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Managing Memories of Mau Mau


By: Laragh Larsen

A statue of Dedan Kimathi was unveiled in central Nairobi on the 18 February 2007, 50 years to the day that he was hanged by the British colonial government in Kenya. In July 1953 the British had identified Kimathi as the ‘most wanted’ rebel of Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising, leading to his capture in October 1956 and his hanging in February 1957. The legend of Kimathi has designated him a heroic figure of the rebellion and he has come to symbolise Mau Mau; in name and now also embodied through the life-size bronze statue that stands in Kenya’s capital. Kimathi’s statue was the first official monument to the Mau Mau rebellion, a war that witnessed horrific torture, the detention of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans, and the deaths of tens of thousands, ending in 1960. Although published memoirs of former fighters and detainees allowed the Mau Mau to stay alive in the public memory, official memory of the Mau Mau was suppressed through decades of state-endorsed amnesia.

Much has been written - and can be read elsewhere - about the origins and background of the Mau Mau (or the Kenya Land and Freedom Army). Their main grievance was related to land issues and the movement was to a large extent confined to Kenya’s Kikuyu ethnic group. Rather than targeting the British authorities or the colony’s settlers, Mau Mau violence was more often directed against those Kikuyu seen as ‘traitors’ to the Mau Mau cause. Yet it was the increasing threat to Kenya’s European settlers that prompted the British to intervene, in an attempt to defeat the movement, and war became official when the colonial government declared a state of emergency in October 1952. However, only 32 settlers died in the rebellion, and there were no more than 200 deaths among the British police and regiments who served in Kenya during that time. African casualties were far greater, both at the hands of the British and the Mau Mau rebels. While much of what happened during the rebellion was known and documented by officials in both Kenya and Britain, it wasn’t really until 2005 with the publication of Histories of the Hanged and Britain’s Gulag by historians David Anderson and Caroline Elkins respectively that the full extent of the Mau Mau uprising was exposed more publicly. Official figures count the number of Mau Mau rebels killed by the British as 12,000, but Anderson asserts that this figure is ‘likely to have been more than 20,000’.[1] Of those killed, 1,090 were hanged. The rebels for their part are known to have killed more than 1,800 African civilians, while hundreds more disappeared. Elkins has suggested that a total of up to 300,000 deaths resulted from the rebellion – although this figure has been widely challenged. More staggering are the vivid descriptions in the two books of the human rights abuses and horrific torture that took place at the hands of British officers and their African collaborators. During the uprising at least 150,000 Kikuyu were detained and over one million forcefully re-settled into villages which Elkins has compared with Stalin’s gulags, and which Anderson has described as ‘little more than concentration camps to punish Mau Mau sympathizers’.[2] Both authors detail the beatings, starvations and killings of Mau Mau members by the British.

The rebellion ended in 1960, and many consider it as having played the central role in paving the way for Kenya’s independence from colonial rule, which was achieved in December 1963. In post-conflict societies where similar human rights abuses have occurred, the erection of memorials and monuments has been one method employed in an attempt to make amends, to assist the healing of victims, to honour those who fought. While memorials cannot literally compensate victims, remembrance through the symbolic compensation they provide can be an important step in transitional justice. In addition, it can be a powerful tool in redressing past abuses and in providing social support for victims, their families and their communities.  However, despite consistent calls from veterans and human rights groups for the official remembrance of Mau Mau, the postcolonial policies of Kenya instead sought to forget the past, which included forgetting Mau Mau Claiming to have the interests of national unity at heart, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, declared that ‘Mau Mau was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again.’[3] The ‘public memories of detention camps, of massacres, of punishments, and of dispossession were suppressed.  National unity was the message.’[4] Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi, maintained this state-orchestrated amnesia and it is only more recently that the need to remedy this amnesia and to give the Mau Mau an official place in the country’s national memory has been recognised.

In 2002 for the first time since independence there was a change in ruling parties and in 2003 under Mwai Kibaki’s presidency the 1952 order banning Mau Mau was withdrawn.  However, memorialisation of Mau Mau remained slow and it wasn’t until 2007 that Kimathi’s statue appeared in the streets of Nairobi. This drew questions as to the real motives behind the statue’s erection. ‘The timing, to start with, is suspect,’ claimed an article in one of Kenya’s leading newspapers.  ‘This being an election year, Kenyans are likely to ask, why now?’[5] Unveiling the Kimathi statue, President Kibaki stressed his government’s role in tackling the past. ‘My Government’, outlined Kibaki, ‘has over the last four years, made deliberate efforts to redress the historical injustices of the British colonial government. … We will continue to address the genuine historical grievances judiciously and prudently, by seeking measures of redress that will unite us and make us a stronger and more cohesive nation.’[6]

Yet in redressing the ‘historical injustices of the British colonial government’ through memorialising Mau Mau, the chosen national memory is one celebrating the role of Mau Mau in Kenya’s independence as personified through the figure of freedom fighter Kimathi. The life-like figurative statue depicts Kimathi in military fatigues, holding a rifle in one hand a dagger in the other, ‘the very symbols that were his last weapons in his struggle to liberate Kenyans from the yoke of colonialism’[7] (Figure 1).  Godwin Siundu, a lecturer in the Department of Language and Literature at Kenya’s Masinde Muliro University, stressed at the time that the significance of the Kimathi statue ‘is not so much in honouring a single individual, but to guard against forgetting and acknowledging our collective role in the creation, writing and reading of our country’s literature and history.’[8] However, the Kimathi statue conceals a great deal in the remembrance of the Mau Mau. Although this visible commemoration does at last allow Mau Mau back into Kenya’s national memory, it hides the true story of the rebellion and in celebrating the victorious aspect of Mau Mau it ignores the victims and the human rights abuses of the rebellion. Discussing this more recent redressing of official silencing in her article ‘Truth be Told’, Lotte Hughes describes, how ‘in privileging a narrow set of histories/memories over many others it remains one-sided and deeply unsatisfactory.’[9]

Yet at the same time, as Hughes illustrates in the article, the memory of Mau Mau has now provided a mechanism for addressing numerous other human rights abuses committed in both colonial and post-independence Kenya. In 2009, Mau Mau veterans, with the support of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), filed a lawsuit against the British government claiming compensation for human rights abuses committed against them while in detention. With this claim, ‘the KHRC believes that the Mau Mau Reparations and Recognition Campaign will play a key role in addressing the long standing problems of impunity for past abuses, developing a basis for implanting the tools and instruments of transitional justice in Kenya, and buoying the efforts to litigate against the atrocities committed in the name of colonialism.’[10]

Jeffrey Blustein argues that if ‘there is a moral duty to remember wrongdoing at all … then at least three conditions must be met in order for it to be engaged: (i) the victims must be identifiable; (ii) the party with the duty must be specifiable; and (iii) the wrongdoing must cross a threshold of seriousness.’[11] The complications of redressing the atrocities of the Mau Mau rebellion become apparent with identifying the victims and specifying the perpetrators. Human rights abuses were committed both against Mau Mau and by Mau Mau. This is certainly one of the reasons why memorialising Mau Mau has been problematic. While the Kimathi statue in Nairobi may conceal the past while simultaneously being intended to remember it, , it has helped to make space in the symbolic landscape for discussions and debates on managing the memories of Mau Mau. Similarly, while the statue celebrates the role of Mau Mau in achieving Kenya’s independence more than it honours the memory of the victims of the rebellion, it has helped to provide a platform for addressing numerous other human rights abuses that have taken place in Kenya. This example has shown that although projects such as this may ‘fail to fulfil the moral purposes of memorialisation, which are to redress past wrongdoing and validate and vindicate its victims’,[12] such visible official acknowledgement can potentially be a valuable step in the transitional justice process.

Laragh Larsen is a Research Fellow in the Department of Geography, Trinity College, Dublin, currently investigating the historic and socio-economic dimensions of environmental change and disease transmission in eastern Africa as part of the EU FP7-funded project, HEALTHY FUTURES. Laragh carried out her PhD thesis in historical geography in Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in 2007; the title of her PhD thesis is Shaping the Symbolic Landscape: Public Monuments in Nairobi, 1899-1992.

[1] David Anderson (2005) Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. London: Phoenix, 4
[2] Anderson, Histories of the Hanged, 294
[3] For example, quoted in Marshall S. Clough (2003) ‘Mau Mau and the contest for memory’ in E. S. Atieno Odhiambo and J. Lonsdale (eds) Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration. Oxford: James Curry. Kenyatta made this public denunciation against Mau Mau in Githunguri in September 1962, shortly after his release from detainment by the British colonial government.
[4] Anderson, Histories of the Hanged, 336
[5] Daily Nation, 19 February 2007
[6] State House, Speech by His Excellency Hon. Mwai Kibaki, C.G.H., M.P., President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kenya on the occasion of unveiling the Dedan Kimathi Memorial Statue, Kimathi Street, Nairobi, 18th February, 2007,, accessed 7 March 2007
[7] East African Standard, 18 February 2007
[8] Godwin Siundu, Reading the statue of Dedan Kimathi, East African Standard, 24 February 2007
[9] Lotte Hughes (2011) ‘‘Truth be Told’: Some Problems with Historical Revisionism in Kenya’, African Studies (70) 2: 182-201, 197
[10] Kenya Human Rights Commission (2009) ‘Support the Mau Mau reparations campaign, Pambazuka 442, available online at; and quoted in Hughes, ‘Truth be Told’, 193
[11] Jeffrey Blustein (2012) ‘Human Rights and the Internationalization of Memory’, Journal of Social Philosophy (43) 1: 19-32, 20
[12] Blustein, Human Rights and the Internationalization of Memory, 25
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