The soft war Mau Mau tactics that drained British soldiers

by Evan Mbugua

The Mau Mau war continues to baffle scholars and psychologists – decades after independence. How untrained villagers could wage an armed war and keep the British soldiers at bay has always intrigued military scholars. But what intrigues most scholars is the endurance of the fighters living in the forest and how they were able to organise attacks against the government. That required some level of military intelligence which, still, has never been appreciated.

While the government soldiers had sophisticated weapons, the Mau Mau possessed homemade guns and few conventional guns. But how did the fighters overcome all odds to become what is probably one of biggest revolutionary movement?

First, the lives of the Mau Mau fighters were deliberately unpredictable. The settlers and the security officers could not follow patterns of the groups held together by a powerful oath.  It was this oath of secrecy – more like the Colonial Secrets Act – helped the fighters to prevent leakages of their plans and daily routine. In many instances, the fighters walked long distances without raising the attention of the police and government sympathisers. 

When Mau Mau fighters joined the forest, they did not only lose a roof over their heads; they also sacrificed their normal lifestyles.  Unlike other revolutionary movements, the Mau Mau did not have known military headquarters within the forest but operated from caves and other hide-outs. That meant they could move from one place to another with ease because they did not have permanent structures.  It is now appreciated that this helped the fighters employ the use of guerrilla war tactics with ease.

With the help of some of the fighters who had previous exposure in military operations during the World Wars, Mau Mau became synonymous with impromptu attacks on government installations and instant withdrawl. But the guerrilla war also meant the fighters were able to conduct raids far from their domiciles. This always complicated investigations since they could easily slip into the neighbourhoods undetected.

Mau Mau fighters were also known to usually wear a wide leather belt which the fighters could tie on strong branches to catch some sleep at night. This belt was used to suspend the fighters up the trees to avoid being attacked by wild animals at night. The belt also prevented fighters from falling when they fell asleep.

However, what puzzled the colonial government at the time was Mau Mau’s ability to secure food from the reserves. When the British implemented the villagisation policy, they thought they had eliminated the food supply chains to the forest. But that was hardly the case.  Food and other essentials were delivered to the forest fighters by the symapthisers. The success of this food supply chain hinged on several factors. One of these factors was that Mau Mau members were time conscious. Those who delivered food from the reserve observed agreed delivery timelines.

In the same vein, the Mau Mau tasked with picking the food also kept agreed time. Delays in food delivery raised red flags. In some cases, the fighters sent to collect food would retreat into the forest without food.

The fighters were people of high morals. Despite Mau Mau troops comprising men and women, it was a taboo to have intimate relationships. Any infractions on this rule were always met with disciplinary action before a cleansing ceremony was conducted. Any form of immorality was never condoned.

The war instilled discipline among the fighters and cultivated a spirit of self-sacrifice and self-denial. Those who were in courtship before the war broke out opted for kianuthu. This involved suspension of intimacy until end of the war.

For the fighters, information, nay intelligence, from the reserves was treasured. Since the fighters could not freely walk in the villages and escape arrests, the Mau Mau deployed camouflage tactics to enter the villages. Some men dressed like women and could easily walk in the villages. A good example is a man called  Kabeere alias Ciokiuria who was part of the Musa Mwariama’s troop. He is said to have possessed feminine body structure. Kabeere wore false breasts and could even go to the market to purchase food for the Mau Mau.

This strategy was used in battle too. During the Mbaara ya Rui Ruiru in Nyeri, Mau Mau deployed a man called Faranja to spy on police movements. Faranja, dressed like a woman, walked past the police and overheard their conversations planning to attack the fighters at the river bank. Faraja made assessments of the police and reported the same to Mau Mau.

Mau Mau proved hard to understand. The British government realised it was hard to contain the Mau Mau without aerial surveillance. The government invested in Lincoln and Havards airplanes and activated air strikes on Mau Mau camps in the forest. But that still proved ineffective as earlier planned.   At one point, the Mau Mau shot a plane in a move that shocked the government. This is credited to General Ndungu Gicheru.

Mau Mau war strategies always changed and this confused the government into conducting ineffective strikes. They would, for instance, light fire in one camp but leave and hide somewhere else. Upon seeing the billowing smoke, the government would drop bombs in the camp but end up killing no one.

Some of these war strategies complicated counter measures for the government. Despite the government having the intelligence and monopoly to own weapons, the Mau Mau war became hard for the British to contain and it took them more time than they had planned. That is why even by the time of Independence, there were Mau Mau troops in the forest.

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Michael Ng'ang'a October 26, 2021 - 5:57 am

Kenyatta was loyal to British govt and that’s how he acquired the presidency, a hater of his own kind. Matigari ma njirûngi and their families still suffering of poverty and land they bleed for was awarded to British sympathisers

Major (rtd) Joseph Mwangi October 27, 2021 - 10:05 pm

Thanks for the information. I study assymetrical warfare. I used to teach in our military college.

Jesse Kinyua October 29, 2021 - 6:19 am

Excellent history,kudos!

Dr. Nyamu-Njoka October 31, 2021 - 2:58 pm

These stories need to be told and retold to our young generation

Pauline Wahinya November 21, 2021 - 5:11 am

Amazing, let us know more about the Mau Mau. Give us the Name of the General’s.
In every forest.


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