On the 20th of October 1952 Governor Evelyn Baring declared a State of Emergency in the colony of Kenya in response to the threat posed by the so-called Mau Mau uprising, an armed revolt by mainly Kikuyu and related ethnic groups that contested the injustices inflicted by the colonial regime. Whereas the British lifted the State of Emergency in 1960 after a tough military campaign, a legal manhunt, and the imposition of work camps, Mickie Mwanzia Koster and Nicholas K. Githuku argue in their respective books that a ‘Mau Mau mindset’ or ‘mentalité of struggle’ has persisted and remains ever-present in contemporary Kenya. While the former evinces this claim by discussing the transformation of the Mau Mau ritual of oathing through time, the latter perceives later movements, such as the Mungiki, Sabaot Land Defense Force or the Mombasa Republican Council, as reincarnations of the Mau Mau insofar as their underlying grievances and their disillusionment with the state are concerned. Both authors take an approach from below that centres on the aspirations of the ‘common’ people using archival data, such as transcripts of court cases, complaints and petitions, existing literature (Githuku), as well as interviews with former-Mau Mau and their descendants (Koster). In eight chapters, ‘Mau Mau Crucible of War’ guides the reader through the political history of Kenya starting from the creation of the East Africa Protectorate (the precursor of the Kenyan Colony) in 1895 up until the presidency of Mwai Kibaki (2002-2013). With the exception of the introductory chapter, each chapter describes in detail how the political and socio-economic configurations of the time frame under study contributed to the emergence, or the persistence, of a ‘mentalité of struggle’, or the state of mind of the aggrieved Kenyan population. Chapters Two and Three set the stage by explaining the onset of this ‘mentalité’, which arose from the deplorable living conditions of Africans under the colonial regime. Instead of recognizing the injustices underlying Mau Mau, Chapter Four documents how the British tried to smear the rebellion by demonizing the movement both at home and abroad as a ‘disease of the mind, a plague, a virulent infection and a sore that had to be cut out before it affected other loyal Africans in the region’ (p. 189). It was, therefore, the African elites sympathetic to the colonial regime that were co-opted to power with the subsequent advent of independence, rather than the Mau Mau terrorists/freedom fighters. The post-colonial state therefore arguably represents the interests protected and promoted during the latter years of the colonial regime. Gaining independence, Githuku consequently argues in Chapter Five, was a pyrrhic victory that left the poor poor. Before concluding (Chapter Eight), Chapters Six and Seven show how this post-colonial disillusionment continued under the governments of respectively Moi and Kibaki, and caused new waves of popular resistance in the form of insurgent movements (e.g. Mungiki), art (e.g. 2012 graffiti blitz in Nairobi), and online communities (e.g. Unga revolution). In contrast to Githuku’s chronological approach The Power of the Oath is structured thematically. It consists of two parts, each consisting of three chapters. The first part introduces the reader in the world of Mau Mau oathing, unveiling its roots in tradition and sketching its evolution through time. The second part examines how this evolution pushed oath takers to break taboos and adapt their traditions to the new social configurations and demands triggered by colonialism. In particular, it analyzes how oath taking, once a respected tradition, turned into an unlawful practice (Chapter Four); how it changed gender roles by affirming the role of women (Chapter Five); and how it became intertwined with the practice of purification – oath takers had to cleanse themselves from the sins they committed as Mau Mau combatants (Chapter Six). Despite the criminalization of Mau Mau oathing rituals, oathing has remained a common, although secret, practice particularly among the Kikuyu community (e.g. 1969 pledge of allegiance to Kenyatta; Mungiki oathing throughout the 1990 s and 2000 s). Although very distinct in terms of perspective, methodology, build-up, and size, the books show several similarities. First, they both share a long-term perspective (Githuku uses the concept of ‘longue durée view’) that situates Mau Mau well beyond 1952–1960: The movement, they argue, is rooted in traditions that predate colonialism, and continues to inspire calls to fight injustice, whatever the means or whoever the groups are involved. Both books also devote considerable space to describe the grievances experienced by Kenyans, and by the Kikuyu in particular, which justified Mau Mau and its derivatives. This is certainly true for the book by Githuku, whom considers these grievances to be the key to understanding Kenya today. Lastly, both books are concerned with the grassroots or common people, whom they give ample voice through the inclusion of snippets from, among others, complaints and petitions to the President, court cases, and, in the case of Koster, self-conducted interviews. The expressed views and perspectives, however, probably only represent the tip of the iceberg as many other Kenyans did not have the knowledge or means to undertake any type of action. While Koster and Githuku attempt to demonstrate that the grievances underlying the Mau Mau rebellion were not confined to the Kikuyu community, the former explicitly aims to show that Mau Mau was, more than a Kikuyu war, a nationalist struggle. Other ethnic groups, she argues, were also involved in the movement, including the Kamba, Embu and Meru. Although adding nuance on its ethnic representation, it seems unjustified to me to call Mau Mau a nationalist movement given the number of groups represented (in all, there are more than 40 ethnic groups in Kenya) and the geographical proximity and the cultural affinities between the Kikuyu, Kamba, Embu and Meru – as Koster notes herself. There have effectively been efforts by other ethnic groups, nevertheless, that have challenged the colonial regime and its successors based on similar concerns. Secondly, the strong grievance-perspective of both authors seems to leave no room for any discussion concerning opposition to Mau Mau, particularly among the Kikuyu ethnic group itself. Adding the perspective of the so-called ‘loyalists’, notably, would have been interesting. Moreover, both books could have gained from adding an insightful introduction on the make-up, aspirations, and actions of the Mau Mau. While the book by Koster does attempt to do so, the chapter is arguably rather chaotic and only provides bits and pieces. Readers unfamiliar with the subject may therefore at times feel to be left in the dark. A critical perspective on Mau Mau, furthermore, is largely absent. While lamenting the demonization by the British, both Koster and Githuku essentially refrain from discussing cruelties committed on the movement’s side. Rather than addressing a readership looking for an introduction to and an analysis of the Mau Mau movement, The Power of the Oath and Mau Mau Crucible of War target readers interested in (respectively) the practice of oathing and those who wish to deepen their knowledge on the grievances driving state contestation in Kenya. The former is a short read that offers interesting insights into the practice of oathing through first-hand testimonies, and is easily digestible. The latter book, on the other hand, demands time and concentration, but offers prospective readers a richly detailed analysis of the ways in which unresolved historical problems and injustices stemming from colonialism continue to haunt contemporary Kenya. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved
African Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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