What Endures?

The Mau Mau grassroots anticolonial movement was a turning point in Kenyan resistance under and against violent British rule – which suppressed creative expression, independence, and thought. The British military state’s documented atrocities have been withheld in various archives or destroyed, diminishing their accountability for such horrific acts. From that revolutionary moment and a cultural past often erased by colonial hegemony, Gakuru asks, what endures?

Wanjeri Gakuru — Nov 30, 2022

Akademie Schloss Solitude - What Endures?

Osborne Macharia, from the series Kipipiri 4, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

»The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community. Colonization usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.«
— Albert Memmi.

Undoubtedly, Africa continues to live in the long shadows cast by the 1885 Berlin Conference. While the continent had experienced various European spheres of power and influence in the preceding years, this gathering made decisive changes to the autonomy of large territories and communities across the continent. It was motivated by capitalism but couched within a moral argument for »civilization.«

The avaricious colonial project was married with religion and a superiority complex that justified all actions. Consequently, in the 70-year period the mutable territory of Kenya fell under direct British rule, the rights and privileges of the Indigenous communities resembled that of homo sacer. This is a figure in Roman law understood as someone who can be killed without the killer being regarded as a murderer; a person so completely stripped of status and value that even their material form could not be used as a sacrifice.

This reduced view was most apparent between 1952 and 1960, when Governor Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency in the Kenyan colony. Issued merely 14 days into his new posting, this directive sought to tame the guerilla-style insurgency of the Mau Mau, a grassroots anticolonial movement. While political organizations and trade unions had valiantly fought for the rights of ordinary non-African loyalists, all the lobbying, diplomacy, and incidents of civil disobedience were not enough to push the needle toward real change.

Least of which in the eyes of the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru communities, which had been pushed out of their fertile ancestral lands and forced to return as laborers on these same fields now owned by Europeans settlers. By 1948, 1.25 million Kikuyu had been restricted to just 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers), while 30,000 settlers occupied 12,000 square miles (31,000 square kilometers). It was this quest for ithaka na wiathi (land and freedom) that led to retaliatory attacks on farmlands and administrative posts; against settlers and the tribal police who helped them.

The British response to the uprising was brutal. In 1953, a large-scale system called »The Pipeline« was developed to process suspected Mau Mau sympathizers and fighters. It shuttled prisoners through a network of more than 100 detention camps across the colony. And, used tactics such as starvation, electrocution, and mutilation to try and break their spirits.

In September 1955, an article written by British MP Barbara Castle appeared in UK socialist magazine The Tribune. She stated that »In the heart of the British Empire in Kenya there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where the murder, rape, and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished, and where the authorities connive at its violation.«1

»If it is indeed the victor who writes history and counts the dead, then how many continue to go unmourned?«

There are reports of wanton abuse of power, sexual misconduct, and British officers getting a £5 reward for each Kikuyu killed, regardless of the circumstances. They just had to make sure to cut off the victim’s hands for later identification. This underscores an insidious side of the British administration in Kenya; meticulous record keeping. A census conducted in 1960 revealed that more than 300,000 Kikuyu had been killed or could not be accounted for. One thousand and ninety were said to have been hung on mobile gallows that traversed the country. And, there is documented proof that several captured Mau Mau rebels were forced to appear as extras in the 1955 film Simba and executed three days after filming.

It comes as no surprise then, that within a year of the end of the state of emergency, a Colonial Office guidance on the disposal of classified records and accountable documents was made. Known as »Operation Legacy, « it involved colonial officers burning documents in incinerators and using weighted crates sunk offshore. What could not be destroyed was permanently hidden. Perhaps it was an observation that their eight-year season of carnage wouldn’t auger well with the winds of change blowing across the continent. Germany had lost hold of Cameroon and Togo; Congo was taken back from the cruel Belgians, while Italy left Somalia and France had seen Madagascar, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Central African Republic, and Mauritania revert to its peoples. Ghana, another former British colony, had already achieved independence in 1957 amid the horrors happening to their East African neighbors.

It has emerged that a key principle of the Colonial Office guidance was that no documents were to be shared that might »embarrass Her Majesty’s Government (HMG).«2 In 1963, this meant 294 boxes containing 1,500 files were sent back to England even as Kisoi Munyao climbed Mount Kenya to bring down the Union Jack and hoist the Kenyan flag. In 2022, with the nonagenarian monarch’s passing, this fierce bid to sanitize the image of HMG has manifested as virulent suppression of criticism through intimidation and arrest of protesters and media reports that gloss over exactly how (and why) the royal family has an estimated $28 billion fortune.

Those 294 boxes are now referred to as the »migrated archive,« and these documents are part of a horde sprawling across 79 feet of shelf space. They speak to life in 21 former British colonies. Requests to access the Kenyan documents were repeatedly denied from 1967 to 2006. It wasn’t until 2011 when they were finally declassified following legal action taken against the British government by Mau Mau veterans.3 After a long struggle, the government finally paid £19.9 million in compensation to more than 5,000 claimants. Within that mountain of data, time stands still. These records of attrition are damning, right down to the thousands of destruction certificates that confirm deliberate absences within the archive. If it is indeed the victor who writes history and counts the dead, then how many continue to go unmourned? These gaps in knowledge are unforgivable. Equally egregious are the erasures cultural imperialism wrought. To be fair, this onslaught began with early missionary work on the continent that demonised indigenous traditions and norms.

For instance, the Kikuyu refer to their creator God as Ngai. He created the first man, Gikuyu, and took him to the top of Mount Kirinyaga to show him all the land that belonged to him. When Gikuyu descended the mountain, he found his wife, Mumbi, waiting. Together, they had daughters who formed the nine Kikuyu tribes.

Ngai, like Mulungu, Akuj, Were, Enkai and Nyasaye; the creator Gods of various Kenyan communities, went through a process of inculturation. Stripped of power and potency, they are today largely understood as the local language terms for the Abrahamic God of Christianity rather than singular deities. Author Matthew Karangi shares how in 1930,4 when a storm fell a mugumo tree (the Kikuyu consider the fig tree sacred), missionaries sent the trunk to Scotland where it was turned into a cross and returned to Kenya to be displayed in their church.

This obliteration of ethnic values extended to language and cultural production. In his book, Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, longtime advocate for indigenous language literature, Prof. Ngugĩ wa Thing’o, reflected on the 1962 Makerere Writers’ Conference. Attending as a student, he observed how the first agenda at this historic gathering dubbed a »Conference of African writers of English Expression was: What is African Literature?« How could that be understood when the group had excluded their colleagues who published in Kiswahili, Amharic, Yoruba, and many other indigenous languages?

»This assertion of colonizer hegemony over African thought in critical and creative production is the result of eons of conditioning. It is what happens when social, economic, and political spaces reward proximity to whiteness.«

Prof. Ngugĩ wrote, »English, like French and Portuguese, was assumed to be the natural language of literary and even political mediation between African people in the same nation and between nations in Africa and other continents.«5 This assertion of colonizer hegemony over African thought in critical and creative production is the result of eons of conditioning. It is what happens when social, economic, and political spaces reward proximity to whiteness. Little wonder why outside of the Bible and government communiqué, many Kenyan communities do not interact with their local languages in a meaningful literary fashion.

In 2016, Kenyan photographer Osbourne Macharia produced a series of striking images called Kipipiri 4. The project was a collaboration between Macharia and Kevo Abbra, Valary Mdeizi, Richard Kinyua, Corrine Muthoni, Jeffrey Onyango, Victor Ndalo, Jared Maina, and Joseph Kyule. Combining their skills in photography, hair, costume, make-up, illustration and more, the photographs told a mesmerizing fictional tale of a special unit of four women from a small village within Kipipiri Forest in the Aberdare National Park.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - What Endures?

Osborne Macharia, from the series Kipipiri 4, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

The women’s hair was voluminous and fantastical. Bobo’s strands held a route map to the Mau Mau caves and Chep smuggled knives and other blunt weapons in hers. Achi adapted hers to carry large baskets of food and Mwende made it so her hair amplified her voice tenfold. »For me, it was the women who played a role, but their story was forgotten or never told. The whole idea was to spark that conversation where people could actually share their stories, and feel that they are not forgotten,« Macharia explains of the work.6

Archival imaginaries such as these are necessary. While they are the product of a blend of fact, imagination and the deep puddles of enchantment in-between, who is to say the stories they tell could not exist? For years, Kamiti Prison and Detention Camp was known as the only internment center for Mau Mau women fighters and sympathizers. However, the 2011 migrated archive documents revealed a secret place called Gitamayu that operated between June 1958 and April 1959. It was set up as a satellite of Kamiti to facilitate the intensive »rehabilitation« of women deemed »hardcore«. According to a November 1958 report, the »noncooperatives« could be »easily identified by their refusal to speak except among themselves, and in some cases their pathological inability to walk.«7 They suffered greatly but remained so deliberately disobedient that Gitamayu was eventually shut down and the women were transferred back to Kamiti.

In the novel Dust, Kenyan author Yvonne Owuor asks »What endures?« We do. We always do. We persist, we refuse to diminish ourselves and remain silent. We push for the reclamation of thousands of stolen artifacts and human remains. We publish PhD theses in isiXhosa and ChiShona. We tweet. We write songs. We dance. We endure.

Wanjeri Gakuru is a freelance journalist, essayist, and filmmaker living and working in Nairobi. Her work is presently focused on nostalgia and the human condition.

  1. Caroline Elkins: »Imperial Reckoning—Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.« New York 2005.

  2. Anthony Cary: »Cary report on release of the colonial administration files.« by Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 24 February 2011.

  3. Leigh Day: »The Mau Mau Claims.« www.leighday. co.uk.

  4. Matthew Muriuki Karangi: »Revisiting the Roots of an African Shrine: the Sacred Mugumo Tree: an Investigation of the Religion and Politics of the Gikuyu People in Kenya.« February 12, 2013.

  5. Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo: »Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature.« London 1986, p. 6.

  6. Josephine Opar: »Osborne Macharia on Honoring Kenya’s Female Freedom Fighters with Opulent Hair,« in: OkayAfrica.

  7. Katherine Bruce-Lockhart: »Unsound minds and broken bodies: the detention of hardcore Mau Mau women at Kamiti and Gitamayu Detention Camps in Kenya, 1954– 1960,« in: Journal of Eastern African Studies, 2014.