How the British failed to prevent the Mau Mau war

by Evan Mbugua

Every so often, a lie finds its way into most discourses on Mau Mau: that the freedom fighters were a bunch of disgruntled uncivilised people who opted for a life in the forest over comfortable living conditions that the British “offered”.

As such, the real story of the Mau Mau war is lost in a myriad of biased stories propagated by the Western Press and historians. Some scholars argue that Mau Mau members were few and operated without the backing of the communities.

But that is untrue. Many Mau Mau veterans interviewed by reveal that the freedom movement had the backing of the majority of the communities. The formation of Mau Mau was not only endogenous but also, in the context of the oppression perpetrated by the colonialists, the right thing to do.  

From the onset, those who joined Mau Mau knew exactly what they wanted. In fact, the initial name of the freedom struggle was Kenya Lands and Freedom Army (KLFA).

From 1947, years before the calcification of Mau Mau into a militant unit, Africans made several attempts at gaining independence through nonviolent means. However, the colonial establishment was not willing to listen. As years passed, Africans found a need to get alternative methods to gain independence.   

By October 1952, Kenyan masses, especially the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru had grown impatient with dialogue as a means to freedom from colonialism. Mbiyu Koinange and Achieng Aneko had travelled to London seeking to ensure a peaceful transition to African self-government.

In his book Roots of Freedom 1921–1963, Bildad Kaggia elucidates the frustrations of Kenyans after the return of Mbiyu and Achieng from London. He writes: “Our expectations were fulfilled when Achieng Oneko returned from Britain and said that the British Colonial Secretary did not meet them. Achieng also proved a very good representative for our cause when he described the treatment the deputation received from the Colonial Secretary. All his emphasis on the insulting attitude of the British towards Africans helped our committee convince the people that deputations to London were useless, a waste of our money and time.”

In Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, through the Kenya Citizens’ Association, tried to convince British settlers to relinquish land to Kenyans. His attempt was thwarted, opening avenues for armed conflict.  

When the British used brute force to quell genuine calls for freedom, KLFA morphed into a militant group. While some of its members went into the forest for armed struggle, others opted for nonviolent means to agitate for independence. Political formations became one of the routes to Kenya’s freedom.

These failed attempts caused disillusion among Africans who had already lost land and inherent freedoms to the colonialists.

According to Maina Kinyatti, a Mau Mau researcher and scholar, the lives of Africans living in Nairobi at the time were characterized by chronic unemployment, hopeless housing conditions and inevitable police harassment and brutality.

The number of people dissatisfied with oppressive living conditions grew enormously. These people “gradually decided to do something about these unbearable conditions; they began to organize themselves into an anti-colonial group called the “Forty’s Group” (Anake a 40). The membership of the group included the more militant patriots such as Fred Kubai. Charles Wambaa, Mwangi Macharia, Eliud Mutonyi, Isaac Gathanju, Stanley Mathenge, Domenico Ngatu and many others.”

Kinyatti says “the first task of Mau Mau’s overall strategy, say between 1950 to 1952, was to educate, mobilize and unite as many people as possible against British occupation. Oathing as a traditional pledge of commitment was designed as an instrument to unite those who could be united around the Movement. The basic aim of the organizers of Mau Mau was not to create a movement of a particular class or nationality, but a nationalist movement that united the ranks of the workers, peasants, members of the petty bourgeois and other patriotic elements who were determined to fight colonialism and imperialism for national independence.

When Dedan Kimathi wrote a letter to Fenner Brockway, a British politician, the true reasons to the formation of Mau Mau came to the fore. Kimathi slayed propaganda and misinformation regarding Mau Mau. He noted that Mau Mau was not “fighting for an everlasting hatred” but wanted to  “create a true and real brotherhood between whites and blacks” in a bid to ensure that the British  recognised Africans “as people and as human beings who can do each and everything.”

The letter amplifies the positions of Mau Mau veterans interviewed by this writer. Joram Muchuni for example, a veteran living in Nyeri, says that Brockway advised Kenyatta to encourage mass oathing of the people.   

Another veteran Elios Nyaga remembers contributing money to help Mau Mau secure the services of  Brockway. Nyaga, who was a Mau Mau Youth Delegate, told this writer that Brockway disliked the mistreatment of Africans through colonialism. Nyaga claims that Brockway came to Kenya stayed with Mau Mau for over a week.

After having meetings with Mau Mau, Brockway later met British government representatives including the Governor and expressed displeasure with the mistreatment of Africans.

But Fenner Brockway was not the only European who was in constant touch with the Mau Mau architects. Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi sent innumerable letters to the Government of Egypt and India.

It is therefore not right to say that Mau Mau did not have any backing beyond the Kikuyu Embu and Meru communities.

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