Review of Mau Mau from below by Greet Kershaw (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997. Pp.354)
By E. S. Atieno Odhiambo, Rice University Department of History, n.d.
The historiography of Mau Mau, Kenya's anti-colonial revolt of the 1950s has been totally revised during the last decade through research and publications by scholars in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The common thread in this development has been a movement away from the earlier colonial generalizations and later nationalist counterfactualizations toward a focus upon the event itself as it happened on the ground. The discourses have shared a concern with the social and economic causes of Mau Mau, narrating the experiences of the squatters in the settler farms in the Rift Valley, the urban workers and the under classes in both Nairobi and Nakuru, to the thought systems of the Agikuyu themselves as they confronted this massive change in their values and expectations. Much of the latter input has been greatly influenced by the long-unpublished thesis by Greet Kershaw. Its publication at long last therefore is most welcome, particularly for what it says about Mau Mau as experienced in two villages in southern Kiambu District.
Mau Mau From Below is the agrarian history of two Gikuyu moieties, referred to as clans or mbari, from the nineteenth century into the mid-1950s when Kershaw first researched in the areas of mbari ya Igi and mbari ya Thuita . It is about the deep histories of the clans, and how their shadowy ancestors colonized the land, became devastated by two famines in the 1830s and again in the 1890s, and how on each occasion they sought to re-work systems of alliances for the accumulation of wealth in people who came as neighbors, dependents, and landless clients, ahoi.
By the time of the arrival of the British in late nineteenth century, this was a land and wealth conscious community with an ethos that linked wealth to virtue, and virtue to a sense of history that regarded land and goat ownership as a trust for future generations. Then in 1902-3 there arrived a muthungu (a white man). "He was like a Ndorobo, only better because he had guns to protect the goats" (p. 84). Soon enough he began fencing the good uplands and forbidding Gikuyu entry, cultivation, or grazing rights. The elders reported this trespass to the European administrator, John Ainsworth, who sided however with his kinsman. "The gist of the interview was that the thirikari (government) backed the European; the Kikuyu should understand that conditions had changed" (p. 86). The local community lost between thirty and seventy per cent of its best lands. The story of Gikuyu land hunger had begun. Groups of Gikuyu moved to found new communities in the Rift Valley.
Those that remained behind had to rework new property relations. The rich landowners tightened their hold on the land, gradually shedding off their gift-giving obligations (tha) in terms of access to land to their kin. The middle-class and poor peasants kept hoping for redress, especially when the British sent out the Carter Land Commission to look into the land grievances. The commission's report satisfied no one and "a sense of anger and urgency" filled the land (p. 104). The large landowners, who were also colonial chiefs like Magugu Waweru and Waruhiu wa Kungu, continued buying more land. The poor landholders found it increasingly impossible to subsist off the land while the males found it increasingly difficult to find jobs in Nairobi during the 1940s because of their lack of skills. Poor women coped with the triple burdens by working their patches of land, working for wages in the neighboring settler coffee plantations, and raising their families on little or no money. Poor men lost their positions as heads of households. The poor invested much hope in education for their children (but school fees were hard to find for the women), and in the expectation that they would be allowed to grow coffee. They thought they would make money out of this and invest it more wisely than the Europeans who "ate what they earned and did not buy land" (p. 167). The lot of the ahoi became hopeless as they no longer had access to landowning patrons, could not find regular jobs for lack of skills, nor educate their children. The preconditions for Mau Mau were in place by the late 1940s. The Agikuyu began taking a variety of oaths in the Rift Valley, in Nairobi, and at Githunguri, Kershaw's research area.
Enter Jomo Kenyatta. After fifteen years abroad he had come back to a hero's welcome and settled in Githunguri as the head of the Teacher's College. His greatest welcome came from the young landless and poor. "He had been described as the man who could bring deliverance, the embodiment of new Kikuyu power" (p. 216). He settled down to being a Gikuyu elder by buying land and marrying well to a daughter of Senior Chief Mbiyu Koinange, by advocating the right of the Agikuyu to freedom and independence from British oppression, and to administering oaths of unity towards this end in Githunguri . "(H)e was familiar: he attended some oaths of heavy contributors" (p. 234). The colonial Governor declared a state of emergency and arrested Kenyatta on 20 October 1952.
Here is Kershaw's writing at its best: "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 (my emphasis)...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"(p. 248).
Much has been written on the myth of Jomo Kenyatta. This was its local grounding in Githunguri. "The government's arrest of Kenyatta, its declaration that he was the leader, renewed their hope and trust and they flocked to the oath-taking ceremonies" (p. 250). A calculated 57.7% of the people took the oath.
The British moved to curb this development by screening suspects and forcing them to take a cleansing oath, a strange instance of colonialism gone native. Concocted by the anthropologist Louis Leakey and rich landowners, including Chiefs Waruhiu and Kibathi, Harry Thuku and Mbira Githathu, the Agikuyu were to swear upon the githathi (sacred stones) for a reversal of the Mau Mau oath. In the instance, chiefs and Home-guards picked on some suspects and forced them to take this hybrid oath. In revenge, these elements organized an attack, resulting in the Marige massacre of 5 April 1953. Kin turned against kin. "The Mbari has killed itself," an elder lamented (p. 257).
Marige effectively marked the end of Mau Mau in mbari ya Igi and mbari ya Thuita. The people were villagized, the Mau Mau were defeated, and by 1957 some of the detainees returned. By the time of Kershaw's research, there was hope that Kenyatta would return, get power and freedom under Kiambu leadership, and give land and hope to the poor. "All agreed that Mau Mau should become a closed chapter of history for the sake of the future and for peace... Though harder for some communities than for others, words such as Mau Mau member, Home-guard, or loyalist were to be erased from one's vocabulary" (p. 257). Collective amnesia would undo half a century of the deep cleavages of the clan. The Agikuyu were right about Kenyatta .
This is a powerful book, full of passion and meaning. It will make compelling reading for college students and faculty alike. The lack of maps is a drawback, as much of the narrative turns on the specifics of geographical scale.
E. S. Atieno Odhiambo Rice University, Department of History