The Motives of Mau Mau

Basil Davidson

  • Unhappy Valley by Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale
    James Currey, 224 pp, £45.00, April 1993, ISBN 0 85255 022 7
  • Mau Mau and Kenya: An Analysis of a Peasant Revolt by Wunyabari Maloba
    Indiana, 228 pp, £32.50, January 1994, ISBN 0 253 33664 3

British and American writing about Africans seems generally to suppose that its audience is interested in reading about Africans, but this supposition goes against the evidence. Distinguished writers continue to publish books that are presented as being about Africans, but are in fact about ‘us’ in Africa. While natural to an age of imperialism, this approach becomes awkward in an age (if, of course, we have got there) which may wish to read about ‘them’ in terms other than those of Eurocentric romance.

There are signs, however, that this may be changing, if the case of Mau Mau, Kenya’s anti-colonial rebellion of the Fifties, is anything to go by. Especially impressive, the bibliography of works on Mau Mau in English has lately begun to portray ‘them’ and ‘us’ as belonging in a continuum, something that may be thought, at any rate by optimists, to signal the onset of a post-imperialist culture. The best example of this is Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale’s Unhappy Valley, a wide-ranging and masterly discussion of the colonial years in central Kenya. Both authors display an admirable erudition, Berman in concentrating on white-settler and colonial concerns and administration, Lonsdale on African responses. Lonsdale’s great chapter in the second volume entitled ‘The Moral Economy of Mau Mau’ is an approach to understanding ‘them’ that achieves a grand originality, although he writes at times with an epigrammatic brevity that requires perseverance in the reader.

Lonsdale asks us to attend to the Kikuyu ancestors, because ‘any analysis of Kenya’s politics’ – and the reference could be widened to Africa’s politics generally – ‘that neglects the deep politics of moral ethnicity must be shallow and misleading,’ like the colonial and, indeed, many scholarly explanations of that fierce uprising which saw only ‘minority manipulation of mass opinion, rather than a dynamic process’ arising from a social integument. He is thus concerned to heal the wound opened long ago by the division between social anthropology and historiography, and to restore ‘them’ to the moral community of ‘them-us’. Any such attempt requires a subject that suitably challenges received opinion at its most prejudiced or misguided. Mau Mau meets this need.

Mau Mau was much talked about at the time, and for various reasons, all of which help to explain the continuing interest in it. First there was the abrasive conjuncture of the Fifties, when the ‘anti-colonial question’ thrust itself onto the agenda and aroused a great echo of anger, above all in colonies of white settlement (peuplement in the French usage), and especially in central Kenya, the ‘White Highlands’ with what Berman and Lonsdale call their ‘immigrant clan of British aristocrats’, who proved ‘good at handling guns, women and a constant flow of champagne’. This society produced, through Ernest Hemingway, one of the classic books about ‘us’ in Africa, and generally gave white-settler claims to Olympian power a suitably upper-class tone.

Next there was the arresting spectacle of a peasant army of rebels, who fought for years against overwhelming odds and under crushingly harsh conditions, enduring death and disablement while remaining, as Maloba reminds us, from first to last ‘entirely without external friends or influence’ – in which respect (if not in others as well) Mau Mau was unique, in all the years of anti-colonial warfare up and down the African continent. Then, too, there was the Greuel-propaganda of the colonial power, nourished by true or embroidered tales of oathtaking and other perverse practices, which presented a heroic resistance in a guise that made it extremely hard to admire or even to tolerate.

On top of all this, there was the sheer scale of the thing. Subsequent casualty totals, given by Maloba, are silent ‘on the question of thousands of civilians who were “shot while attempting to escape” ’, or on those who perished as the result of various security ‘initiatives’. They still tell a grim story: 11,503 Mau Mau killed, 1035 captured wounded, 1550 captured in action, 26,625 arrested and 2714 surrendered, indicating a gruesome relationship between killed and captured. Against this, British and colonial forces lost 167 troops while 1819 ‘loyal civilians’ were killed – this last category included Africans and Asians. The total number of European civilians killed was 32.

The war was above all an African disaster. But the upshot was no less an African victory. As nothing else could have done, Mau Mau tolled the knell of white-settler supremacy. The forest fighters were denied the personal fruits of victory: it was nonetheless their contribution, Maloba rightly insists, ‘which made settler colonialism no longer feasible in Kenya, and raised the price of colonial control for Britain to an intolerable level’.

This conclusion remains unavoidable: Mau Mau has entered the history books as, primarily, a rebellion of nationalist inspiration and purpose (which is how, with due reservation, Maloba regards it), as ‘one of the most remarkable peasant revolts against British colonialism in Africa’. In a limited context the nationalist explanation continues to hold firm. Yet in retrospect, above all in light of Lonsdale’s documentation and analysis, it leaves much to be explained. There is the obvious difficulty that Mau Mau was in no sense an all-Kenya rising. No Africans outside the central province or its immediate periphery joined with the Kikuyu and the Kikuyu’s neighbours (Embu and Meru); almost all the others left the rebels to their fate. Still more awkwardly for the nationalist explanation, many Kikuyu stood aside or fought hard against it. Rebellions induce internal conflicts, but if the nationalist motive seems inadequate, where then did these rebels find their astonishing courage and capacity to persevere in desperate isolation?

In a general sense their motivation undoubtedly derived from the ideology of anti-colonialism, which, here as elsewhere, found its easiest outlet in the slogans of nationalism, urging people to fight for their ‘stolen lands’. In terms of acreage the Kikuyu lost rather little land to settler expropriation. But what they crucially did lose was all assurance of control over ancestral forests and fields that had been theirs from ‘time out of mind’: they lost, it could be said, their environment. How they experienced this loss, socially and psychologically, is the problem that has only now begun to be tackled. The name that the forest fighters gave themselves was the Land and Freedom Army, the army of ithaka na wiathi. Wiathi emerges as the symbol of a strong inner compulsion, standing, according to Lonsdale, for the moral agency that legitimises or at any rate sponsors maturity and self-respect, in line with Kikuyu ancestral concepts of the difference between good and evil, between success and failure, eventually between life and death. On the internal evidence, to which Lonsdale is an indispensable guide, this moral compulsion – perhaps patriotism in its higher forms would be an equivalent in our own culture – can be seen as the hidden force behind Mau Mau, despite the fact that colonial powers and commentators would then have been worlds away from being able to make any such interpretation, much less accept it. Rather than ‘atavistic’ beliefs or superstitions, or the brash claims of the nationalist agenda, it was wiathi that could challenge Kikuyu degradation and despair.

Lonsdale’s line of argument – or perhaps my presentation of it – may be open to question. Yet it is increasingly likely that this sense of degradation, the product of dispossession, is the nearest we will get to an explanation of phenomena such as Mau Mau. As was the case among other subjected peoples, colonial dispossession led to a more or less complete disjuncture from previous Kikuyu history. With a contemptuously dismissive hand, the ancestors were banished to realms of impotence and anonymity from which there seemed no way of recalling them, and so, for ‘the living and the yet unborn’, there was no way of conserving the notion of community as these peoples had learned to understand it. Rafts of evidence speak of their dismay and moral dislocation: of a trauma which, unsurprisingly, colonial records have usually failed to convey or discuss. Even today, with all our sympathetic interest in the historiography of dispossessed peoples, the disjuncture still holds firm. When it became known that the supposedly familiar Kikuyu, whether they were Christians or not, had plunged into ancestral mysteries, there was disgust and even horror, while memorably foolish judgments, such as Governor Renison’s that Jomo Kenyatta was a leader ‘to darkness and death’, were passed from mouth to mouth as though they were Mosaic wisdom. This saloon-bar condescension led to talk of atavism and so forth, as though traditional Kikuyu thought about the principles of human community could have no bearing on the ways in which the Kenya of the Fifties might be made a less intolerable place to live in.

Maloba rightly says that the forest fighters ‘never laid claim to the nationalist political leadership’ – they saw leadership as residing in the politicos of Nairobi, mostly then in jail, or their underground action committee – so that ‘it would be more accurate to look at them as interim military bearers of the nationalist spirit.’ Maloba is tactfully trying to fit Mau Mau, which was a very offensive movement, into the pattern of an acceptable anti-colonial nationalism, without distorting what the forest leaders said or have been said to have said. Yet the evidence goes beyond any simple formulation. It indicates, rather, that as these unlettered but highly serious men and women were driven or drove themselves to their fateful, often fatal meeting with the challenge of maturity, self-respect and survival according to their own moral categories, not in some mockery or substitution of these by a ‘Western world’, they were reaching back beyond the constrictions of colonialist alienation to values which their own traditions had seen as the fount of virtue. Lonsdale’s sober conclusion is that ‘in the forests of Mount Kenya and Nyandarua Mau Mau fought as much for virtue as for freedom.’ What they had to be concerned with, far more than with any constitutional perspective, and what could sustain their morale against discouragement and gathering defeat, was their sense of having to shoulder the duty of reversing the dispossessions: of restoring personality and banishing alienation. Recent scholarship seems to agree that this kind of conclusion may not be so very controversial, though it remains difficult to convey in the familiar terms of Western usage. For we are here in an obscure terrain, seldom traversed from outside, less often reported. We have yet to measure our own blunt insensitivities against the spectacle of peoples reaching back through the ‘silent centuries’ of pre-colonial and colonial experience.

We are at any rate less ignorant than we were. We have witnessed the continued and apparently inexorable impoverishment of most Africans. We don’t know what to do about this, or if we do know, we do nothing to reverse it. But we have isolated some of the physical and political causes: the destructive insistence on export crops; the hopeless imbalance deriving from terms of trade which move, more often than not, against the interests of African producers; the scourges of war and famine, fuelled so often by external agencies and much else. We are only now starting to consider the psychology of dispossession, to do more than report sadly on miseries and massacres (‘another onset of terror in Burundi, thousands killed’ etc), or perceive how these pathologies may be soothed and sent away. Yet there begins to be an awareness of what Lonsdale calls ‘alternative pasts’. It is possible that we are getting beyond the stereotypes of what was usefully, but now perhaps misleadingly, called ‘national liberation’. If this is to re-invent the past in order to meet the needs of the present, then good luck to it. Closing the colonial disjuncture may need heroic measures.

The sore case of Mau Mau shows how difficult this enterprise may be. Are we sure that we know what the ancestors have been saying? Lonsdale wants to show ‘that the very uncertainties of the ancestors caused them to negotiate a political language that responded to social and political change. But I must first admit how uncertain my own understanding is of them.’ It is a characteristically scrupulous admission. Maloba, for his part, ends by insisting on the ‘utter necessity of “opening up” the revolt to scrutiny and analysis’, but he also sets forth the difficulties. During his field trips of 1986 and 1989, ‘many of those individuals I contacted were either wary about talking to me or gave standard answers that correspond to the discussion in newspapers and those uttered at public rallies.’ His book shows no lack of tact or intelligence, and there are obvious reasons for its reticence, ranging from personal interest to high politics. The ‘myth of Mau Mau’, as it has been called, will not vanish from view, but will continue to haunt any feast of scholarly self-congratulation. Like the lost fighters for wiathi in other African lands – nowhere so poignantly as in the ravaged lands of Angola and Mozambique – the victims of dispossession are still dispossessed, even if the principal dispossessors have folded their tents and crept away. Restitution is awaited.