Mau Mau Essay, Research Paper
The Discontent of the Kikuyu
In 1942, Macmillan had recognised that a serious peasant revolt was inevitable within ten years unless the settlers were ditched or bought out of the White Highlands and replaced by Kikuyu peasants organised in collective farms Time was running out.
As foreshadowed above the post WWII era, if not changed, was leading toward a massive Kikuyu revolt. During the 1930s and 40s, extensive land reforms and changes throughout the colony plagued the Kikuyu farmers. It was estimated in 1944 that all of the Africans in Kenya were crowded into 30 million acres, while 1,890 Europeans had 11 million acres, and only cultivated half a million. The Kikuyu reserves were over populated, over cultivated and over grazed land, and there was extensive over-crowding and unemployment in Nairobi. There was no suitable place for an African native to settle and earn a living. Time was running out, as we will see the squatters and peasants that occupied the reserves and the alienated people of the city would no longer stand for the exploitations of their labor and land by the colonial powers. It is these actions taken by the reservist, squatters and city people and they helped lay the foundational beliefs of the Mau Mau.
The Reservist and Squatters
As early as the 1930s, the colonial government became concerned with the state of the land on the Kikuyu reserves. Erosion and over production left the soil in incredibly poor condition. Yet, throughout the duration of WWII the Kikuyu farmers were encouraged to maximize production for the good of economy of the colony and for the troops. As David Thourp says, “To abandon settler farming and to rely upon the peasant option . . . had appeared to be too big a risk. Thus the conflict was set.” Either the peasants or the settlers had to be given the favor of the government, and in this instance, it was the settlers that won.
The government’s reconciliation with the peasants that occupied the reserves was to allot them with around eight to twelve acres per family. With the acreage, restrictions on cultivation and land usage were also placed; only one to two acres could actually be cultivated at anytime, there was a limit to the amount of cattle and sheep they could own, and there was compulsory labor to help terrace the communal reserve land. These government restrictions did not allow the people living on reserves to produce enough of a surplus to supplement their income nor could the gain from the raising of livestock. The mandatory work on terracing the reserves caused problems because most of the workers never saw any return from their labor.
These factors combined with corruption of power on the local level caused great dissatisfaction with the system. On the local level, government appointed chiefs exploited their power and favored their supporters. Many chiefs were only concerned with producing the most terraces for the agriculture campaign, and therefore looking good in the eyes of the government. They did not try to further the plight of their reserve; they only looked for ways to gain power.
The squatters encountered similar problems with the governmental restrictions. In 1940, the Colonial Office gave the settlers’ District Councils jurisdiction over their communities of squatters. At the end of the war – after many settlers had returned to their farms – the Councils immediately enforced measures that limited the squatters to only one of two acres of cultivation per family and restricted the number of animals in their herds to ten sheep or goats, no cattle. Quickly, as with the reserves, incomes dropped. The Labour Department estimated that in the Naivasha District Area that the income per squatter family for both livestock and farming fell from 1,400 shillings in 1942 to less than 400 shillings in 1946.
The squatters did not have much of a choice in what to do. They could return to the over crowed reserves or move into Nairobi and be landless. Neither of these two seemed to be a viable option for most squatters. Yet, the government forced many to return to the reserves. In 1946, after an act of protest when the squatters refused to reattest, over 3,000 were forced to leave the White Highlands. These displaced squatters flocked to the reserves; this compounded the problems already faced there.
With masses of natives frustrated and angry with the colonial government, feelings of militancy began to spread. The African settlement of Olenguruone exemplifies this spread in relation to government actions. “Olenguruone provide a rallying point for all disgruntle Kikuyu. . . for all were seeking ways and means of dealing with colonial oppression and, ultimately, colonial rule.”
Olenguruone was caught in the thick of the official post WWII obsession with agriculture improvement and soil conservation on African reserves. They were subject to a set of similar exacerbating restrictions on both cultivation and grazing. However, an important difference was that Olenguruone land was incredibly steep and densely wooded with bamboo and underbrush, and the weather was erratic and could be violent. While eight acres still was not much in the Central Province it seemed to be even less in Olenguruone.
It was at Olenguruone that the idea of taking oaths against the government, to unity the people together, began to gain momentum. Traditional only Kikuyu men took oaths, but this time men, women and children all joined in the act. People visiting Olenguruone returned to their reserves and spread to oath. This oath of solidarity was the ideological cement that brought together different reserves in the quest for their own land and freedom.
One of the main themes we see emerge from the reserves and squatter communities changing politicization. There is a movement away from the more elitist groups such as the Kenya African Union and the Kikuyu Central Association, and a progression towards off shoots of the Forty Group from Nairobi, a much more militant group. Thus became the siding of the poor peasant and the alienated Nairobi work, in the more militant group.
Discontent in Nairobi
The Africans suffered different problem in Nairobi than their counterparts in the country. Here they were plagued by natal alienation, lack of housing or poor shelter when it was available and tremendous rates of unemployment. These are but a few of the problems faced in the city, and we will see how these helped in bring together a united Kikuyu identity and expanded the ideological core of the Mau Mau.
In 1947 in the government estimated that the African areas of the city were housing 28 percent more people than they were suppose to contain. This figure might not even express the true problem because it did not figure in illegal residence and vagrants. Since the colonial governments objective was to convert these people into an industrial labor force the government tried to make concessions with the industries to either raise the wages of workers or to build them adequate housing. However, Kenyan industry was in its infancy, the government did not wish to cripple the industrial companies by forcing the to increase wages or build houses, so the problem never found a satisfactory solution.
In an effort of “de-tribalization” on part of the colonial government, they tried to remove the Kikuyu from their traditional social and political relationships. Rather than keeping connections with chiefs and other traditional leaders – as on the reserves – within Nairobi the government placed all the control in the European dominated Municipal Courts. They were not concerned with the Africans problems as a whole, but were “interested in the locations when African discontent or crime threatened to spill over into the European business area or suburbs.”
With a police ratio of one to 1,000 African inhabitants, other forms of social domination soon began to form. Street gangs quickly took over power in the African vicinities of the city, and soon their ideas spread to the reserves and squatter communities. A prominent gang in Nairobi was the Forty Group. The Forty Group was not just a criminal street gang; rather, they were linked with political organizations within the area and to those on reserves. They were an emerging political group that had ideas that are more aggressive then the traditional associations.
In March of 1950, when the government began festivities to celebrate Nairobi becoming a city, Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia arranged a massive demonstration. The demonstration took the form of a general strike, nearly 3,000 African inhabitants went on strike to first day. By the sixth day 75 and 44 percent of the Public Works Department and the Municipal Cleansing Department respectively had joined the strike. After the strike conditions did not improve, over 2,000 people were dismissed from their jobs – forced to join the unemployed in the life of vagrancy and petty crime. But, it did help in form a political base for militant dissenters and it help create a synthesis of ideas not only among Kikuyu in Nairobi but throughout all of Kenya.
Conclusion: The rise of Mau Mau ideology
The start of political disturbance, which resulted in the Mau Mau Rebellion, stemmed from these problems, in the 1930s and 1940s, with British colonialism. Over-crowding, labor exploitation and agriculture restrictions set off the backlash within Kikuyu reserves and squatter communities. Within Nairobi poor standard of living coupled with over crowding and unemployment brought about the general strike and the discontentment felt there. “[T]he rural radical formed an alliance with the urban activist who wanted not to be incorporated into the colonial state but to destroy it.” These powerful feeling merged among the Kikuyu people to help in the creation on the ideology of the Mau Mau.
We can see the ways in which these past struggles were represented in the fight for land and freedom during the Mau Mau. A nyimbo (hymn) composed during the rebellion remembers the struggle at Olenguruone, and shows how it had an effect on the collective psyche of the participants.
There was a great wailing at Olenguruone
Even as we collected together belongings. . .
We are being oppressed all over this land.
Even our homes have been destroyed.
And our bodies have been exploited.
But do not be afraid.
Because we are heading for a great victory.
The past exploits of the British, served as the stepping stone to the rebellion of the Mau Mau. The problems faced by the Kikuyu all over the colony, helped in uniting them in this common struggle.
Kanogo, Tabitha. Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau 1905-63. London: James Curry, 1987.
Throup, David. Economic and Social Origins of Mau Mau 1945-53. London: James Curry, 1988.
Throup, David. “The Origins of Mau Mau.” African Affairs 84 (1985): 399-433.