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Book Review by Mukami Kamau

 

The autobiography, “Mau Mau from Within” provides vivid details of the peasant revolt that took over the then British Colony of Kenya in the early 1950’s. The book is chronologically written in a descriptive style telling of the life and times of the writer, Karari Njama, who was a participant and leader in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army.

Through the propaganda and lies of the colonial government, the Guerrilla Army was painted negatively, and the freedom fighters were given the name Mau Mau. The co-author of the autobiography, Donald L. Barnett was an American political anthropologist keen on understanding and revealing the tactics, political ideology, successes and failures of the peasant revolt in Kenya from 1952 to 1957.

Barnett interviewed Karari and seven other individuals including Karigo Muchai whose accounts are featured in the book. The co-author used different references such as Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya, H. L Lamberts’ Kikuyu Social and political Institutions, LSB Leakey’s Mau Mau & the Kikuyu and J. Middleton’s The Kikuyu and Kamba of Kenya. The preface of the book is befitting as it is written by Fred Kubai, Bildad Kaggia, Achieng Aneko (members of the Kapenguria Six) and Joseph Murumbi who was the second Vice President of independent Kenya.

The highlands of Kenya at the time were occupied by the British settlers with most peasants barely eking a living in the harsh conditions of unfertile lands in the colonial reserves that they were forced to live in. There was a wave of nationalism in the late 1940’s after the Second World War with many African worker associations and unions forming with the goal of lobbying for better wages and more freedoms and rights. Some associations were formed along ethnic lines (as this was the policy condoned by the colonial authorities) while others were multi-ethnic and occupational, overriding the ethnic or clan affiliations.

The author indirectly points out that class struggle was already manifesting in the colony as colonial-educated Africans regarded some of the African traditions as backward and inferior. This caused a rift between them and the illiterate peasants and workers who upheld the same customs and traditions as their forebearers.

The book features the Kikuyu community of Mt. Kenya region and neighbouring highlands as they were the most afflicted by the violent push of Africans into the Reserves that quickly became crowded and unsanitary. The rise of political associations such as the Young Kikuyu Association, Kikuyu Central Association and eventually the Kenya African Union led to the imposition of stricter laws by the government and to the capture of many nationalist leaders such as Harry Thuku and the Kapenguria Six.

The colonial government proceeded to hinder education for the Africans by implementing the Beecher Report that discouraged educational development of the young African population. It advocated for a maximum of three years of schooling after which the pupil would be pulled out of school so that he/she could be assimilated into the labour force in the white-owned farms. For the colonialists, too much education would empower the African too much, and it would also deny the white owned farms/homes the much needed cheap labour.

The increase of taxes such as poll tax and hut tax for Africans living in the reserves, as well as the Kipande system created devastating living conditions for them since they could not find enough land to farm. This increased the objective conditions for a peasant revolt.

Karari Njama is instrumental in providing intricate details of the activities of the Mau Mau, including the oathing activities that led to the uprising within the peasantry through organisations such as Gikuyu and Mumbi to the well-organised Kenya Defense Council led by Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi. During his teaching days at Muthiani School, Karari attended an oathing ceremony for Gikuyu and Mumbi society. He had also attended a KAU meeting that set the stage for his political awareness and consciousness. After a second oath while teaching and a year after the declaration of the emergency, he entered the forest to fight for the liberation of the Kenyan people. Karari Njama describes working with other notable leaders like General Stanley Mathenge of the Ituma Ndemi Army, General Macaria Kimemia, General Wariungi, General China heading the Meru, Embu and Ikamba Mathathi army, General Kimbo and General Kariba.

Karari Njama was called upon to join the warriors in the forest after it became evident that his activities in assisting the movement in organising and moving recruits into the forest may be discovered by home guards or the government. Taken in by Stanley Mathenge -Chairman of the movement- Karari is instrumental in the organising, planning and the keeping of records that leaders such as Dedan Kimathi saw fit to be kept for history and remembrance of the warriors who fought for the Land and Freedom of Kenyans.

The author clearly describes the Movements military organisation into camps from various districts in Central Kenya and the Rift Valley. He defines the roles that women played in the forest and the conflicts that arose by having them as part of the camp members. The conflicts that arise in involving women in the war seem to reflect the author’s opinion that women should only be left to nurture the next generation of fighters. This duty does not however preclude them from taking part in active combat.

Karari notes how many guerrillas were mistaken for Komerera (who engaged in criminal activities (banditry) even on peasants instead of carrying out tactfully planned raids on the settler). Karari brings out the organisational tactics and strategies used by the Movement to attack settler farms for food, destruction and acquiring of ammunition that would be instrumental for any army involved in a guerrilla war.

The book is a great historical piece that should be applauded for providing the truth about the uprising of the peasants and workers of the Kenya Colony, the difficulties faced by the guerrillas and the mistakes in strategy as well as the consequences of such decisions. It describes leadership during guerrilla warfare and the risk and impact of not having the masses conscious of the political goals and ideology of the revolution. The book is instrumental in understanding the great risk, bravery and determination that the Kenya Land and Freedom Army took in order to bring down the Imperialist power.

The book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the inner workings of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. It is indeed an honest and first hand treatise on the Maumau, from within.

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