Roundtable New Perspectives on Mau Mau

AHA Session 278
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 202 (Hynes Convention Center)
Caroline M. Elkins, Harvard University
Sana Aiyar, University of Wisconsin-Madison , Julie MacArthur, McGill University and Myles Osborne, University of Colorado at Boulder

Session Abstract

No topic in the history of sub-Saharan Africa has provoked more controversy, debate, and misunderstanding than the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, which took place during the 1950s.  To Kenya’s Europeans settlers at the time, it was an expression of all that was “savage” about Africans; to historians of the 1960s, it was a nationalist movement; to scholars of the twenty-first century, it showcases all that was wrong with colonial rule, from torture to imprisonment in concentration camps.  The fact that Mau Mau, as an organization, was banned until 2003 has meant that during the past half century its memory has been constantly contested. 

The majority of scholarship regarding the episode has focused on Mau Mau’s Kikuyu nature (the Kikuyu are Kenya’s most populous ethnic group and live in central Kenya; they were most involved in Mau Mau).  Yet scholars have ignored the important roles of other peoples, whose involvement in the Mau Mau episode reveals a far more complex picture.

The papers in this panel extend and develop our current knowledge of Mau Mau in several important ways.  Sana Aiyar is the first to study the role of the Indian community in the episode.  Typically dismissed simply as “sitting on the fence,” Aiyar’s work explains how Mau Mau divided the Indian community, causing a variety of political and other responses.  Some Indians sided with Mau Mau in the law courts, defending “terrorists” at trial, as well as for other ideological reasons.  Yet the Indian community also frequently bore the brunt of Mau Mau attacks, as Indians were perceived as representing wealth too long deprived to Africans.  Julie MacArthur considers the Luyia of western Kenya.  MacArthur demonstrates how a new generation of Luyia political leaders used the Mau Mau rebellion to unite the Luyia into a “regionally federated and territorial nation.”  They were able to become a united political force as they drew themselves in contrast to the Kikuyu, the enemies of the colonial state.  Myles Osborne examines the Kamba, close cousins to the Kikuyu, and living in eastern Kenya.  Deemed a “martial race” by the British, and making up a high proportion of the government forces tasked with defeating Mau Mau, Kamba chiefs played on British ethnic stereotypes to demand – and receive – vastly disproportionate funding from the administration in order to keep them from joining the movement.  Daniel Branch discusses the role of Mau Mau veterans during the rule of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta (1964-1978).  While scholars have addressed the memory of Mau Mau, Branch looks to the veterans themselves.  The veterans continued to act in union long after the end of the conflict, as highly visible participants in debates over land, development, and the notion of freedom in Kenya.

The papers presented here are the result of (at least) several years’ oral interviewing in Kenya, combined with extensive materials drawn from archives on three continents.  The roundtable will be of interest to anyone concerned with Mau Mau, colonialism, decolonization and independence in Africa, or ethnicity.

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