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

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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.

Miyonga Photo Max Pinckers 2
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.