Mau Mau, Africa

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Mau Mau, Africa

Mau Mau is the term given to the insurgence that arose in Kenya as early as 1946 but was at its height between 1952 and 1956. The movement was rife in Nairobi, the Central Province, and in the settler provinces of the Rift Valley in Kenya. The effects of the movement were felt worldwide and impacted the postindependence politics in Kenya. At its height, the movement pitched the Kikuyu and the related Embu and Meru in guerrilla warfare against the British.

Mau Mau had economic and social origins arising from the urban squalor in Nairobi, whose population was growing at a very rapid rate without the necessary social services or infrastructure. This led to unsanitary conditions and low wages for the African workers. Another source of discontent lay in the loss of land that pushed many of the Kikuyu people into squatter farming in European farms where wages were extremely low and working conditions poor. Within the Kikuyu community, the rise of capitalism dispossessed the traditionally landless people, the ahoi, who were traditional tenants of those who had land. The ahoi were forced to seek wage labor in the urban centers and European farms, aggravating the sprawling, poor living conditions in these areas and heightening discontent with colonialism.

As discontent increased among Africans in general between 1944 and 1946, the Kikuyu transformed traditional Kikuyu oaths into a device for forging solidarity against Europeans. The period witnessed escalating violence that drew the attention of the colonial government to what administrative officials referred to as a "subversive organization, Mau Mau." Violence by the so-called Mau Mau reached alarming proportions by the first two months of 1952 during which cattle were maimed and mutilated in settler farms and crops were set on fire. Chiefs and their families and supporters, the African police, and Christians were attacked and killed as agents or as supporters of the colonial government.

On October 20, 1952, the colonial government declared a state of emergency following the assassination of a powerful Kikuyu chief by the Mau Mau. On the same date, African nationalist leaders including Jomo Kenyatta and AchiEng Oneko were arrested and detained. The declaration of the state of emergency forced Mau Mau leaders and Mau Mau adherents into the forests from which they waged guerrilla war against the British and the loyalists.

Both men and women entered the forests, revising some of the traditional gender relations as some women rose to hold positions as Mau Mau generals while men took up cooking responsibilities traditionally associated with women. By 1956, the British forces had stopped the military phase of the Mau Mau movement, especially when they rounded up, screened, arrested, and placed Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru in detention camps. The screenings and detention cut off the Mau Mau from their supply of food, clothing, hiding places, and ammunition. To circumvent arrest, some Kikuyu tried to emulate practices of other cultural groupings; for example, some removed their six lower teeth, a practice associated with the Luo people of Nyanza province, in the hope of passing as Luos. The Mau Mau movement is bound up with various facets of anticolonialism and tied to differently situated African peoples and communities in colonial Kenya. Many scholars and political leaders have interpreted Mau Mau as a nationalist liberation movement, and called Mau Mau freedom fighters. Others have termed it a peasant revolt against landlessness and Mau Mau as land struggle among the Kikuyu, a peasant war emerging out of the growing class struggles among the Kikuyu, or a religious and political movement. The movement, however, forced the British to rethink their policies in Kenya, especially regarding African representation in the governing of Kenya.

see also Anticolonialism; Britain's African Colonies.


Elkins, Caroline. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.

Odhiambo, Atieno, and Lonsdale John, eds. Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003.

Throup, David. Economic and Social Origins of Mau Mau, 1945–1953. London: James Curry, 1987.