The Mau Mau movement was a nationalist armed peasant revolt against the British colonial state in Kenya, its policies and supporters. The exact origins of the movement, as with most secret societies, are uncertain, as it was only ever loosely organised and most of their actions were opportunistic in nature. In any event, properly organised military resistance would have been impossible given the extent of British control over Kikuyu territory and the reserves.
In 1946, impatient with the pace of change proposed by the Kenya African Union (KAU) and angered by the shooting of unarmed demonstrators in Nairobi, a group of former World War11 Kikuyu veterans formed the “Forty Group” and started organising violent opposition against white settlers. The group and other like-minded people adopted a modus-operandi of robbing shops, stealing firearms, imposing oaths and eventually executing, as traitors, those that were not ready to follow their chosen path to freedom.
Women became directly involved in 1948, when workers at Olenguruone agricultural settlement scheme went on strike. They refused to participate in terracing unless they first received titles to the land. It will be recalled that as early as 1919, the subject of forced labour among women for soil conservation was one of Harry Thuku’s rallying points.
Supported by nascent labour unions, the ad hoc organisation called itself the Land Freedom Army (LFA) whose violent resistance to colonial rule was to become better known in the world as the Mau Mau uprising. The name “Mau Mau” does not exist in the Kikuyu language and it is thought in some studies to have been a creation of the British colonial administrators to reflect a diabolical group comprising backward, primitive and savage people who deserved to be brutally put down.
The overwhelming majority of the Mau Mau fighters, and their supporters who formed the “passive wing”, came from the Kikuyu. However, there was representation from the Embu, Kamba and Meru ethnic groups. In addition, there is evidence that individuals from the Luo, Luhya and even the Maasai ethnic groups supported the Mau Mau revolt in other ways.
Most of the Mau Mau foot soldiers were young men and landless peasants. Some of them had lost land to corrupt chiefs and other “landed gentry” in Central Province while many others were victims of land appropriation to facilitate European settlement.
Repatriated African squatters from white-owned farms in the Rift Valley fuelled the ranks of guerillas, as did economically desperate and unemployed Kikuyu in Nairobi and the surrounding urban centres. The post-World War 11 era saw massive unemployment of Africans in urban centres along with a biting shortage of suitable housing and high inflation.
Among the Kikuyu, the embrace of a radical political posture was symbolised by taking the oath of unity and allegiance to the Mau Mau. This oath, initially administered in Kiambu was supposed to “inject courage into those who were initiated”.
By 1952, a new oath, the Batuni (Platoon) was introduced reflecting a more militant stance. Following the cold-blooded murder of hated British loyalist chief Waruhiu on October7, 1952, the government saw, in LFA, the first serious threat to colonial rule in post-war Africa. A state of emergency was declared two weeks later on October 20,1952. Immediately after the imposition of martial law, Jomo Kenyatta and over 100 members of KAU, as well as other political leaders, were arrested and detained. KAU was proscribed and other nationalist movements were severely restricted.
Notwithstanding that Kenyatta had repeatedly and publicly denounced Mau Mau and advocated for peaceful change, the British remained convinced, and conveniently so, that he was the leader of Mau Mau. He was put on a farcical trial for subversion and incitement, eventually being found guilty and detained for eight years of hard labour catapulting him into the realm of an idol.
Several years of bitter fighting followed requiring the full might of British forces in a guerilla war in which the Africans, armed with crude weapons and a few firearms stolen from police stations, had no hope of winning. As graphically captured in Caroline Elkins “Britain’s Gulag” the British response was brutal and would make Idi Amin look half good (Amin served with the Kings’ African Rifles during this period and must have studied the British methods keenly). More than 25,000 Africans are said to have died in detention, torture and shot “while trying to escape”.
The Mau Mau did not have any external political or material support. The movement also lacked any propaganda machinery to spread its message beyond Central Province.
The British authorities in London and Nairobi took full advantage of this shortcoming to portray the revolt as a reversion to primitive savagery by Africans traumatised by the stress of modern (Western) civilisation. Robert Ruark’s book “Something of Value” (1955) which was widely read in the Western world echoed official propaganda by contrasting “white heroism” with “black savagery”.
For five years up to 1957, the Mau Mau operated from the forests of Mt Kenya and the Aberdares with singular courage and determination against the combined forces of the colonial government, British troops and the Home Guard made up of loyalists.
The British also undertook a major rehabilitation campaign in Central Province in order to “remake Kenya” by defeating radicalism and reinforcing the power of the conservative Kikuyu “landed gentry” and the Home Guards.
The legacy of the Mau Mau uprising, nevertheless, remains a controversial subject. Who were the real beneficiaries? How should this complex movement be remembered in Kenya?