The Kamba and Mau Mau: Ethnicity, Development, and Chiefship, 1952-1960*
Osborne, Myles, The International Journal of African Historical Studies
In mid- 1954, the conflict between Mau Mau and the forces of the British colonial government reached its peak: Kenya was in crisis. Though demonized, scorned, and certainly outgunned, the largely Kikuyu Mau Mau was fighting hard and with success against its opponents in the forests of Central Province. It was a moment of great significance for the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa, with the topic of decolonization at the forefront of debate both on the continent and in Europe.
While Kenya teetered at the brink of total upheaval, the Kamba were in position to play a pivotal role in the struggle.1 The Kamba are close cousins of the Kikuyu, living to the southeast of Central Province in an area informally known as "Ukambani."2 Intermarriage between the two ethnic groups was common. Approximately 20,000 former servicemen inhabited the Kamba reserves, many of whom were highly trained and had fought in the Second World War theaters of Burma and Northeast Africa just a decade earlier, and in Malaya even more recently.
Governor of the colony Sir Evelyn Baring had noted the potentially decisive role of the Kamba in the conflict fully two years earlier, in a top secret telegram.3 And in 1954, the district commissioner of Machakos, D.J. Penwill, gave voice to British concern: "The Kamba occupy a key position in the general situation in this country. Mau Mau must not spread beyond the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru; if it were to do so, and, above all, if it were to spread to the Kamba, the consequences cannot be foreseen, but they would be extremely serious.... There is no doubt whatsoever that the Kamba could go into Mau Mau."4 Baring's anxiety, and that of the district commissioner, related chiefly to the potential difficulties that would ensue if a portion of the high number of Kamba serving in the police and army changed sides. Their service was essential in the effort against Mau Mau, and as former Police Commissioner O'Rorke noted in March 1954, "Police reliability is a very precarious thing."5
Baring and Penwill's concerns were contrasted by a degree of optimism among many Africans in Kenya, and indeed moderates in Britain. One outcome of the protracted war against Mau Mau was louder calls in both Kenya and Britain for increased political participation for Africans. The longer the conflict continued, and the closer Mau Mau came to potentially defeating the colonial forces, the greater the possibility of a more rapid move towards African self-government and independence. This process had begun by 1954, after Mau Mau had frustrated the colonial government for two years; the Lyttelton Constitution of that year decreed that political representation of all racial groups in the colony was necessary, resulting in the appointment of the first African and Asian ministers. In Britain, moderate voices- like those belonging to men such as Sir Andrew Cohen, the former assistant undersecretary for African Affairs at the Colonial Office, and then Governor of Uganda- were numerous. Cohen, indeed, would later expound upon his ideas in a series of lectures at Northwestern University in April 1957, in which he explained that "successful working with nationalists is the smoothest way of helping a country to self-government," particularly in the context of the Cold War.6
During the previous half century, more ink has been spilled over Mau Mau than almost any other topic in the history of sub-Saharan Africa. Even as Mau Mau took place, four "mutually incompatible" European myths were evident that attempted to explain its existence.7 During the following decade, Mau Mau was depicted as a psychotic episode experienced by "tribal" Africans, sometimes struggling to deal with modernity.8 In later years, the movement was portrayed as a nationalist revolt, a Marxist uprising, and as a Kikuyu struggle against the government.9 Marshall Clough, Caroline Elkins, and John Lonsdale have highlighted the difficulties that the contested memory of Mau Mau has produced for the national memory of Kenya.10 Yet scholars have barely addressed the involvement of the Kamba, or indeed many of Kenya's other ethnic groups, in Mau Mau.
This dearth of scholarship seriously limits our understanding of the conflict itself, the relationship between the Kikuyu and the Kamba, and particularly the association between the Kamba and the British. The otherwise voluminous literature on Mau Mau has rarely strayed from Kikuyu aspects of the episode, and has ignored roles played by Kenya's other ethnic groups. We read little of Mau Mau general Kirita ole Kisio (a Masai), or Luo or Luhya fighters, and virtually nothing about the Kamba, who- as demonstrated here- occupied a central role in the conflict. This is a significant omission, particularly considering that today Mau Mau war veterans are claiming compensation from the British government for torture carried out in detention camps in Kenya during the 1950s. The veterans are backed by the Kenya Human Rights Commission and Mau Mau War Veterans Association, and their initial submission of evidence in June 2009 included testimony from two Kikuyu, two Kamba, and one Meru, reflecting the breadth of Mau Mau's impact.
This paper first provides an outline of Kamba participation in Mau Mau, using memoirs written by Mau Mau fighters, the author's interviews, British colonial documents (some declassified as recently as 2006), and other assorted source material. It argues that Kamba participation was far greater than scholars have assumed. Second, it details the reasons why the Kamba did not join Mau Mau en masse. Three major, linked factors shaped that decision: first, British manipulations of Kamba ethnicity; second, the effect of community development and welfare projects, shown here as important facets of imperial control; and third, and most crucially, the initiative and role of Kamba chiefs in the conflict. The degree to which these first two factors occurred was rare in British colonial Africa. The paper also situates itself among larger debates about the formation of ethnicity in East Africa.
I. Man Mau Begins11
In mid-1952, Mau Mau fighters instigated a wave of violence that swept through Nairobi and Central Province. The perpetrators "hamstrung" cattle, murdered Kikuyu loyal to the government at a rate of fifteen to twenty per week, and performed various acts of sabotage. With the murder of Senior Chief Waruhiu- a staunch "loyalist"- Baring had little choice but to declare a State of Emergency on 20 October.
As the conflict brewed, Mau Mau leaders quickly moved to recruit Kamba members, partially inspired by the shared history of Kamba and Kikuyu political resistance, and also by their reputation as skilled fighters. This recruitment was achieved through the Mau Mau oath. In Nairobi, the administration of oaths came under the control of the executive committee of the Kenya African Union (KAU) Nairobi branch, which had been run by Mau Mau militants since 195 1.12 Though dominated by Kikuyu, it included members drawn from other ethnic groups. Paul Ngei- assistant secretary of KAU and later arrested with Jomo Kenyatta as part of the "Kapenguria Six"- was Kamba, and a member of the committee. Ngei invited "politically minded" Kamba to Kiburi House in Nairobi to take the oath. They would then return to the reserves to spread the oath themselves. Ngei's first wife even helped recruit members in Machakos.13 Many other Nairobi-based Kamba copied Ngei's actions: the police caught one such man, and after confessing to taking subscriptions from Kamba to Kiburi House, he was executed for "consorting with gunmen."14
The spread of the oath occurred rapidly in Nairobi, particularly because thousands of Africans had poured into the city since the Second World War, in search of work. This surge was especially notable among Kamba men, who wanted to escape the dry conditions of the overcrowded reserves; many of them desired cash wages like those to which they had become accustomed as soldiers during the war. This unchecked migration of "detribalized" Africans caused serious concern for British officials across the continent.15 In Nairobi, officials experimented with trying to settle all the Kamba together in the Ziwani area.16 But the idea proved unworkable, and members of every ethnic group mixed freely. As a result, the Mau Mau oath spread easily. Thousands of Kamba took the oath, some at their own wish, and others forced by oathing teams made up of Kikuyu or Kamba Mau Mau. Those few in Nairobi who categorically refused to take the oath faced an uncertain future. One man, living in the city in 1953, described how he ensured his family was ready to depart for Kitui at a moment's notice, as he was one of the few who avoided taking the oath. He recalled the threatening notes he would receive from members of Mau Mau: "X will come to fetch your head on Wednesday, please be there!"17 Violence was a daily occurrence on the streets of the city, and Mau Mau had great influence in many areas.
In the rural areas of Ukambani, however, Mau Mau did not enjoy the same success in its recruitment Mau Mau and KAU had quickly realized the importance of winning the mass of Kamba support there, where the majority of former servicemen resided. In 1951, Paul Ngei had toured Machakos, giving speeches under the guise of KAU and promoting the role of Africans in politics. Other members of KAU such as Kenyatta and Fred Kubai also spoke in Machakos and Kitui.18 Yet the KAU-organized opposition was unsuccessful, for two main reasons. First, many Kamba had barely survived a difficult period of drought during the late 1940s, and therefore had little enthusiasm for fighting. Second, the KAUorganized opposition to the government centered on raising resistance to the Beecher Report and Machakos Education Plan, as well as cattle sales and cattle inoculations.19 In selecting these schemes it wished to oppose, KAU had chosen poorly. Trying to create Kamba opposition to these programs could have little traction, as Kamba had clamored for any and all improvements in education since the Second World War, and respected chiefs had pressed for agricultural improvements for the same period.20 Many Kamba saw these improvements as directly responsible for the fact that famine no longer caused death each time it swept through Ukambani.
Nor did the colonial government sit idly by. On the eve of the Emergency- before any significant amount of oathing had taken place in the Kamba reserves- the government acted quickly to prevent the transmission of Mau Mau ideas by restricting the easy movement between the Kamba reserves, Kikuyuland, and Nairobi. On 23 September 1952, the government passed a traffic amendment that restricted the movement of vehicles by night along the three major routes into Ukambani: between Machakos and Nairobi, Thika and Machakos, and Thika and Kitui.21 Consequently with the declaration of a State of Emergency, it was extremely difficult for oathing teams to move into Ukambani. The Kenya Police Reserve instantly began night patrols in Machakos, and the government increased the number of Tribal Police, and transformed Chiefs' Messengers into Tribal Police, whom they then added to that force. The government also instituted a new West Ukamba division of the Kenya Police Reserve. In northern Machakos, these moves of the government prevented oathing from taking place to any great degree. There were, however, isolated incidents of trouble in 1952. In one instance, armed Kikuyu gangs- with Kamba leaders- raided several depositories of the African District Council at Mbooni and Mzau, removing sums of money totaling £852.22
"The Cancer Is Spreading"
Though its initial schemes were effective in keeping Mau Mau from Ukambani, months passed and the government was unable to achieve a rapid military victory. One effect was that more Kamba became involved in the movement; many were worried that the spoils of independence would pass them by if Mau Mau won, but they had not contributed to the physical struggle. British military officials were especially concerned about the Kamba servicemen, and the high numbers of them involved in the fight against Mau Mau. Almost six battalions of the King's African Rifles (KAR) were engaged in the Emergency, and in them, Kamba made up a large percentage of the fighting strength.23
In the Kenya Police the numbers of Kamba were no less significant: in 1953, the police force included 1,754 Kamba, with the Luo the next most populous group at 1,062.24 Kamba also made up a significant number of the Home Guard, although the numbers are difficult to ascertain. In addition, Kamba appear to have served in the Thika Home Guard, along with Kikuyu.25 The possibility of Kamba ex-soldiers joining Mau Mau was worrying; indeed in April 1953, Chief Patrisse received a threatening letter from "1500 askaris [soldiers] of Kilungu"- an area in southern Machakos- for his support of the government.26
Though relatively few outbreaks of violence took place in Ukambani in early 1953, "the position was considerably worse than events suggested," commented one official.27 On one European-owned farm, belonging to a Mrs. Davis-Evans, twenty Kamba who had taken the oath were discovered. Several Kamba oathing groups circulated throughout the reserves signing up new members. Kawa Musili's confession when arrested in 1955, for instance, was indicative: "I wish to tell the Screening Team about 'Kwasya na Kwika.' a Mau Mau war Council [sic.]. The following were the aims and objects of the council: 1. To fight to the end, 2. To administer Mau Mau oaths to all the Wakamba, 3. To subscribe money for furthering Mau Mau ends in Ukambani."28 Chiefs- on whom the government was so reliant for maintaining the loyalty of their people- received anonymous threats; the letter to Chief Patrisse was one of more than a dozen. On 7 August 1953, officials uncovered the first full Mau Mau oathing ceremony in Machakos, and then another quickly afterwards. While Kikuyu oath administrators had conducted the first, three young Kamba men- who had stolen pistols from a train at Sultan Hamud- administered the second. The government responded by raising 2,000 extra Home Guard in Machakos, taking the total to 4,000 men, as well as assigning a Special Branch officer to the district, yet with little effect.29 The government's hands were loosely tied; it dared not overly antagonize the Kamba with a strong response lest it drive them into Mau Mau and rebellion.
A strong connection existed between Mau Mau activity and the railway line that ran between Nairobi and Mombasa, passing along the southern edge of Ukambani. The government expected trouble in areas such as Kangundo- home of Paul Ngei- and Iveti, and therefore neglected this southern region, where Mau Mau took root. It was typical for Kikuyu Mau Mau to stow away on trains leaving Nairobi, depositing themselves further down the line in Ukambani where they joined with sympathetic Kamba to perform oathing ceremonies. As one informant recalled, "The Kikuyu passed through Emali at night. They would alight and enter the neighboring Kamba areas, and then they mixed with the Kamba committees to give the oath, as the Kambas were the ones who spoke Kikamba. By dawn, they would return home."30 The prevalence of this method of movement is clear from both the author's interviews and the Corfield Report, which details that when, in March 1954, security forces arrested a significant fighting group of Kamba Mau Mau, ten of the seventeen arrested were railway workers. Later that year, the government identified 253 known Kamba members of Mau Mau who were employed as railway workers, and began an operation to round them up.31 The significance of the line is also suggested by the fact that Mau Mau made no attempt to sabotage it during the conflict32
The government was more adept in closing off Kitui to Mau Mau influence, though initially Mau Mau had had success there. In 1952, the speeches of Ngei and Kubai had apparently taken effect, as KAU in combination with the African Brotherhood Church had clamored for independent schools- following the Kikuyu example- and opposed mission institutions, namely schools and churches.33 But following this outbreak of "political activity" in central Kitui during 1952, the government mustered the East Ukamba police force in 1953.34 In this way it sealed the district almost entirely from Mau Mau. (The government also later created an East Ukamba Home Guard unit in Kitui in 1954- armed with bows and arrows- supplemented with Farm Guards.35) But the factor that arguably hardened the feelings of many Kitui Kamba against Mau Mau was the attempted murder of Senior Chief Kasina wa Ndoo in 1953. The government quickly turned this event to its advantage, lauding this "loyal" Kamba leader and blaming Mau Mau for the attack, removing much of the organization's embryonic popularity.
As 1953 drew to a close, officials were concerned about the increasing penetration of Mau Mau among the Kamba. "The cancer is spreading," noted one. Officials estimated that the "vast majority" of Kamba in Nairobi had taken the oath, and that Machakos had "a degree of contamination."36 Kamba now began to take a greater part in the physical struggle. Security forces intercepted a gang of fourteen Kamba and two Kikuyu in Nairobi, foiling its plan to pass through Konza to kill a chief in Ukambani. The government then learned that Waruhiu Itote or "General China" had sent oath administrators from the forests of Mount Kenya to Kitui; Itote' s force included a number of Kamba among its Kikuyu base. Itote himself- during his sixty-eight hour interrogation in January 1954warned, "there are very many Kamba in the Mau Mau. They will, in time, think the same way as the Kikuyu."37 Security forces also found members of a Kamba oathing team in Arusha in northern Tanganyika, and discovered that at least one Kamba Mau Mau "general" was at the head of a battalion of over 1,000 Mau Mau in the Abedares of Central Province.38 One Mau Mau major from Meru recalled that a Kamba general named Kavyu ("knife") was in charge of his fighting unit, which operated in the forests around Mount Kenya. "In every fighting group of about thirty, there might be five or six Kambas," he noted.39
It is also important to recognize the impact of the non-militant Kamba Mau Mau, or the "Passive Wing." Members of the Passive Wing played a role that was more logistical than military, exploiting their status as non-"KEM" (Kikuyu, Embu, or Meru) to evade detection.40 Kamba who assisted Mau Mau without actually bearing arms still faced extraordinary risk; the New Emergency Regulations of May 1953 detailed thus: "It is now an offence, punishable by death, to do, attempt or conspire to do any act likely to endanger life, assist terrorists or impede the operations of the security forces.... The death penalty will also be imposed on anyone who gives, sells, lends, lets out or hires or delivers possession of firearms, ammunition or explosives."41 Yet this failed to stop some Kamba, such as one veteran of the KAR, who worked as a driver for British American Tobacco during the 1950s. He was one of the men whose loyalties lay with Mau Mau. As a non"KEM" with a reputable job, he was able to move around Central Province in his employer's van. He traveled to places like the Mau Forest and deposited food and supplies with fighters there.42 This type of Kamba contribution in Mau Mau also appears in the memoirs written by former Mau Mau fighters.43 It is difficult to estimate the number of those who provided non-military support for Mau Mau, yet the author's interviews reveal that their effect was certainly significant, as was their tacit support for the organization.44
When secretary of state Oliver Lyttelton arrived in Nairobi in March 1954, Mau Mau was at the peak of its powers. In a meeting with Lyttelton, the provincial commissioner of the newly-created Southern Province sounded caution. He noted that Mau Mau had not penetrated the Kamba to a critical extent, but that the situation "might change radically were the Emergency to continue for another year.... [It is] essential to do nothing to upset the Wakamba."45 From the government's perspective, a crucial moment arrived with the commencement of Operation Anvil on 24 April 1954. Government forces swept through Nairobi, and soldiers forced Africans of all ethnic groups into the streets. They removed Kikuyu from the city for "screening," a process of identification, interview, and possibly interrogation, which aimed to find members of Mau Mau. The loss of labor left a vacuum that Kamba filled. "The exodus to Nairobi to get the money previously earned by Kikuyu has landed some 40,000 Kamba there," commented the district commissioner of Kitui. In 1953, Kamba made up 18.6 percent of Nairobi's population, and Kikuyu 46.5 percent. By 1956, the Kamba proportion had risen to 28 percent, and that of the Kikuyu had dropped to 22 percent.46
Most Kamba Mau Mau lived in Nairobi, and with the new influx, an important moment arrived. "Kenya Fears Mau Mau Has Won New Tribe," warned the Daily Telegraph on 14 May 1954. Other British newssheets confirmed the government's worry as Kamba gangs operated in Machakos and Kitui.47 As Mau Mau achieved military successes in Central Province, Kamba feared missing out on the benefits should Mau Mau succeed, and they joined the movement in increasing numbers. The process occurred to such an extent that Commander-in-Chief General Sir George Erskine became "very much against training further Africans in mobile armed operations," noting that, "What may be a loyal tribe today might easily become infected in the future and the risk is not worth while."48
Yet the final months of 1954- and the early ones of 1955- saw the decline of Mau Mau, and the consequent removal of the danger of Kamba joining the organization. The British reestablished control in the colony, based on military victories in Central Province. In addition, the government created "screening teams" in order to detect and excise Mau Mau from among the Kamba. The screening teams included "loyal" chiefs, as well as European personnel with experience living or working with Kamba. In September 1953, a screening team had begun operating in Nairobi, and in February 1954, the government set up a Kamba screening center at the Mau Mau Investigation Centre in Embakasi, in a successful attempt to control the movement of Kamba workers between Nairobi and Ukambani. These factors restricted the participation of Kamba in the physical violence of Mau Mau.
By 1955, government forces had regained firm control in Kenya. One part of the strategy to maintain that control was the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of Africans in detention camps and enclosed villages. The official government agenda concerning the camps involved "rehabilitating" the detainees, who were meant to confess their Mau Mau oaths. Detainees then passed through a network of progressively less secure camps known as the "Pipeline;" once they had demonstrated their loyalty, they were released to their home areas. Though Kikuyu made up the majority of Africans in the camps, the government also imprisoned a large number of Kamba.
During 1953 and 1954, the government imprisoned Kamba Mau Mau in many different camps, especially Manyani. But early in 1955, the government instituted a policy known as "segregation," in order to keep Kamba Mau Mau away from Kikuyu Mau Mau, leading to a separate system of camps in Ukambani.49 In February 1955, the government opened Kathonzweni Works Camp, followed by Thwake Works Camp, and then Kaasya "Open" Camp in February 1956. After processing at Embakasi, screeners sent Kamba to one of these three camps. They sent "Hardcore" or "Dangerous" detainees (classified as "Zl" or "Z2") to Thwake; "Suspect" or "Y" detainees to Kathonzweni; and finally those on "Probation"- "X" detainees- to Kaasya. Detainees moved through the Pipeline in sequence, before returning to their home villages under restriction orders.
It is difficult to produce an accurate estimate of the number of Kamba who entered the Kamba Pipeline. Thwake remained open for only eight months, during which time 206 prisoners were admitted.50 When the camp closed, the prisoners were transferred either to Kathonzweni or to AtM River. At the start of 1956, Kathonzweni had 427 detainees, which fell to 123 by the end of the year.51 Although no hard numbers exist for Kaasya, by the end of 1957, 547 Kamba had passed through the Pipeline to the villages. The total number incarcerated in the Kamba Pipeline thus appears lower than 1,000 individuals.
Yet from the available evidence it is clear that many Kamba Mau Mau, particularly the "hardcore," never reached the Kamba Pipeline in the first place. As noted, Thwake was open for less than a year, and many Kamba Mau Mau remained in the detention camp at Athi River or in other camps spread around Kenya. One informant, for instance, was a colonel in Mau Mau, and was detained for six years before his release in 1960. He carried out part of his sentence in a Nairobi prison, before his transfer to Langata Prison, and then finally to Hola, the camp for the most notorious, "unrepentant" Mau Mau.52 He did not pass through the Kamba Pipeline at any point. Others remained entirely outside the system in prisons or camps in Ukambani such as Machakos, Yatta, Kangundo, Mbooni, or Kilome. The detention of others took place at the office of their local chief.
In mid-1954, the governor of Kenya estimated that 8,000 Kamba had taken the Mau Mau oath. Documents declassified in 2006, including assorted daily and weekly intelligence reports from 1954 and 1955, reveal Kamba Mau Mau confessing their oaths to the tune of ten to twenty per report. Among other things, their confessions expose an extensive Kamba Mau Mau network in operation including a committee at Ngong that specialized in making home-made guns.53 It is frankly inconceivable that the government detained fewer than 1,000 Kamba Mau Mau given these statistics and the popularity of Mau Mau, particularly considering that camps in the Kamba Pipeline opened so late. Perhaps 3,000-4,000 Kamba spent time in detention, although in the absence of firm data, this must remain an extremely speculative estimate.
Records concerning Kamba detainees at Thwake are remarkable. A senior community development officer reported, "It has been stated by the Rehabilitation Staff of Athi River Detention Camp that the Kamba M.M. [Mau Mau] are as bad