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Between 1952 and 1959, the Kenya Government declared “a state of emergency” due to the Mau Mau rebellion, which aimed to end Britain’s reign in the colony (Bureau of African Affairs 2007, p.3). This declaration allowed for martial law and the period became known as simply The Emergency (Bureau of African Affairs 2007, p.3). The Emergency and the emergence of Mau Mau can be seen as the beginning of “the end of humiliation” for Kenya in comparison to the end of the French colonization of Algeria (Thomas, M. 2014, p.xi). The British had multiple definitions of Mau Mau and what it meant to be a member. Mau Mau was perceived as, and arguably was, a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds who had formed groups within the Mau Mau framework with varying goals (Odhiambo, A.E.S, Lonsdale, J. 2003 p.10). British propaganda convinced the public that Mau Mau committed “openly anti-White and also anti-Christian” acts with the intention of forcibly expelling settlers from Kenya through threats of physical harm, coercion, and revolt (Leakey, L.S.B. 1952, p.ix). Individuals who participated in Mau Mau, however fragmented the organization, perceived the insurgency as their only hope towards freeing Kenya from Britain’s grasp and obtaining “umoja” or unity as a nation (Kershaw, G. 1997, p.248). The concept of independent Kenya did arise from desire for umoja as many Kenyans fought with the British against the Mau Mau; however, many Kenyans try to forget this reality and replace it with an imagined memory of cultural unity. This is true of not only Kenya, but also of many post-colonial states that have achieved nationhood through the spilling of “fratricidal blood” (Odhiambo, A.E.S, Lonsdale, J. 2003 p.1). Despite the human rights violations and military rule that existed between 1952 and 1963, the insurgency was not to be blamed on the Mau Mau rebels or the military forces as it was a product of state failure (Kariuki, J.M. 1964, p.16). General Erskine wrote that Kenya was “a shady land for shady people” (Anderson, D. 2006, p.85).

As part of The Emergency, and the martial law it included, “tens of thousands of Kikuyu died” as a result of the violence, the detention camps, and the poor conditions on the Kikuyu Reservation (Bureau of African Affairs 2007, p.3). The total casualties of the British were around six hundred fifty people, including both settlers and active combatants (Bureau of African Affairs 2007, p.3). The rise of major political figures, such as Jomo Kenyatta, who would become Kenya’s first president, came from this era of unrest (Bureau of African Affairs 2007, p.3). On 14 December 1960, the United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution 1514 on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples enabled the colony of Kenya to become independent. However, British claims that the colony was unprepared for integration into the modern state system prevented the immediate independence (Thomas, M. 2014, p.xiii). This was after the British had militarily defeated Mau Mau, but were actively losing a battle to Mau Mau ideology because of their excessive use of force and imposition of penalties on the Kikuyu. Kenya’s need for a unified history, the lack of British accountability, and the capricious nature in which Mau Mau operated has allowed the memory of Mau Mau to continue to change form from 1953 until the present.


Mau Mau Beginnings

Mau Mau drew its membership primarily from the Kikuyu tribe, but also from “Emnu and Meru ethnicities” (Odhiambo, A.E.S, Lonsdale, J. 2003, p.3). The Kikuyu tribe had the highest population of Kenya’s sixty-four tribes with about one and a half million individuals at the time of The Emergency (Lewis, J. 2007, p.205) (T. arap Moi, 1986, p.3). In the Kikuyu tradition, the ability to gain property, pursue personal motivations, marry, have children, and be equal with one’s associates defined ones status as an adult. An individual was perceived as unsuccessful in reaching adulthood unless all of these criteria were attained (Thomas, M. 2014, p.225). The presence of British settlers and leadership deprived the Kikuyu of “self mastery” or adulthood (Thomas, M. 2014, p.225). The near impossible accumulation of wealth forced the Kikuyu into poverty (Thomas, M. 2014, p.225). This is why the geographical focus of the insurgency was predominantly in the White Highlands where many poor Kikuyu families were living as squatters on settler’s land. The families, which were squatters, or tenant farmers, were considered “landless” (Kershaw, G. 1997, p.248). The “landed” Kikuyu, usually elders or prominent leaders of the community, were still oppressed by the British rule, but did not lose their land through force. This increasingly hierarchical system disturbed the traditional systems of “rural life, gender relations, and generational deference,” and created chaos within the Kikuyu tribe (Thomas, M. 2014, p.225). Thus, the Mau Mau insurgency arose from the ability of the individual to provide for his or herself as a “self-respect[ing]” adult as defined by the Kikuyu tradition (Thomas, M. 2014, p.221).

During The Emergency the Governor of Kenya, Sir Philip Mitchell, voiced aspirations for the coexistence and cooperation between the settlers and the tribes of Kenya for the advancement of the colony. Out of this rhetoric arose moderate political parties such as the Kenya Africa Union, led by Jomo Kenyatta, which gained a following in “late 1940” (Thomas, M. 2014, p.223). The KAU was a peaceful political union that was deemed “pan-tribal” by the British. Thomas suggests that the term “pan-tribal” should be understood to mean having a membership that exists across ethnicities rather than returning to pre-contemporary cultural traditions. Mau Mau became a “radical offshoot” of Kenyatta’s KAU, made famous not by its success, but by the British understanding of the insurgents and propaganda of fear led by the British government. Mau Mau is literally “translatable as the ‘greedy eaters’ of chief elder’s authority” and was known by the British for its occasional tribal brutality and furtive methods of operation (Thomas, M. 2014, p.223).

After the KAU was banned during The Emergency for its perceived linkage with Mau Mau it became known to the Kikuyu as the “Association of three initials,” a code name which disguised it as the KCA (Kikuyu Central Association) and the KGU (Kikuyu General Union) (Leakey, L.S.B. 1952, p.97). The British claimed that the Kenya African Union took oaths similar to the Mau Mau oaths and therefore had the same or similar member groups, including Jomo Kenyatta (Leakey, L.S.B. 1952, p.96). The KAU was alone in having multiple names. Mau Mau was not the Kikuyu name for the insurgency, but rather the product of British propaganda posed to the European and British colonists (Newsinger, J. 2002, p.63). By the Kikuyu, the movement was called a variety of names including “Muingi” translated as “the movement, ‘Muigwithania, or ‘The Unifier,’ ‘Muma wa Uiguano’ or ‘The Oath of Unity” (Newsinger, J. 2002, p.63).

Many settlers believed the British government was adequately reacting to the needs and hardships of the Kikuyu (Rosberg, C. G. 1966, p.321). Lord Cranworth, one of the more prominent British settlers, condemned individuals who claimed the British reign in Kenya had not helped the “native population of East Africa, [or] that their interests have been neglected and… ‘exploited” by the British settlers (Cranworth, B. F. G. 1939, p.22). Even though his book, Kenya Chronicles, was written twenty years before Mau Mau, it is a perfect illustration of the settlers’ naivety to the plight of the Kikuyu. From this viewpoint, Mau Mau was understood as a revival of previous spiritual practices that the British settlers and missionaries had been trying to remove from Kikuyu culture. Mau Mau oaths were connected to ancient Kikuyu religious practices, despite the organization having only political aims (Thomas, M. 2014, p.224). This led the settlers to perceive Mau Mau as a regression to pre-modern, tribal conduct as a result of being unable to adapt to contemporary ideals (Rosberg, C. G. 1966, p.321). It was propagandized that The Emergency was a conflict between barbarity and “civilization” and the British aim was to ‘civilize’ the Kikuyu (Anderson, D. 2006, p.1).

The British perceived members of Mau Mau as attempting to convert all Kikuyu, and then the rest of Kenya’s tribes, to aid in the rebellion. Leakey was vocal that the Kikuyu made up a large proportion of Mau Mau as members were threatened into joining Mau Mau (Leakey, L.S.B. 1952, p.ix-x). In his 1952 book, Leakey claimed that individuals who had taken the Mau Mau oaths were requesting “cleansing ceremonies” to be rid of the oath. He understood this as a symbol of Mau Mau decline, whereas he was simply seeing the result of pressure applied by the opposing military forces (Leakey, L.S.B. 1952, p.104). This only illustrates that Leakey was not only incorrect about his perceptions of Mau Mau, but his statement, “I know the Kikuyu better than any white man living—I am in so many ways Kikuyu myself” subverts the credibility of his writings (Leakey, L.S.B. 1952, p.viii).

The European belief that modernity and capitalism would end conflict in Kenya stemmed from their experience in the ‘developed’ world; colonists perceived the root of all violence to be a lack of economic growth. Their presence in Kenya as capitalists only perpetuated this thought, so in order to give perceived development to the Kenyans; they advocated for additional financial gain as a colony, rather than the better living conditions for the working people (Rosberg, C. G. 1966, p.322). This financial gain was predominantly sought through increased agriculture, which in turn needed increased numbers of laborers. This exacerbated the cause of the rebellion as many Kikuyu who would oath to Mau Mau, were living on settlers’ land as agricultural laborers and sharecroppers.

Mau Mau fighters were often known as forest fighters due to the areas in which they operated. Unfortunately, the forests and mountains of Kenya promoted the secretive image for which Mau Mau was known (Rosberg, C. G. 1966, p.320). Mau Mau fighters were largely cut off from communication and family, which furthered their reputation of secrecy and allowed for the myths surrounding their activities to fester (Rosberg, C. G. 1966, p.320). The position of the forest fighters demanded that they put their lives, and the lives of their families in danger. However, the movement did not split under this pressure as the members of Mau Mau were held together by the promises of the movement to have a nation of their own in which they would partake in equal part with all people and be entitled to rights as citizens (Odhiambo, A.E.S, Lonsdale, J. 2003, p.77). This goal was both the driving force behind the Mau Mau and their motivation to continue the insurgency.


British Perception of the Insurgency

The Mau Mau insurgency was readily interpreted as a nationalistic “Peasants’ Revolt” brought about by the legal, social, and financial inequalities instituted by the colonial government and constructed by the British Empire, but the settler’s fear of the Mau Mau led the insurgency to be interpreted as violent and heathen from the outset (Clayton, A. 1976, p.1). It was the Kenyan government that authorized harsh emergency measures scaled to merely a step behind full scale “genocidal war” (Bennett, H. 2012, p.1; 6). These regulations consisted of involuntary migration, “beatings, rape, torture and shootings” for those who were suspected to have taken Mau Mau oaths (Bennett, H. 2012, p.6). During The Emergency, the army normally operated without much political supervision; thus, attempts to restrict the army or express concerns about military practices, such as prisoner handling, were easily ignored (Bennett, H. 2012, p. 266-7). Three groups fought against Mau Mau, including the loyalists, the normal Kenyan police forces, and the British soldiers (Thomas, M. 2014, p.219). As part of this military government, the Kenyan forces were able to shoot freely in the forests where Mau Mau were hiding without any prior warning or challenge from the rebels. All properties “could be searched,” and individuals detained without valid justification, especially if these people were Kikuyu (Clayton, A. 1976, p.13). These emergency regulations allowed the government to issue “detention orders” for any person of Kikuyu ethnicity that was “suspected” of being a member of Mau Mau without any evidence or due process (Clayton, A. 1976, p.14).

Anderson claims that the bureaucratization of the fighting escalated the violence as it became normalized through government processes and record keeping (Lewis, J. 2007, p.204). For example, Operation Anvil caused the other tribes to hesitate in joining the Kikuyu in Mau Mau, which caused Mau Mau’s military options to falter (Newsinger, J. 2002, p.73). Kenyan forces were unified in the effort to end Mau Mau; however, the British forces did disagree with the Kenyan forces on a few occasions, as they tended to sympathize with the Kikuyu (Bennett, H. 2012, p.266). The British soldiers dispatched to Kenya realized that the insurgency was the result of inequalities inside Kenya and were known to intentionally miss aim when ordered to kill and on occasion forcibly prevented the Kenyan forces from committing human rights violations (Bennett, H. 2012, p.264). While the assumption was that the British colonies were made independent through these sympathetic actions and peaceful processes; the Foreign Office archives recently migrated to London indicate deliberate oppression of the Kikuyu and attempts to eradicate Mau Mau (Bennett, H. 2012, p.268).

The government’s “rehabilitation” program was designed specifically to remove the plague of Mau Mau from thousands of Kikuyu detainees (Rosberg, C. G. 1966, p.334). Christian missions such as the ‘Church of the Torch’ were used for these purposes. Christian missions had been established by many denominations, including the Church of Scotland decades earlier to convert the Kikuyu to Christianity and teach them British traditions (Russell, D. 1917-1955). During The Emergency, many Kikuyu were Christians, but they also recognized their tribal culture. The Protestant missions which operated in Kenya disallowed the ability “of selective change,” which would allow for the adherence to specific practices in both the Kikuyu and British or Christian traditions (Rosberg, C. G. 1966, p.105). This ostracized the Kikuyu by forcing them to choose between Christianity and Mau Mau, perpetuating the belief that Mau Mau was a religion. By the settlers, Mau Mau was understood to be “a return to paganism and the work of the Devil” (Lewis, J. 2007, p.206). Leakey believed Mau Mau could be practiced like a religion and passed between settlements and ethnicities like an infection, and that those under its influence were more similar to animals than humans (Lewis, J. 2007, p.206). In October 1953, Thomas Askwith was put in charge of a program to reform members of Mau Mau, aided by anthropologist Louis Leakey (Elkin, C. 2005, p.104). He claimed that the Mau Mau oaths were against ancient Kikuyu tradition and would be invalid if the individual “confessed” and took part in a “traditional cleansing ceremony” (Elkin, C. 2005, p.107). Askwith’s rehabilitation program was called the Pipeline and was designed to alter the mentality of groups, rather than that of individuals (Elkin, C. 2005, p.109).

As the government became more and more fearful of Mau Mau’s bearing on Kikuyu society, the human rights violations they committed escalated (Thomas, M. 2014, p.219). These human rights violations were not limited to “over a thousand hangings after preemptory trial, mass population removal, lethal beatings, sexual torture, and a network of detention” camps (Thomas, M. 2014, p.219). In one of Kenya’s main three detention camps, Mageta, which was placed on an island off Kenya’s coast, detainees were worked to death or until they conceded to being part of the Mau Mau movement. Detainees were assigned pointless tasks that involved arduous manual labor such as “uproot[ing] huge trees [and] carry[ing] heavy loads on three-mile journeys” (Itote, W. 1967, p.121). Kikuyu were unable to hold land in all but “2,000 square miles” between upwards of a million individuals, on the other hand, 30,000 colonists held “12,000 square miles” of prime agricultural land (Newsinger, J. 2002, p.61). Unemployed, impoverished, desperate people inhabited the overpopulated Kikuyu reservation (Newsinger, J. 2002, p.61). There was a hierarchy on the reserves, which created a “landlord class” that would back the government, while the landless majority was being swallowed by economic hardships. At the conflict’s maximum extent, 77,000 Kikuyu were held captive in detention camps (Newsinger, J. 2002, p.73).

In the total conflict, British and European losses only amounted to thirty-two settlers, whereas, the Kikuyu loses settled above ninety percent. These Kikuyu casualties arose from the infighting between the Mau Mau members and the Home Guard. At the end of The Emergency, when Mau Mau was considered to be militarily defeated, General George Erskine accepted that the movement still existed and its goal would be to last longer than the government imposed by the British, in which they ultimately succeeded (Odhiambo, A.E.S, Lonsdale, J. 2003, p.3).


A Nation with a Forged National History

‘Jomo’ Kenyatta changed his name from Johnstone, which he considered to represent the British colonization (Murray- Brown, J. 1972, p.196). This was indicative of the path he would take as the first Prime Minister of Kenya. Kenyatta had been a leader, or attempting to be one, from the early stages of The Emergency. Many Kikuyu saw him as an opportunity-seeker lacking in ability to change their plight (Kershaw, G. 1997, p.250). He very nearly began a revolt in 1938 by alluding that the people of Kenya should not aid the British in their war until the British could provide proof that they would uphold their claims to “democracy and freedom” (Murray- Brown, J. 1972, p.203). While the Colonial Office had not previously interfered with Kenyatta’s actions, a Colonial Office memorandum containing the sentiment “Mr Kenyatta is becoming increasingly mischievous” was published following his statement (Murray- Brown, J. 1972, p.204). The Governor of the colony went so far as to call him the “African leader to darkness and death” (Bennett, G. 1963, p.153).

Kenyatta’s KAU was made illegal in June 1953 on allegation that Kenyatta was promoting the Mau Mau at reputable meetings to reputable people and turning them against the British government (Murray- Brown, J. 1972, pp.240-55). For example, when the Duke of Gloucester was sent by Her Majesty to inaugurate Nairobi as a city, previous adherents of the KAU began to tell the public their land, in addition to the previously confiscated land, would be taken over by the British settlers (Leakey, L.S.B. 1952, p.95). Cries to “‘save the land,” made relations with the Kikuyu very tense due to their confinement on the Kikuyu reserve (Leakey, L.S.B. 1952, p.95).

The eventual arrest of Kenyatta was brought about as a statement against barbaric acts on the settlers in the White Highlands including the murders of those whom surprised mass oathing ceremonies. Kenyatta was arrested on allegations that he was leading the Mau Mau. His arrest galvanized the people of Kenya and made them less afraid of the government’s repression and encouraged unity to fight against the British. Mau Mau members ceased their in-fighting and senseless violence and understood Kenyatta’s message that “the time for umoja” or unity, had come for the Kenyan people, not just the Kikuyu (Kershaw, G. 1997, p. 248). Kenyatta was tried for leading the KAU with knowledge of its connections to Mau Mau. Even though these allegations were false, Kenyatta was still convicted in 1953 (Murray- Brown, J. 1972, p.273). Upon his release, Jomo Kenyatta was regarded “as Mzee, the elder, or Baba Taifa, father of the nation” and instantly became an integral part of Kenya African National Union” (Branch, D. 2011, p.3).

Kenyatta created a new national history that forgot the origins of Mau Mau and constructed a new one that included an entire nation fighting for independence (Odhiambo, A.E.S, Lonsdale, J. 2003, p.1). Kenyatta appealed to the people of Nairobi to look back on a different history, one where they communally participated in the fight “for uhuru,” which is Bantu Swahili for freedom or independence (Odhiambo, A.E.S, Lonsdale, J. 2003, p.4). Kenyatta “continued to criminalize Mau Mau, condemning it as a disease which needed the strong medicine of hard work and honesty to cure” (Odhiambo, A.E.S, Lonsdale, J. 2003, p.11).

Everyone involved with The Emergency understood that removing Mau Mau from the discussion would help facilitate nationhood and “peace” not only between Kenya and Britain, but also between ethnicities and the Kenyan forces the Mau Mau fought against (Kershaw, G. 1997, p.259). Recalling Mau Mau in independent Kenya is easily problematized as it included the history of fighting within the population of Kenya. The memory of Mau Mau is in continuous evolution, being shaped by the individual memories from different spatio-temporal contexts, and thus continues to avoid becoming one solidified notion. As many individuals who had oathed to Mau Mau identified more closely to smaller subgroups, and each of these subgroups had different aims and purposes, it must be expected that many narratives, even contradictory ones can be formed (Odhiambo, A.E.S. and Lonsdale J. 2003, p.252).

In order to accurately remember Mau Mau and the reasons it began and ended, the people of Kenya must also remember the violence and human rights violations that existed throughout The Emergency. Instead, Kenyatta encouraged “superficial remembering” in order to not relive the entire truth, but portions of the truth that lead to a nationalistic feeling of unity. Prior to Kenya’s independence, the British were already sculpting the memory of Mau Mau during The Emergency, describing the movement as illegal, anti-white, tribal, uneducated, and “anti-Christian” (Odhiambo, A.E.S. and Lonsdale J. 2003, p.254).

Kenyatta hoped to detach himself from Mau Mau throughout and after the insurgency. The Kikuyu hoped Kenyatta would sympathize with them given his own experience of detainment. Kenyatta, as the first President of Kenya, could not assist former insurgents as this would cause conflict among the former Home Guard, settlers, Kenyans not involved in The Emergency, and the British government. Kenyatta told all of Kenya, despite their ethnicity, history of repression, or geography that “we all fought for Uhuru” (Odhiambo, A.E.S. and Lonsdale J. 2003, p.255-6) and “Harambee,” which implies a unified effort in nation building, which could not have been further from the truth. The formally “endorsed amnesia” led to misrepresentations of The Emergency including blatantly untrue statements from political leaders during rallies that were accepted as fact, even by those who took part in the fighting (Odhiambo, A.E.S. and Lonsdale J. 2003, p.256). Despite the illusion that Kenyatta helped to create, Mau Mau was an integral part in the conceptualization of “Kenyan nationalism” (Odhiambo, A.E.S. and Lonsdale J. 2003, p.260).

Kenya’s flag is symbolic of this newfound rhetoric that unifies Kenya through nationalism and represents the struggle to become an independent state for the Kenyan people. The flag is separated into black, red, and green bands. The “black third” of the flag represents the Kenyan people, the “red third the blood lost in the struggle for freedom;” but this represents all Kenyan people, not just the insurgents, and the green section represents the fertile land, which is one of the reasons Kenya was so attractive to the British. The white border signifies umoja, unity, “and the shield” is a symbol of the new nation’s willingness “to defend its hard-won freedom” (Branch, D. 2011, p.23). Thus, the flag illustrates Kenyatta’s vision of a Kenya that was fought for by unified population with a promising future of remembering a nationalistic history.









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