By Washington Osiro,
This article is one in a series I am culling from a review of books about Kenya’s pre-independence history. The series was prompted by Item #32 in the Major Recommendation section of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) draft. Recommendation #32(c) seeks to “commission an Official History of Kenya whose production will be led by an Office of the Historian resident in the National Archives. This history should go back 1000 years…..” This particular one is excerpted from one of Harvard University’s Assistant Professor of History Caroline Elkins’ two highly recommended and well-researched books on the British Government’s response to the Mau Mau – Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.
(For those who are interested, the other one is Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.)
Based on feedback when the original article was first published and on the Contents pages of either book, the two ARE identical but packaged for different markets.
That aside, I started reading Britain’s Gulag beginning with Chapter Three – Screening – because I was drawn to the chapter’s grainy black-n-white image of three hooded loyalist screeners along with its opening paragraph. The eight-lined introduction portends harrowing tales of the horrific violence visited on the Kikuyu, first by the British, then by the African loyalists. This screening-induced mistreatment of the Kikuyu set the stage for protracted resistance against the colonialists and symbolized by the Mau Mau Movement.
According to Elkins, “Screening was the preferred term for interrogation, to get information from a Mau Mau suspect….and persuade him or her to confess Mau Mau affiliation.” She adds that the experience is the one word that Kikuyus hold synonymous with colonialism. Elkins also offers that aside from the fact that there is no word in Kikuyu or Swahili that “captures” the meaning of the word “Screening,” the process was so traumatic that “Kikuyu men and women never translate/d ‘screening’ into their language….” preferring instead to “enunciate the English word ‘screening’ in a slow, deliberate, colonial British accent.”
“Screening” dehumanized the Kikuyu (and Africans in general). The violence and dehumanization combined with the humiliation occasioned by the constant reminder that their oppressors (Britain) occupied acres of choice land previously belonging to them. Adding insult to injury, the white occupiers forced the rightful owners of the land, the Kikuyu, to tend this land – for free. Given this piling on, it is unsurprising that the ire the Mau Mau felt “was directed at both the white and black faces of British colonial rule, notably the settlers…..the colonial-appointed chiefs…..and their followers.” The historian points out that the colonial-appointed chiefs and their acolytes were called “loyalists.” She writes that these men also went on to become “…..enormously wealthy and powerful at the expense of their fellow Kikuyu…..(and)…..oversee vast portions of the Kikuyu reserves with all the inherent potential for self-aggrandizement.”
Ms. Elkins concludes thus:
“Loyalist was a term for any Kikuyu who would actively fight on the side of the British government against the Mau Mau movement and who in return would be granted privileges that would far outweigh anything that previously had been granted to the chiefly community during the years leading up to the war.”
As evidenced by the disparities in wealth and land ownership among Kenyans, loyalists and their progenies benefited from their “…..loyalty to the colony and the Crown with larger more fertile parcels of land…..superior seeds, licenses to conduct internal trade, and cheap labor.”
On a side but related note, in NWA’s controversial 1988 rap song “F$#% tha Police,” O’Shea Jackson, better known as “Ice Cube,” offers a take on the darkness of systemic abuse suffered by African American men as meted out by America’s law enforcement personnel – black AND white. “Cube’s” narration uncannily dovetails with Caroline’s write-up about the interaction between Kenya’s white colonialists, their black loyalists, and the duo’s mostly Kikuyu victims – in the early 1950s:
“But don’t let it be a black and a white one. ’Cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top Black police showin’ out for the white cop.” – NWA
“There was, however, a callousness in the behavior of the white and black interrogators that exceeded the mere objectives of war…..and took perverse pleasure in the various physical assaults on Mau Mau suspects.” (Elkins, p76)
The Harvard professor also pours cold water onto the myth that Jomo Kenyatta was a Mau Mau.
The reality is that, like Donald Trump, Kenyatta was or became the symbol of the grievances a group, the Kikuyu (and Kenyans in general), had against the British. However, the man did little, if any of the heavy liftings in the fight against the colonialists. She writes that it was “a group of several thousand Kikuyu squatters who had been forced to leave the White Highlands and resettle in…..Olenguruone” who mobilized into the resistance that would spawn the Mau Mau.
Another observation by Elkins provides additional information about the Mau Mau and oathing.
While Jeff Koinange (Koinange-wa-Mbiyu: Mau Mau’s Misunderstood Leader) characterized the Mau Mau movement as being “less about rituals and oaths and more about freedom and land rights and a people’s desire to rise……” against injustice, Caroline Elkins contextualizes the movement by adding how it combined the Kikuyu’s agitation for freedom and land rights with a radicalized version of the tribe’s tradition – Oathing.
Britain’s Gulag argues that the radicalization of this cultural tradition was brought on by yet another foreboding eviction of Kikuyus, this time from the settlement area of Olenguruone (present-day Nakuru County) circa 1943. This humiliation of the community is credited with “radicalizing the traditional Kikuyu practice of oathing” beyond its previous goal of forging communal “solidarity during times of war or internal strife” and morally binding them together to face the challenge. The book further argues that the constant land-grab (by the colonialists and their African loyalists) compelled the Kikuyu to “administer oaths not only to men but to women and children….in a collective effort to fight the injustices of the British rule.” And as was wont to happen, (African) politicians quickly recognized oathing’s potential for galvanizing grassroots support and, in some cases, its potential for outright demagoguery.
While this article is a short summary of Caroline Elkins’ Britain’s Gulag that focuses on Chapter Three, what is unmistakable in the brief write-up is the sad irony: that almost seventy years later, the sentiment that “(F)or the Kikuyu masses, senior chiefs like…..Waruhiu (and fellow loyalists) represented everything corrupt about Britain’s civilizing mission” still holds true, if not in its entirety then in principle.
The Harvard historian refers to men such as Waruhiu, Njiiri, other loyalists, along with “lesser chiefs and headmen, and their coteries” as the “backbone” of Britain’s brutal efforts to colonize Kenya. She adds the rather obvious fact – that the loyalists “capitalized on the opportunities that came with the power” colonialism afforded them.
One has to wonder what has changed since then.