Differing Perspectives on Mau Mau

By Imperato, Pascal James | African Studies Review, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Differing Perspectives on Mau Mau


Imperato, Pascal James, African Studies Review


DIFFERING PERSPECTIVES ON MAU MAU

Caroline Elkins. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya. New York: Henry Holt, 2005. xvi + 475 pp. Maps. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $27.50. Cloth.

David Anderson. Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. ix + 406 pp. Maps. Tables. Photographs. Notes. Glossary. Chronology. Index. $29.95. Cloth.

David Lovatt Smith. Kenya, the Kikuyu and Mau Mau. Eastbourne: Anthony Rowe Ltd., 2005. 358 pp. Map. Photographs. Notes. Appendixes. Index. £18.00. Paper.

Historians have long viewed Mau Mau as both a nationalist movement and a civil war between those who joined its ranks and the Kikuyu who refused to join for a variety of reasons. These included adherence to Christianity, employment in the colonial administration, revulsion with the content of oathing ceremonies, and rejection of insensate killing and violence. The preponderance of evidence suggests that some one hundred whites, eighteen hundred Africans, and twelve thousand Mau Man adherents died during the slightly more than seven years of the Emergency, which lasted from October 21, 1952, until January 12, 1960. Some eighty thousand people (mostly Kikuyu), or 1 percent of Kenya's then eight million population, were held in detention for varying periods of time, and 1,090 men were hanged for various crimes related to Mau Man activities.

The importance of Man Mau to the decolonization process in Kenya and its unique and complex characteristics ensure that it will continue to be examined by historians, political scientists, and sociologists. Each generation brings to endeavors of this kind the intellectual influences that have shaped its critical thinking and attitudes toward the certitude of received knowledge. It is thus not only history that can be reexplored in the future, but also how scholars of past generations have interpreted the forces that shaped it.

Under the influence of the New Left, some historians of the 1970s made efforts to bring into their historical narratives those who had previously been excluded, including women and minorities. As Robert J. Norrell has observed, "Influenced by the counterculuiral influences of the '60s, those practicing this 'new history' often dismissed old history as biased in favor of white, male elites in the west, and tended to celebrate those forgotten people without subjecting them to the same tough-minded criticism that they were applying to the old elites" (Chronicle of Higher Education, March 11, 2005). In the 1980s, New Left countercultural scholars found a compatible intellectual harbor in postmodern thought, and especially in Jacques Derrida's grand theory of deconstruction. The net effect of this was replacement of carefully reasoned objectivity with strident explicitness and a tendency toward intellectual exhibitionism. Taken to its extreme, deconstruction is forged in a hermeneutics of suspicion and antifoundationalism and denies the objectivity of any reality. Instead, relativism replaces objectivity and is driven by perspectives heavily textured by gender, class, ethnicity, or race. In the view of some postmodern thinkers, the elusive nature of objective truth gives license to a deconstruction of received knowledge, varying interpretations of historical evidence, and the need to create revisionist narratives framed by antifoundationalism.

The influence of these powerful intellectual forces is evident in two of the books under review here: Caroline Elkins's Imperial Reckoning and David Anderson's Histories of the Hanged. For the benefit of American audiences, the former has been purged of its hyperbolic British title: Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. One does not have to read many pages of this volume to detect that there is an stronger influence at work here than that of postmodern deconstruction, although in order to understand it fully one must examine ex parte evidence nowhere divulged by the author in her book.

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