Volume 11, Issue 1
S. M. Shamsul Alam. Rethinking the Mau Mau in Colonial Kenya. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Great Britain colonized Kenya in 1895 following up on the protocol set forth in the 1884 Berlin Conference for regulating European colonization and trade in Africa. After the Second World War, the colonized world was overwhelmed by indigenous nationalist movements sprouting up and demanding for self-determination. In Kenya, it was the Mau Mau revolt that determined the outcome of the demand for national autonomy and the achievement, in 1963, of independence. This book is a study that revolt and its contribution to independent Kenya. To understand Mau Mau one must understand its objectives within the context of the British colonial domination. Furthermore, to properly analyze the actions of the British colonial system one must engage with the popular counter hegemonic actions of resistance movements such as Mau Mau. The author makes a critical clarification that the Mau Mau was not a Kenyatta nationalist project. He identifies it as a movement that was not only violent but also having its own unique cultural, ideological, and political ideas for a free Kenya. The author utilized interviews with knowledgeable persons; primary documents from the Kenya National Archives; secondary literature by Ngugi wa Thiongo, Foucault, Fanon, Chartejee, and others in writing this book.
In discussing post-colonial Kenya, Alam stipulates that there is a deliberate action by the ruling elite to bury Mau Mau history. This, he explains, is because its history is subversive and can serve as a critique of current political realities. He observes that though the subject is of great interest to common Kenyans, it is a history that causes discomfort and embarrassment to the post-colonial ruling elite. This attitude has been clear in the government’s failure to honor the freedom fighters. The author provides a good exposé of one of the prominent Mau Mau fighters, Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi. This discussion is critical to understanding some of the personalities that fought for freedom at the expense of their own lives. During the Moi era there were numerous petitions by the family and other individuals that the state honor Dedan Kimathi with a proper burial. The effort, however, was opposed and never honored by the government of the day. These actions and attitudes are reflective of the hesitation of the Kenyan ruling elite to identify with history.
The book makes a unique contribution to understanding the role of the women in the freedom movement. It is a part of the Kenyan history that is seldom taught or discussed, but the contributions of women like Mary Wanjiru and Mekatilili wa Menza serve to correct long-held myths that women were passive in fighting for freedom. The book gives the reader a depiction of women who were active networkers and well engaged in the military offensive against British colonial rule. Another unique contribution is how the book addresses the contribution of literature to understanding history. The earlier writings on Mau Mau spoke of it as a savage Kikuyu entity that was resisting civilization. This discourse is what then led to the counter discourse that sought to properly explain the movement and its objectives. For example, Ngugi wa Thiongo has written about Mau Mau as a subversive technique for critiquing the post-colonial ruling class, making it clear that the current state is not what the freedom fighters had envisioned when they had sacrificed their lives.
This study points to the crisis of history, and the fact that without a complete understanding of history it becomes almost impossible for independent states to properly develop. Alame links the current crisis in governance to how colonialism was fought for and how the nation state was formed. The Mau Mau contribution to independent Kenya has been a shunned topic and has often been judged on the basis of ethnicity, yet it is only in understanding the role of such movements and their objectives that this history can serve as a standard by which the current political leadership can be criticized and brought to order.
What is unique about the book is its richness of information about the Mau Mau movement. As an outsider of Bangladeshi decent the author’s comparative view of Kenya and Bangladesh provides an advantage for understanding how the British went about consolidating power and colonizing their constituents. Particularly useful is his analysis of how understanding the Mau Mau history makes it possible to critique today’s political system. I only wish the author had discussed this even further to draw a line as to the importance of history in determining good governance.
As a Kenyan it is interesting how much I have learned about my own history from reading this book. It should constitute critical reading for social sciences departments and African politics and history units in Kenyan universities. It makes a useful contribution not only to understanding the crafting and structure of an anti-colonial political movement but also to understanding the objectives of such movements and using these objectives as a subversion to today’s political crisis.
In conclusion the author effectively communicated the importance of understanding Mau Mau as a critical component of Kenya’s history. The ease in which he uses a wide array of illustrations from Kenya’s past makes it easier for the reader to understand some of his fundamental assertions. His discussion on the gap that exists in the knowledge of Kenya’s colonial history and the reasons for this makes the work an objective piece for understanding the leading Kenyan aristocrats. Overall the text’s content enables the reader to understand the Mau Mau not as an ethnic entity but as a nationalist movement of men and women who sacrificed so as to ensure the freedom of Kenya.
Grace Maina University of Bedford