The Kamba and Mau Mau: Ethnicity, Development, and Chiefship, 1952-1960*

By Osborne, Myles | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

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. …

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