British Colonial Racism’s Barbarity – The “Mau-Mau” Uprising

Mau-Mau is the derogatory name (though ironically, the most commonly accepted phrase of the rebels) for the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) which waged guerrilla warfare against British colonialism in Kenya from the late 1940s, and reached its climax in the early 1950s until constitutional independence was achieved in 1963. How the name occurred may never be known. It first appeared in a Kenya government paper in 1948 and may have derived from a European distortion of the Kikuyu word ‘muma’ meaning an oath.

A most logical meaning then of Mau would be the plural form of the diminutive KAU (pronounced Kau), a perfect expression of the aims of its first organisers. Members referred to it obliquely as Uiguana (wa Muingi) (Unity of the Community), Gikuyu (na Muumbi) the proto-ancestral Agikuyu, or Muma (wa Uiguano) (Oath of Unity). http://what-when-how.com/religious-movements/mau-mau-religious-movement/

With the National Party voted into power in South Africa in 1948, Kenya’s settlers looked to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa for examples of how they might enhance their own political representation and suppress that of the Africans.

By 1940 it was estimated that over 60,000 acres of the finest grazing and crop yielding land had been set aside for white settlers. One in every eight Kikuyu was a tenant on white settler owned land, and was required to work on the colonialists’ estates. Each Kikuyu family was allowed a small plot of land called a shamba. The settlers were granted the right to expel families from their ancestral lands and villages and force them to live on remote distant Native Reserves. From 1925 the Kenya High Court passed a law denying the Kikuyu any right to appeal against eviction. https://medium.com/@IanEdgarAplin/state-of-emergency-in-kenya-1952-1960-421ed3c0a87d

The Mau Mau uprising, which involved mostly Kikuyu people, the largest ethnic group in Kenya, began to take shape when more radical Kikuyu militants were invited into the nationalist KAU (Kenya African Union).

An oath was sworn by the Kikuyu Association in 1920. Members had to swear many oaths of loyalty before Mwene-Nyaga, the distinctively Gigikuyu name for Ngai (God), ending ‘May this oath kill me’, if it be broken. More stringent and dangerous oaths were used for higher degrees of commitment, yet all were new combinations of old Gikuyu or Christain rites.

When Mau Mau took over the oathing, they operated from a secret central committee or muhima in Nairobi, sending out oath administrators as far as Embu or the Rift Valley without fostering any local organisations, simply using social pressure to enforce oath taking.

Trusting in the oath, the young radicals were able to build a secret, yet mass, movement on the oath. It was Ngai who gave them their fighting power. Church women regarded caring for Mau Mau as a Christian vocation. One could hardly be a ‘Mugikuyu karinga’ without swearing the oath. Between 75 and 90 per cent of the one million Agikuyu population, besides large numbers of Embu, Meru, Akamba, Maasai, and others took the oath of unity. The political strength of the oath outlasted Mau Mau as Kenyatta showed by his anxiety that it not be used against him in 1964 and then reviving it in 1969.

Sir Evelyn Baring, the Governor declared an Emergency in Kenya on 20 October 1952.

The main thrust behind the emergency was to identify those Kikuyu who had taken the oath and force them to recant.

The British response to the uprising entailed massive round-ups of suspected Mau Mau and supporters, with large numbers of people hanged and up to 150,000 Kikuyu held in detention camps called the ‘Pipeline’.

The Pipeline operated within the Prison System to hold Kikuyu suspected of having sworn an oath against colonialism. They were spread over the Rift Valley and Central Provinces and totalled over 100. Although primarily for male detainees, a woman’s camp existed at Kamiti for a few thousand detainees and for male children at Wamumu. In fact many children were detained in Detention Camps with older men. The Kenyan administration attached great importance to a ‘black’ detainee admitting to having taken an oath. If he did, he was categorised as ‘grey’ and moved up the ‘Pipeline’ ladder, although his treatment remained equally brutal.’ (Imperial Reckoning — Britain’s Gulag in Kenya” by Caroline Elkins)

In 1954 Winston Churchill met Michael Blundell, representing the settlers’ interests in Kenya. Churchill was of the opinion that a settlement should be reached with the Kikuyu.

During the eight-year uprising, 32 white settlers and about 200 British police and army soldiers were killed including 1,800 ‘loyal’ Africans.

In a census held in Kenya after the emergency it was revealed that over 300,000 Kikuyu had been either killed or were ‘missing’. The ‘official’ figure for the number of Kikuyu who died was never known. The administration published ‘doctored’ figures to satisfy white Kenyans and the politicians in London.

Mau Mau forest armies were largely broken by 1957 and in 1960 the emergency was declared over. Three years later, in 1963, Kenya received its independence from Great Britain.  One of the alleged Mau Mau leaders, Jomo Kenyatta, became the first president of the new nation.

Historians, social commentators, and surviving resistance leaders continue to debate the role of the Mau Mau in gaining Kenyan independence.  Many survivors on both sides of the conflict see themselves as participants in the independence campaign.  Moreover, in 2006, former Mau Mau fighters launched legal action against the British government under claims of mistreatment in detention camps.

In 2012 three Mau Mau torture victims won a historic legal case allowing them to sue the British government. A year later,  5,228 victims received payments totalling £19.9m following an agreement with lawyers acting for the victims.

Sources: http://www.blackpast.org
David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005); Wunyabari O. Maloba, “Kenya: Mau Mau Revolt,” in Encyclopedia of African History, ed. Kevin Shillington (New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2005). SAHistory.


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