A History Refusing to be Enclosed:
Mau Mau Historiography, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, and M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall I: The Mau Mau memory as a “problem”
This thesis investigates the contested memory of the Mau Mau rebellion1 in late-colonial Kenya (1952-1960).2 An anti-imperialist resistance movement led by Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, during the 1950s, the Mau Mau rebellion has been a hotspot where “Kenya’s pasts and Kenya’s possible futures have been debated, contested and fought over” (Atieno-Odhiambo 300). Despite the fact that fifty years have passed since its occurrence, the Mau Mau movement is still the subject of constant revisitations, refusing to be enclosed as a static memory. This thesis attempts to explore the ways of memorializing this critical anti-colonial resistance movement by focusing upon three sites of representation: Mau Mau historiography; the representation of Mau Mau memories in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel A Grain of Wheat (1967); and an updated reconsideration of the Mau Mau rebellion in M.G. Vassanji’s novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003). With an examination of the tensions within this triangular dialogue, I hope to explore how and why the Mau Mau rebellion has been represented and memorialized.
As “an important source of images in the twentieth-century West’s representation of Africa” (Lewis 230), the Mau Mau rebellion intriguingly gained its publicity in the most crooked manner. Memorialized as “the greatest horror story of Britain’s empire in the 1950s” (Anderson 1), the Mau Mau rebellion stood for the west’s long-invested imagination of Africa: the “Dark Continent.” In Something of Value (1955), which is known as the first novel representing the Mau Mau story and which remains the most-well known account of the rebellion, the American writer Robert Ruark inculcates his western readers with the necessary portable attitude to the Dark Continent and simultaneously promises them to expect the luring dangers in his adventure story: “To understand Africa you must understand a basic impulsive savagery that is greater than anything we civilized people have encountered in two centuries” (qtd. in Anderson 1). The black-magic oathing rituals which mesmerized Africans into deranged, murderous savages; the bodies which were brutally mutilated by the farming utensils-turned-into-weapons pangas; and finally the unkempt, animal-like Mau Mau fighters scurrying around in the dark African forest—these breathtaking “images” of Mau Mau rebels daily devoured by western readers in the 1950s simply confirmed for them the characteristic African “impulsive savagery” that is presented by Ruark.
Despite such high exposure to the public gaze, the Mau Mau rebellion remains elusive to its beholders. The “linguistic void” the term “Mau Mau” entails seems to reassert its mysteriousness, justifiably enshrouding the resistance movement into layers of “myths” (Kennedy 241).3 Attracted by its call, its pursuers have in the past half-century embarked on a series of efforts to “demystify” the Mau Mau rebellion yet, in the meantime, have inscribed new myths over it.4 In the following proposal of this thesis, I will try to probe into these efforts to see how “the myths of Mau Mau” came to be the dominant enterprise in Mau Mau historiography. My focus will be on the following questions: What kinds of “myths” have been created to explain the Mau Mau rebellion? For what reasons are they created? And: how, and toward what ends, can we read these “myths” today?
II: Mau Mau historiography
a. Creating the Myth of “Mau Mau”
The creation of the “Mau Mau myth” was rooted in the unusual phenomenon of the numerous “Mau Mau writings” that were immediately produced when the event was not yet a closed “history.” As the British declared war on the Kikuyu rebels through the emergency in 1952, they meanwhile embarked on one of the most sophisticated propaganda wars on defining the “nature” of the Mau Mau rebellion. With a firm denial of the economic and political grievances suffered by the Kikuyu people under colonial rule, they constructed a colonial discourse to diagnose the cause of the rebellion as an expression of a “psychological disease.” According to the colonialist official version, “Mau Mau” was a secret society organized by several bad-intentioned Kikuyu agitators who wanted to pursue their self-interests. Ungrateful for Europeans’ introduction of “modernity and progress” to build Africa, these agitators returned good for evil by aiming at subverting British rule. To rally their whole tribe into aligning with them, these Kikuyu masterminds mobilized the traditional ritual practiced in their tribe—oaths—to bind their fellow tribesmen into participating in their insurgent plan. Contaminated by the black magic of the oaths, the Kikuyu people were transformed from peace-loving though naïve people into “atavistic” savages who could not control their impulse for atrocious killings.
This official version of the rebellion was established by two monumental scientific studies. Both published in 1954, L.S.B. Leakey’s Defeating Mau Mau and Dr. J.C. Carothers’s The Psychology of Mau Mau offered an anthropological interpretation and an ethno-psychiatric reasoning respectively to backup such disease theory. Brandishing a “panoptic quasi-scientific viewpoint” (Said 215) to psychologize—and produce knowledge about—the Mau Mau rebellion, Leakey and Carothers diverted attention from Kikuyu people’s real grievances and instead molded the rebellion into its dominant image as “myth.” Leakey and Carothers reasoned that the ameliorating but rapid social change brought out by the European civilization had disturbed the mental health of “the African in transition” (Lonsdale, “Mau Mau 410”). Frightened by the sudden ruin of their traditional life styles, the Kikuyu people, they suggested, were allured by the nativistic religion called “Mau Mau-ism” for mental security. Appropriating the traditional Kikuyu tribal ritual “oathing” to shock the Kikuyu people, “Mau Mau” exploited Kikuyu people’s mental instability, turning them into atavistic killers.
However, as colonial discourse provided the first cornerstone to mythologize the Mau Mau rebellion, the real crisis of the Mau Mau memory would happen when it finally became a de facto “memory.” Marshaled by Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta, the post-independence state of Kenya had imposed “a policy of amnesia” to suppress the Mau Mau memory (Clough 256). As early as in his 1962 speech to a crowd of Kenya’s peasants, Kenyatta had taken up the British’s stigmatization of the Mau Mau rebellion. Charged as the “Mau Mau mastermind” by the British and as a result detained throughout the emergency, Kenyatta nevertheless appropriated and extended colonial discourse to condemn the Mau Mau rebellion as a “disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again” (qtd. in Clough 255). Following its president’s open denunciation of the Mau Mau rebellion, the post-independence state accordingly propagandized slogans like “Forgive and Forget” and “We all fought for freedom” (Elkins 360-61) to discredit the Mau Mau rebellion’s contribution to Kenya’s independence. With the suppression of memorializing the Mau Mau rebellion as an anti-colonial resistance movement, the post-independence state then collaborated with the colonizers to mythologize the rebellion.
b. The counter-myth: the nationalist myth
In the 1960s, a conspicuous voice emerged to challenge this first version of the Mau Mau myth. Dissatisfied with the demonization of their resistance efforts by the British and their neo-colonial successor, former Mau Mau fighters began to self-portray their aims and activities in participating the rebellion. Starting with J.M. Kariuki’s Mau Mau Detainee (1963),5 these “Mau Mau memoirs” refuted the psychological myth charted out by the colonialist official version. Under their portrayal, Mau Mau rebels were by no means atavistic savages but, rather, heroic “fighters” of the Land and Freedom Army who were inspired by patriotism to fight for Kenya’s independence. Claiming their contributions to Kenya’s independence, these Mau Mau memoirs attempted to legitimize the Mau Mau rebellion as a righteous anti-imperial resistance movement.
This revisionist version of the Mau Mau rebellion was further supported by the publication of Carl G. Rosberg, Jr. and John Nottingham’s The Myth of “Mau Mau”: Nationalism in Kenya in 1966. In this pioneering academic study on the origins of the Mau Mau rebellion, Rosberg and Nottingham explicitly demonstrated their revisionist spirit to the colonial myth of the Mau Mau rebellion: “In suggesting that the European conception of ‘Mau Mau’ constituted a myth, we maintain that ‘Mau Mau’ was indeed an integral part of an ongoing, rationally conceived nationalist movement” (xvii). In contrast to the colonial discourse’s blame on the African side, Rosberg and Nottingham attributed the eruption of the Mau Mau rebellion to “a European failure”: it was the failure of the European oppressors to recognize the social and political strains on the Kikuyu people that eventually drove the ordinary people into pursuing violence. Identifying the Mau Mau rebellion with “the militant nationalism,” The Myth of “Mau Mau” countered the colonial myth of the rebellion as manifestation of savagery and instead credited it as a paradigmatic expression of African nationalism (xvii).
c. Demystifying and re-mystifying the Mau Mau rebellion
To counterattack the colonial and neo-colonial cooperation of mythologizing the Mau Mau rebellion, Mau Mau fighters themselves and the first academic writing asserted the nationalist quality of the rebellion. Under their portrayal, the movement is represented as the legitimate expression of African nationalism to resist the subjugation of colonial rule. However, as Robert Buijtenhuijs observes, the new alliance between the Mau Mau fighters and the earliest historians created “the African myth of Mau Mau” (qtd. in Clough 259). While these revisionists located the Mau Mau rebellion within the sanctuary of nationalism, they forgot to attend to one of the significant features of this movement: its ethnic dimension. Indeed, the Mau Mau rebellion was not so much a wholesale national movement participated by all Kenyan natives as a regionally and ethnically restricted rebellion led by one ethnic group, the Kikuyu. Can such an ethnic-bound movement be valorized as a heroic nationalist anti-colonial resistance?6
This question has come to be a focal point in the debates of later Mau Mau historiography. As Peter Simatei observes, two clamorous voices have emerged to dominate the current debates over the role of the Mau Mau rebellion. Led by Kenya’s prominent historian Bethwell A. Ogot, a group of so-called “Nairobi historians,” most of them non-Kikuyu, have argued that instead of being an all-sweeping nationalist movement, the Mau Mau war was at best “a mere internecine feud among the Kikuyu” (“Versions” 154). They observe that the overt attention on the Mau Mau rebellion has restricted the “fruits of freedom” within certain interested groups, marginalizing other people’s contributions to Kenya’s independence.7 In contrast to the first thread’s argument that the Mau Mau rebellion was a internal tribal war of Kikuyu people, advocates of the second group have “dwell[ed] on [the Mau Mau rebellion’s] social significance” and have offered “deconstructions of colonialist and conservative versions of the war” (“Versions” 155). These radicals have not only succeeded the earlier revisionists’ recognition of the Mau Mau rebellion as a glorified anti-colonial resistance movement, but have further extended it into an inspiring symbol in resisting the continued colonialist suppression in the post-independence state.8
In Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa, the book co-written with the political scientist Bruce Berman, the British historian John Lonsdale has intervened in the current dichotomized contestations over the ethnicity of the Mau Mau rebellion by evoking “the question of moral economy.” In a long essay that extends into two separate chapters with the shared title “The Moral Economy of Mau Mau,” Lonsdale has explored how the seemingly incompatible opposition of ethnicity and nationality can be dissolved on the grounds of “morality”: “[T]ribes,” Lonsdale observes, “like nations—and they are alike in most respects other than in their lack of a state—are changing moral arenas of political debate” (267). Lonsdale points out that both parties within the “ethnic problem” debates—what Lonsdale identifies as liberals and radicals— have been mocked by “the myth of modernization,” and thus both have failed to attend to the dynamics of “Mau Mau’s ethnicity” (315). While Lonsdale rejects liberals’ accusation that ethnicity is limited, he meanwhile disavows the “master narrative” pursued by radicals. He observes that the more productive way to investigate the Mau Mau rebellion should move away from the question “Why did Kenyan nationalism fail?” to the question “Why did colonial Kenya’s African politics take the forms that it did?” (315). With an emphasis on the internal struggle that the Kikuyu people underwent under colonial rule, Lonsdale has relocated the discussions concerning the “ethnic problem” to bridge the gap of ethnicity and nationality of the Mau Mau rebellion.
III: Overview of the chapters
Chapter One of this thesis will explore the different constructions of the Mau Mau rebellion as “myth” in Mau Mau historiography; it will also map out the structure of the thesis as a whole. As I have begun to discuss in this proposal, the collaboration of the colonial and neo-colonial powers created the first myth of the rebellion. I would like to suggest that by mythologizing the rebellion as a “psychological disease” of the Kikuyu people, the first myth not only disavowed the economic and political grievances suffered by the Kikuyu people but also attempted to delegitimize the Mau Mau rebellion as the righteous resistance of the oppressed. Following this mapping of the first myth of the rebellion, I will then explore how the second myth—the nationalist myth—emerged in the 1960s. I would like to argue that with the negligence to attend to one of the most significant features of the rebellion—its ethnicity—the revisionist version of the Mau Mau rebellion failed to ground the rebellion as a glorious nationalist movement but rather once again perpetrated a mythologization of the rebellion. After examining the two classic myths of the Mau Mau rebellion, I will end with an examination of one major trajectory within current Mau Mau historiography: the ethnic problem of the Mau Mau rebellion. By borrowing Lonsdale’s idea of “moral economy” to intervene in the current formulation of the Mau Mau rebellion as a dichotomized opposition between ethnicity and nationality, I would like to suggest that the ongoing discussions of the rebellion have demystified and re-mystified the rebellion, which remains subject to new modes of representation and narration.
Chapter Two will turn to Ngugi wa Thiong’o literary representation of the Mau Mau rebellion in his classic postcolonial novel A Grain of Wheat (1967). In this novel, Ngugi brings us back to the eve of Kenyan independence on 12 December 1963 to reexamine the meaning of freedom in a community divided by different loyalties. Through the dramatization of the motif of “betrayal,” Ngugi revisits the wreckages brought out by the Mau Mau rebellion yet suggests that the memory of the Mau Mau rebellion is “betrayed” by the post-independence state. Composed in the context of the state-sanctioned amnesia of the Mau Mau rebellion, A Grain of Wheat critiques how the post-independence state had disavowed the Mau Mau rebellion’s contribution to Kenyan independence—that the fruits of freedom gained by the peasant-led anti-colonial resistance had been appropriated by the nationalist elites. My reading of Ngugi’s novel would like to highlight how Ngugi deliberately employs multiple perspectives to dramatize the disintegration of a community brought out by the Mau Mau rebellion and through the structure of this narrative, further rejects the “master narrative” upheld by the post-independence state. By depicting how a disintegrated community—both on the individual level and in the nation as a whole—had tried to mend its broken parts back to unity through a confrontation with its past, Ngugi reminds us of the importance of memorializing the Mau Mau rebellion as a way to figure out Kenya’s future.
Chapter Three will investigate an updated reconsideration of the Mau Mau rebellion in M.G. Vassanji’s novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003). Narrated by the protagonist Vikram Lall, the novel depicts how his community, the African-Asians in Kenya, had complicated the colonial scenario of a white-black racial clash with their “in-betweenness.” Vassanji’s novel deliberately interweaves the life story of Vikram and his community with political developments in Kenya from the late colonial period all the way to the post-independence period. My reading of Vassanji’s novel will investigate how this angle of memorializing the Mau Mau rebellion has been made “absent” in both the narratives of Mau Mau historiography and Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat: the white-black opposition that dominated the memory of the rebellion had excluded the voice of African-Asians. While Ngugi uses co-present multiple voices to oppose the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion, Vassanji formulates a first-person narrative in a dialogical structure: the “in-between” protagonist Vikram is constantly propelled to undergo numerous modes of negotiations between different temporalities and localities, in Kenya and in Canada. With the presentation of an in-between Indian voice to re-narrate the Mau Mau rebellion, Vassanji thereby provides new perspectives that further enlarge the understanding of this historical event.
Chapter Four will conclude this thesis. After investigating the triangular dialogue of Mau Mau historiography, Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat, and Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall,this thesis would like to suggest the multi-facetedness of the Mau Mau rebellion. As “a history refusing to be enclosed,” the contested memory of the Mau Mau rebellion will demand its pursuers to constantly explore its meanings and, through such remembrance, to think of a better future.
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1 Historians still hold no consensus over the official appellation attached to the historical event recognized as “Mau Mau.” Part of the reason originates from the ambivalent attitude of the colonial government, which shunned using “war” or “rebellion” in addressing the enemy but rather preferred the less politically-charged term “civil disturbance” (Anderson 238). With a purpose to employ a postcolonial critique in reading this historical event as a problematic issue, this thesis will stick to the term “the Mau Mau rebellion” to designate the failed but significant anti-colonial resistance movement.
2 The length of the Mau Mau war I provide here is in accordance with Kenya’s emergency period, which was declared by Kenyan colonial government on 20 October 1952. Although the major militant actions within the Mau Mau war had only lasted into 1956, it was not until 12 January 1960 that the emergency was then officially lifted from Kenya. Given that, in the extra four years, many so-called Mau Mau adherents were forcibly detained by the colonial government, an experience actually very few Kikuyu people managed to escape in the emergency period, I think it is justifiable to include the whole length of the emergency period as the period of the Mau Mau rebellion.
3 The origin of the appellation “Mau Mau” remains a mystery to its examiners. According to Carol Sicherman, the term “Maumau” was first used by the official colonial reports in 1948 to inform the colonial government the presence of a secret organization. In the following years, the term would be popularized by the Europeans to refer to the anti-colonial movement, even though the Kikuyu rebels preferred to call themselves the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. See Carol Sicherman’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o: The Making of a Rebel (London: Hans Zell, 1990): 214-27.
4 It is interesting to note that the exponents of the Mau Mau rebellion have stuck to the title “the Myth of Mau Mau.” With Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham’s pioneer academic study on the Mau Mau rebellion The Myth of “Mau Mau”: Nationalism in Kenya published in 1966, there have been a long list of similar titles, including: Robert Buijtenhuijs’s Mau Mau Twenty Years After: The Myth and the Survivors (1973); A.S. Cleary’s “The Myth of Mau Mau in Its International Context” (1990); Dane Kennedy’s “Constructing the Colonial Myth of Mau Mau” (1992); and Galia Sbar-Friedman’s “The Mau Mau Myth: Kenyan Political Discourse in Search of Democracy” (1995). From the popularity of this phrase in these titles, we can see the tenacity and ongoing currency of the “Mau Mau myth.”
5 Along with Kariuki’s Mau Mau Detainee, some of the most notable Mau Mau memoirs include: Karari Njama’s Mau Mau from Within (1966), a first-person narrative co-written with the radical anthropologist Donald Barnett; and “Mau Mau” General (1967), written by one of the most famous Mau Mau generals, Waruhiu Itote.
6 In this review of Mau Mau historiography, I have tried to schematize the different representations of the Mau Mau rebellion into three distinct phases by investigating the debates and agreements within historians’ discussions. While I would like to suggest that historians have generally agreed upon the development of the first two phases, that is, how the first myth of the rebellion was collaboratively created by the colonizers and their successors, and how the revisionists accordingly created a nationalist myth to counteract the first myth, what I try to chart out in the “third phase” actually remains an on-going battlefield of unclosed debates. Therefore, in the so-called third phase of Mau Mau historiography, I will simply explore one conspicuous trajectory—the ethnic problem of the Mau Mau rebellion—within the current debates among historians.
7 The debates over the “ethnic problem” of the Mau Mau rebellion reached the peak in the 1986 Historical Association conference. In a paper presented in his absence, the British historian John Lonsdale writes in his paper that “However one approaches the subject, Mau Mau is an embarrassment.” In the following question and answer section, Kenyan historian William Ochieng’ immediately picked up the sentence to confirm that “Yes, Mau Mau is an embarrassment to all of us,” with an explanation that the rebellion had been appropriated by the Kikuyu elites to secure their rule by recognizing the Mau Mau rebellion. However, the next day newspaper excised Ochieng’s explanation, retaining only the provocative statement: “Mau Mau is an embarrassment.” The following fervent public debates, which once again stimulated Mau Mau fighters’ self-valorization and the criticisms that Ochieng’ received, which focused on his ethnic and generational exclusiveness—demonstrate how the Mau Mau rebellion has been and remains a sensitive topic in Kenyan national narratives. See E.S. Atieno-Odhiambo’s “The Production of History in Kenya: The Mau Mau Debate,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 25.2 (1991), especially pp. 300-02.
8 Ngugi’s participation and contribution to the Mau Mau debate will be further discussed in the following chapter.