Africa, History

Getting Kenya’s History Wrong

There are few official monuments to Mau Mau. Dedan Kimathi, the Mau Mau general, has a statue in Nairobi (erected in 2006), but most memorialisation of the rebellion is done by small, local communities often appropriating existing monuments built for others. This might seem strange to UK readers used to hearing the Mau Mau discussed as Kenya’s freedom fighters, and it’s something William hague has proposed correcting with his recent offer to support the building of a monument in Nairobi to the victims of torture during Mau Mau. Such a monument would be a serious problem.

Official public monuments are an act of national storytelling. They are a way for the whole nation to express a particular vision of itself and its history. The story told by a monument of the type Hague suggested tells the following story about Mau Mau and its place in Kenya’s history: ‘Once upon a time, Kenya was ruled by Britain – a state of affairs which many opposed. In the 1950s, a group of Kenyans began a liberation struggle directed against the British. For the sake of national freedom they suffered torture and death before, eventually, Kenya was made free.’

The thing is, that story isn’t exactly true. Yes, Britain did rule Kenya, though they did so with African assistance, and yes, the Mau Mau were fighting for a sort of freedom, but here is where the problems begin. Firstly, Mau Mau was not in any way a national movement. Rather, it was mainly confined to one ethnic group, the Kikuyu, who lived mainly in the area around Nairobi and dominated such African politics as was allowed (as they have continued to do in the post-independence era).

Secondly, we have misunderstood what they meant by freedom, choosing to use our own definition instead of the one that the Mau Mau used. Many newspapers and magazines now call Mau Mau ‘freedom fighters’ implying that they were fighting for the political freedom of Kenya from colonial rule – Uhuru in Swahili. However, many academics now prefer to translate wiathi – the word the Mau Mau actually used – as ‘self-mastery’ or ‘self-reliance’. They fought for independence for themselves as individuals from other people, not for Kenya from Britain.

This leads us to the final point, which is that the Mau Mau conflict was not solely directed at Britain. Yes, colonial land grabs had made achieving this self-mastery harder, but so had the actions of many Kikuyu elders who monopolised land and wives and so, in the eyes of the Mau Mau, inhibited their abilities to become self-reliant and thus become full adults. Indeed, one of the key events which triggered the declaration of an emergency in 1952 was not an attack on a European but the murder of a Kikuyu elder – Senior Chief Waruhiu.

Senior Chief Waruhiu lies dead after being shot by Mau Mau.

So why does all this matter? After all, it is something of a cliche that nations have to get their history wrong. It matters because the legacy of Mau Mau, and particularly its role in Kenya’s independence (as opposed to the constitutional nationalists who eventually took power at independence in 1963), is still heavily contested.

Giving Mau Mau a privileged place in this history emphasises Kikuyu claims to be the people who fought the liberation struggle and who are responsible for Kenya’s independence. Such a narrative can be used to assist their claims for political dominance in modern Kenya (three of Kenya’s four post-independence Presidents have been Kikuyu).

This dominance itself has caused numerous problems, most famously the violence which surrounded the 2007 elections. Mau Mau was deliberately left out of the Kenyan national story by the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, partly because he was a conservative and feared the consequences of promoting violence against elders and the status quo, but also because it would undermine Kenyan national identity to privilege the deeds of one ethnic group above another.

And so they were left out of the official story – and many of the land settlements. This latter point has been a cause of heavy criticism of the Kenyan government both at home and abroad, mostly along the lines of neglecting the people who brought about Kenya’s freedom, but it is far from certain that they did.

Into this complex situation strides Hague – backed by the UK press – offering his monument with little understanding of Kenya’s past or present. Much like the colonialists of old, both he and the press are using a deeply flawed and simplistic understanding of Kenya to advance their own aims, though this time it is the expiation of colonial guilt rather than the furthering of colonial exploitation.

We would do better to let Kenyans build their own monuments and so tell their own national story rather than unwittingly take sides by attempting to write history in favour of an already well-favoured group.

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One thought on “Getting Kenya’s History Wrong

  1. a revolition must bre initiated by a particular section of the society,mostly the well informed, the devolop an ideology and employ propaganda so as to gain support. gikuyu was this section then, which first came to discern the trechery of britons.thieves in any society have never been entertained, how could kikuyu entertain invaders who has stilen their lands at gun point? colonial agents whether back or white were tageted by mau mau since they were seen as hindrance to ‘wiathi’ wathi means self rule or governance.to attempt to down play the role mau mau played in liberating kenya from colonialism is just plain mediocrity, it can never hold no matter how one painfully one tries to urgue it out.mau mau now has its rightful place in kenyan history ‘mashujaa day’ has been set as anational holiday to celebrate mau mau and other nationalist heroes.thank God the two regimes have been instrumental in giving mau mau heroes a place in kenya national history. i have really enjoyed reading this piece. thank you.

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