine room, while preserving a colonial relic in Karen Blixen House in Karen. Noting that it was at Kiburi House, not Karen House, that Kenya’s independence was hatched in the form of the Mau Mau War, Kamau asks: “If we have preserved Karen Blixen’s House, as a national monument, why haven’t we done the same for Kiburi House? Where is our history, where is our past?” In Kamau’s subdued anger is the concern over not so hidden glorification of colonialism alongside concocted national amnesia on the Mau Mau War which Kiburi House represents.

As a result of manufactured forgetfulness of Kenya’s anti-colonial history, the purported national search for heroes keeps coming short of finding the heroes. This is mainly because of two realities that promote glorification of colonialism while downplaying the Mau Mau War. First, the post-colonial “heroes” radar, probably designed with the help of departing colonialists, appears disjointed and dysfunctional. Second, the software was seemingly programmed to miss some people and at the same time pick strange ones to receive “Awards”. There is, therefore, a pattern that would explain the ‘awards’.

The awards appear to fit a three way formula that has little to do with heroism. First, awards come with appointment as ministers, top bureaucrats, or heads of large parastatals. The appointment is therefore a process of creating artificial heroes who are then rewarded with ‘awards.’ As a result, such appointees automatically receive high sounding awards befitting their new public status. Second, there are those who force themselves into the award by their novelty and achievement that capture national, and world, imagination that are then hard to ignore. These include world record breakers in athletics or other world achievements that attract good attention to Kenya.  They force policy makers to notice them because the world would have noticed them. Third are the many in-betweens, those who do not get it because of high positions or forcing their way into the awards. There are people mostly in various uniformed services, whose awards go with certain ranks or achieved feats. There also are those who “know people” and have connections to ministers, powerful bureaucrats, or the well placed. 

Irrespective of how they get those “awards”, and despite doubts in the public mind, the software portrays all such people as “heroes”. Subsequently, the doubts that arise are in comparison with real heroes, some of them visible in their squalor. These unsung Kenyans, whose heroism and contribution are well known, are seemingly best forgotten because they embarrass those who receive or decide who gets those awards. Among the most outstanding of the unsung heroes, those forgotten as if they had never been, is General Karari Njama of the anti-colonial Land and Freedom Army that is best accepted and known worldwide as “Mau Mau.” He is not the only Mau Mau general that is still breathing and proud of his anti-colonial activities but he is among the most unique. He was unique during the Mau Mau War and he is still unique in the post-colonial Kenya that he helped to liberate.

Part of his uniqueness was that Karari was the only Mau Mau forest fighter who had attended Alliance High School. This was during World War II, known locally as the war of the Italians (Mbaara ya Matariani), up to 1946. He then became a teacher in the independent schools that looked up to Githunguri Teachers College as their university in preparation for independence. His class/dorm/schoolmates at Alliance became famous and powerful in post-colonial Kenya. He remembers Njoroge Mungai as his prefect in Livingstone House and gets excited mentioning “Dr. Munyua Waiyaki” (wakini wakwa) and “Dr. Julius Gikonyo Kiano”. It was Kiano, Karari asserts, who took him to Kiburi House where activists were cooking up anti-colonial strategies. He also contributed five shillings for Kiano’s American education and escorted Kiano to the airport. He does not have fond memories of Carey Francis, his mathematics and English teacher, and remembers Kenyatta’s return from Europe in 1946.

Karari joined the Kenya African Union, KAU, attended Kenyatta’s public meetings, and vividly remembers the meeting at Kaloleni, Nairobi. He confirms that Kenyatta had turned to KCA man Jesse Kariuki and had asked whether there were enough people to fight, “andu ni aiganu”, but before Kariuki could respond Dedan Kimathi shouted that there were enough people. It was at this point in time that Kenyatta wept and warned his audience that the tree of freedom takes blood and not water. Later, at Ruring’u Stadium in Nyeri, Kenyatta dared people to withstand the kicks as he held the horns; the people excitedly agreed to do that. It was a symbolic declaration of war on colonialism.

Other veterans note that there existed special relationship between Kenyatta and some young men, particularly Kimathi and Stanley Mathenge wa Mirugi. He also probably had similar relationship with Waruhiu Itote, General China. It was Kenyatta who reportedly summoned Kimathi and Mathenge to Nairobi and instructed them on what to do. Some veterans claim that Kenyatta gave Kimathi the gun portrayed in the Kimathi statue at Kahiga-ini, where Kimathi was captured. It was Mathenge who recruited Karari partly because they were from the same neighborhood and most importantly because Karari was “thomed” and could become his secretary. In the forest, when the Kimathi-Mathenge leadership feud erupted, Karari switched from the Mathenge to the Kimathi side and thus became the Mau Mau record keeper in the forest. He remembers Kimathi as strict, an orator, and visionary. Captured in 1956, Karari ended up in the same Manda island detention camp with Achieng Oneko, Pio Gama Pinto, and Gitu Kahengeri but he was kept in isolation to avoid contaminating other prisoners with his radicalism.

Karari, along with James Beauttah, is symbolic of national consciousness deficit on the part of post-colonial leadership. Leaders of independent Kenya knew both Karari and Beauttah as anti-colonial comrades but they seemingly preferred to have their pre-Mau Mau ‘friends’ disappear into contrived national amnesia. Karari’s comrades at Alliance, once in power, wanted little to do with him. He does not grumble or beg and lives in a small “magoko” house in the three acre plot he bought in 1963. He is not, however, lonely in the compound for he has the company of his youngest daughter, a high school granddaughter, and an active primary school grandson called Njama. Little Njama claims to be older than the grandfather, and the general loves it. With his chin up and his gaze penetrating the future, he is proud despite the collar in his shirt wearing out.

General Karari Njama

Karari, the Mau Mau man, and Kiburi House, the Mau Mau monument, are constant reminders of a country gone astray in terms of national history and identity and occasionally has to be reminded by people in other countries about Mau Mau’s global importance. It was an immediate source of international curiosity because it disturbed the international order of white domination. It, Malcolm X observed, “frightened the white man” and liberated Kenya and Africa. Globally, the term Mau Mau acquired common usage to represent intense socio-political and ideological/intellectual disputes that did not necessarily refer to violence in Kenya. Calling anyone ‘Mau Mau’ was either praise or insult depending on positions in anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism.

That post-colonial Kenya had to be reminded of such Mau Mau realities by others is, as Kamau would put it, shameful. Among those who openly took pride in Mau Mau were mostly freedom fighters in Southern Africa and in North America. There was South Africa’s Nelson Mandela who, in Nairobi in July 1990, declared, “In my twenty seven years of imprisonment, I always saw the image of fighters such as Kimathi, China, and others as candles in my long and hard war against injustice…. It is an honour for any freedom fighter to pay respect to such heroes.” And Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, in October 2012 was clear: “We see ourselves in those resilient Mau Mau fighters.” And if it worked in Kenya, it could probably work even in the United States where Malcolm X talked of the Mau Mau as an appropriate “revolution” for African Americans.

Karari is among the forgotten real heroes that the country chooses to ignore. The ignoring is not accidental for it appears to be part of a pattern. The heroes’ radar is probably disjointed, dysfunctional, and has software that was designed to miss the ‘real’ ones while it identifies peculiar ones for “Awards”. Despite a post-colonial national environment that discourages ‘history’, partly to bury the Mau Mau into irrelevancy, the issue refuses to disappear. This is because the search for heroes of the Mau Mau type, which Karari represents, continues.

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Vincent G. SImiyu September 18, 2021 - 3:50 pm

This is an excellent historical discourse Worthy keeping or better included in a school or college book.

Dr. kenneth ombongi September 18, 2021 - 4:46 pm

Excellent exegesis of the most controversial of History subjects in Kenya. Surely, the search for Mau Mau heroes & heroines is on! In itself is a Mau Mau of sorts!

Bernard D Njuguna September 18, 2021 - 7:07 pm

Rest we forget. A country that ignores her heroes and heroines is destined to oblivion. Keep reminding us.

Gachoka King'ori September 19, 2021 - 6:57 am

What a piece of heritage…thanks a million

Professor Kayode Soremekun September 19, 2021 - 4:38 pm

My friend and Colleague.
Many thanks for your insightful write-up on the anti-colonial struggle in Kenya.
On the platform of literature a lot of what you wrote has been renderef in Ngugi’s books.According to him the real heroes of the struggle have been marginalized.Books like A Grain of Wheat,Maitigari are being referred to here.He has even gone ahead to question the anti-colonial credentials of Kenyatta.Again there is an article titled:Settlers Under the Skin.This refers to those who inherited Kenya after the supposed departure of the British.However thanks again for keeping this issue alive


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