This week, Kenya will mark the anniversaries of two arrests. One will be marked by a public holiday and celebrated with fanfare, while the other will be almost completely ignored. The lives of the two suspects, the circumstances surrounding their arrests, and the differing reactions we have to them today, are symbolic of the contradictions at the centre of Kenya’s path to independence and beyond.
In the early hours of 21st October, 1952, Jomo Kenyatta was arrested peacefully at his Gatundu home, charged with managing the so-called Mau Mau uprising and on 8 April 1953 sentenced to 7 years hard labour. In an uncanny historical coincidence, 4 years to the day after Kenyatta’s arrest, on 21st October, 1956, the leader of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army and self-proclaimed President of Kenya, Dedan Kimathi, was shot and captured in the forests near Nyeri. Clad in a leopard skin and carrying a .38 revolver, Kimathi was charged with carrying a lethal weapon –a capital offence under the emergency regulations then governing Kenya. He was sentenced to death and hanged at Kamiti prison on 18th February 1957.
Born almost a quarter of a century apart, the two men were destined to change the future of the Kenya colony. They each received their early education at Church of Scotland missionary schools. To pay the school fees, Kenyatta worked as a houseboy and cook for a white settler while Kimathi collected seedlings for the forestry department. Both were religiously inclined. Kenyatta converted to Christianity in 1914 assuming the name John Peter, which he then changed to Johnstone Kamau. Kimathi was reported to carry a Bible regularly. However while the former completed his education and went on to secure opportunities which saw him rise to general secretary Kikuyu Central Association in 1928 and (after a 15 year sojourn in the UK) the eventual leadership of the Kenya African Union, the latter dropped out for a lack of fees, was kicked out of the Army for misconduct, joined the militant wing of the then defunct KCA in 1951 and was elected as a local branch secretary of KAU in Ol' Kalou and Thomson's Falls area in 1952.
An interesting encounter between the two men is related by Munene Macharia, Professor of History and International Relations at the United States International University. “One day at Kaloleni, Nairobi, (so say those who were there) Kenyatta turned to Jesse Kariuki, one of his top KCA comrades and asked in Gikuyu language: ‘Jesse, andu niaiganu?’ (Are there enough people?). Before Kariuki could respond, a brash young man named Dedan Kimathi shouted ‘Ii niaiganu,’ (Yes, they are enough). On hearing Kimathi, Kenyatta reportedly took out his handkerchief, wiped his eyes and asked ‘Nimukwenda wiyathi?’ (Do you want independence?). And the public responded ‘Ii nitukwenda’ (Yes, we want it). Kenyatta then remarked, ‘Muti uyu wa wiyathi nduitagiririo mai; uitagiririo thakame. Ningunyita Kiongo-i, nimukumiriria mateke?’ (the tree of freedom is not nurtured by water but by blood. I will hold the bull by the horn, will you withstand the kicks?) ‘Ii’ (Yes), the people responded.”
That same year marked the beginning of the uprising. At about the same time Kenyatta was prevailed upon by the colonial government to curse the “secret society called Mau Mau” saying they should “go to the roots of the mikongoe tree”, Kimathi was briefly detained for his oathing activities, escaped with the help of local police and fled to the forest. In 1953, as Kenyatta declared in open court “ndiui Mau Mau” (I do not know Mau Mau, I have no connection with it) and that violence would never bring harmony, Kimathi formed the Kenya Defence Council to co-ordinate all forest fighters. That same year, as related by Gatimu Maina in his paper, Paths of the Mau Mau Revolution: Victory and Glory Usurped, he launched the only known communication between his movement and the outside world, the KLFA Charter, which attempted to explain its political position and programme of the movement. The Charter was sent to the British government. Copies were circulated to the Indian, Egyptian, French, American, and Russian governments. Pan-Africanists such as Kwame Nkurumah of Ghana, George Padmore and W.E. B. Dubois were also sent copies. To whip public support in Britain, a copy was sent to Fenner Brockway, who was a sympathizer of the Mau Mau cause. The thrust of the Charter was self-government for Kenya with an African judiciary based on African laws, African control of the economy and the withdrawal of British armed forces from Kenya. The launching of the KLFA Charter, coupled with the sustained armed struggle and the eventual creation of the Kenya Parliament with Kimathi as its President in the forests on February 5, 1954 constituted, in Gatimu’s opinion, a unilateral declaration of independence for Kenya by the KLFA.
The British took the threat posed by the KLFA very seriously. On the same night Kenyatta was arrested, a State of Emergency had been declared and British military reinforcements began to arrive in the colony. A regiment of British soldiers was flown in from the Suez Canal Zone. The Kenya Regiment (composed of European settlers) was called up. Units of the King's African Rifles arrived from neighbouring Tanganyika and Uganda. In total, according to Basil Davidson, Britain and the Kenya colonial authorities mobilized 50,000 troops for the war armed with bomber airplanes, tanks, personnel carriers and other sophisticated weapons. These were ranged against Kimathi’s estimated 10,000-25,000 guerillas armed with rifles, shotguns, homemade guns, and grenades and crude traditional weapons of all kinds.
In the forest Kimathi had to contend with emerging splits, especially between the illiterate and the educated. He had himself usurped the overall leadership of the movement from the unlettered General Stanley Mathenge who, unlike Kimathi, had military experience. As their rivalry became generalized, the educated fighters favoured Kimathi’s Parliament while the rest preferred Mathenge’s Kenya Riigi. Matters came to a head in 1955 when, according to former fighter Field Marshal Muthoni-Kirima, the colonial government “suggested a truce, that the insurgents and the colonialists start exchanging letters before they could meet physically and negotiate a ceasefire.” Kimathi took a dim view of this proposal, fearing it to be a trick, and forbade any contact with the British. However, Mathenge went ahead to meet with them, incurring the wrath of Kimathi and narrowly escaping the death sentence at his trial before the Parliament. This however did not appear to dissuade him as a week later he was reported to have had more meetings with the British. An enraged Kimathi ordered that Mathenge be brought to him alive, but the latter went into hiding and was reported to have fled to Ethiopia. (This was a precursor of what was to happen to the KLFA fighters when they emerged from the forest and stepped into an independent Kenya governed by the better educated sons of collaborators.)
By 1955, though, the brutal British tactics were beginning to tell. The forests of Mount Kenya, where the KLFA had their base camps, were designated a "prohibited area" and were heavily bombed. People living on the fringes of the forest were evicted from the land, their animals confiscated and crops and huts burned to clear the way for the "free fire zone" where any black man could be shot on sight. In fact, rewards were offered to army and police units that produced the largest number of 'Mau Mau' corpses, the hands of which were chopped off to make fingerprinting easier. The entire 1.5 million rural Kikuyu population were forcibly resettled into barbed-wire fenced villages, overseen by watch-towers. Continuing urban insurgency was smashed by the aptly named Operation Anvil in April 1954, which effectively arrested all Kikuyu in Nairobi. The back of the insurgency was broken and one by one the forest commanders fell. Eventually, after a 10 month man-hunt, Kimathi himself was captured, tried and hanged.
Meanwhile, Kenyatta, convicted after a five-month trial on the perjured testimony of Rawson Macharia, was sentenced on April 8, 1953 to seven year’s imprisonment with hard labor and indefinite restriction thereafter. His subsequent appeal was refused by the British Privy Council in 1954. On April 14, 1959, Kenyatta completed his sentence at Lokitaung but remained in restriction at Lodwar. Later, he was moved to Maralal, where he remained until August 1961. On August 14, 1961, he was allowed to return to his Gatundu home. On August 21, 1961, nine years after his arrest, he was freed from all restrictions.
Though he was not directly connected to the insurgency, his political rise after imprisonment was undoubtedly a direct result of the Mau-Mau activities. In 1961 Kenya was on track towards self-government and he was hailed as the country’s independence leader. He assumed the leadership of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), a political party formed while he was in prison and in 1963 led it to an electoral victory. He became prime minister of an independent Kenya on 12th December 1963 and a year later, when Kenya became a republic, Kenyatta was declared its first president, more than 10 years after Kimathi had claimed the title for himself.
Over the course of half a century, Kenya’s independence war has entered into the realm of legend, with little to distinguish between fact and fiction. Many who then opposed or shunned the insurgency nowadays proclaim themselves to be at its forefront, while the real fighters languish in long-forgotten and overgrown graves or are still awaiting the recognition and rewards they insist are due them. Just as Kimathi usurped the uneducated Mathenge’s authority in the forest, so the collaborators and their offspring inherited his uprising.
The name attached to the movement itself betrays this. While initially it had no name (the Kikuyu had called it Muingi ("The Movement"), Muigwithania ("The Understanding"), Muma wa Uiguano ("The Oath of Unity") or simply "The KCA", after the Kikuyu Central Association that created the impetus for the insurgency), according to Bildad Kaggia, the movement had been using the Kiswahili word muhimu (important) as a password for the movement and its activities. After muhimu declared an open war on the British colonial government, the combat forces referred to themselves as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. The British though called it Mau Mau, a bastardised name given to them by the settlers. In the 1953 Charter, Kimathi introduced his movement stating: “We reject being called [Mau Mau or] terrorists for demanding our people’s rights. [It is derogatory]. We are the Kenya Land [and] Freedom Army.” Josiah Mwangi (JM) Kariuki, who was interned in prison camps from 1953 to 1960, and later murdered by Kenyatta's agents, talked of the KLFA saying: "The world knows it by a title of abuse and ridicule with which it was described by one of its bitterest opponents." To this day, however, the appendage Mau Mau remains.
Neither has the derogatory nature of the term changed. The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines the verb to “mau-mau” as “to intimidate (as an official) by hostile confrontation or threats”. In 2002, right-wing US columnist Ann Coulter, outraged that Halle Berry won an Oscar, complained that the Black artist had "successfully mau-maued her way to a Best Actress Award." In 1993, Former US Vice President Daniel Quayle's chief of staff, William Kristol, said Carol Mosely Braun "mau-maued" the U.S. Senate when, as the only African American woman member in the Senate's history, she stopped a charter renewal for the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
The statistics of the KLFA uprising are also a source of perennial controversy. According to the British government, some 32 white civilians, 63 white military and 527 'loyalists' were killed. In contrast, 11,503 Africans died. Other sources have the Kikuyu death toll at anywhere from 20,000-30,000 with 10,527 fighters killed in action. One thing is not in dispute though. The British losses were remarkably light, with less than 100 dead. What accounts for this discrepancy? Was the conflict, as some (including the British) have termed it, less about aspirations to nationhood and more of a civil war within the Kikuyu community?
In a paper entitled Emergency in Kenya: Kikuyu and the Mau Mau Insurrection, Major Roger D. Hughes of the US Marine Corps says about the conflict: “The Mau Mau movement is usually viewed strictly as being politically motivated toward national independence. The less popular view is endorsed herein, that two separate, multi-faceted movements existed, one motivated by nationalism, and the other by a blind, irrational quest for revenge. In the process of each attempting to exploit the other for self-serving purposes, they became uncontrollably intertwined, which resulted in near disaster for the Kikuyu tribe. Totally lacking in quality intelligence regarding the origins of Mau Mau at the outbreak of hostilities in 1952, colonial forces struck out blindly to suppress the violence and treated the movements as one. Thus, the Military resolution is traced through 1956, when the preponderance of hostilities were finally suppressed in what seemed at that time more like an intra-tribal civil war than a war of independence.”
As related by Marshall S. Clough in his book Mau Mau memoirs: History, Pemory, and Politics, “the Gikuyu were the angriest and the most internally divided of the major ethnic groups in Kenya. Colonial rule had affected them deeply, and for two generations they had suffered from its impositions and responded to the opportunities it had offered more than any other Africans. The British authorities and their policies tended to push the Gikuyu together, but for most the closer ties to lineage, locality and district remained more important than loyalty to the ethnic group as a whole. Ever since the founding of the Kikuyu Association (KA) in 1919, their politicians had protested such grievances as land alienation in Kiambu and Nyeri, the treatment of squatters in the Rift Valley, the carrying of passes, and the non-representation of Africans in the Legislative Council. In protest politics, however, disunity had been as typical a common front, as witnessed by the division between the KA and the East African Association (EAA) in 1921 and between the KA and the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) in the late 1920s. Religious disputes, emerging originally from the cliterodectomy conflict of 1929-1931, divided them further among animists, followers of mission Christianity, Christian independents, and followers of prophetic sects (the arathi). Divisions between educated and uneducated, landed and landless, rich and poor had widened in the interwar period. Moreover, Gikuyu members of the colonial authority structure, especially chiefs, had often clashed with politicians and these conflicts would grow more intense in the postwar period as the second colonial generation entered politics.”
And what of tactics? Both sides utilised the tactics of terror and neither spared innocents. Just compare these two reports, one by Peter Swan, a British policeman who guarded Kimathi after his capture:
The Mau Mau 'Freedom Fighters' were no more than thugs whose terrorist activities were directed mainly at their own tribesman than at the 'whites'. Having come across Meru women, gutted with an unborn child torn from them; children whose heads had been cracked open; an old couple that where burnt alive after being ham-strung to make sure that they couldn't get away, it was difficult for me and the twenty African policeman to have any sympathy for those Mau Mau that we encountered. We took no prisoners. To hear them classed as heroes' of the day goes against the grain.
Another account from an Australian living in Kenya during the ‘Emergency’:
We was joined by two of [a settler named] Bill’s mates in another Land Rover and just about dawn we seen two Africans crossing the road ahead. Bill fired a shot across their bow and they put their hands up. I tried to tell Bill that those lads, hardly more than boys they was, didn’t look like Mickeys (Mau Mau) to me but he says, “They’re Kukes and that’s enough for me”. Well he roughs them up some but they say they don’t know where the gang of Mickeys went to, so he gets some rope and ties one to the rear bumper of his Land Rover by his ankles. He drives off a little ways, not too fast you know, and the poor black bastard is trying to keep from ploughing the road with his nose. The other cobbers are laughing and saying, “put it in high gear Bill” and such as that, but Bill gets out and says, “Last chance, Nugu (baboon), where’s that gang?” The African boy keeps saying he’s not Mau Mau, but Bill takes off like a bat out of hell. When he comes back, the nigger wasn’t much more than pulp. He didn’t have any face left at all. So Bill and his mates tie the other one to the bumper and ask him the same question. He’s begging them to let him go but old Bill takes off again and after a while he comes back with another dead Mickey. They just left the two of them there in the road.
Even tales of Kimathi himself tend to differ with a 1956 TIME Magazine article titled "The Terrorist" saying of him:
There was no fiercer character in all the jungle than Dedan Kimathi, a scarred, stocky ex-clerk who had fought and jockeyed his way to the leadership of all the guerrillas. Not content with his popular title, "General Russia," Dedan capped his arrogance by calling himself Field Marshal Sir Dedan Kimathi and appointing a parliament of his own to preside over...A refugee captured by Kenya police as he left Kimathi's camp recently has provided a vivid picture of the once great chieftain in his twilight hour. Broken in health and mind, 35-year-old Dedan Kimathi now spends his days making wild speeches to the jungle trees and his nights raving endlessly. He lies on a litter of branches, blubbering and blabbering about reform in the Liberation army, while his friends search the woods for monkeys to eat. Whenever a police patrol comes near, the 20 loyal henchmen (and teen-age henchwomen) who still surround him hustle Kimathi into a nearby cave and gag him to keep him quiet.
Peter Swan, quoted above, paints an entirely different picture of the man:
Our first hours together were almost silent. My command of Kikuyu language was reduced to the long drawn out greetings 'Moogerrrh' which should have elicited the reply 'Moogerrhni'. His command of Kiswahili and mine were similar, in that we were both well versed in what was loosely termed Kaffir Swahili. He was, I discovered, soon after joining him in the hospital, well versed in English and we later spent time swapping tales of our bush activities in that language. His wound was in the thigh and he had to be stretchered everywhere. Up to then he had received rudimentary first aid and he was still dressed in the leopard skins that had been his trade mark during his Mau Mau operations...Dedan Kimathi and I sat and read the books that I brought in to pass the time. Our conversations were occasional and without animosity or conflict on either side. He knew the penalty for his activity was death, and he expected that sentence. He believed that the sentence would not be executed and that he would survive. There was a quiet and distant confidence in his belief.
I think Kenyans deserve to know the truth about what has come to be known as the fight for Uhuru and why it is the sons of the homeguards, not the "freedom fighters" who reaped the fruits of independence. Why is it that the Mau Mau continued to be a proscribed organisation up till 2003? Why do we insist on honouring dead fighters while ignoring the plight of those still alive? The blog What An African Woman Thinks has informative interviews with some of these fighters including Field Marshal Muthoni, in which one General Karangi, "is hard put to understand why those who successfully evaded bullet, bomb and grenade are less praiseworthy than the one who got caught".
While the Mau Mau lost the military fight against the British, they lived to see the White Man ejected from Kenya. However, 50 years on, their land and legacy is now being stolen anew by those who collaborated with the colonialists. It seems to me that we, as Kenyans, have striven to erase from our minds what should be a heroic chapter in our common history. Instead we seem determined to construct a new tale in which the villains of yesterday become the heroes of today while the real fighters, their accomplishments, and eventual betrayal is consigned to history's dustbin.
Othe 50th anniversary of his hanging, the Kenyan government took the step of honouring Kimathi by erecting a statue. A better memorial would be an honest retelling of the story of his struggle, and an explanation of why he was allowed to rot in an unmarked grave while Kenyatta’s body deserved the splendor of a mausoleum.