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Mau Mau against the British Empire

Published Mar 9, 2005 4:05 PM

Has any liberation movement been more slandered than Kenya's Land and Freedom Army, usually referred to as the Mau Mau? This term is still used by racists as a club to attack Black people.

Right-wing columnist Ann Coulter, outraged that Halle Berry won an Oscar in 2002, complained that this Black artist had "successfully mau-maued her way to a Best Actress Award."

Former Vice President Daniel Quayle's chief of staff, William Kristol, said Carol Mosely Braun "mau-maued" the U.S. Senate when, as the only African Amer ican woman member in the Senate's history, she stopped a charter renewal for the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Thousands of Mau Mau guerrillas wrote a heroic chapter in the book of liberation with their blood. As with the French in Algeria, it was the armed struggle in Kenya that compelled the British imperialists to grant independence to their African colonies.

At last, two new scholarly books expose the atrocities the colonial regime committed in suppressing this freedom struggle: "Imperial Reckoning" by Caroline Elkins and "Histories of the Hanged" by David Anderson.

Queen Victoria's British Empire declared a "protectorate" over Kenya and Uganda in 1895. What was being protected was the theft of the best farmland by a few British settlers. Among them was Lord Delamere, who stole 160,000 acres.

Machine guns and bayonets forced African people into "native reserves" modeled on Indian reservations in the United States. They weren't allowed to grow coffee or other commercial crops. As in South Africa under apartheid, Africans were forced to carry passes.

Kenya's Kikuyu people, who farmed some of the most fertile land in the country's central section, were particularly affected.

"We have stolen his land," confessed Col. Ewart Grogan, a white settler. "Now it is time to steal his limbs." (Walter Rodney, "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa")

Compulsory labor was required of African women and men.

Building a 582-mile railroad from the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa to Lake Victoria was key to the exploitation. Some 30,000 workers from British-occupied India were used. Some 10,000 died or were maimed in the process.

Occupation sparked resistance. On March 14, 1922, police gunfire crushed a rally of 8,000 Africans in Nairobi, called to protest the exiling of Kikuyu leader Harry Thuku.

White settlers standing on the Norfolk Hotel's porch joined in the shooting. Fifty-eight Africans were murdered.

Supporters of this movement formed the Kikuyu Central Association in the mid-1920s. Jomo Kenyatta, later to be independent Kenya's first prime minister and president, became editor of the KCA's monthly newspaper, Muigwathania, in 1928.

Schools became a battleground. "Illiter ates with the right attitude to manual employment are preferable to products of the schools," declared the official Beecher Report on Kenyan education in 1949. At the time, three high schools admitted a total of 100 African students annually.

An independent school movement blossomed in the late 1920s. By 1952, some 50,000 students attended 300 African-controlled schools. The KCA founded the Githunguri Teachers' Training College.

Kenyatta went abroad in 1929 to represent the KCA in London and didn't return to Kenya until 1946. Pan African leader George Padmore, then an organizer for the Communist International, influenced him. Kenyatta also studied briefly in Moscow.

"When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible," observed Kenyatta.

Catholic and Protestant missionaries were as indispensable as Maxim guns to British colonialism. An Anglican bishop wrote the racist Beecher Report.

However, Kenya's freedom fighters included Christians. Muslims also joined the liberation struggle. But the official churches lined up British-appointed "chiefs" and their followers to be informers against the Mau Mau.

Army smashes general strike

Many Kikuyu people became sharecroppers or laborers on white farms, often on the same soil that had been stolen from their families. Others were forced off the land altogether.

The population of the capital city, Nairobi, doubled between 1938 and 1948.

As early as 1930 police shot down strikers at the Uplands Bacon factory and jailed their leaders. A Kenyan working class was being formed. By 1948 there were 385,000 African wage workers; their average annual income was $73.

British imperialism press-ganged 75,000 Kenyans to fight in World War II. Among them was Waruhiu Itote, who was to become known as the Mau Mau's "General China."

Like Vietnam veteran Geronimo ji Jaga, who defended the Los Angeles Black Panther Party office against police attack, or American Indian Movement leaders who liberated Wounded Knee, these Kenyan vets put their military skills to good use.

While stationed in India, Itote learned from an African American GI about how Haitians had risen in a slave insurrection and defeated Napoleon's armies. He could see for himself that Britain was forced to depart India and Pakistan in 1947. After the war, the future "General China" worked as a locomotive fireman in Nairobi's railroad yards.

Kenyatta became president of the Kenyan African Union on June 1, 1947. Trade unionists were some of the KAU's most militant leaders.

Fred Kubai organized Nairobi's taxi drivers and became secretary of the Transport and Allied Workers' Union. Bildad Kaggia was a leader of the Clerks and Commercial Workers Union. The British would jail both Kubai and Kaggia together with Kenyatta.

Along with Makhan Singh, Kubai and Kaggia founded the East African Trade Union Congress on May Day, 1949. The next May Day the EATUC issued a call for independence and majority rule.

The British imperialist government, administered by the social-democratic Labor Party, immediately arrested these union leaders. In response 100,000 Kenyan workers joined a general strike.

Nairobi was paralyzed for nine days. Only a mobilization of the army and police broke this strike.

EATUC president Fred Kubai was jailed for eight months. General Secretary Makhan Singh was detained without trial for 11 years.

Their jailing symbolized the unity of Kenyan workers of Asian and African origin against colonialism.

Next: Freedom by any means necessary.