I speak the truth and vow before God
And before this movement.
The movement of Unity,
The Unity which is put to the test
The Unity that is mocked with the name of "Mau Mau.
That I shall go forward to fight for the land,
The lands of Kirinyaga that we cultivated.
The lands which were taken by the Europeans
And if I fail to do this
May this oath kill me,
May this seven kill me,
May this meat kill me
The Oath of Unity as taken by Josia Kariuki
In 1952, the British colonial government in Kenya declared a state of emergency. Colonial military forces were mobilized in an effort to quash a rebellious band of guerrillas known as Mau Mau. The guerrillas organized themselves into militant bands, cementing their devotion to the anticolonial cause by way of powerful oath-taking ceremonies. Militant Mau Mau bands were reportedly responsible for the maiming of cattle, slaughter of women and children and bodily mutilation of those unsympathetic to their cause.
Colonial techniques were equally as brutal, as thousands of Kikuyu, the tribe out of which the Mau Mau movement grew, were herded into huge concentration camps where colonists sought to "defuse" the oaths taken by alleged members of the Mau Mau movement. Confession of Mau Mau activity was often brutally procured in the "rehabilitation" of camp detainees. Barnett and Njama document some of these tortures:
There was also an increase of inhuman torture in the local camps, e.g., men castrated, heatings aiming at fracturing a limb, putting thabai or hatha - poisonous stinging plant leaves of the nettle family which causes great pain and swelling for half a day - in women's vaginas, pressing hard breasts or testicles with pliers.
Oath-takers were thought to suffer from a sort of dread psychological disease brought about by association with Mau Mau.
All told, 11,500 guerrillas died in confrontation with government forces. The colonial forces lost 1,500 Africans and 100 Europeans. Two thousand Africans and 50 European civilians lost their lives by the end of the conflict, and the last of the Mau Mau fighters did not give up their cause until well after Mau Mau had been militarily and poetically emasculated and the British Crown had granted independence to Kenya in 1963.
There is no one explanation for the occurrence of the Mau Mau outbreak; in fact, the existing literature displays an array of contradictory explanations. Some authors trace its cause to "repressed nationalism" or "an integral part of an ongoing rationally conceived nationalistic movement". Others argue that Mau Mau was not really part of a political nationalistic scheme per se, but rather the culmination of years of oppression, taking the form of a revitalization movement. It seems, however, that the Mau Mau movement was neither one nor the other.
Prelude to Mau Mau
Our Lands will be taken by some strangers whose skins are like red ochre, and whose bodies are like moths and from whose mouths comes out smoke. These people will come with a very big snake stretching from Mombasa to the lake of the uncircumcised in the west and this snake cannot be cut. They will pass by the stone cave of Chege wa Nyamu at Limuru. But they will start to move from our country when the stone house with eight doors is built at Githunguri wa Irira and they will finally go when the fig tree at Thika bends and falls.
The Kikuyu, the largest tribe inhabiting Kenya, are agriculturists with very strong individual ties to specific tracts of land. These estates were called Githaka and were owned by a founding member of an Mbari or sub-clan whose progeny could share the land. Under Kikuyu law, tenants who had no kinship ties to a Mbari could obtain temporary building and cultivation rights but not ownership. The family land in Kikuyu society was essential to the existence of the family, for when lineages lost their land either by purchase or by force, members of the lineages lost their identification with the kinship unit and became aggregates of individuals.
When the first British settlers arrived in 1902, they settled on what seemed to be vast tracts of idle land. In fact, the land had only temporarily been vacated by Kikuyu as a result of rinderpest and smallpox epidemics, drought, famine and locusts. The British purchased the land usually from tenants without consent of the true owners, and as a result purchases were usually illegal according to Kikuyu law. In addition, the Crown Lands Ordinance was passed in 1915, giving the governor of the colony the power to do as he wanted with Kenyan land.
During this period the colonial government established a system of chieftaincy among the Kikuyu where one had not existed before. Traditional Kikuyu political structure was essentially egalitarian and decentralized. When the British arrived, they found no hierarchy of authority. In the event of a dispute, a council of elders would gather to discuss the problem. The council's ability to command respect was based largely on the age of the individuals composing it. Leadership was determined largely by age or through a system of age-grades where junior generation-sets would accede to political authority only after reaching a certain age. The British imposed a highly centralized structure, destroying the function of age-grades by banning traditional ceremonies in which prestige and power were conferred on adult males of an elder age-grade and by appointing salaried "chiefs" to serve almost as cultural brokers sympathetic to the needs of the government. In recruiting these chiefs, the British only sometimes made use of the traditional authority structure. The elders of Kikuyu society were not always reliable in their dealings with the government, and the British found it far more effective to recruit individuals who did not necessarily occupy any sort of position of authority in Kikuyu society but could be counted upon to represent colonial needs. Any status or authority among Kikuyu attained by these individuals was usually due to the enormous wealth conferred upon them by the government.
The British also imposed a policy of forced labor in order to satisfy the labor needs of colonial farmers. Welbourne (1961) writes:
The alienation of land was accompanied by what can only be called a policy of forced labor, not only for men but for women and children...All Government officials in charge of native areas were instructed to exercise every possible lawful influence to induce able bodied male natives to go into the labor field. Where farms are situated in the neighborhood of a native area, women and children should be encouraged to go out for such labor as they can perform.
Chiefs also played an important role in exerting pressure on individuals to comply with the government policy. In order to create a cash dependency, the British imposed a series of hut taxes while at the same time keeping wages at subsistence level. During the period of 1902-1919, hut taxes were raised several times, poll taxes were levied and the frequency of collection per annum increased. In addition, the British introduced what was known as the kipande system whereby all adult males over the age of 16 were required to carry registration papers at all times. Transgressing kipande often resulted in heavy fines or imprisonment. It was usually Kikuyu tribe members who suffered most under British laws since they had occupied the central' highlands most desired by the whites. They, ultimately, were responsible for Mau Mau.
The Kikuyu considered European occupation of the land only temporary, and "purchases" were construed by the Kikuyu as only leases or rents. At their return, Kikuyu were forced to become squatters and tenants on colonial farms.
It was also during the 1920s that the first Kikuyu political organizations emerged. In 1920, Harry Thuku formed the Young Kikuyu Association (YKA) in order to protest hut and poll taxes, the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1915, continued evictions of Kikuyu subclans and alienation of their land for European occupation, exorbitant farm prices and the kipande law. In 1922, Thuku also organized the East African Association (EAA), which was intended to appeal to African Kenyans outside of the Kikuyu tribe as well. The tactics of this organization shifted away from mere protest to more actively antagonistic methods. Thuku, however, was arrested in 1922, and the EAA was banned by the government. The members of early political organizations took oaths of loyalty with a clump of soil in one hand and a Bible in the other, indicating the effect of Christian missionary education on many of the members. Later, however, Christianity was rejected vehemently by the more militant factions including Mau Mau.
It was not until 1924 that Thuku's party was revived with a new name - Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). The KCA represented a split in political ideology that was to grow wider when Thuku was released from prison with more moderate political leanings. In 1926 the KCA began loyalty oathing ceremonies - a phenomenon that was to gain critical importance for the unity of Mau Mau during the emergency. It will be useful now to digress for a moment to explain the traditional importance of oath-taking in Kikuyu society, so as to better understand their frequent use as political tools.
Oaths in Kikuyu tradition are an essential part of Kikuyu tradition and social behavior. In their legitimate form they are used in initiation ceremonies by which the young are inducted into adult society, in economic transactions, and in judicial ordeals.
The power of the oath is derived from the fact that they are taken "under the aegis of the ancestral spirits of the tribe, who oversee their performance and punish their nonperformance". Kenyatta in Facing Mount Kenya wrote that oaths were so terribly feared morally and religiously that no one dared to take them unless he was perfectly sure and beyond any doubt that he was innocent or that his claim was genuine.
Certain oaths were administered in traditional Kikuyu society if a serious problem (e.g. Theft, murder, breach of contract, impregnation out of wedlock) was not resolved through consensus to the satisfaction of the community. The ceremony invoked the gods to cause the death of the litigant who perjured himself or a member of this family.
The traditional power of the oath would become a convenient device used by political organizations - especially Mau Mau - to achieve greater unity.
In 1928 Jomo Kenyatta took control of the KCA, steering a more militant course than that advocated by Thuku.
(Members of the KCA) were from the start incipient nationalists with a more militant approach to political change and their attitudes reflected more the influence of a levelling egalitarianism, expressed in part through the new western values, and in part through the traditional values of the Kikuyu.
Among the demands of the KCA were elected representation, greater education opportunities for African children, removal of restrictions on cash crop growing and African ownership of land. In 1929, Kenyatta left for Britain to lobby for redress of Kikuyu grievances and was not to return for nearly 17 years. Recently released from prison, Thuku took over leadership of- the KCA, but extreme elements within the group were alienated by his moderate policies. As a result the organization split into two - the Kikuyu Provincial Association (KPA) headed by Thuku and devoted to constitutional reform and the more extreme KCA headed by Jesse Kariuki. Government controls on "subversive" political activity prevented KCA from achieving the same recognition achieved by KPA. And in 1940 the KCA was banned by the government.
Missionary demands intensified during the period between the early twenties and forties. Missions dogmatically insisted on the abandonment of polygyny and female circumcision - an action which was severely disruptive to Kikuyu society, for it was through these practices that the structure of "a whole range of relationships, property ownership, and sociopolitical alignment" was defined. The Kikuyu response was a rejection of Christian missions, bringing about "a bitter and enduring division between the forces of Kikuyu nationalism and the Protestant missions".
In 1943, Eliud Mathu formed the Kenya African Study Union, which eventually became the Kenya Africa Union (KAU) in 1946. It was in this year that Jomo Kenyatta returned from abroad with immense popular support to take charge of KAU. With 60,000 whites ruling over 7 million Africans, the KAU pressed for greater representation. At the same time, whites "began to put more pressure on Parliament to consolidate and enlarge their power so that it could never be shaken".
The situation for Africans was impossible; it seemed that nothing could budge the colonial machine. All of the frustrations of the past several decades were not about to be redressed, and Africans at this time were particularly aware of the need for change as a result of the return of large numbers of African soldiers from World War II having seen strong nationalist sentiment in places such as India. By 1947 the Kikuyu people had assigned to Kenyatta "the charismatic qualities of a Moses leading his people to the promised land. Soon he was also accorded the attributes of a savior and messiah" The most radical element with the KAU, most of whom belonged to the age group whose members had seen the most action in World War II, formed a group called Kikuyu Maranga African Union (KMAU). KMAU had initiation ceremonies in which individuals pledged oaths of secrecy and loyalty. The group engaged in terrorist activities. This group eventually became assimilated in the larger "Movement of Unity" or Mau Mau.
Mau Mau and Beyond
Heavy stress was laid on unity and conformity within the movement and the ideal was to unity the Kikuyu people through a "rebirth," a solemn initiation into a newly defined "we-group." A special group language developed and Ngai, the mildly remote Supreme Being of the Kikuyu, became relevant and present in the happenings of everyday life. The new "tribe" furthermore saw themselves in terms of the Kikuyu society of primordial times. They were the children of the most ancient forebears of the Kikuyu: Gikuyu and Mumbi...They interpreted their hopes as the will of Cod. Those opposing them were opposing God. Therefore the loyalists were demonized, and attacked. In this way the execution of the pragmatic project of the young zealots became an occasion for the peasants to express the justness of their case. The in-group directedness of this expressive action implied a certain adventism and preparation for the semi-automatic fulfillment of their wishes.
What we have seen so far is the existence side by side of orthodox political developments and revitalistic, millenarian phenomena. Commenting on the Marching Rule movement in the Solomon Islands, Peter Worsley points out that it would be a mistake to pay too much attention to the millenarian aspects of this movement to the exclusion of the more important political, social and economic demands which are the ordinary stuff of world politics.
The Marching Rule movement is especially illuminating because its events roughly correspond to those of the Mau Mau. In particular, the leadership of the movement was similar:
One of the chief leaders was Nori, a man of about forty, who had worked for European enterprises for most of his life...[He] was plainly no mere millenarian leader filled with religious enthusiasm but ignorant of White society. [Though] the leaders were generally straightforward politicians, the rank-and-file often held millenarian ideas.
The Mau Mau was also led by sophisticated politicians with detailed knowledge and experience in political organization as well as intricate understanding of British colonial politics. Kenyatta, for example, was no certainly no "mere millenarian leader." Decades of experience as an orthodox politician left him with a finely tuned sense of political organization and independent national destiny for Kenya. As Worsley said of the Marching Rule:
It is possible that further discontent might bring about a recrudescence of millenarian notions, or lead to violence, if the immediate results of constitutional political activity, especially in the running of Councils and Courts, do not lead to any significant results.
So it was with Mau Mau.
The government was aware of the incipient movement by 1947, but failed to act until about 1950 when Mau Mau was banned. During 1951-1952, KAU, which was dominated by Kenyatta, frequently held meetings in which Christian hymns with Kikuyu lyrics were sung. According to Leakey these meetings were actually Mau Mau meetings cleverly disguised from Europeans. The hymns often substituted the name Kenyatta for Jesus. By 1952, Mau Mau and the KAU were synonymous; the government proscribed KAU and arrested Kenyatta. This action forced all political activity underground, and the state of emergency was declared. Fighting actually ceased by 1956, but the emergency lasted until 1960.
The most effective way to ensure unity of the Mau Mau movement was by way of oath-taking. As mentioned above, the Kikuyu had awesome respect for the oath; this Kikuyu characteristic was used by Mau Mau to spread acceptance of the code and loyalty to the cause. In the stage of communication in the scheme revitalization is represented by the occurrence of widespread political oath-taking. The Mau Mau oaths were modeled essentially on traditional oaths taken by Kikuyu during rites of passage, and in other ceremonies where symbols representing important cultural values were employed. There were, however, some important differences. Well established sexual taboos were violated during many of the oathing ceremonies - "Apparently the more shocking and repulsive the ritual was, the more powerful and binding the oath became". Also, the oathing ceremonies were never conducted in public as they were in traditional Kikuyu society, and often they were performed under duress which would have been unthinkable in a traditional setting. Barnett and Njama describe an oath-taking ceremony in which individuals were forced to take the Mau Mau Oath of Unity:
During the course of our initiation, one person refused to take the oath and was mercilessly beaten. Two guards were crying out seeking permission from their chief leader to kill the man. The man learnt that death had approached him and he quickly changed his mind.
Women and children were also required to take the oaths because they too had access to knowledge concerning Mau Mau guerrilla fighters. By 1956, Mau Mau had been squashed. Most of the civilian sympathizers had been rounded up into camps, and the guerrilla force was slowly being forced out of the forest.
Barnett and Njama, on the last page of their autobiographical analysis of Mau Mau, state:
The lowering of the Union Jack in Kenya on 12 December 1963, was unquestionably the culmination of political forces set in motion by the 1953-1956 peasant revolution called "Mau Mau."
It was not until several years after Mau Mau had been successfully defused by the British that independence was granted. Mau Mau ultimately did serve to influence Britain's decision to grant independence.
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