Kikuyu - The Mau Mau Uprising and Independence

See also Kikuyu - feature articles - The KAU is not the Mau Mau (1952 speech by Jomo Kenyatta), Kikuyu - feature articles - The Death of Dedan Kimathi, Kikuyu - feature articles - The Politics of the Mûngîkî, about a politico-religious sect modelled on the Mau Mau, and Kikuyu - music and dance - Songs of resistance. On the internet, see for more about Kinyatti.
In this page:
Origins of the Mau Mau
Kenyatta's arrest & myth creation
The Guerilla War, 1952-56
Dreadlocks and oathing
The Hola Massacre, 1959
The Winds of Change, 1960-63

Origins of the Mau Mau

In 1946, impatient with the pace of change proposed by KAU, and angered by the shooting of demonstrators in Nairobi, a group of former Kikuyu solders formed the 'Forty Group' and started organising violent opposition to the white settlers. They joined other groups and began robbing shops and raiding fire-arms, imposing oaths and eventually executing as traitors those who were not ready to follow their fight for freedom. Women became directly involved in 1948, when workers at Olenguruone agricultural settlement scheme went on strike: the women refused to participate in terracing the land to prevent erosion unless they first received title to it. Supported by the nascent labour unions, the colonial response was the by now familiar repression.
   The resulting ad hoc organisation called itself the Land Freedom Army (LFA), whose violent resistance to colonial rule was to become better known in the world as the Mau Mau Uprising.

The exact origins of the inherently secretive LFA/Mau Mau movement are uncertain, as the Mau Mau were only ever loosely organized, and most of their actions were opportunistic in nature. In any case, properly organized military resistance was impossible, given the extent to which the British controlled Kikuyu territory and the reserves.
   The name "Mau Mau" itself was (as far as I know) never used by the Kikuyu themselves, and did not exist in their language. One theory says that the name was invented by the British as part of an attempt to demonise the Kikuyu people, though exactly how this would demonise them - if no one knew what the name meant - is unclear.

Kenyatta's Arrest and the Creation of a Myth

When the staunch British loyalist Kikuyu chief Warihiu was assassinated on 7 October 1952, the government saw the LFA as the first serious threat to colonial rule in post-war Africa. Two weeks later, on 20 October, a state of emergency and martial law was imposed, which was to last until 1960.

Following the imposition of martial law, Jomo Kenyatta and over one hundred other leading members of the Kenya African Union, as well as other political leaders, were arrested and detained. The KAU was made illegal the following year, and the activities of other nationalist movements were severely restricted, although trade unions were largely allowed to continue their activities.
   Despite the fact that Kenyatta had repeatedly denounced Mau Mau publicly and advocated peaceful change (see his speech "The Kenya Africa Union is not the Mau Mau" from 1952), the British remained convinced that he was the man behind Mau Mau.
   He was put on trial for subversion and incitement, which - as the copies of official documents now displayed at Kapenguria Museum show - was nothing other than a farce, as there was no direct evidence whatsoever implicating his involvement in any illegal act. Nonetheless, Kenyatta was found guilty and spent seven years in hard labour, periodically being moved from one remote corner of the country to another: Lodwar, Maralal, Kapenguria, and even Lamu.

The myth of Kenyatta as the founding father of Kenya stems from this period of detention, as aptly described in the dramatic (if somewhat exaggerated) words of Greet Kershaw in Mau Mau from Below (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997):

"After months of anxiety and at times horror, after having suffered curfews, suspicions and being accused of crimes because they took oaths, land poor, landless and many landed exploded into joy... Kenyatta's arrest, charged with being the leader of Mau Mau, changed fear and anger into hope. The landed had not given him a great deal of credit for leadership; they had seen him more and more as someone trying to become a landed Kiambu elder. Land poor and landless had seen this growth and sadly concluded that he had little to share now and offered even less for the future. No one doubted that he was in favor of resistance and his brand of Mau Mau, but the overwhelming opinion had been that he was not in control of Githunguri, nor of other Mau Mau. If in spite of what they had thought, he had secretly been in control, outwitting them and the colonial government for years, then he was far more astute than they had given him credit for. The time of secrecy was over; Kenyatta might be arrested, but freedom had never been so close. Those who had, against Kenyatta's will, offered their multiple oaths, should cease to do so and acknowledge him. All people should send Kenyatta a sign that they had understood and would follow: the time for umoja (unity) was now".

The Guerilla War, 1952-56

British concentration camp, 1952-60The State of Emergency did nothing to repress the movement for independence, and several bitter years of fighting the whole might of the British and colonial army followed. Between 1952 and 1956, the LFA/Mau Mau engaged in a campaign of terror against highland settlers and Kikuyu loyalists.
   Other than firearms captured from raids on police stations, their weapons were traditional - clubs, knives, spears and arrows. As these would have been no match in a open confrontation with the colonial army, the Mau Mau engaged in guerilla warfare and terrorism. Based in the thick jungly forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, they launched raids on neighbouring settlers' farms, post offices, police stations, as well as on Kikuyu perceived as being loyal to the regime. The Mau Mau were composed of urban workers, agriculturalists, the unemployed, World War II veterans, labourers, and unionists. They also included women, apparently often enough women with powers of prediction, who worked directly with platoon commanders. Dedan Kimathi, the forest fighters' general, recommended the admission of literate women into the forest fighting force. Other women joined Mau Mau fighters to avoid being sold off by their fathers as wives to pro-British 'homeguards' or 'loyalists.' Mau Mau were also supported by civilians who supplied them with food, medicine, arms and intelligence.

The British response was as swift as it was brutal. The forests of Mount Kenya, where the LFA 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". Other settlements suspected of harbouring Mau Mau were burned, and suspects were routinely tortured for information and confessions. In the "free fire" zones, any African could be shot on sight, and 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.
   But the brunt of the British response was borne by the ordinary Kikuyu. Thousands were herded into overcrowded and heavily militarized "protected villages" as part of a policy of "villagisation". Supposedly intended to be "purely protective and beneficial for the Africans", in reality the program was merely intended to make the Kikuyu easier to control - otherwise, why enforce a 23-hour curfew?
   Ten days into the start of emergency rule, almost 4,000 Africans had been arrested, but that was only the start. On 24 April 1954, the police rounded up all the African inhabitants in Nairobi - around 100,000 people. The 70,000 Kikuyu were separated and screened. Of them, up to 30,000 men were taken to holding camps, and the families of the arrested were pushed into the already overcrowded native reserves.
   By the end of 1954, one-third of all Kikuyu men were said to be in prison. These detainees had not been convicted of any crime and were held without trial.

Dreadlocks and oathing

See also the article about the Mûngîkî 'sect' of the 1990s

It is said that when, in 1953, the Mau Mau uprising was covered across the world's media newsreels showing dreadlocked forest fighters defying the white man, Jamaican Rastafarians adopted dreadlocks as a symbol of brotherhood in the fight against racial injustice.
   The symbolism of long hair and dreadlocks has a long and complicated history, which I won't try to explain here.
   As far as I know, in Kenya many peoples traditionally considered long hair to be a symbol of transition, for example as worn by Maasai and Samburu junior warriors. Long hair was also mentioned in Luo and Luhya stories in connection with rebirth, in that people in those stories got lost on Lake Nyanza (Victoria), during which their hair grew long, and when they finally arrived ashore, the foreign people who took them in and adopted them saw these people as being akin to spirits. Hair was also a symbol of unmarried bachelor status, of the past, of wildness, and of spirits and violence. Important oaths between the Kikuyu and Dorobo reportedly took place through the exchange of hair to end feuds or seal friendships. Louis Leakey reported that a Kikuyu and Dorobo would shave hair from their heads, affix it to stools with honey, and then sit on one another's stools to bind their friendship.

Ritual oathing was a crucial component of Mau Mau participation, as they called on the old God - Ngai - to witness the oath that people would swear to be united in their fight against the colonial enemy, and would take back the land that the white man had stolen. Jacob Njangi, a former fighter, explained:

"We used to drink the oath. We swore we would not let white men rule us forever. We would fight them even down to our last man, so that man could live in freedom."

Kikuyu women taking a Mau Mau oathThe oaths were a cultural symbol of the solidarity that bound Kikuyu men, women and children together in their opposition to the colonial government. But they were also feared, as the taboos that traditionally surrounded the breaking of oaths were still very much current. Those who took the Mau Mau oaths were taught that their violation would be instantly lethal, and in practise it was indeed so: not because of the wrath of Ngai, but because of bloody reprisals by the Mau Mau themselves, for whom refusing to take the oath was the same as siding with the colonial regime.

Nonetheless, the British were scared by the oath, for they knew full well that for the Kikuyu (or any other Kenyan, in fact), an oath was a deadly serious matter, and could never be broken. As a result, the British made taking the Mau Mau oath a capital offence. Between 1953 and 1956 more than 1,000 Africans were publicly hanged for alleged Mau Mau crimes - in Britain, public hangings had been outlawed for over a century.
   The British also screened Mau Mau suspects and forced them to take a 'cleansing oath', a strange instance of colonialism 'gone native'. Concocted by the anthropologist Louis Leakey and rich Kikuyu landowners who stood to lose their British-granted privileges if independence came to be, the Kikuyu were to swear upon githathi (sacred stones) for a reversal of the Mau Mau oath.
   Many, of course, refused, so alternative means had to be found to 'convince' people to abandon their oaths. John Nottingham, a district officer in the colonial service from 1952 to 1961, explains, "The way that it found was that if you beat them up enough then they would confess an oath. So what you do is beat them up and then you give them a bit of paper and a piece of blunt pencil and say, 'Confess! I took it! I took it! I took it!' You are now a human being again."
   Ironically, this was probably the first time that any of the suspects had ever been called 'human beings' by the wazungu.

The Hola Massacre, 1959

On 3 March 1959, 85 prisoners were marched out to a site from Hola Detention Camp, near the Tana River in the far east of the country, and ordered to work. One of the detainees, John Maina Kahihu, speaking with quiet dignity described what happened:

"We refused to do this work. We were fighting for our freedom. We were not slaves. ... There were two hundred guards. One hundred seventy stood around us with machine guns. Thirty guards were inside the trench with us. The white man in charge blew his whistle and the guards started beating us. They beat us from 8 am to 11.30. They were beating us like dogs. I was covered by other bodies - just my arms and legs were exposed. I was very lucky to survive. But the others were still being beaten. There was no escape for them."

Afterwards, eleven men lay dead and sixty were seriously injured. The prison officials attempted a cover-up by claiming that the men had died from drinking contaminated water. But the story found its way back to London and the truth could not be suppressed.

The Winds of Change, 1960-63

Dedan Kimathi after his captureThe capture and subsequent execution of 'General' Dedan Kimathi in October 1956 was almost the last blow for the Mau Mau (for a long article about the arrest, detention and execution of Kimathi from the point of view of one of the British Kenya Police officers who was detailed to guard him, see The Death of Dedan Kimathi).

Although Mau Mau were defeated militarily, the cost to the British for quelling the uprising was staggering, not just in terms of money and numbers of troops which had to be permanently stationed in Kenya, but in terms of public opinion in Europe. Reports of brutality by the British forces had periodically appeared in the British press. The Daily Worker carried a report under the headline: "Officer who quit says, 'It's Hitlerism'". The officer concerned was 19-year-old Second Lieutenant David Larder, who after killing an African, chopped off his hand. Afterwards he wrote home in anguish asking, "What has happened to me?"
   Other reports told of officers who paid their men five shillings a head for every 'Mau Mau' they killed. One soldier testified in court that his officer had said he could shoot anybody he liked as long as they were black, because he wanted to increase his company's score of kills to fifty.

It has been estimated that by the time the State of Emergency was lifted, in 1960, almost 58% of Kikuyu had taken the Mau Mau oath. Over this time, between 80,000 and 100,000 Kikuyu had been imprisoned in concentration camps, more than a million Kikuyu and Embu civilians had been shifted into "secure" areas, and around 11,500 suspected Mau Mau were killed (of which 1,000 were hanged). If you also count deaths from disease and starvation in the "protected villages", the total death toll was nearer 150,000. The Mau Mau for their part killed around 2,000 people, most of them Kenyans: of the 95 Europeans who lost their lives, 32 were civilians.
   The perverse truth is that more white settlers died in road accidents on the streets of Nairobi during the emergency than at the hands of the LFA.

Despite the figures, though, Mau Mau had triggered change. Painfully slowly, the realization dawned on the British that the colony was coming to an end. The Jewel in the colonial crown, India, had already achieved her freedom through peaceful means, and one-by-one the other African possessions of the empire were demanding self-rule. The only rational option remaining was to cede to the demands.
   By 1957, African members were elected for the first time to the Legislative Council, albeit from a restricted franchise. The Luo trade unionist Tom M'boya, together with other Africans promoted to ministerial posts, refused to assume their official responsibilities, and pressed for a new constitution which would guarantee the rights of all Kenyans: independence was almost inevitable.

From the time of State of Emergency being lifted to independence in 1963, things moved quickly. The British Government, pushed along by Harold Macmillan's 'Wind of Change' speech, opened negotiations that had always been inevitable with the African leaders. A constitutional conference was held at Lancaster House in London in January and February 1960, that led to a transitional constitution legalizing political parties Jomo Kenyatta after this releaseand giving Africans a comfortable majority on the Legislative Council. The Kenya African National Union (KANU) - the successor to the KAU - was subsequently inaugurated, adopting a firm stance on land resettlement in the highlands. M'boya and James Gichuru became the leaders of KANU because Kenyatta remained in detention. Other African politicians, who were wary of Kikuyu-Luo domination, favoured a more federalist government; to this end, they formed the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU).
   When Kenyatta was released in August 1961 (the same month the Berlin Wall went up), he formed an all-party government and accepted the KANU presidency. At the legislative elections in May 1963, KANU triumphed over KADU with 124 seats opposed to 83, and Kenyatta was elected prime minister. The country's first internal self-governing administration was formed on 1 June 1963 amid scenes of unparalleled joy, and Kenya was formally declared Independent on the 12th of December, 1963.


For a more general introduction on the Kenyan nation, read the contextual essay on Kenya's History

Most of the 50,000 Europeans chose to remain in Kenya, and Kenyatta, who ruled first as prime minister (1963-64) and then as president (1964-78) was realistic about the difficulties that lay ahead. In his first speech as president he warned of the hard work which lay ahead and the need to save Kenyans from poverty, ignorance and disease, to educate their children and to have doctors, to build roads and to improve or provide all day-to-day essentials. He talked of harambee - the 'coming together' of all Kenyans in a spirit of brotherhood and unity. All fine words.
   But is it really human nature for the powerful to deceive hope so cruelly? Does power always corrupt? Following independence, Kenyatta began increasingly to give preferential treatment to his own Kikuyu group, at the expense of others. The Kikuyu obtained much of the fertile land in the process of the Africanization of the White Highlands, and effectively became the political and economic elite of independent Kenya (they certainly retain their economic power to this day). They also received a lot of Maasai land, who were not represented in the new government.
   Then, in 1969, Tom M'boya, then the KANU secretary-general, was assassinated by a Kikuyu in circumstances that have never been satisfactorily explained. The Luo population saw his death as an ethnic affront and as an attempt to intimidate it politically. Luo-Kikuyu enmity escalated rapidly over the next few months, reaching a point in October, 1969, when the KPU was banned, and its principal leaders, including Odinga and seven other party representatives, were detained. The banning of the KPU in effect brought a return to the single-party system, which lasted until the early 1990s.

Unsurprisingly, with the Kalenjin President Moi in power since 1978, things have changed somewhat, and the Kikuyu now find themselves in opposition, and have been the primary targets of ethnic violence since the 1990s. Of course, the government is still corrupt - in fact, corruption has never been more widespread or blatant. The country is financially on the brink of ruin (thanks largely to the illegal expropriation of its resources and finances by politicians), the infrastructure has either collapsed or is in a mess, and I really could go on and on and on for pages.
   Yet for all its abuses, the seeds of Kenya's presently parlous state were laid during Kenyatta's reign, through his ultimate refusal to place the interests of the Kikuyu second to the interests of the new country. All that has happened since is merely repetition of that simple formula.

As a Nakuru farmer who had fought in the Mau Mau said in 1978 (a comment that could just as easily apply now):

"The land, which we expected to be distributed free to the poor and landless, was grabbed by the former homeguards and the big politicians... most of the beneficiaries from our glorious struggle are the former collaborators, and not the legitimate freedom fighters... if the situation continues to worsen, our children will be forced to fight - to fight for the same things we fought for."

In Maina wa Kinyatti (ed), Kimathi's Letters. Nairobi, Kenya: Heinemann, 1986; London UK: ZED Press, 1986

Maina wa Kinyatti himself, in Kenya: A Prison Notebook (1982), wrote:

"Fifteen long years of Kenyatta's undemocratic rule left neo-colonial Kenya impoverished, depoliticized and disunited. He made way for Moi to misrule us. A rule of talk, talk, talk and do the opposite. The nauseating demagogy which Moi and the traitorous clique around him employ to mask their unpopular rule has failed to hide the all-around suffering of the Kenyans. One notices the intensified pauperization of the Kenyan people, as evidenced in ever rising unemployment, sky-high inflation, famine and starvation, wage freezes, forced cash contributions (under the pretext of Harambee), to the already wealthy ones."

I'm sad to say that I agree.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography