Where Is Mau Mau History Now?

Text by Rose Miyonga
First published in State of Emergency, self-published by Max Pinckers, Belgium, 2024

Swahili version

Mau Mau was many things to many people. In the processes of myth- and meaning-making over the decades since the end of the war, Mau Mau has become a metonym, but it was never really one thing to begin with. The Mau Mau movement, and the war itself, was in part a discourse on British imperialism. The Movement rose plurally, as a response to the effects of colonialism in Kenya, and the existential threats of stolen land and oppressive rule that were inherent to the imperial project. Mau Mau was – and remains – a way of thinking about and negotiating Kenya’s past and the present, and of imagining the future, both individual and collective. In this way, Mau Mau was, and is still existential. It is about who we were, who we are and who, in the face of all adversity, we want to be.

The British, for their part, did with the archive of evidence on Mau Mau what they did throughout their colonial project: they stole and they burned with impunity. They destroyed what they did not like and they built architecture and bureaucracy to protect what they needed to keep. And yet, the most brutal parts of Mau Mau history could not be buried through violence or bureaucracy. But their inconvenient truth would not die. In many ways, Mau Mau did not end with the end of the war. The struggle for history and memory continued, and the scars of the conflict are still visible. Survivors wrote their histories into the archives in letters, claims and petitions that defied the attempts to keep them away from the processes of national and international history-making. And, at home, they told stories, performed plays and taught old songs to their children and grandchildren.

Where is Mau Mau history now? It is into this question that the State of Emergency project speaks. The work calls us to think creatively about how and whether we can truly ever know the past. To answer some of the questions raised by the decimated, stolen archive, we can look for Mau Mau history in unlikely places. The past lives on like a thousand droplets rippling out on a lake. Knowledge that was once shared only with the closest confidantes through whispers, signals, under the cover of darkness transform into testimony and oral record. Rumors and gossip and feelings become histories. Of course, we can find histories in memoirs and oral testimonies, in the accounts of those who witnessed the war. But we can also turn to sources that don’t speak in languages: the contours of the land, the contours of the human body, and the scars the war has left behind in both. The body keeps the score, and the Earth speaks if we turn our ears to listen. Mau Mau history is everywhere, should we choose to see it.