Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority, and Narration

By Berman, Bruce J. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority, and Narration


Berman, Bruce J., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority, and Narration. Edited by E.S. Atieno Odhiambo and John Lonsdale. Athens: Ohio University Press; Oxford: James Currey; Nairobi: EAEP, 2003. Pp. xiv, 306. $49.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

After more than half a century, the academic and political interest in Mau Mau shows no sign of slackening. The book reviewed here was conceived to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the State of Emergency in Kenya in October 1952 and provides a useful review of the continuing vitality and interest of Mau Mau scholarship. Four of the chapters focus on the character of Mau Mau as a political movement, particularly its social and cultural origins in Kikuyu society, the concepts and ideas debated in its internal politics, and the practices of the forest fighters. Another four chapters deal with the British conduct of the war against Mau Mau and perceptions of it in British popular culture. Finally, four chapters focus on Mau Mau and contests of memory in contemporary Kenyan politics.

The more nuanced and empirically grounded analyses of Mau Mau during the past fifteen years combine class, gender, and culture into an explanation focused on the conflicts in Kikuyu society produced by colonialism and modernity that John Lonsdale has termed "moral ethnicity." His chapter and that by Derek Peterson focus on the origins of Mau Mau in the thwarted aspirations of Kikuyu women and young men unable to achieve land-holding civic virtue or wiathi in an increasingly class-divided society. The sense of domestic desperation, household conflict, and moral unease, in Londale's memorable phrase, "detonated public violence." They also explore Mau Mau's attempts to articulate an alternative legitimate authority that challenged both wealthy chiefs and elders and the colonial state. Peterson also shows how the Mau Mau forces in the forests debated the basis of a new state and citizenship, thinking of themselves in the concepts of Kikuyu historiography as a new generation of irungu or "straighteners" of a corrupted social order; ultimately this too foundered on the conflicts between the educated and uneducated among them.

Peterson and Cristiana Pugliese also analyze the remarkable degree to which Mau Mau was grounded in literacy and textuality, developing its ideas first in the curriculum and organization of the independent schools movement that started in the 1930s (Peterson), and after 1945 in vernacular journalism, pamphleteering, and the political songs of the Mau Mau hymnbooks (Pugliese). The latter also shows the internal differences of these texts between writers like the conservative Henry Muoria, who proclaimed Kikuyu superiority, and the more radical Gakaara wa Wanjau, who spoke for a more inclusive populist struggle, as well as the gulf that divided both of them as members of an educated and literate elite from the poor and uneducated.

In the volume's most unusual chapter, Kennell Jackson discusses Mau Mau organization and survival craft in the forest, shows how their ability to hide from the security forces prolonged the struggle, and speculates whether this led the British to greater concessions to African nationalism than they intended. The answer to this, in the negative, however, is given in the chapters by David Percox, David Anderson, and Caroline Elkins. Percox traces the development of the security and intelligence apparatus of the colonial state from 1945 on, its use in the suppression of Mau Mau and the retaking of control of Kikuyu society, the ultimately failed attempt to turn Kenya into the principal British base east of Suez, and the final irony of its deployment to protect the Kenyatta regime after independence. What is striking is the continuous British sense of insecurity and fear of disorder that he documents from the beginning of Mau Mau through the Emergency, to the threat of a Mau Mau resurgence in the late 1950s and apprehension over the possibility of ethnic civil war in the conflicts over regionalism at the moment of independence. …

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