News 2008


The continuing saga of the Mau Mau revolt

Shahid Alam studies a new work on Kenya's history

15. Feb. 2008

Immanuel Wallerstein, in the process of discussing accelerating decolonisation of much of Africa since the end of World War II, talks about the intent of white settlers in colonial Kenya and Southern Rhodesia: that whatever the devolution of powers by constitutional means, power should go to them as a group rather than to the black majority. “Indeed to ensure that this was so,” he explains in a 1972 article, “white settlers sought to achieve federations of the strong settler territory with its immediate neighbors, among other reasons lest power be turned over to black Africans in the neighbors and thus affect by example the settler territories. In East Africa the federation was to bring together settler-dominated Kenya with Uganda and Tanganyika.” However, the federation idea faltered in East Africa because of spirited resistance in Uganda and the outbreak of Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya in 1952. Now a new book, Rethinking the Mau Mau in Colonial Kenya, takes another look at the Mau Mau revolt, where the author aims to explore two broad theses: that colonial power and resistance to it are intertwined with each other, and that, as a fallout from such entanglement, both are transformed in various ways.

The author, S.M. Shamsul Alam, is a Bangladeshi by birth, and is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Southern Oregon University, Ashland, Oregon, USA. From 2000 to 2002, he was a Fulbright Senior Fellow at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, which partly explains the topical nature of the book under review, and he is currently on a same fellowship at Independent University, Bangladesh. In a nutshell, the Kikuyu ethnic group-led nationalist movement of the 1950s in Kenya resorted to violent resistance against British colonial rule. In response, the British Kenya administration proscribed the movement in 1950, and conducted a series of military operations between 1952 and 1956, which resulted in the death of several thousand Kikuyus, Europeans, and their African loyalists. The Mau Mau insurrection spearheaded the independence movement, and Jomo Kenyatta, jailed as a Mau Mau leader in 1953, became prime minister of independent Kenya in 1963. This digest of a significant revolt against British colonial rule is blandly stated, but is difficult to expand in its various ramifications, except as a matter of agreeing to disagree, or not even that, among scholars. And this factor has provided an opportunity for S.M. Shamsul Alam to have undertaken the project that has resulted in Rethinking the Mau Mau in Colonial Kenya.

In his final chapter, entitled “Conclusion: A Presentist Approach to Mau Mau”, the author poses the question, as much to himself as to interested readers: “Why write a book on Mau Mau so many years after the revolt?” He believes that “the need to write and rewrite the history of Mau Mau has become even more urgent.” He offers, as an example, the view of Michael Chege (2004) that scholars have yet to decide on the precise nature of the revolt. Alam might have presented his own instance in the book under review, where he undertakes an exercise that draws rather heavily on post-modernist writers for providing theoretical coverage to the Mau Mau rebellion against English colonial rule, and beats the drum rather heavily for Mau Mau exploits and that of the movement's supreme military commander, Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi. While bringing up Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee to provide a theoretical cover might appear to some as having been overdone, and, at times superfluous, his attempt at presenting the Mau Mau and Kimathi in abashedly heroic, even romantic, light might be hotly contested by other writers.

Before going to the beginning of the book, a particularly relevant (in the context of the current post-election violence in that country) conclusion of the author is worth quoting: “…the roots of the present predicament of Kenya are located within its colonial past.” He hastens to qualify that such crisis of governance “is not unique to Kenya; it is, indeed, symptomatic of all postcolonial societies.” In the context of Kenya, Alam pinpoints the primary reasons for this state of dysfunction as “how the war against colonialism was fought and how, after the departure of the colonial forces, the nation-state was formed.”

Here is Alam with his opening salvo: “The present book…aims to explain Mau Mau essentially as a revolt against colonial hegemony and an attempt to construct a counterhegemony. Furthermore, though the goal of the revolt was to end colonial rule in Kenya, it would be wrong to frame it in terms of a nationalist project propagated by Kenyatta, the nationalist leader who eventually became the first president of independent Kenya. And finally, though armed struggle was a part of the revolt, it was fought on myriad fronts --- cultural, ideological and political; the Mau Mau rebels always had a clear-cut idea of what kind of postcolonial Kenya they wanted to establish.” Ah, but did they? Someone could carp, or be at pains to find from the book, other than the usual rhetoric one finds so often from revolutionary groups/organisations, or even established political parties. Others would hotly contest the author's relegation of Jomo Kenyatta to a secondary, even opportunistic, position (a recurring theme in the book) in Kenya's anticolonial struggle.

Alam briefly mentions that various forms of resistance, like the Griamma uprising of 1913-14, the Nandi revolt of 1895-1905, and the Kikuyu opposition between 1880-1900, preceded the Mau Mau (incidentally, as the author expounds in note 2 to Chapter 1, a word that is neither Kikuyu nor Swahili, but, curiously, an anagram of a warning term --- uma uma --- devised by children, and popularised by European newspapers!). But he concentrates on the Mau Mau, which he purports to analyse from dialectically linked and mutually reinforcing concerns of “the issue of autonomous subaltern consciousness, the question of structure, and, finally, resistance.” He dwells at length on various aspects of Mau Mau consciousness but less so, though quite comprehensively, on structure, and more perfunctorily, on resistance.

The author's perception of Kenyatta sometimes appears confusing and self-contradictory. In Chapter 5, “Mau Mau and the Critique of Nationalism”, Alam, in his own words, “argues that Mau Mau stands outside of the mainstream nationalist movement led by the Kenya Africa Union (KAU) and Kenyatta. Furthermore (he) attempts to show that Kenyatta's relation as a nationalist leader with the Mau Mau movement was one of ambivalence and suspicion, if not outright hostility, and that Mau Mau should be viewed as revolt by itself outside of the conventional nationalist movement.” Clearly, he places the Mau Mau on a loftier pedestal in relation to Kenyatta. On separate occasions he has mentioned that Kenyatta's relationship with the Mau Mau was dubious and contradictory, later reinforcing his contention with reference to Kenyatta's statements at different times, both before and after he became Kenya's chief executive, where he had denounced the Mau Mau as terrorists. Alam has gone so far as to state that, “Although the colonial authorities tried to portray him as the leader of (the) Mau Mau, Kenyatta was reluctant to put his support behind it wholeheartedly for various reasons, mainly because the leadership of the Mau Mau came from a different class background than his….”

His assessment of Kenyatta also betrays his preference for armed revolutionary strategy to get rid of colonialism: “Kenyatta was inherently a conservative person whose overwhelming concern was stability and order, whereas revolutionary violent decolonization was the key strategy of Mau Mau.” And, yet, in an interview with him, Anna Wamuryu Kabubi, alias Cinda Reri, a proud Mau Mau veteran, recalled that at an important KAU meeting in 1952, Kenyatta had publicly supported the Mau Mau. And, although Alam characterises Kenyatta's position regarding the Mau Mau as “opportunistic”, he also observes that, “For Mau Mau, Kenyatta was a powerful symbol of resistance and a messiah.” The issue is fascinating; he might have been both: an opportunist as well as a symbol and a messiah, or he might have been neither, but something else altogether. Such tantalising prospects of finding the ultimate truth about the Mau Mau and Kenyatta's relationship with it should keep scholars going for a while yet.

Alam includes a chapter (4), written with Margaret Gachihi, entitled “Women and Mau Mau”, where he attempts to show that the forest fighters were not exclusively male, and that the women in the organisation were not merely passive participants engaged in support activities, but were, in several cases, active in armed combat. However, since the fighting arm had relatively fewer female combatants, Alam's observation is important in the context of the overall contribution of women: “Indeed, in the Mau Mau struggle the activities of the “passive wing” were as vital as those of the military wing for the survival of the revolt itself.” And, in consonance with his admiration for Dedan Kimathi, he devotes an entire chapter (3, “Rebel Yell: The Field Marshal's Story”) to him. As proof of the supreme military leader's perspicacity, Alam offers: “Though Kimathi was Kikuyu himself, he consistently sought to provide Mau Mau with a broad perspective on the anticolonialist struggle.” And yet, in providing a clear indication of Kimathi's self-contradiction, as well as Alam's going out on a limb to lionise him, the author refers to a letter where the supreme military leader seems to hint broadly at a role for white people in postcolonial Kenya.

Such intriguing information and interpretations make the book interesting. However, for a well-known American publisher, it contains more than its fair share of careless editing. Nonetheless, Rethinking the Mau Mau in Colonial Kenya is worth reading to gain an interesting perspective on a phenomenon that was militarily defeated over half a century ago, but continues to have a major impact on independent Kenya's politics and history.

Shahid Alam is Head, Media and Communication Department, Independent University, Bangladesh.