Columbus discovers Mau Mau.

On the way home from taiji class this morning I listened to the latest Radiolab podcast on the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s.  It brought back memories, but as much as I like Radiolab there was something off key about this particular episode.

I had never heard of Robert Ruark’s Something of Value until my 10th grade English teacher read a parody called “Something of Mau Mau” to us. Because Ruark’s book was so popular among adults, Fr. Collins must have figured we were reading it too. I had heard of the Mau Mau uprising somewhere in Africa, but never Ruark.

To this day I’ve never read Ruark so I’ll never appreciate Fr. Collins’ parody. I did see the Rock Hudson movie on TV many years after returning from Kenya. It was hard to watch after living almost three years in Meru, one of the centers of Mau Mau. Sidney Poitier just didn’t make it as Kikuyu man.

During the six months between graduating from college and sailing for Kenya, I read Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mt. Kenya, a mixture of anthropology, politics, and biography. Until then I had accepted the popular American belief that Kenyatta was a leader of the Mau Mau.  The U.K. government and the local white colonists feared Kenyatta because his people looked to him for leadership in their struggle to take back their country. From Kenyatta’s book I learned that the Meru  people among whom I was going to live were one of two smaller ethnic groups who were kin (biologically, culturally, and linguistically) with his group, the largest in Kenya, known as the Kikuyu. It remains a matter of debate whether Kenyatta’s support for the interests of the U.K. and U.S.A. when he came to power at independence reflected a change of heart or the misjudgment of frightened colonialists in the 1950s.

When we moved to Nkubu in January 1966, we met many people who had lived through the Emergency, including Italian missionaries who had lived in Meru at that time.  Nkubu was the site of one of the fortified villages that the British set up to control the insurgency. The Americans tried this strategy for a time during the Vietnam war. It was no more successful for the Americans than it had been for the British.  Any Meru man seen outside the fence could be shot on sight, and usually was.  Meru men, women and children who went into the Nkubu marketplace to buy supplies could be victims of marauding soldiers driving through the marketplace in jeeps firing their guns randomly into the crowds of shoppers.  As someone brought up on tales of the depredations of the Black and Tans in Ireland, I never doubted what they told me.

The only physical remnant of that period was the priests’ house on our mission compound. It looked like a fortress, built of stone, with narrow windows and a heavy wood front door. Although it was square and only two stories high, it always reminded me of a keep in a medieval castle where the lord and his retainers could hold out from a siege.

In addition to tales from older missionaries and locals, early on I found a book in the library of the school where I was teaching. Bwana Drum by Dennis Holman. Holman’s story finished the complete destruction of my naïve American belief that the Mau Mau were a bunch of savage murderers, who specialized in butchering innocent white women and children. Holman was a soldier in the fight against the Mau Mau. His unit consisted of Africans and white soldiers in black face. (As in many national liberation struggles, the Mau Mau rebellion was as much a civil war among the Kikuyu as it was a fight against foreign domination.) This unit spoke Kikuyu, dressed like Mau Mau insurgents, and went to live in the forests where the Mau Mau would hide out. Their specialty was to meet Mau Mau cells in the forests, befriend, camp with them, and then when they were asleep, kill them all. They took no prisoners.

Holman believed in what he had done, but he openly presented the statistics that totally demolish the image of the Mau Mau and the so-called Emergency in the English-speaking media. The numbers Holman gave were not exactly the same as the ones cited in the Radiolab podcast, but they were all in the same relative scale. According to the New World Encyclopedia, which gives a more complete set of statistics, during the Mau Mau period in Kenya 32 European civilians were killed.  Ruark painted a picture of dark-skinned terrorists butchering hundreds of innocent white women and children, a picture still prevalent in the Anglo-American imagination.

While this image of the Mau Mau is obviously an exaggeration fueled by and fueling racial fears, I’m not saying only 32 whites were killed.  As we’ve had to say too many times over the last year in this country, each life matters.  Nevertheless, this statistic stands out not only as refutation of the popular image of the Mau Mau, it stands out against the numbers of African non-combatants killed during the British suppression of the Mau Mau.

Holman reported that around 25,000 African civilians were killed during the war.  In Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (NY: WW Norton & Co., 2005) David Anderson gives a similar number. Official British records only report 1,826 deaths among African civilians. The Harvard researcher Caroline Elkins makes the disputed estimate that 70,000 or more African civilians were killed.  According to New World Encyclopedia, “the demographer John Blacker, in an article in African Affairs, has estimated the total number of African deaths at around 50,000; half were children under 10.”

If you want to understand the propagation of the myth of innocent whites being slaughtered by African terrorists, you can read Ruark’s book or watch the movie. If you want to understand how a thousand times more African men, women and children were killed in the white campaign to suppress the Mau Mau, read Holman’s book or David Anderson’s more recent and more comprehensive study.

If you’re not in the mood for reading, I recommend the 2010 Irish movie, The First Grader, which tells the real life story of an ex-Mau Mau villager. While the main plot is a heart-warming tale of an old man who fights to get the primary school education he had been denied in his youth, the backstory of his imprisonment and torture pulls you out of your comfort zone, both with respect to the main plot, but more importantly with what you assume when you hear the phrase “Mau Mau.”  While shocking, the statistics cited above do not convey the full truth in all its individuality and particularity.  As I’ve previously quoted Wislawa Syzmborska’s poem,

History rounds off skeletons to zero.
A thousand and one is still only a thousand.

The First Grader let’s us see Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge as an old man fighting to learn to read Syzmborska’s “primer opened for no one.”

This brings us back to the Radiolab podcast.  I am always heartened when mainstream media report on stories that have been previously neglected or distorted.  The truth takes many repetitions before it begins to challenge the images embedded in our psyches.  Nevertheless, I was uncomfortable with the way that the Radiolab producers and their first expert Caroline Elkins kept patting themselves on the back for bringing to light supposedly new information.  Elkins deserves much credit for her research and interviews with elderly Kikuyu women.  The role of women in the liberation struggle and their suffering during its suppression certainly deserve more attention.  But the Radiolab podcast seemed to  focus as much on what a great researcher Caroline Elkins is as on the Kikuyu women.  Many podcast reporters use the technique of bringing themselves and how they developed a story into the report to help keep it interesting.  In the case of this Radiolab podcast, however, this technique had the effect of putting as much emphasis on the work of the podcasters as on the real story of the Mau Mau.  Some of the comments on the Radiolab website criticized the podcast for this distortion of the real story.  One comment introduced me to a term I had not heard before—”Columbussing.”   The idea that something didn’t exist before white people discovered it.

Despite these drawbacks I’m very glad that Radiolab has told the true story of Mau Mau … again.  Additionally, Radiolab’s interview with David Anderson drew my attention to the fact that the British government had publicly admitted that innocent Kenyans had been imprisoned in concentration camps, tortured and killed.  Sometimes when a story is not news to someone the significance of its publication can be missed, as I did when this story appeared in the New York Times in 2013.

One Comment

  1. This was very interesting Ken. I never knew about this at all. I’ve commented many times, having been born in 1963 and been in school in the 1970’s, that history classes never made it anywhere near the present – they would start back in the dawn of time, and curricula never caught up to the twenty or 30 years that preceded that moment. Ditto with my African history classes – they kinda ended in the 1920’s. So, I never learned about the things that I then wasn’t old enough to hear about myself – the Vietnam war I heard about on the radio.

Leave a Reply

(*) Required, Your email will not be published