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Mau Mau returns to Kenya

By Paul Harris, Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 17 January 2000

Thousands of young Kenyans, inspired by the bloody Mau Mau rebellion that fought British colonial rule, are flocking to an aggressive religious cult that rejects the trappings of Western culture.

Followers of the so-called Mungiki youth sect, whose 300,000 members see themselves as "the true sons of the Mau Mau", decry what they regard as the more degenerate aspects of Western culture, including cinemas, alcohol, tobacco and miniskirts.

The cult is rapidly gaining popularity by preaching a back-to-basics message of traditional African beliefs mixed with a virulent hatred of Kenya's current ruling elite, which it sees as corrupt and Western-influenced.

Government ministers have accused the movement of plotting to overthrow the state and of holding secretive "oathing ceremonies" similar to those held by the Mau Mau fighters.

Fears are growing that national elections in 2002 will see widespread violence involving the cult. During the last polls in 1997, there were fights between Mungiki members and the youth wing of the ruling Kanu party.

Since then, the movement has grown rapidly and some Kenyan political observers fear that the next bout of violence could be much worse.

Mungiki means "multitude" in the Kikuyu language, which is spoken by the tribespeople who live in the former "White Highlands" around Mount Kenya. Chapters of the sect, which the government says is illegal, are springing up in every town and large village in Kikuyu territory.

The town of Thika, one hour's drive from the capital, Nairobi, is one of the movement's strongholds.

Though made famous by Elspeth Huxley's novel The Flame Trees of Thika, the town now boasts little to inspire its inhabitants. The roads are potholed and the dilapidated town centre is ringed by foul-smelling townships. It is here, among the poverty-stricken mud huts and open sewers, that Mungiki beliefs are winning the most support, with a call for "a second Mau Mau" to cleanse black Kenyans of non-African influences.

"The Mau Mau fought for freedom, but they didn't fight for the sort of life we have now. In us, the beliefs of the Mau Mau live on," said Anthony Mwangi, 21, a local Mungiki leader in Thika.

Members often meet in secret to avoid police harassment. Mr Mwangi is willing to speak only when safely hidden away in the back seat of a car in one of Thika's many dark alleys.

"The government is afraid of us because they know what crimes they have committed and they know that we have the support of the people. We are the true sons of the Mau Mau," he said.

The Mau Mau were dispossessed Kikuyus who wanted to drive out European colonists who had taken their land. In order to protect the terrified settlers, the British Army launched a brutal campaign of suppression.

From 1952 to 1956, British troops bombed the Mau Mau's forest hideouts and executed more than 1,000 of their members.

Like the Mau Mau, the Mungiki movement is made up almost entirely of Kikuyus, who feel left out of power in Kenya because President Daniel arap Moi's support base is drawn from other Kenyan tribes.

"Today is just like 1952 [when the Mau Mau rebellion broke out]. The government now are no better than those who collaborated with the British," Mr Mwangi said.

Though members deny resurrecting Mau Mau oaths, they do use a special baptising ceremony where new members have to cross a river strewn with oils and herbs.

Mr Mwangi says he believes in reverence for traditional African nature spirits. Like many Kikuyus, he holds sacred the jagged volcanic peaks of Mt Kenya, which looms over Thika.

In advocating a return to the culture of their ancestors before the British colonised their country, the Mungiki can neither drink alcohol nor smoke. Signs of American influence are also banned and supporters cannot watch Hollywood movies or wear baseball caps.

To the outrage of many women's rights activists, the sect says women cannot wear short skirts or men's clothes. There have been reports of women being grabbed off the streets and forcibly circumcised in a rite that most Kikuyu families have not practised for generations.

Many township dwellers are afraid of the Mungiki's growing influence. In a clash earlier this year in Thika, two members of a local anti-crime group were hacked to death in what police believe was a fight over territory with the cult.

"They are a very strong force and they have attacked some women, forcing them to be cut [circumcised]," said one township resident, who did not want to be named. Mr Mwangi says the movement does not advocate open violence, but freely admits its members have a duty to "actively resist" any harassment by the police.

As a result, fighting with the authorities is commonplace. Recently a Mungiki meeting in the town of Ngong was broken up by riot police who beat up dozens of people. The police say they have a duty to stop illegal meetings and accuse the sect of being involved in crime.

"If arresting people who commit crimes is harassment, then, certainly, we harass them," said Peter Kimanthi, a police spokesman.