Book Review: The Mau Mau journey through the eyes of Henry Wachanga

by Evan Mbugua

Many chroniclers and writers of Mau Mau history tend to be outsiders – and second party to the liberation war.  And that explains why Karari Njama’s book was titled Mau Mau from Within. 

Another book that was from within is Henry Kahinga Wachanga’s The Swords of Kirinyaga; the fight for land and freedom, which offers a real account of the war from a Mau Mau veteran.

Wachanga’s book fits within the growing, but still infrequent, collection of first-hand accounts by Mau Mau veterans since thousands of them have died without offering their first-hand experience on the war.

Wachanga opens the book with a detailed context into the war – to have the reader understand the historical developments that led to Mau Mau war. His argument was that at first, the Agikuyu community embraced the White missionaries with a great sense of altruism. This is because the community’s social fabric, at the time, was woven with love for visitors. In fact, the community operated on the maxim of mugeni ni rui (a visitor is like river) – and thought the visitor’s would just flow away.  They were wrong.

The community therefore unreservedly embraced the Europeans into the highland areas. The missionaries cut the images of helpers and not oppressors; they came as preachers and not rulers. But the community, as they would later learn, had been trapped into colonial expansion of the British Empire.

It dawned on the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru that the settlers were on their land to stay. With time, the missionaries started bypassing the revered Council of Elders before implementing decisions.

By 1920, the British declared Kenya their Colony. Before that, they had cherry-picked chiefs from the society – usually from “the traitors” in the community. They earned “respect through fear,” Wachanga writes.

The colonialists imposed draconian rules including banning African from rearing cows and owning more than five sheep. Contravention of this rule resulted to imprisonment. With constrained sources of income, the Africans had one option; working for settlers. They earned meagre wages only enough to pay hut and poll taxes imposed.

Disgruntled, the Agikuyu formed underground resistance movements like Anake a Forty (Forty Group), a contingent of those circumcised in the 1940s. The group initiated oath taking.

Wachanga, who was the president of the Forty Group, informs us that the organization was banned in 1949. But that did little to deter oaths administration. It gained momentum and many people took it. The return of Jomo Kenyatta and Mbiyu Koinange, the establishment of Githunguri Teachers College, and the registration of KAU marked a new development in local politics.

The entry of Kenyatta into KAU leadership reinvigorated the party and soon he started country wide mass meetings in places like Kisumu, Nairobi, Thika, Meru, Nakuru and Mombasa. One memorable meeting happened at Kaloleni Hall, Nairobi in August 1952. It is here Jomo Kenyatta uttered the famous question; “will you sustain donkey kicks if I held it by the mandible?” The answer came loud and unambiguous in the affirmative.

The government backed on a mission of blackmailing the KAU leadership and members – with the chiefs playing a major role.

The assassination of Senior Chief Waruhiu and Nderi Wang’ombe of Kiambu and Nyeri respectively was the first indicator that the war was on – if you add the killing of two settlers Michael Jones and Eric Bowler in the Rift Valley .

It was after Waruhiu’s death that the State of Emergency was declared and the government arrested KAU leaders and about 180 other people associated with Mau Mau in an operation called Jock Scott. Yet again, what was an attempt to clip Mau Mau failed. Fighters joined the forest in droves.

The war became intense. The colonial government imported Lincoln and Havard bomber airplanes to launch aerial attacks on Mau Mau camps in Nyandarua and Mt. Kenya Forests.

But one General Ndung’u Gicheru shot a plane down much to the disbelief of government. Wachanga offers more insights into how Gicheru was able to shoot the airplane down.

Wachanga’s says that Gicheru used to climb the tallest tree in the forest and suspend himself on a branch. This means he was at an elevated level and nearer the aircraft. Gicheru aimed for the airplane wings where the fuel tanks were located. This shocked the government which was running out of options in suppressing the war.

In early 1955, the colonial government dropped leaflets in the forests announcing amnesty to all Mau Mau fighters willing to surrender. The Mau Mau quickly discerned this plan as a decoy. Only a handful of fighters surrendered in what was another failed attempt at dismantling the freedom movement.

But Governor Sir Evelyn Barring had more plans. He sent an emissary of some fighters who had surrendered to the forest with a message to Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi. The government was willing to negotiate with Kimathi and the Mau Mau leadership. Wachanga met the messengers and wrote to the government on behalf of Dedan Kimathi who was away. He enumerated Mau Mau demands before any negotiations could take place.

The book takes readers through this process. Interestingly, Wachanga notes that Mau Mau abhorred any mention of Jesus Christ even in prayers. The fighters believed that Jesus Christ had given powers to colonial government to oppress Africans. Instead, they believed in Gikuyu and Mumbi, the founders of Kikuyu community.

However, negotiation took off albeit riddled with many disruptions due to hard-line positions the parties took. We learn that the government had grown tired of the forest fights. General Heiman, a senior government representative, is quoted admitting that guns and arrests had failed to stop the war. This implied that the government saw negotiations as the surest method to peace.

But before making significant progress, the negotiations flopped for obvious reasons: The Mau Mau wanted expropriation of all land in the hands of settlers before exiting the forest. They also demanded disarmament of all police officers in addition to the government relinquishing power to Mau Mau.

Realizing the colonial government could not consent their demands, the Mau Mau abandoned the negotiation path and went back to the forest to continue fighting.

After a few days back into the forest, Wachanga was arrested and detained. His story of life in detention is horrifying. He was taken to various detention camps and from his account, the facilities were death centres.

For example, the book details activities of a Maasai warden called Jole who killed many Mau Mau at Embakasi Prison. Europeans prison officers paid him Sh5 for every dead body. Failure to kill prisoners was seen as laxity. The money was a great incentive to the warden who killed many Mau Mau suspects.

The author says that the Nyeri District Camp was christened Ngai Ndeithia (God Help Me). In this camp, men went for days without food. Wachanga was at Hola Detention Camp when 11 detainees were flogged to death.

Though The Swords of Kirinyaga  was first published by the East African Literature Bureau in 1975, it is still one of the books that explains the atrocities committed to Africans during the colonial government period.

This book is available at the Ukombozi Library in Nairobi.

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