Colonial Afterlives: Land and the Emotional History of the Mau Mau War



The Mau Mau uprising remains one of the key early liberation movements against European colonialism on the African continent. Yet, as Rose Miyonga describes in this text, the liberated Kenyan land has never been redistributed equally and today, it continues to bear the colonial scars and the violence these scars still contain. Her text is generously accompanied with photographs by Max Pinckers.

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The spot where Dedan Kimathi was shot in the leg and arrested. It is believed that the blood that soaked into the soil created an infertile patch of land where no tea has grown since. Kahigaini, Tetu, Nyeri County, 2015. / Photo from the series Unhistories. Copyright Max Pinckers/Michiel Burger.

It is 1963, and Kenya has become an independent nation after over half a century of British colonial rule, and a brutal guerrilla war. As the British flag is lowered and the flag of the nascent Kenyan nation raised, cheers ring out across the land. The celebrations last for weeks, a wave of hope and euphoria, shared by elite dignitaries in the capital city and rural peasants alike. “At last,” they sigh, “We are finally free,” they cheer. “Uhuru! Uhuru! Uhuru!” [“Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” in Swahili]. This is the story we want to hear. The story of justice and African sovereignty finally prevailing, of land returning to its rightful owners and peace and freedom being installed: the restoration of a utopian pre-colonial past. It’s the story I wish I could tell, and one that some historians have tried to tell, but the truth is more complicated and harder to swallow. It is a history of hope and betrayal, restoration and disillusionment. Like all histories of colonialism and decolonization, the story of the Mau Mau war and the brutal end of British imperial rule in Kenya is a story of land. It is a story of displacement, of loss, and, for some, of restoration. The journey from settler colony to “land back” is neither simple nor linear, and the afterlives of colonial violence continue to infuse the land with contested histories that penetrate the most intimate aspects of daily life.

Different people will give you different dates for the beginning of the Mau Mau war. Some will tell you that it begins on October 20, 1952, when the British Colonial Office declares a State of Emergency in Kenya in response to the growing threat of the Mau Mau movement, a guerrilla group that had installed itself in the forests of the Kenyan highlands. Others will tell you that it begins a decade earlier, in 1944, when the Kenyan African Union (KAU) was founded to launch a unified constitutional nationalist campaign for African self-rule in Kenya. Some people will tell you that the war begins when people begin to organize clandestine meetings in homes and fields in the 1930s across central Kenya to discuss their grievances at the hands of white settlers. They might begin with a story about the Kikuyu peasant farmers in the “White Highlands” and the struggles of these “squatters” to eke out a living on white settler farms through active resistance that culminated in a peasant uprising called Mau Mau. These different narratives speak to the diverse experiences of the end of British imperial rule in Kenya, and this plurality of experience is key to the decolonization process as well. However, the point of confluence for all these narratives is land. Everyone wanted it. Many wanted it back. Many felt they had lost land that was rightfully theirs, and with that loss of land came a whole host of other losses: the loss of freedom, of tradition and connection to the past, of an imagined future. The interplay between the powerful connection to and severing from the land would come to define the politics of post-colonial Kenya.

These different narratives speak to the diverse experiences of the end of British imperial rule in Kenya, and this plurality of experience is key to the decolonization process as well. However, the point of confluence for all these narratives is land.

Today, the Mau Mau war is most infamous for the vicious counterinsurgency carried out by the British government. Shocked by the organized and effective strategies of the Mau Mau militia, the Colonial Office launched an all-out war against the movement in everything but name, maintaining all the while that it was a State of Emergency masterminded by a few bad seeds and not a legitimate campaign for soil sovereignty. One of the colonial government’s most devastating and effective strategies involved enlisting Africans, often from the same communities as Mau Mau members, to join the “loyalist” cause as “Home Guards,” and defend the colonial state. At even the most conservative estimates, tens of thousands of people (combatants and civilians) were killed, mainly members of the Kikuyu ethnic group from central Kenya who made up the majority of Mau Mau members, but also Meru, Embu, Luo, Maasai, and Kenyan Indians from across the country. Hundreds of thousands were violently tortured and corralled into concentration camps and fortified villages, as people were put through a system of “rehabilitation” known as “the Pipeline,” ostensibly designed to erase Mau Mau from the hearts and minds of Kikuyu people and convert them into co-operative colonial subjects. Those who were believed to be Mau Mau members had their land seized, and this land sometimes awarded to Africans seen as loyal to the British cause. Thus, in keeping with the wider history of colonialism in Kenya, the story of the Mau Mau War is a story of displacement, of family separation, and of separation from a sense of homeland. By 1957, after the capture and execution of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, the war was officially over: the British and their allies had won the military battle. By 1959, after the revelations about the horrors of the Hola Camp massacre—when 11 detainees were clubbed to death by guards and scores were injured—shocked the world, the writing was on the wall for the Pipeline system, and for British rule in Kenya. Detention camps were closed; independence was nigh.

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Mass grave, Githambo, Murang’a County, 2015. / Photo from the series Unhistories. Copyright Max Pinckers/Michiel Burger.

This is where some people would end the story. The colonial rulers were vanquished, the fight for freedom had prevailed. However, the end of the war was in many ways the beginning of the story.

Many prisoners returned to find the homes they had left were no longer theirs—many did not return at all. As a historian, my research looks at what happened next, at the afterlives of the Mau Mau war, and, in a sense, of the entire experience of British colonialism in Kenya. I am interested in how and where the histories and memories of the past have permeated daily life since the end of imperial rule. Where are the scars and how well have they healed? Where are the bodies buried? In the context of the Mau Mau war, this latter question is a literal one. Many victims of mass violence were buried in unmarked graves, their bodies never returned to their families, or to their “own” land. On a political level, the anticipated land redistribution policies were never enacted.

The Mau Mau movement convened under the slogan ithaka na wiathi, often translated literally as “land and freedom” but perhaps, as historian John Lonsdale notes, better understood as meaning “self-mastery through land.” This was the movement’s primary concern throughout the 1950s, and, for many, there was a sense that independence would spell the start of a new era of equitable land rights under their definition of just distribution. However, the incumbent president Jomo Kenyatta rejected the proposal that land could be given freely to Mau Mau veterans, or indeed any Kenyan citizen as “utter chaos and total injustice.” Instead, land was to be purchased from the government. Those who had money could buy the land vacated by white settlers who chose to leave Kenya. Some white settlers chose to retain their land, and, to this day, central Kenya is spotted with huge European-owned farms and estates. This land policy, of course, reinforced existing inequalities within the Kenyan population, and tended to privilege families and individuals who had allied themselves with the British during the Mau Mau War. Those who had been imprisoned or fighting a guerrilla war in the forests had not benefited from regular income, while some of those who collaborated with British counterinsurgency efforts had been able to accumulate wealth during that same period, leaving an obvious inequity around who was able to purchase land and enjoy the freedom and self-mastery this would facilitate, which fell along lines of Mau Mau war allegiances.

Furthermore, a mishandling of Mau Mau memories in general saw the post-colonial government carefully police and curate and public discussion of the war. On their departure, the British carried out ‘Operation Legacy’, which destroyed the majority of archival evidence pertaining to their conduct during the Mau Mau war. What fragments did remain were exported to a secret Foreign Commonwealth Archive in the United Kingdom, where they lay buried for decades, until Mau Mau veterans sued the British government in 2011. At the same time, the Kenyan government launched a selective amnesia campaign, encouraging Kenyans to “forgive and forget” everything that happened in the past and focus on a nationalist future fueled by industrial development. These joint campaigns were effective and long-lasting. Growing up in Kenya in the early 2000s, my parents would still talk of the war in hushed tones, only ever hinting at the terrors that my step-father’s family had endured during their years in forced villages and internment camps.

The combination of a disappointingly inequitable redistribution of land after independence coupled with a selective amnesia around public remembering left many of the people who had taken up arms under Mau Mau in a depressingly similar position to the situation they had been in during the late years of settler colonialism: living on small, precarious scraps of land, and feeling disillusioned and unheard by the political elite. In this context, my research is interested in where land and memory meet. Memories of Mau Mau have lived in the contours of the land, and land became a container for the histories of the war that were marginalized by public culture, and a center for their grievances. Last year, on a research trip in Nyeri, a region marked by particularly fierce insurgency and counterinsurgency, one veteran led me to a field close to her home, where a few children were kicking a battered ball around. She told me that this had once been a trench, which she and other women from her village had been forced to dig. This digging, she remembers, served two purposes. Firstly, it created a physical barrier to sever the lines of communication between the women living in forced villages and the men out hiding in the forest, who relied on these women for food, supplies and intelligence. Secondly, it was a form of back- and spirit-breaking labor, physically and emotionally exhausting, and designed to be so in order to quash rebellious aspirations. This trench, one research participant told me, had been filled in by members of the local community, and local children had adopted it into a football field. To the unknowing eye, this is a small, muddy patch of land with sticks and marking goalposts. Perhaps there is a little less grass and undergrowth than the surrounding areas. Perhaps the ground slopes a little to the left from where we are standing. “I used to look at the trench and remember how we suffered,” she told me. “Now, I see our grandchildren playing here and I feel happy.” Thus, the land has become not only a space for remembering the pain and betrayals of the past, but also for cultivating a communal, intergenerational sense of hope and renewal. It is the quotidian nature of such sites that makes them so powerful.

Just as the Mau Mau war and the system of British colonialism penetrated the most intimate aspects of daily life, it is in the sites of daily life that they are remembered. Far from the political centers, communities created their own memorial sites, turning the scars of colonial violence into spaces of reflection and regeneration. This is particularly potent since so many of those who died in the war were buried in unmarked mass graves, and their surviving relatives were therefore not able to seek healing and renewal at their gravesites. Land restitution may not have happened on a national level, but on a communal level, survivors found ways to seek a sense of justice and healing through the land.

Land restitution may not have happened on a national level, but on a communal level, survivors found ways to seek a sense of justice and healing through the land.

This phenomenon is at the forefront of the Unhistories photography project, which looks to redress the imbalances of what remains of the decimated colonial archive by producing photographs in collaboration with Mau Mau veterans. One powerful series presents an image of a lush meadow. Only the caption betrays the fact that this fertile land is a mass grave site. It was produced by Geoffrey Nderitu, who inherited this land from his father, in collaboration with Belgian photographer Max Pinkers. There are three other photographs in the series, all of which depict Nderitu on the site of the mass grave. In one image, Nderitu sits directly on the red soil, with a human jaw in his hand, and the mud-caked remains of a radius bone laid across his own bare forearm, holding a watch tenderly over the two wrists: his own, and that of the skeleton. Nderitu is the guardian of this land, and with that comes a responsibility to the bodies buried beneath it. The mass grave is not abandoned, but enlivened by the custodianship of new generations, engaged in continuous dialogue with the past. In my own interviews with survivors of the Mau Mau war, these unburied bodies come up as well. Sometimes, perhaps putting too much faith in the power of the historian, interview participants ask me to help them find the bodies of their dead, or to support them in making land claims to the government. After the end of the war, sons did not come home, land was not returned, the bodies that lay in unmarked graves were never identified and returned. The glorious homecoming that was imagined has yet to come. And some people are still waiting for it, dreaming of it, imagining it into the future. These land claims and grievances become a way for them, and for us all, to think about the complex legacies of colonialism, and the failure of the post-colonial state to address them.

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The Colonial executioner’s residence at former Mweru Works Camp, now Mweru High School, Mukurwe-ini, Nyeri County, 2015. / Photo from the series Unhistories. Copyright Max Pinckers/Michiel Burger.

The question of what to do with the ruins that empire leaves behind is also a key dimension to this story. After the concentration camps were closed and the majority of white settlers vacated the farms in the central highlands, the land became a container for the physical structures of the colonial past. Sometimes the physical structures left behind were repurposed, as homes, as schools or even as prisons. And sometimes they were left to ruin, returned to the land. In both cases, there was an afterlife to the experience of Mau Mau and of colonialism more generally that was tangled up in the land. I visited one man, a retired Kikuyu school teacher, who had bought a white settler’s house after independence, and now lives there with his wife. Several of his children and grandchildren live on the same compound, and they have a small farm. “We call it the White Highlands because that is what they called it in the times of Mau Mau,” my host tells me. “But we have reclaimed it now, the house and the land.” This speaks to the ways that, where people were able to afford to buy land after independence, this could be part of a reclamation, a repurposing of the ruins of empire, into a new, optimistic future. For the winners of Kenyatta’s land policy, therefore, the land they bought, and the buildings they held could be part of a transformative healing process. On the other side of the spectrum, lie the buildings left to ruin. The decades since these buildings were used as torture chambers, the land has begun to swallow them up. Walls crumble, covered in lichen. Grass pokes out of cracked window panes. Doors which were once locked shut to conceal the worst acts of violence turn to rot and hang open. Without need for any human intervention, the land is in its own process of regeneration, and of expelling the ghosts of Kenya’s colonial past. Thus, whether by intentional human design or simple ecological reality, the land that was and continues to be the site of conflict is also the site of reclamation and regeneration.

The Mau Mau movement was always about land. One woman I spoke to, who was a member of Mau Mau’s civil wing in Nairobi, says that she saw herself as part of the mission to “recover the soil.” At a time, she tells me, she and her sisters would take handfuls of the soil back to the city with them after they visited Murang’a, the area of rural Kenya where they had been born to remind them what they were working for. For them, land was not just an economic resource to be possessed, but as a communal repository for tradition, and the fertile soil for an imagined future. It held, and continues to hold, an emotional pull. It represents the feelings of loss, pain and disconnection experienced by many through colonial oppression, the violence of war and the betrayals of Kenya’s post-independence governments. And it simultaneously connects us to feelings of hope, justice, and renewal. It is a site of negotiation, a container for memory and a conveyor of history, should we choose to listen to the stories held within the landscape. ■