*not to be cited or quoted without written permission of the author* Making ‘Mau Mau’: re-making Kikuyus; re-making Kenya?

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Thomas Lloyd, University of Edinburgh

Researching the Colonial and Postcolonial workshop

*not to be cited or quoted without written permission of the author*

Making ‘Mau Mau’: re-making Kikuyus; re-making Kenya?

By late October 1952, British colonial government was operating Kenya as a State of Emergency. The Kenya administration justified the decision to the Colonial Office and the ‘subject’ population alike as a temporary suspension of what were regarded as the ‘normal’ rules relating to evidence, arrest, and detention. This would allow for the interment of around 180 leading Kikuyu politicians and activists supposedly orchestrating an extra-ordinary secret society called ‘Mau Mau’ that had been detected by colonial intelligence sources in 1948. However, the Emergency lasted until January 1960, and even when it was lifted many of its draconian regulations were permanently inked into the colony’s statue book.1 In the period between late 1952 and early 1960, almost all of Kenya’s 1.5 million Kikuyus experienced severe restrictions on their ‘freedom’, either in the colony’s prisons, in the network of detention and labour camps built the Emergency, or, for the overwhelming majority, through enclosure in ‘Emergency’ villages, which operated a 23-hour curfew. The initial plan to decapitate a secretive political movement therefore expanded into a massive, centrally co-ordinated exercise in bureaucratic authoritarianism that lasted for nearly a decade.
In particular, the discourse on ‘Mau Mau’ that developed during the 1950s brought into play the political ambitions of the Kenyan government and attached ‘experts’; the colony’s provincial administration; Whitehall ‘officials’ in the metropole; European settlers and Christian groups operating in Kenya; the left- and right-wings of the British press; and of course the divergent agendas of various Kikuyus drawn into the conflicts. At stake in this discourse was not merely an understanding of the immediate causes and contours of the Emergency, but a re-negotiation of the colonial presence in Kenya and, for some, a re-consideration of the validity of empire itself. In this essay, I privilege two sets of voices that played a significant role in both the initial constitution of this discourse, and the forms in which it was subsequently re-constituted, as a means of analysing why ‘Mau Mau’ provoked such a prolonged crisis of British colonialism.2 The first is that of two government ‘experts’, Dr. Colin Carothers and Dr. Louis Leakey, employed to advise the colonial administration on how to understand and respond to ‘Mau Mau’. The second is that of ‘Mau Mau’ supporters of varying levels of conviction and involvement who took oaths of unity with and loyalty to protest movements that developed during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s in an attempt to realize radical socio-economic, political, and cultural alternatives to their recent and present experiences.
I begin by scrutinizing the ‘liberal’, ‘official’ representation of Mau Mau as occult (and so apolitical), atavistic, tribal violence by schizophrenic ‘Africans in transition’—a legitimization for both the repression and ‘rehabilitation’ of certain colonial ‘subjects’. The sources of information-generation fundamental to the elaboration of this myth—especially the ‘screening’ (interrogation) of suspects by co-opted Africans—are replete with demonstrations of the subtleties, complexities, and parochialisms of Kikuyu politics in the 1950s. This representation flattened-out ambiguity and smothered heterogeneity, making the temporally- and spatially-localised aspirations, and so ‘threats’ of the singularized, insurgent ‘Other’ relevant to the present and future safety of the colony as a whole. By doing so, it insisted on the necessity of its creators’ continued presence in Kenya, advancing their claim for the stewardship of Kenya’s assumed ‘progression’ to ‘modernity’.

Colonial knowledge, colonial anxiety: ‘Mau Mau’ oaths and the imputation of Kikuyu ‘savagery’

In early 1954, Kenya’s Chief Secretary produced a “Memorandum on Mau Mau Atrocities and Rituals”. It described eight ‘grades’ of ‘Mau Mau’ oath that participants took to swear allegiance with the ‘movement’. The strength of the promises made ranged from relatively mild unity oaths, allegedly taken by 90% of Kikuyus to guarantee their loyalty, to severe batuni (‘platoon’ or warrior) oaths, used by guerrilla-fighters, who had fled to the forests of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya by the time the memorandum was written.3
The memorandum drew upon disclosures made to a Parliamentary Delegation sent to Kenya to investigate ‘Mau Mau’ in January 1954, including ‘confessions’ of arrested suspects made to screening (or interrogation) teams that were originally formed by European settlers (but were formalized into units of police Special Branch interrogators and ‘loyalist’ translators in late 1952). These ‘confessions’ described some of the ceremonies whereby vows of loyalty were sworn to ‘Mau Mau’. Here is the statement taken from a male Kikuyu named Waweru, to a screening team working in the Naivasha area of the Rift Valley Province:

A ram is killed, the penis is cut off. A ewe is killed and the vagina cut off. Penis is inserted into the vagina. The penis and vagina of sheep is inserted into the vagina of a Kikuyu prostitute who has her ‘monthlies’. Removed from vagina of the prostitute and is licked seven times by man receiving oath. Penis and vagina then passed round head seven times. This procedure takes place with all the people taking the oath, until all have licked the penis/vagina until all is eaten. Ten men took the oath at the same time as I did. When penis/vagina had been eaten, blood of the ram and ewe is mixed with earth, sweet potatoes, small amount of wimbi, sugar cane, banana, sweet potatoes, Kikuyu beans – this mixture is eaten seven times. Then all the meat is eaten. Then every man who has taken the fourth oath on that night lies with the prostitute. In the morning the prostitute goes to the river to wash and then returns to Njabini. Her name is WAINJA. She is now at Thika.

Oaths taken:--

I must kill even my brother.

I must steal any arms or ammo.

Every man from now on, even a brother, who has not taken the Mau Mau oath, is an enemy.

Not to show a woman a gun unless she has taken the oath.

If by any chance a bibi who has not taken the oath sees a fourth oath man with a gun, she is to be killed.4

This formulaic statement ‘confessing’ to oath-taking describes the ‘highest’ grade of ‘Mau Mau’ oath, taken by at most a few thousand fighters during the Emergency.5 The lurid references to nudity, cannibalism, bestiality, prostitution, menstruation, semen, theft, and murder, were accepted at face value by Members of the Parliamentary Delegation, although their public report fetishized them by claiming that they were too pornographic to be printed. Despite knowing that they had been extracted under duress; were liable to mistranslation; and had been shorn of context, the Parliamentary Delegation did not consider these ‘confessions’ to be problematic. Rather, they were ultimate ‘proof’ that ‘Mau Mau’ was premised upon an inversion of ‘traditional’ Kikuyu ritual and lacked a coherent ‘political’ agenda. “Mau Mau intentionally and deliberately seeks to lead the Africans of Kenya back to the bush and savagery,” its authors wrote, “not forward into progress”.6
On the strength of the Parliamentary Delegation’s report, the Kenyan government appointed a ‘Committee to Enquire into the Sociological Causes and Remedies of Mau Mau’. It had two prominent, European, ‘experts’—the ‘ethnopsychiatrist’, Carothers, and the ‘paleoanthropologist’, Leakey. Their appointment to the Sociological Committee marked the culmination of these ‘experts’’ contributions to the official discourse on ‘Mau Mau’. An examination of their contributions shows how crucial they were to the form this discourse had taken by early 1954, and the shape it would retain for the remainder of the Emergency, and in subsequent histories of it.

Carothers and Leakey (and Kenyatta): Colonial pseudoscience and Kikuyu conservatism(s)

Carothers was the Kenyan government’s former Medical Officer, and had pioneered ‘ethnopsychiatry’ at Mathari Mental Hospital and Nairobi Prison during the 1930s and ’40s. His status had been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO), which commissioned him to produce a report on “the African mind” that was published in 1953.7 While sitting on the Sociological Committee, he produced a more specific ‘ethnopsychiatric’ study, entitled, The Psychology of Mau Mau, in which he argued that post-war socio-economic changes in Kenya had provoked a violent schizophrenia among a section of the colony’s population, whom he labelled “Africans in transition” (a term borrowed from his report for the WHO). The term referred particularly to young, male Kikuyus, who had been socialized in an authoritarian, communal, superstitious, rural environment, where they were subject to the strictures of their parents and elders, and lived in fear of the caprice of ‘magic’, ‘nature’ and ‘God’. These young men now found themselves forced to migrate to Nairobi in search of work. Thrust upon their own resources in a licentious, atomised, ‘rational’ world, they could not adapt their already-hardened psychology. Instead, they became “detribalized”: disconnected from ‘traditional’ restraints. “Egotists”, as Carothers called political activists and trade-union leaders, exploited this ‘vulnerability’ and tapped into the submissive outlook hard-wired in childhood by administering oaths of unity with ‘Mau Mau’, which restored the solidarity and purpose absent from their urban lives.8
It was a view broadly supported by Leakey, a self-made authority on Kikuyu affairs, fluent in their language, who had previously written a detailed ethnography of the ‘tribe’.9 The ethnography explained the use of various oaths taken to seal business transactions, to settle legal disputes, to curse enemies, and to change an individual’s status within their kinship group. Breaking the promises made in an oath caused an individual to enter a state of ritual impurity called thahu that could lead to permanent social exclusion.10
However, although the colonial government used Leakey’s ethnography to train civil-service cadets, his methodology was dismissed by Bronislaw Malinowski, a leading anthropologist of the 1930s, who instead patronised the research of a rising Kikuyu political figure, Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta was an ambitious but relatively young elder from Kiambu District, near Nairobi, who lacked the wealth to acquire a significant influence in Kikuyu politics as it was arranged in the early twentieth century. By the mid-1930s, he had become convinced that senior elder politics, as represented by the Kikuyu Association (KA), was failing to offer Kikuyu communities the necessary protection against exploitation by European settlers. Access to land dominated Kikuyu politics at all levels. Therefore, when, between 1932-4, the Kenya Land Commission unilaterally denied Kikuyu claims to land alienated by European settlers, it was a decisive blow to communities throughout central Kenya. For Kenyatta, it emphasized the bankruptcy of the KA’s political programme, which was indeed premised on getting official recognition for the land rights of sub-clans controlled by senior elders (mbari). In his ethnography, Kenyatta thus privileged the mobilizing capabilities of age-group- and generational-associations (riika) and ‘traditional’ Kikuyu culture as the grounds for a slightly younger, broader-based, but more individualistic claim for formal land rights.11
Throughout the 1930s, these ideas were pursued by the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), of which Kenyatta was a leading figure, as it created ‘independent’—that is, non-mission—schools that taught a specifically ‘Kikuyu’ curriculum.12 The independent schools therefore defied the authority of both senior, Christian elders, and the colonial government, who appointed them as salaried ‘Chiefs’ of the Kikuyu ‘tribe’ in return for guarantees of their ‘dependents’’ obedience. This ‘subversion’ was monitored closely by Special Branch, which exploited Leakey’s ‘expertise’ in Kikuyu affairs during the Second World War, by employing him to report on political activity in Kiambu District, home to Kenyatta and headquarters of the KCA. His findings were instrumental in the government’s proscription of the KCA in 1940, but Leakey believed he was acting to save Kikuyus from the inevitable self-destruction that he thought would result from their desertion of the authority and Christianity of senior elders. He and his father, a prominent missionary, had worked alongside these elders for years in their campaign for the ‘recognition’ of land rights, and his ethnography of the Kikuyu shows a solemn respect for their power and principles.
It was in this liminal role—as self-appointed interlocutor between the colonial government and Kenya’s most powerful Kikuyus—that Leakey acted during the early 1950s and into the Emergency, and it is this ‘official’ voice of Kikuyu conservatism that speaks from the pages of his two influential books on ‘Mau Mau’. In the first, published just seven weeks after the declaration of the Emergency, Leakey alleged that the Kikuyu “agitators” ‘behind’ ‘Mau Mau’ had created eight new oaths that perverted the application, ethics, and content of “established native law and custom”—exactly as the Chief Secretary would go on to argue in his memorandum of 1954.13
Throughout 1952 and 1953, Leakey participated in top—level discussions on Emergency policy, and 770 copies of his second book, Defeating Mau Mau (published in 1954), were distributed to the Kenyan police to inform them about their new enemies. By the time the Sociological Committee submitted its report, in May 1954, Leakey expressed both contempt for ‘movement’s’ radicalism, and distress that its oathing campaign was bypassing the control, and moderation, of senior, Christian elders. He now argued that ‘Mau Mau’ was an organized “religion”, and the oaths its defining feature.

When to this religious aspect of the movement the great power exercised by the magical and mystical acts that accompany actual oath-taking are added, it is not so difficult to see how it became possible to make so many normally peace-loving Kikuyu into the fanatical, murdering maniacs they have become under Mau Mau.14

By 1954, Leakey’s anthropology shared with Carothers’ psychology the claim that ‘Mau Mau’ was a mind-altering ‘illness’, a freak deviation from the ‘normal’ mental state of certain Kikuyus. As advisers on the Sociological Committee, their views were co-opted by the government, and this claim was given an official platform, enshrined as the conclusion of a ‘scientific’ colonial knowledge-gathering project about ‘Mau Mau’. This ‘science’ offered objective, empirical, and universal claims about the ‘truth’ of ‘Mau Mau’. Participants in ‘Mau Mau’ could not be considered ‘free-agents’. Fearful and superstitious people had taken morally- and socially-binding, albeit bastardized, oaths that committed them to violence on pain of ritual impurity, ostracism from their community, and reprisals against their family. The oaths therefore threatened to bring to their administrators the allegiance, obedience and aggression of almost all Kikuyus. Stop the oathing and ‘Mau Mau’ would cease.

Treating the ‘atavistic’ urge: Repression and ‘rehabilitation’

The colonial administration’s conviction that 90% of Kikuyus had taken an oath of unity transformed the official conceptualization of ‘Mau Mau’ from a political conspiracy and a minor military concern to a ‘civil disturbance’ that was perceived as a significant, possibly decisive, threat to both the legitimacy and authority of the colonial enterprise in Kenya.15 This anxiety drove the attempts at mass repression and ‘rehabilitation’ that characterized its responses during the Emergency, especially from 1954 onwards. Furthermore, it presented the Kenyan government and the Colonial Office with unprecedented bureaucratic challenges, by criminalizing over a million colonial ‘subjects’.
‘Operation Anvil’ (of April-May 1954) demonstrated both the extent and consequences of this re-conceptualization. Nairobi was cordoned-off 50,000 inhabitants were screened. Of these, 21,400 male Kikuyus were detained without trial for ‘Mau Mau offences’ specified in the Emergency Regulations. By the end of 1955, more than 70,000 Kikuyus had been incarcerated in the network of 56 ‘transit’, ‘detention’, and ‘work’ camps that comprised the ‘Pipeline’.16 Meanwhile, in the countryside surrounding Nairobi, almost all remaining Kikuyus were confined in 854 ‘Emergency villages’ between June 1954 and December 1955. As aforementioned, they lived under a 23-hour curfew. In addition—and in moral, though not legal, contravention of two international conventions signed by Britain after the Second World War—they were compelled to perform forced, communal labour.17 “It is obviously not practical politics”, Nakuru’s District Commissioner wrote, “to incarcerate a million and a half Kikuyu who are admitting freely to having taken the illegal oath”.18 The policy of ‘Villagization’, endorsed by the Sociological Committee, was the elected alternative.
However, if almost all Kikuyus’ involvement in ‘Mau Mau’ was pathological, and if it had already been detected and diagnosed by the ‘expert’ application of ‘Western’ sciences, it followed that Europeans—specifically, the Kenya Administration—could find and implement the ‘cure’. This supplied a sustaining myth for British colonialism, imagining and justifying a progressive meta-narrative for Kenya’s future, as one best served by a continued, albeit re-defined, paternal presence. Repression was therefore accompanied by reforms to ‘rehabilitate’ Kikuyus; to smooth their hitherto painful ‘transition’ to ‘modern’ economic and social relations.
The most significant of these reforms, the Swynnerton Plan, was introduced alongside ‘Villagization’ in 1954.19 It entailed a top-down acceleration of agricultural capitalism, primarily through the alteration of land-tenure legislation in order to fuse supposedly “fragmented” Kikuyu landholdings into large estates and simultaneously turn the dispossessed majority into a vast rural proletariat to work on them. The overwhelming beneficiaries were ‘loyalist’ sub-elites who controlled the land demarcation committees and so were able to expropriate the holdings of alleged ‘Mau Mau’ supporters in order to expand their own estates.20
As such, the reforms revealed a startling paradox of the colonial visions for ‘rehabilitation’ and indeed ‘modern’ Kenya, endorsing the idea that supposedly ‘detribalized’ Kikuyus would be ‘cured’ through a state-organized attempt to ‘retribalize’ them—an attempt to send them back in time to an idealized communal, agrarian ‘past’, in which they would reconnect to the peacefulness of their ‘old lives’ by being surrounded by their families and elders.21 The implementation of the plan demonstrates why these colonial vision for Kenya were unattractive to the majority of Kikuyus, and why, in different localities across the colony, they decided that deference to the government’s laws and representatives was more threatening to their existence than collective action against them. I now turn to certain members of Kenya’s Kikuyu population, to examine their motivations for resistance—waged on several fronts, against several different enemies, both existential and concrete—during the 1950s.

‘Mau Mau’ oaths: The politics of Kikuyu oathing in the context of the Kenyan ‘Emergency’, circa 1952-60

While the official accounts attributed the ‘spread’ of ‘Mau Mau’ to a dynamic of fear created by a minority of unscrupulous ‘agitators’ and the passivity of the majority of Kikuyus toward their harmful ‘magic’, the various ‘memoirs’ of participants in the protests of the 1950s provide alternative insights into what was called ‘Mau Mau’, portraying a form of collective subaltern action that spread for different, and more complex reasons, than the ‘experts’’ ‘diagnosis’ permits. It must be remembered that these memoirists retrospectively sought to cast ‘Mau Mau’ in a new light, to challenge the dominant, official representation as leverage for concessions from Kenyatta’s post-independence government of the 1960s. Nevertheless, their recollections of oath-administration and the procedures used in the ceremonies suggest that far from being an ‘inversion’ of Kikuyu tradition and custom—as Leakey argued, oaths of unity were a re-deployment of it, a modification designed to combat the specific threats perceived prior to, and especially during, the Emergency.
The memoirists refer to their unity or ‘commitment’ oath in positive terms, as one of temporary allegiance to a secret movement (or movements) that looked to Kenyatta for deliverance. This belies the notion that they had been simply compelled to take it. The oath was called, variously, The Unity of the Community, The Important, or The Mumbi oath—‘Mumbi’ being a reference to the mythological mother of the Kikuyu ‘tribe’.22 These vernacular names suggest that Kikuyus considered themselves to be participants in a movement attempting to create internal ethnic solidarity as the means to direct the political energies of geographically disparate groups of individuals within Kenya.
Furthermore, the ritual procedures used in both the milder commitment oaths and the later, more aggressive oaths taken by fighters in the guerrilla ‘armies’, were an amalgamation of various aspects of the ceremonies described in Leakey’s ethnography. These were routinely used by Kikuyu communities to seal business transactions, to arbitrate in legal disputes, and to punctuate significant periods in a Kikuyu’s life by conferring a changed social status upon the recipient—welcoming them as a ‘full’ member of the ‘tribe’ or as a ‘mature’ adult, or initiating them as a warrior, or an elder.23 Moreover, ‘Mau Mau’ was not the first occasion in which syncretic oathing ceremonies had been created to forge political solidarity among dispersed Kikuyu communities. During the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, attempts to swell the memberships and coffers of political parties, as well as protests over land-rights, educational reforms, and religious practice all used variations on ‘traditional’ oaths to build support for their cause. As with so-called ‘Mau Mau’ oaths, the content of these, and the ritual symbolism used varied according to such factors as the personality of the oath-administrator, the location in which they were taken, and the specific challenges that the oath was designed to help combat. The ‘Mau Mau’ oaths taken by tenant-farmers in the Rift Valley in the late 1940s directly referenced the prolonged struggle for land rights at a place called Olenguruone24, while those taken in Nairobi in the early 1950s reflected the radicalism of the trade-union leaders and activists who created them as an alternative to the more moderate commitment or membership oaths used by political parties such as the Kikuyu Central Association.25
The variety in the content of the different oaths attributed to ‘Mau Mau’ is matched by that of the memoirists’ reasons for taking them. These included personal frustration, family grievances, ethnic patriotism, anti-racism, and nationalist antipathy towards colonial rule.26 As Clough has observed, J. M. Kariuki, Waruhiu Itote, Karari Njama, H. K. Wachange, Bildad Kaggia, and Gakaara wa Wanjau each identify the power and arrogance of European settlers as an explanation for the particular form their political outlooks took by the early 1950s, outlooks which they explain as defensive responses to white political ambitions. Wanjau, Itote, and Wachanga became political activists both to resist the emasculating effects of white racism and foreign control, and to assert their male identity as individuals and as a select community. For the less educated Joram Wamweya, Kiboi Muriithi, and Gucu Gikoyo taking an oath of unity with and, subsequently, loyalty to, ‘Mau Mau’ offered them excitement, freedom from the constraints of senior family-members and kinsmen, and a chance to win status and therefore land by a quicker, though less conventional route than would ‘normally’ be possible for men of their backgrounds.27
Candidates recalled being oathed as an emotionally complex, transformative experience. Karari Njama argued that by taking the oath, initiates became

…at one time and the same time a member of the Movement and a full-fledged, and in a sense reborn, member of the tribe. One could not, it was felt, be considered fully and truly of Gikuyu [the ‘tribe’s’ founding ancestor] without taking the Unity Oath.28

This sensation of being “reborn” was experienced in different ways: for Kariuki, educated at an independent Kikuyu school, it erased the deracinating effects of ‘Westernization’ experienced in Nairobi29; for Gikoyo, who had never left his home before he took a unity oath, re-birth marked the first phase in his political awakening.30 Yet in both cases, re-birth as a ‘true Kikuyu’ was a way to shed the corrupt, previous self that existed in the colonisers’ world.
As colonial repression intensified in late 1952, the militant trade union leaders and activists of Nairobi headed to the forests of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya to form guerrilla armies, where they administered even stronger oaths, distinguishable by the severity of the hypothetical challenges they made to the taker’s loyalty. In the forests, they conceived of oaths that attempted to legitimize their new guerrilla identities by swearing allegiance to a warrior age-group that served a social purpose: defending the wider community versus colonial oppression in a way that they believed the moderate, constitutionalist politics of senior, Christian elders had failed to do. It was these oaths that caused distress to the colonial authorities, but they were also shocking to some Kikuyu communities, for they involved fluids associated with cursing ceremonies, which threatened the sanctity of the land.
The promises made in the forests are unquestionably the most aggressive and explicitly anti-colonial of those found in accounts of oath-taking, and several of the memoirists describe how revolting they found them.31 However, others argued that these oaths were justified by the unprecedented repression faced in the 1950s, as well as the difficulty of life on the run, in the forests.32 The vows taken also clearly define a new sense of morality that was being forged there, though one undoubtedly precipitated by pragmatic needs to preserve secrecy and minimize internal conflict, by requiring candidates to pledge not to sleep with prostitutes, to agree that marriage was for life, and to follow Kikuyu ‘tradition’ when sleeping with women.
Again, the themes of purification and rebirth emerge from this consideration of the construction of the forest-oaths. Both inside the forests, and in wider Kikuyu communities where oath-taking was prevalent, the sense of connection with a purer, ‘tribal’ ancestry, was reinforced in the oath administrator’s lesson about ‘African’ or ‘Kikuyu’ experiences under colonial dominion and the political purposes of the movement(s). Again, this was copied from the concluding act of other Kikuyu oath ceremonies in which newly-anointed adults, warriors, or elders were given solemn advice about their responsibilities and the expectations now made of them to act bravely and virtuously for the collective good of the community. The administrator of Gikoyo’s oath of unity made both connections—to a ‘purer’ ‘tribal’ past and to a virtuous warrior tradition—explicit by telling his group that they “were now good people…[who] had been cleansed and had become Gikuyu Karing’a [true Kikuyu] and warriors who would fight for…independence”.33 As such, the later forest oaths shared with the milder unity oaths of the late 1940s and the early 1950s the attempt of administrators to connect the experiences of present Kikuyu initiates with those of their ancestors involved in previous struggles, thus ascribing a particular, ethnically-derived moral legitimacy to the radical political strategies described as ‘Mau Mau’.
Therefore, a contextualization of the origins and elaboration of ‘Mau Mau’ oathing, the processes of oath administration, the motifs that recur in the oaths, and the motivations guiding those Kikuyu who took them, challenges official conclusions drawn in the past, and re-inscribes new possibilities for understanding ‘Mau Mau’ in the historiographical present. In particular, it problematizes the conceptualization of ‘Mau Mau’ as either a coherent, singular ‘movement’ with a common agenda (be it anti-colonial, nationalist, or irredentist), or as a straightforward, internal struggle among Kikuyus to re-distribute authority over generation and gender within their ‘tribe’.


Oathing constituted neither the ‘failure’ of Kikuyus to imagine political solutions to their various causes of dispossession, dislocation, and discontent, nor a ‘retreat’ into a “magic of despair”.34 Rather, they were a means through which new alliances were forged in an attempt to bring about a radical change to inequalities that manifested themselves differently according to specific conditions in distinct localities, yet pervaded colonial Kenya by the mid-twentieth century. Certain participants who have previously been represented in collective terms—at best homogenized as the ‘passive wing’, and at worst as ‘victims’ of ruthless administrators and agitators, but in either case ‘needy’ of the colonizers’ ‘cures’—enter this history as intelligent individuals, anxious to negotiate a better future for themselves and able to manipulate their culture to further this struggle. As such, the oaths themselves are layered with the histories of previous conflicts, and filled with the urgency of political challenges perceived by those Kikuyus, who had realized, by the 1950s, that continued deference to authority was more hazardous to their existence than joint action against it.


Unpublished Sources

Public Record Office (PRO), London:

CO 822/232

CO 822/481

CO 822/703

CO 822/800

WO 236/18

Kenya National Archives (KNA), Nairobi:

AB 2/53/1

AB 8/78/1

BZ 16/1/14

Nakuru District Annual Report, 1950

Nyeri District Annual Report, 1954

African Affairs Department Annual Report, 1954

East African Standard, 20th October 1955

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Swynnerton, R. J. M. A Plan to Intensify the Development of African Agriculture in Kenya Nairobi: Government Printer, 1954.

1 For a detailed analysis of the high politics leading to the declaration of the State of Emergency, and the retention of Emergency powers beyond January 1960, see Percox, Britain, Kenya and the Cold War, esp. chs. 2 and 6.

2 My essay is not intended as an exhaustive account, but, in the formal sense of the word, an ‘attempt’, to reinterpret ‘Mau Mau’ by looking at the policies that in many ways ‘created’ it, and the ‘oaths’ that were seen, by both the agents of counter-insurgency and certain participants, to define the ‘movement’. It should be noted that terms such as ‘Mau Mau’ and ‘movement’ appear throughout in inverted commas to problematize the notion—shared by colonial officials, the security forces, and many Kikuyu participants—that ‘it’ was a singular phenomenon. Recent research indicates that ‘Mau Mau’ is better conceived of in the plural, as many movements grouped under a single rubric, which attempted simultaneous and complementary, but distinct, protests about land-rights, colonial oppression, racism, and gendered and generational authority within Kikuyu communities. For more on this, I direct the reader to the works of Anderson, Clough, Kershaw, and Lonsdale, which are listed in the bibliography.

3 H. S. Potter, Chief Secretary, ‘Memorandum on Mau Mau Atrocities and Rituals’, 12 Jan 1954, PRO CO 822/800 ‘Mau-Mau Oath Ceremonies in Kenya.’

4 Enclosure “D” to S.15/Vol.II/79, ‘Extract from statement made by WAWERU s/o CHEGE to R. K. S. HENDRY’, in H. S. Potter, Chief Secretary, ‘Memorandum on Mau Mau Atrocities and Rituals’, 12 Jan 1954, PRO CO 822/800/40-1.

5 Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya, 107; Kershaw, Mau Mau from Below, 119-20.

6 Report to the Secretary of State for the Colonies by the Parliamentary Delegation to Kenya, 4, 7-8.

7 Carothers, The African Mind in Health and Disease.

8 Carothers, The Psychology of Mau Mau , 2-3, 7-18, 31.

9 This account of Leakey’s intellectual argument with Kenyatta about Kikuyu conservatism, his role in Special Branch, and his ascent to ‘expert’ status within the colonial government draws upon Berman and Lonsdale, “Louis Leakey’s Mau Mau”, 143-204.

10 See Leakey, The Southern Kikuyu before 1903.

11 See Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya.

12 Anderson, Histories of the Hanged, 20, 71.

13 Leakey, Mau Mau and the Kikuyu, 51-5, 86-100.

14 Leakey, Defeating Mau Mau, 32-54, 77-87; the quotation is from page 52.

15 The belief that 90% of Kikuyu had taken a ‘Mau Mau’ oath and were therefore either ‘actively’ fighting for the movement, or ‘passively’ supporting it—by keeping it secret from the colonial authorities, or by supplying the fighters with intelligence, arms, food, and shelter was given explicit endorsement in the report on the Emergency submitted by Erskine, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in Kenya, in April 1955. The report was seen by all of the senior leaders of the colonial administration. See General Sir George W. E. J. Erskine, ‘Report on the Kenya Emergency, 7 June 1953—2 May 1955’, 25 Apr 1955, PRO WO 236/18/2.

16 Anderson, Histories of the Hanged, 200-5.

17 See ‘Memorandum on the Aggregation of the Population into Villages in Rural Areas’, 12 Apr 1954, Kenya National Archives (KNA), AB 2/53/1; African Affairs Department Annual Report, 1954, page 33; East African Standard, 20 Oct 1955; and Press Office, handout no. 28, 19 Mar 1953, PRO CO 822/481/1.

18 KNA, BZ 16/1/14, memorandum from District Commissioner, Nakuru, to C. Owen, 1 July 1953, quoted in Elkins, Britain’s Gulag, 237-8.

19 For the terms of the Swynnerton Plan, see Swynnerton, A Plan to Intensify the Development of African Agriculture in Kenya , 8-64.

20 Based on Carothers’ findings, ‘villagization’ was justified as a ‘protective’ measure for the ‘detribalized’ Kikuyu. See KNA, AB 8/78/1/1, “Minutes of a Meeting of Sub-Committee of the Council of Ministers set up to examine the Carothers Report in Accordance with Minute 63 of the Council of Ministers”, July 1954. However, such ‘protective’ ‘rehabilitation’ and economic reform had been officially linked since Baring’s directive entitled, “African Agricultural Development and Reconstruction”. See PRO CO 822/703/13, “Machinery for Reconstruction”, 2 Nov 1953. Moreover, the Provincial Administration clearly understood ‘villagization’ to be a punitive rather than a ‘protective’ measure. See O. E. B. Hughes, District Commissioner, Nyeri, Nyeri District Annual Report , 1954, 33.

21 This romantic notion that Kikuyu communities could be teleported back to a prelapsarian existence arranged around ‘village’ life and agriculture was voiced by both Carothers and Leakey in their contributions to understanding the ‘Mau Mau’ crisis. See Carothers, Psychology of Mau Mau, 2-5; Leakey, Defeating Mau Mau, 134-41.

22 Barnett and Njama, Mau Mau from Within, 54-5.

23 Parties of candidates first removed all ‘European’ items such as watches and jewellery, before entering a hut in which a circle marked was on the ground. Candidates entered the circle through an archway made of banana-stalks and sugar-cane stems. They were then bound together with the intestines of a goat and decorated with bracelets made from goat-skin, before repeating their vows after the oath administrator seven times. After each vow, they took bites from goat meat and/or swore upon the sacred githathi stone. The vows consisted of hypothetical tests of the oath-taker’s commitment to the cause and guarantees that they would keep it secret from colonial or ‘loyalist’ oppressors. Initiates were then anointed and handed over a fee before listening to an administrator’s soliloquy about the significance of the vows.

24 For more on Rift Valley squatting and the Olenguruone protest, see the excellent accounts in Buijtenhuijs, Essays on Mau Mau, 7-12; Anderson, Histories of the Hanged, 23-8; and Kanogo, Squatter and the Roots of Mau Mau, 105-120. For the Kenyan government’s perspective, see PRO CO 822/232, P. Rogers, CO, to G. F. Sayers, Conservative Research Department, London, Draft on the ‘Olenguruone Settlement, Kenya’, 20 Mar. 1953; KNA, Nakuru District Annual Report, 1950, page 5.

25 See Anderson, Histories of the Hanged, 37-45, 67; Spencer, KAU, 172-3, 208-9, 227-34; Furedi, “The African Crowd in Nairobi”, 282-88; and Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya, chs. 1-3.

26 Clough, Mau Mau Memoirs, 86-92.

27 Ibid., 113.

28 Barnett and Njama, Mau Mau from Within, 59; see also page 121.

29 Kariuki, ‘Mau Mau’ Detainee, 25-45;

30 Gikoyo, We Fought for Freedom, 32-4, 39.

31 Mathu, The Urban Guerrilla, 12, 43-5; Barnett and Njama, Mau Mau from Within, 133; Kariuki, ‘Mau Mau’ Detainee, 33.

32 Elders had made the same decision—to privilege recruitment to a resistance movement over the preservation of ‘tradition’—during the Olenguruone protest of the 1940s. See Lonsdale, “Authority, Gender & Violence”, 57.

33 Gikoyo, We Fought For Freedom, 34. The claim to have become Gikuyu Karing’a was itself an historically resonant title given that this was the name adopted by those who had opposed the Protestant missions’ campaign to ban clitoridectomy between 1929-31. For other memoirists’ accounts of the administrator’s ‘lesson’, see Barnett and Njama, Mau Mau from Within, 119-20; Itote [a.k.a. General China], ‘Mau Mau’ General, 283; and Kabiro, Man in the Middle, 26.

34 This was the phrase used by the social anthropologist Max Gluckman to characterize ‘Mau Mau’ as a nihilistic Kikuyu response to colonial subjugation in his eponymous essay of 1963. See Gluckman, Order and Rebellion in Tribal Africa, esp. 144-5. For an earlier example of Gluckman’s writing on ‘Mau Mau’ oaths, see the newspaper cutting of his article, “The Mau Mau Rituals: Tribal Religion and Witchcraft”, which was published during the Emergency in the Manchester Guardian, on the 19th of March, 1954. The cutting can be found in PRO, CO 822/800/26-30.

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