Women in Mau Mau Uprising

“Mau Mau is more than anybody who was not involved can fully understand. Mau Mau was a top secret movement of people who went to war with nothing - no guns, no spears...nothing but determination to get freedom and their land and the war was won because of us women.”

“Mau Mau is more than anybody who was not involved can fully understand. Mau Mau was a top secret movement of people who went to war with nothing – no guns, no spears…nothing but determination to get freedom and their land and the war was won because of us women.”

The Mau Mau revolt is shrouded in mystery. A group of Kenyan men and women seemed to have run away to the mountains and managed to wage a guerrilla warfare against the White settlers from the security of the mountains. The British with its entire military power at its disposal found it impossible to stem this rebellion. Initially they treated it as a minor event till the attacks became more persistent and lethal. Moreover the ranks of the rebels kept swelling as men, women and children kept running away to the forest of Aberdare. The Whites did everything to contain this mass uprising. Interestingly it seemed to be a group without a leader. If one ‘leader’ was caught and tried, there seemed to be another to take his place. What transpired in that forest remained a complete mystery for the British. But one thing was becoming clear – the Kenyans had started to sympathise with the rebels. In 1952, the Mau Mau launched a guerrilla insurgency against the British, which ended with a British victory in 1956. However, the Emergency Period, as it came to be known, continued until 1960, as the British dealt with Mau Mau suspects held in detention camps. The Mau Mau story is what legends are made of. Their leader Dedan Kimathy led an armed struggle for freeing his country. Versions on him and the struggle are manifold. Dedan was perceived as a terrorist and a mass murderer by the British. He was also accused of bringing back the rigid mores of the Kenyan society back into the mainstream. The first Kenyan President Jomo Kenyattaand his successor Daniel Arop Moi shared the coloniser’s version of the Mau Mau. Kenyatta declared it a terrorist organisation and the Mau Mau rebels were written out of history. It is much later that the Mau Mau veterans fought to claim their space in history. Not only did the veterans talk about the kind of struggle they underwent in order to free their motherland, they even took their case to London where they fought for compensation to be given to the warriors for the severe torture they faced in the prisons. It is because of the single minded determination to be heard that Dedan Kimathy was regarded as a Kenyan hero and the Mau Mau rebels were recognised as freedom fighters. The story of the Mau Mau women speaks of further erasure and an even greater lack of acknowledgement of their contribution to the struggle. For the women it was not merely about fighting the colonial oppressors but also fighting the patriarchal Kenyan male for their share under the sun. Many women ran away from their homesteads and served in various capacities in the army ranks of the Mau Mau warriors. The war veteran Muthoni wa Kirima, the only woman to have become a Field Marshall in the Mau Mau army has spoken at length about the women’s contribution. She has been ably assisted by her sisters in arms who have written extensively about what it means to be a Mau Mau rebel. In the case of the women History has had to be reclaimed forcefully as the official historiography is totally inadequate. In the decades following the Kenyan Independence of 1963, some dedicated Mau Mau activists took to writing their memoirs. In 1969 the first memoir dealing with the Mau Mau Movement was written by Charity Waciuma titled Daughters of Mumbi. Waciuma writes of growing up in the Mau Mau times and the challenges faced in one of the villages created through the villagisation policy. The villagisation was a creation of the British Colonial government in order to contain the menace of the Mau Mau. Here, true to the Victorian worldview the woman was trained how to be a “good Christian woman” and a helpmeet to her husband. In 1985 Muthoni Likimani’s Passbook Number F47927 was published. Her stories recounted the various roles played by the Mau Mau women in maintaining their dual entities as civilian women in the village and carrying on their militancy undercover. She also recounts the sordid conditions of the prisons where those accused had been housed. She recounts with pride how in the most adverse situations the women militants managed to shield their counterparts in the forest and how in the strictest confines of the dreaded prison sentences, they managed to carry forth their rebellion. In 1988 came the seminal book by Wambui Waiyaki Otieno titled Mau Mau’s Daughter: A life History. This was an in depth recounting of Otieno’s life and times as a Mau Mau rebel. She talks about the oath taking, donning several disguises, touring the country talking to people about freedom. Interestingly her book is as much about the rebellion as it is about fighting the male domination existing in the Kenyan society. The Mau Mau Uprising was a military conflict that took place in Kenya between 1952 and 1960. The conflict set the stage for Kenyan independence in December 1963. It was a battle to regain one’s own land. This struggle later took on gigantic proportions and became synonymous with the armed struggle for Kenya’s freedom. The Mau Mau was a top secret movement which came into being as a protest against British Land policies. All the fertile and arable land had been divided amongst the Colonial officers and the White settlers. From October 1952 to December1959, Kenya was officially in a state of emergency resulting from a violent anti-Colonial Insurgency conducted by largely kikuyu guerrilla fighters. The term Mau Mau came to refer to the insurgent movement itself, to the guerrilla fighters and the rebellion’s more passive adherents, and also to the oaths of allegiance that fighters and adherents took. Harry Thuku was a young Kikuyu the East African Association which championed various African grievances including increased taxation, the Kipande (the dreaded identity document that all Kenyans were required to possess), the lack of title deeds for African lands and forced labour. To curb Thuku’s increasing support, the colonial government arrested him on 14 March 1922. A large crowd gathered in front of the jail demanding his release. When the men failed to negotiate, the women led by Nyanjiru were quick to mock them and carry forward the protest on their own. The police opened fire and several women lost their lives. But Nyanjiru’s call to freedom and the women’s surging response made them realise their potential as warriors. The Mau Mau had a strict policy of administering an oath to its recruits. The oath taking ceremony was based on the primitive cultures involving animal slaughter and swearing on human blood. The oath giving and taking was necessitated by the need for secrecy. From the 1940s onwards women were administered these complex oaths which had hitherto been the traditional preserve of men. Women were an integral part of the nationalist movement and its more militant arm, the Mau Mau movement. The dedication and the success stories of the Mau Mau women are manifold. From donning disguises to flirting with the British officials for information to pledging their own children to the war, the spirit demonstrated by them was incredible. As a former Mau Mau rebel Wambui Otieno-Mbugua says, “Women in Mau Mau did so much, yet hardly anything is said about them. I wish I was a teacher to teach all these to the younger generation in Kenya.”