Content Note: This piece contains recollections of torture.
In the center of busting Nairobi, in Freedom Corner of Uhuru Park, sits the Mau Mau Memorial Monument. The Memorial features a life-sized bronze statue of a man and a woman representing the Mau Mau guerrilla army, officially known as The Kenya Land and Freedom Army.
The Mau Mau were an African nationalist movement within the Kenya Central Association political organization. This was born in the late 1940s out of frustration with the loss of fertile land to white settlers and the slow progress to establish land reforms and political rights for Kenyans during British colonial rule. Motivated by economic deprivation and political subordination, the Mau Mau advocated resistance from British domination. Recruitment and mobilisation of support was done through oath taking which morally binded people to the Mau Mau and fostered a political consciousness. Due to increasing reports of oath-taking and guerrilla style insurgency of the Mau Mau, the colonial administrators issued a state of emergency which lasted from 1952 – 1960. During this period, approximately 150,000 suspected Mau Mau members and sympathisers were detained without trail in about 150 detention camps and ‘screening centers’ known as ‘the Pipeline’ around Kenya. The figures for the number of dead are disputed, with claims suggesting that between 130,000 and 300,000 people died at the hands of the British.
I am a descendant of Mau Mau veterans; my great grandfather was arrested during the Uprising never to return; my great grandmother was held in Kamiti Detention Camp and my grandmother experienced unspoken trauma due to participating in the freedom struggle as a Mau Mau.
In 2009, as a result of the abuse, torture and murder of Kenyans in these camps, Mau Mau veterans took the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the UK High Court. In 2012, 5000 Kenyans won a landmark case against the British Government for detention and torture during the Uprising. The victory resulted in financial compensation and in 2015 the Mau Mau Memorial Monument in Nairobi was constructed. The Monument is a symbol of reconciliation. It also recognises that the British government treatment of Mau Mau freedom fighters during the uprising was morally and legally wrong. The Memorial’s purpose is to also recognise all who took part in Kenya’s struggle for independence, men and women. However, the memorialisation of war and national liberation struggles is often gendered and this is the case here. This statue marginalises and makes invisible women’s war time contribution while exalting the masculine experience.
My family history compels me to look at how women are remembered and represented through the statue. I question what is hidden and invisible in the representation of the Mau Mau woman. Using first-hand accounts by women involved in the Mau Mau during their youth, including an oral history interview I undertook with my grandmother, I discuss in this piece how women’s lived experiences are silenced by the statue. First hand accounts are a means for women to speak back to their representation in the statue, and how they have been remembered.
The statue depicts an armed man in dreadlocks who is receiving a basket, likely containing food, from a woman. As was typical of the Mau Mau, they are facing away from each other; this was a tactic used so that insurgents would not be able to recognize or name one another should they be captured. Through his combative clothing and aggressive facial expression, the man is depicted as protector and fighter for the land, associating courage and strength with men. With a barely visible face and scarf over her head, symbols of purity and obedience, the woman is depicted as demure and vulnerable. She is dressed in traditional ethnic dress and is barefoot; he wears more modern clothing and despite photographic evidence that many men walked barefoot, he is depicted wearing shoes. Depicting the man with shoes and the woman without them reinforces the social organization of gender and gendered spaces; being barefoot suggests a sense of physical vulnerability and restriction to her personal freedom, relegating her to the private sphere.
Portraying the woman according to feminine gender norms negates the many ways women took part and were committed to the Uprising. In this way, the statue conforms to colonial idealised conceptions of the feminine gender. Gendered differentiation was originally imposed by colonisation to dominate women and impose a heirarchical distinction between genders. Moreover, colonial administrators suggested women’s involvement in the Mau Mau uprising was because of male persuasion. Later it was suggested that women involved in the Mau Mau were deviants and mentally unstable.
Recounting their experiences, women demonstrate that they were not ‘victims’ lured into participating; but acted autonomously. Considering an interview with Muthoni wa Kirima, obtained from the Museum of British Colonialism – an organisation seeking to communicate a truthful account of British colonialism in Kenya – makes this clear. Muthoni is infamous in Kenya. Known as Field Marshal Muthoni due to her role and time in the forest as a combatant, she kept dreadlocks since her time in the forest. These were finally shorn earlier this year.
Muthoni’s discusses acting as an agent to make a political choice about participating in the Mau Mau:
‘Well…of course, I wanted to free my country from the colonialists because they had ruled us for a long time, and it was necessary for us to organise ourselves strategically to get them out.’
As proof of her commitment to supporting the conflict my grandmother, Salome Wanjiku recounts the moment when she found a rifle hidden beneath the ground whilst farming:
‘And I had committed and oathed that should I find something like a gun, I would not leave it. I would take it and I would fight for our Kenya.’
In an interview by Mau Mau Chronicles – an initiative aiming to document the history of Kenya’s independence struggle from the perspective of the Mau Mau-Virginia Wanjiri illuminates her self-interest and social- economic motivation for joining the Mau Mau. She also reveals a consciousness about the forms of subjugation which she and women like her experienced at the time. She says:
‘Any time a woman left her husband’s house, she would leave [to work] for the white man’s place. This meant that they [colonialists] dominated you; they dominated the children and, their mothers and fathers. They took possession of everything, and all the land we owned leaving us with nothing. In my first employment, I earned 50 cents per day from the colonialists. My question is, how long do you think it would have taken me to earn 30 shillings?’ (30 Shillings in 1950 is equivalent to roughly 4,400 Kenya shillings or £30 today).
Wanjiri began her involvement collecting and hiding weapons for distribution and later entered the forest to become a combatant. Participating in the forest challenged gender norms and created space for women to enact authority. The women who went into the forest report there was no separation or specifically defined gender roles. Women combatants had assumed more masculine attitudes and values, by stepping outside their domestic roles. To further highlight the blurring of lines between male and female gender roles, and how women challenged traditional roles Virginia informs us:
‘We had vowed that once we went into the forest, we were all ‘men’. There was no difference between a man and woman in the forest.’
Muthoni also reveals:
‘Oh, in the forest there were no specifically defined roles. It was simply a case of deciding what we needed to do and where we needed to go…’
However, as women increasingly took up roles in combat, they were able to take advantage of colonial assumptions about gender, in which women were seen as passive victims, to enhance their strategies. Women were considered less suspicious than men and therefore ideal for covert work. Salome describes how she utilised her female qualities as an advantage to carry information and weapons. She says:
‘I would hide them on my person. I would wear three layers of clothing. There was an inner garment that we used to wear back then, and then I would wear a regular dress on top. I would then tie my waist with a belt. Between the inner garment and my dress, I would hide the letters, guns, and bullets. Then on top I would wear another layer of dress which I wouldn’t tie so you couldn’t see what was beneath. I would then walk like normal. You couldn’t tell that I had anything strapped to me. I didn’t carry a bag or anything, so there was no suspicion.’
Within the narratives, the women disclose the various forms of suffering and vulnerabilities that they experienced; the resulting trauma is evident even today. In an interview for the Kenya TV channel K24, Rose Mathagani, who had administered oaths which were a means to mobilise and morally bind people to the Mau Mau cause recalled an experience which was likely shared between male and female detainees:
‘There was lots of suffering, lots. And I get very sad when I remember. How we were burnt with those hot ashes; people imprisoned; digging many trenches – many trenches to ring fence the villages. I have really suffered. I try not to remember.’
In a witness statement by Jane Muthoni Mara for the High Court case against the Foreign and Commonwealth Office mentioned above, she shed light to the horrific atrocities she experienced and the extensive suffering which was particular to women.
‘I was in so much pain and I could not stop crying and screaming. I felt completely and utterly violated by this sexual torture, but I continued to insist that I had not taken an oath. This lasted for about 30 minutes and was very painful. When I was in the tent, I saw this being done to the other three women. I had never seen anything so brutal and terrifying in all my life.’
These narratives illuminate how proactive women were, the dangerous tasks they performed and the suffering they experienced. This is in contrast to the statue which does not see women as agents of change in Kenya’s history. They are denied recognition in Kenya’s heritage. There is a need to illuminate an alternative narrative which publicly acknowledges Mau Mau women, bestows them dignity and grants them the respect they deserve.
Despite all they suffered and lost, these women also demonstrate immense strength and pride in their experiences. This can be gleaned from the power in Virginia’s voice and how passionately she tells her story. Through keeping her dreadlocks since her time in the forest for over half a century, Muthoni similarly demonstrated pride in being a Mau Mau. These women know they contributed significantly to a movement that brought down colonial domination and led to Kenyan independence.
Reflecting on her contribution, Salome says:
‘I didn’t personally benefit (materially) but of course it’s great that we have independence. We can’t be treated the way they used to back then. Today, no one can ask you where you are going, or stop you from going places; no one can be kept as a prisoner for no reason and be treated like slaves like we were.’