Olenguruone: Origin of famous Mau Mau oath

Kikuyu elders during an oathing cleansing ceremony at the height of the Mau Mau uprising. PHOTO | COURTESY

In my recent article about the Lari Massacre, I mentioned that some of the families which were displaced from Limuru and Tigoni in the early 1900s to make way for European settlement were dispatched by rail to work on farms in the Rift Valley (ruguru rwa ngaari) as squatters.

These squatters were at first moved to the White Highlands, then to the Maasai Reserve and later around 1941, to Olenguruone (place of ashes) in Mau (twins) Narok (black).

It is estimated that the number of squatters from central Kenya on European farms in the Rift Valley had risen to 150,000 by the 1930s. They had been lured away from their ancestral lands by force and promises that they could cultivate their own crops and keep livestock on condition that they gave labour to Europeans at subsidised rates. By 1930s white farmers had adopted mechanised farming methods and had little use for African labour whose numbers were growing by the day, creating tension as the demand for additional grazing and land for cultivation increased.

In response, the settlers began restricting the number of livestock to be reared on their land by squatters and decreeing that each family was to be allocated not more than two acres for cultivation. According to historian David Henderson, “This plunged the squatters into economic despair as the annual family income dwindled from Sh1,400 in 1942 to Sh300 in 1946. Squatter contracts that came up for renewal were cancelled and the affected families were supposed to get rid of all their animals”.

Reacting to the new burdens placed on them, many of the squatters returned to the Kikuyu Reserve. Frank Furedi in his book The Mau Mau War in Perspective states that “When they discovered that there was no room for them there, most returned to the Highlands. Others migrated to Miriri (Melili) in Maasai land where they were later joined by squatters who sought a better way of life, free of settler restrictions.”

When these Kikuyu got to Melili, they approached a Maasai who gave them land in return for a portion of the food grown on the land. This community looked like they were set for a prosperous future but the settlers saw it as a threat to their control over squatters. The colonial government had its own reasons to dislike the existence of a Kikuyu community in Maasai land because it undermined the policy of maintaining rigid tribal boundaries. Through administrative pressure and harassment (including, once again, burning down of Kikuyu huts and crops) the Kikuyu ex-squatters were moved to Olenguruone settlement in 1941.

As settlers tightened their control over squatters on their farms, the latter increased their reprisals by maiming settler livestock and setting fire to settler property. A spate of strikes by farm-labourers broke out at the height of the destocking campaign.

Returning to Olenguruone, the Kikuyu who were settled here considered this land to be compensation for the land that had been taken away in Limuru and in a strange twist of fate became colonists in Maasai land.

In her book Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau 1905-63 Tabitha Kanogo observes: “The settlement rules imposed on Olenguruone an intricate set of exacerbating regulations. Of the eight acres granted to each settler, it was recommended that no more than two and a half be under cultivation at any one time. Neither was the land to be under cultivation for more than four years initially, after which it was to rest under planted grass for not more than three years at a time.” There were many other restrictive covenants in addition to the area being highly unsuitable for cultivating and grazing due to frequent heavy rains, steep valleys susceptible to erosion and an extremely cold climate.

The government had laid too much emphasis on proper utilisation of land at the expense of the social and political stability of the Olenguruone Kikuyu. When the settlement rules were translated into Kikuyu, the ex-squatters were surprised to learn that they were referred to as “ahoi” (tenants). They at once rejected the rules and indicated they were not going to sign the settlement agreements.

After a meeting held in June 1943 with the Chief Native Commissioner, Mr Hosking, the Olenguruone Kikuyu did not sign the agreement nor did they leave as ordered.

To cement resistance most Kikuyu settlers were given the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) oath. The Olenguruone settlers initiated a widespread movement of protest which spread to neighbouring white-owned farms. There was a direct road leading from Olenguruone to Molo and Elburgon making it easy for trader-activists to spread the resistance movement quickly. The resistance movement spread like wild fire and was to have far-reaching repercussions.

The Olenguruone settlers initiated a new oath of unity, one which subsequently formed the basis of the Mau Mau oath. It represented a commitment to defy the government and had been taken by the whole population of Olenguruone by 1946.

Later that year, informers advised the government the extent of the oath taking and the authorities heightened the level of harassment in Olenguruone, confiscating livestock, harvest and eventually arresting their leaders. Finally, poor, hungry and very angry, many were deported to Yatta in Ukambani while others were sentenced to jail. As the detainees were awaiting their deportation orders to be processed, they were held at the Nairobi Remand Home and it is here that members of the clandestine freedom-fighter Forty Group met and exchanged notes with the detainees.

The main influence of squatter activists was not so much to radicalise KCA but to intensify their combativeness. The new militants who emerged as a result, would later become the core of the movement known as Mau Mau, and were the product of a distinct social group of the White Highlands.

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