Mau Mau: The Kenyan Terrorists of the 1950’s…Or were they?

The Mau Mau terrorised Kenya in the 1950’s, their long, dreadlocked hair and wild eyes sending citizens up and down the country and far beyond into a frenzy of fear. Medieval-style oathing ceremonies took place, enlisting the support of the Kikuyu, Kenya’s predominant ethnic group. Meanwhile, settlers across the British colony were hounded down and brutally murdered as the guerrillas demanded that their colonisers leave and return their land.

A character in my second novel, The Girl and the Sunbird, gets caught up in the horror of the Mau Mau so I had to read around this subject. Initially, I subscribed to the theory that the Mau Mau were the perpetrators of unspeakable evil. The stories of their crimes are well documented: innocent children slaughtered in their beds, whole villages burnt to the ground, ‘loyal’ staff who had been with their employers for decades only to take the oath and slaughter them.

I am not disputing that this happened and it is important to state that horrific crimes were undoubtedly committed by a number of radicalised Kikuyu. But if we fast forward more than half a century, 41,000 Kenyans, many of them who took the Mau Mau oath, have been demanding apologies and financial compensation from the British government. And what’s more, not only are large numbers of them winning their cases but huge sums to the heady combined figure of 19.9 million GBP are being meted out to the claimants.

So what is this all about? Were the Mau Mau not really terrorists? And why is Britain, all these years later. accepting the need to publicly apologise to vast numbers of elderly Kenyans?

Let’s take a quick look at some figures.

Number of European settlers killed during the 8 year period of Mau Mau unrest: 32

Number of Kenyans killed during the same period: 25,000 (According to David Anderson, professor of African Politics at Oxford University.)


In 1948, 1.5 million Kikuyu owned 2,000 square miles of land in Kenya.

In the same year, 30,000 settlers owned 12,000 square miles of land.

It is disingenuous to dwell on these figures for too long, for it lends nothing to the argument of whether the Mau Mau were truly terrorists. What is clear from the above figures is that Kenyans, not settlers were the overwhelming victims during the insurgency and the local populace had been slowly stripped of their land and rights over a number of years.

Colonialism is a sensitive subject and Britain, land of hope and glory, etiquette, good manners and fair play surely behaved in a dignified manner towards their subjects. One person I interviewed claimed that the British ‘never laid a finger on a Kikuyu’ during the uprising. But why is it that, over half a century after these events, we have William Hague acknowledging that Kenyans were subjected to horrific torture and a catalogue of other abuse (castration and rape to name just two) at the hands of the colonial administration if this didn’t really happen?

Judging by the elderly Kikuyu claimants who are winning their cases in courts of law, we need to really question just how honourably the British behaved in Kenya.

I don’t want to get too deeply into what exactly happened to the Kikuyu during Kenya’s period of intense unrest; it makes very unpalatable reading. But what is known is that over a million were herded into detention facilities, which Kenya’s attorney general at the time, Eric Griffith-Jones, described as ‘distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or communist Russia.’ Of course some were rebels, intent on causing harm, but a vast many more were civilians, simply caught up in the nightmare of collective Kikuyu punishment. Simon Myerson, QC for the claimants, states that cabinet ministers in London at the time were well aware of what was going on. ‘When the beaters and the torturers went to work,’ he said,  ‘a collective blind eye was turned.’ Not only that, but by the time of decolonisation (Kenya became an independent nation in 19 63), important records were destroyed.

One such man who spent over two years in a detention camp was celebrated Kikuyu sculptor, Edward Njenga. I interviewed him and whilst he painted a less than pleasant picture of his incarceration, he insisted he bears no grudge against the British and ‘regrets nothing’.

Edward Njenga

This may be so, but Edward is now well over 90 years of age (significantly less when the above photo was taken) and time, as we all know, can soften the edges of trauma.  His below sculpture speaks louder than any words possibly could.

Langata Mau Mau Detention Camp, sculpted in 1970, from what Edward describes as his photographic memory.

I am not a historian, I am a historical fiction writer. I read books and articles and I speak to people and my characters are born from my findings, following the path they want to take. All I can do is follow them. My character Maitho from The Girl and the Sunbird is subjected to horrific abuse both at the hands of radicalised Kikuyu and the British. It wasn’t easy to write about, but it was necessary.

So, were the Mau Mau really terrorists of 1950’s Kenya, those same kind of terrorists we fear today? Perhaps, yes. Many of their actions and crimes were abhorrent. But it is vital we remember that vast numbers were forced into oathing ceremonies: become a Mau Mau or be killed. What kind of a choice is that? And hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu were made scapegoats for a minority: men, women and children. They were herded indiscriminately into vast camps where they were subject to gross mistreatment and left to perish. All at the hands of the British.

Myerson, the aforementioned QC has said that ‘This is not a moral crusade … but that does not prevent anyone drawing the conclusion that what we – the United Kingdom and its government – did in Kenya during the emergency was wrong.’

This needs to give us pause for thought. As a race, we often say we must learn from history. But how many more communities continue to suffer collectively at our hands for the actions of a minority? How do we truly learn from this and change this narrative?

Kenyan campaigners outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Please tweet me any pictures or stories you may have on the Mau Mau to @bexstonehill and share this article through your social media networks.


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