Monday, September 7, 2015

The Mau Mau Rebellion Retold

I thought I knew the story of the Mau Mau.  Reports of it were circulating when I was old enough to be paying attention.  This past week, my assumptions about how much I understood were blown away. 

As very often happens with things I want to talk abut, this discussion started with an episode of RadioLab.  If you want to go right to the inspiration for this blog, there is link at the end.  I will go ahead and give a summary of the information here.

During WWII, thousands of Kenyan tribesmen had fought for justice and freedom on the British side.  When they returned home, they found they were given no quarter when it came to their own personal freedom and prosperity.   Between 1952 and 1960, the Kenyan tribal people’s anger at their treatment at the hands of the colonial government boiled over.  Led mostly by Kikuyu, a sworn brotherhood of rebels rose up with the goal of ejecting the British from their land.

Some horrific incidents ensued.  A few settler families were butchered, including in at least one case, a small child.  Stories began to circulate abroad of savage black on white violence.  The news that spread worldwide reported that the Mau Mau warriors were a splinter group, that their wishes and tactics were espoused by only a small percentage of the population, that the majority of the tribal people wanted the Mau Mau to be controlled.   The violence involved was portrayed as black Africans gone berserk.  Eventually the term Mau Mau came to mean brutal rebels out for nothing but blood.

And that’s the way the story remained.  In 1963, when the British withdrew from the Kenya Colony, lots of their colonial records were destroyed or tossed overboard (as was the practice with all the colonies, large and small.)

End of story.

Until the 1990’s when Caroline Elkins, a Princeton undergrad history major went to Nairobi to research her senior thesis.  In the Government Archives building, she came across a curious file.  It seemed to contradict the prevailing Mau Mau story.  After finding other files in that Nairobi repository, she began to interview people about what had really happened.   The evidence that she rediscovered pointed to the fact that there were thousands of Kenyans involved in the Mau Mau “war,” and that contrary to popular belief most of the victims were, not white settlers, but Kenyan tribal people.   Eventually, the trail of investigation led to the town of Milton Keynes, northwest of London, site Hanslope Park—a top-secret repository of British government archives.  Suspicions were that more and damning information regarding the British behavior vis-à-vis the Mau Mau reposed in that place.  But access was impossible.

That stalemate was not broken until 2012, when a group of elderly Kenyans won permission to sue the British government for their suffering at the hands of their colonial rulers.  In the course of the case, files from the secret stash were subpoenaed, and contrary to anyone’s expectations, the judge ordered the government to open its records.  What emerged was a picture, not of black savagery on whites, but the opposite.  One source that I consulted put the white death count at 32.  Hundreds of thousands of blacks were imprisoned in concentration camps, and many thousands were executed, others castrated, raped, and tortured.

As a result, the British government was found guilty of committing violence against the tribal people of Kenya Colony.  They paid the plaintiffs in the case £14 Million and another £6 Million in court costs.  Most important of all, they took responsibility and apologized.  Here is what Foreign Secretary William Hague said in June 2013, when the case was settled:

"I would like to make clear now, and for the first time, on behalf of Her Majesty's government, that we understand the pain and grievance felt by those who were involved in the events of the emergency in Kenya," he told the Commons.

"The British government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.

"The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya's progress towards independence."

One of the reporters of this story thought to ask, why did the British government keep those records?  If they had wound up at the bottom of the Indian Ocean or in an incinerator, there would have been no proof of the allegations.  Here is the good news: those files contain reports and complaints from British officials who were appalled about what was happening in Kenya, and they kept the files because they wanted a record both of the wrong-doing of their government and of their objections to it.

If you want to hear a riveting account of all this on the best radio show in history of the universe—RadioLab, go here.

If you want to see a wonderful film about one of the plaintiffs in the case and how he went to primary school in his 80’s, you should watch the great film The First Grader. After the sad story told by this post, the film will lift your heart! Here is the trailer. 

Annamaria - Monday


  1. Why is it always the descendants of the perpetrators of these travesties that have to do the apologizing after the perpetrators are long dead? WWWEL?

    1. Beats me, EvKa. Right now, people are looking at OTHER people and imagining them to be refuse, not refugees. Somewhere along the line, we lost the gene that reminds us that all those OTHER people are exactly like us on the inside. Our species has gotten to the point where the world has to see a dead baby on the beach to be emotionally stirred by the plight of its own members. I weep for us all.

  2. As you know, Annamaria, my aunt was intimately involved in the Mau-Mau issue. She and a friend of hers were attcked in their living room. They were fortunate to be well prepared and tough, so they repelled the attack, leaving 3 or 4 attackers dead. Needless to say, I was subjected to the same stories you refer to - except my aunt also said that there was a great deal of Black on Black violence. However, I never heard about the extent of the repression. Another example of why I have no respect for any of the colonising powers - self-serving, smug, hypocrites that they are.

    1. Stan, I remain glad and admiring that Aunty Dorothy and her companion had the ability to defend themselves. Those women are in no way the villains of this piece. If you look at the photos above, you will see that the British government used the tribes against one another. My research for my Tolliver series teaches me that repressive "expeditions" were carried out in East Africa from the very beginning of British rule. NO doubt black on black violence was going on long before the Brits arrived. It does seem deeply evil to me, though, that "bringing civilization" included capitalizing on that.

  3. History is written by the winners. Thanks for this, Annamaria -- I know so little about African history. It's a lack I need to remedy.

    1. Neither did I, Lisa. I am learning it on order to write my series. The land is gorgeous. The history seldom so.

  4. I lived in Kenya for some years around independence in the sixties. Certainly it was well known to people then that atrocities had been performed on both sides, and - is so often the case - it was the local people who had suffered the worst, most of them innocent of any wrong doing to either side. Kenyatta, who was a wise leader and guided the country into the new era, was still regarded as a 'terrorist' in some circles. Perhaps a Truth and Reconciliation commission of the kind that South Africa found so valuable would have been the answer.

    1. Michael, Truth and Reconciliation was the BEST idea of the 20th Century. It is needed in many places on the globe. I can only hope it will catch on eventually and give our species a better future than it looks from today's vantage point.

  5. Just as it seems with so much of the rest of the world, my perception of what had happened in Kenya was formed as a child by what appears to have been one-sided propaganda. In my case, by a movie I recall titled, "Mau Mau" (though it may have had a different name), I saw with my parents a lonnnnnng time ago.

    Thanks for updating my mental database, Annamaria.

    1. Jeff, What I found astonishing, is that these facts came out in a trial in London two-three years ago and they never made it into the news all of us now surprised MIEers follow. How come the international news outlets pretty much ignored the findings? I find that scarily suspicious.

  6. Hi Annamaria. Another remarkable post. What a horrifying story, but sadly an unsurprising one. I echo Stan's comments that colonising powers rarely cover themselves in glory. And it goes on, to a greater or less extent, today. Thank you for such an eye-opener.

    1. Thank you, Zoe. We share these sentiments. AND I recently learned that we are going to share a publisher!!! I am so happy about that.

  7. Wow. I agree with Zoe - this is a remarkable post. I'm startled that the British government retained the records, and more so that in the end they actually did issue a formal apology--that's rare, even when a government's horrific behavior is exposed.

    Yet more evidence that colonialism was never the right way for nations to interact. Self-government and self-rule is the right way for people to live.

    Thank you for sharing this history--and so many other pieces of history which, though difficult to read and consider, are so important to know.

    1. Susan, I guess historical novelists like us long for a way to get out the lessons of history to prevent it from repeating itself. Hope springs eternal. Progress does take place, even if in fits and starts. The USA, for one example, used to be an extremely racist country. Yet for the past seven years we have had a black President. I promise I'll try to be less gloomy next week.

  8. I have known about the real history of the Mau Mau rebellion as I read about it years ago, and I can't remember the name of the book.

    I wish that people would listen to the colonized peoples tell about their own real history. They're the ones who know it and who suffered from colonialism.

    I remember reading Mark Twain's King Leopold's Soliloquy about Belgium's colonization of the Congo: It made a lasting impression on me when I read it in high school.

    And then there's Alice Walker's The Color Purple which has a section set in an African country and gives a feel for the difficult life where growing rubber for sale edged out the food crops that the people grew for food and also destroyed the materials they used for housing.

    The point is that countries should have sovereignty. It's a basic.

    And I would say that many people in the U.S. are not racists, but what did that horrible murder of 9 beautiful people in Charleston say? What about the people who love the Confederate flag and their statues of Robert E. Lee? And what about the Donald Trump fans? And so on?

    The statistics on unemployment and low income individuals? The differences in income between college graduates by ethnicity? New York Times stories have been very revealing about inequities and discrimination up and down the income line.

    Friends who are people of color still face backward comments and treatment.

    There's a long way to go here. It's sad, but true.

    1. Certainly you are right, Kathy. There are many, many reasons for us to be unhappy about the state of the world, and I have friends who cannot understand why I am not--like them--in a constant state of anger and despair. I imagine that they think of me as jejune. It is not that I do not see the problems you so astutely list here. It is not that I do not grieve over all those miserable situations. They are a plague on our world. I agree. But call it luck or self-delusion, what you will, I also see the strides we make and rejoice in them.

      I can't help it. My body chemistry's default position is happy. I imagine that to be, not a character flaw, but an accident of genetic nature. It is, I confess, something that I enjoy. Everything is not right, not in the world and not in my own life. But I can still experience ecstasy listening to great music. I still feel like dancing OFTEN. I still see this planet as beautiful and take joy in being alive on it.

      I had imagined that a black President, gays legally marrying, photos of Pluto, myself as a published novelist were things I would never see in my lifetime. Seeing them does not erase all the other problems, but my happy heart dances when I do.

    2. Well said, AmA. (Not arguing with Kathy or disagreeing with her, just affirming the "positive outlook.")

      I don't know whether it was genes, upbrining, chance... likely a combination, but I feel much the same. I do remember days of depression or ennui as a teenager, but I'll remember, as long as I live, the evening when a bunch of us were crossing the street from our dorm to the intramural sports event we were going to... and I had a great moment of enlightenment. It suddenly coalesced in my mind that I could CHOOSE to be happy. It was as simple as that. Sometimes when you're angry or depressed, someone or something can come along and, in the blink of an eye, the cascading of neurons, you laugh and are instantly feeling all better. Did that come from outside? Or inside? If it can happen because of an outside trigger, why can't it happen through internal choice?

      That moment of realization, I think, changed the direction of my life (at least, somewhat) forever and for the better.

      It's not that you have to ignore the pain and suffering and injustice, that would be a fool's way to live a life. But you can be aware of it, and even work to erase some of it, while still living a happy and joyful life.

      War will never end war. Only peace will end war. Hatred and anger will never end racism and bigotry, only love and joy will do that. I see the anger in America's black communities today, and they certainly have reason for their anger. But emphasizing that "black lives matter" and trying to create "black pride" and "black culture" and... I'm not saying that people shouldn't be proud of their heritage, and remember their heritage, and share their heritage. But you don't get rid of racism by emphasizing "us" vs. "them." You don't get rid of hatred by taking a stand of "we're different and we're never going to be like YOU, and YOU have to..." You're never going to force others to change.

      All you can do is set an example of yourself. Make yourself an example of what you want the world to be, raise your children as best you can in that image. Light a torch, and pass that light on to others, a torch that illuminates, not one that burns.

    3. Yes! And flowers! Just seeing flowers makes me happy. That is not the scientific reason they exist. But there they are. And my sprits lift at the sight of them.

  9. There are a lot of things that make me happy and I'm not in constant despair.

    However, I just wrote a piece about a 30-year-old African-American man with mental illness who was beaten to death and his body thrown down the stairs in a New York state prison by a squad of up to 20 guards. His family filed a lawsuit on Sept. 9. A just-released prisoner witnessed the assault and discusses it in the NY Times. No guard was charged with any crime, and the state corrections officials have said little, if anything.

    And then I wrote about an 18-year-old African-American youth who was shot in a Walmart's parking lot in Portsmouth, Va. The cop who shot him had posted images of lynchings and Nazi acts. That cop fatally shot someone before and had no remorse. That cop was just charged with murder, however.

    But all over the country, police are not held accountable.

    So, I'm not saying that all is despair. I don't look at life that way. I look at the good things, the fun things, the beauty, pet the dogs in the neighborhood, enjoy my flowers on the window sill, meet the new neighbors, lock myself in and read a good book, etc.

    And a wonderful movie, "The Sapphires," which I just saw is about an Indigenous group of young women who formed an r&b group in Australia and actually toured Vietnam during the war in the 1960s.

    I do think that the Black Lives Matter folks are doing what they need to do and should be supported. NY Times columnist Charles Blow has explained this better than I can. His son was forced to the floor at Yale where he is a student, and a cop pointed his gun at him before asking for his I.D.

    Story after story tells of racism and abuse of people of color. I read about so much of this. And why do cities like Baltimore and Ferguson see such protests? Communities are angry. They see no justice. Usually, there isn't. In Baltimore, the city attorney pushed for indictments and cops are being charged for Freddie Gray's death.

    But story after story comes out where no one is indicted. Look at what happened with George Zimmerman (who is now selling artwork of Confederate flags) not being convicted of killing Trayvon Martin -- which set off this movement.

    Until Black lives do matter, until abuse stops and the abusers are brought to justice, this issue has to be pushed -- like the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s had to expose the injustices and demand strong changes.

    And look at the criminal justice system, how it operates, the inequities, who's in jail. A prisoners' lawsuit brought by a legal organization just won some relief from solitary confinement in California; it is regarded as torture internationally.

    Black leaders and young people led the earlier movement, and today it's many young people, including women who are leading it. Until the government at all levels, the police, the courts, recognize that Black lives do matter and those lives cannot be taken brutally and senselessly, nor those lives stolen in prisons or by horrific unemployment, then the slogan "Black lives matter" is necessary.

  10. Charles Blow does mention in one column on the 60th anniversary of 14-year-old Emmett Till's brutal murder in Mississippi as the first "Black Lives Matter" story.

    Here's how he ends another column:

    That is why when people respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter,” it grates. All Lives Matter may be one’s personal position, but until this country values all lives equally, it is both reasonable and indeed necessary to specify the lives it seems to value less.