The Fight for Freedom: Two new books re-examine Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion.

John Ness – Newsweek International

March 14 issue – On April 24, 1954, Nairobi residents woke up in the middle of a military purge. They had been living under a government-declared state of emergency for a year and a half, thanks to lethal ambushes by Mau Mau terrorists intent on reclaiming their land from British settlers. Now the crackdown came in earnest. “Loudspeakers affixed to military vehicles blared directives: pack one bag, leave the rest of your belongings at home, and exit into the street peacefully,” writes Caroline Elkins in “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya” (476 pages. Henry Holt). Every African in the sprawling city was questioned. Kenyan informers wearing hoods to hide their identities needed only to nod at a suspect for that person to be pulled out of line and trucked to a detention camp. By the end of the year, there were 52,000 political prisoners in “The Pipeline”—a system of camps designed to crush the rebellion.
Elkins’s book, along with David Anderson’s “Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire” (406 pages. W.W. Norton), is part of a timely re-examination of Kenya’s war against the Mau Mau insurgency of the mid-’50s. Though neither author is Kenyan, both books seem less the product of recently declassified documents than of the newly proud political spirit blowing through the country—evidenced last week by Kenyan Justice Minister Kiraitu Murungi’s demand that Britain formally apologize for its colonial treatment of the Mau Maus. Elkins, an assistant professor of history at Harvard, spent years interviewing survivors from both sides of the war; Anderson, who teaches at Oxford, came across his best finds sifting through old files. The result is that while Elkins better explains the horror show of the gulag, Anderson is the superior guide to murky road there.
Though the Mau Maus’ history may be unknown to some readers, the arc of this story is familiar. Like Iraq’s Sunni insurgents, the Mau Maus were a powerful minority that killed Westerners and “collaborators.” Like the Bush administration, Britain’s colonial rulers flouted international conventions against torture and indefinite detainment when dealing with such “terrorists.” Most Brits dismissed the torture accusations because they believed in the goodness of their troops. The net result was a crushed insurgency—and an independent Kenya built on the back of a gulag.
In the early 20th century, white settlers annexed huge tracts of land from the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest and proudest tribe. The Kikuyu grew gradually more embittered until the 1950s, when what Anderson calls “the politics of disillusionment” exploded into a guerrilla war. In the village of Lari, the scene of Anderson’s most riveting chapter, Kikuyu invaders known as Mau Maus set loyalist huts aflame in the dead of night; when families tried to escape, they were attacked with machetes and thrown back into their burning homes. The security forces who arrived to quell the violence were just as ruthless as the Mau Maus, killing twice as many people. Yet newspapers reported only the viciousness of the Mau Maus. For Anderson, this is the story’s turning point: by the end of the state of emergency in 1960, 12,000 Mau Mau supporters had been killed in combat, compared with 1,800 Kenyan loyalists and 32 white settlers.
But combat deaths were just the start of the insurgents’ misery, and Elkins prefers to focus on the gulag itself. She has compiled remarkable oral histories of the tortures suffered there: sodomy, castration, electroshock, dog attacks, drowning and mind games. Particularly memorable is the breathtaking cynicism of the appointment of Thomas Askwith—a rare non-racist who held a deep faith in Britain’s righteousness—as head of the camp system, called The Pipeline because it was designed to lead detainees from the Mau Maus’ “satanic” influences. While Askwith talked idealism, the camps were underfunded and unmonitored, and guards and officers routinely violated suspects’ rights. Final estimated death tallies for the government crackdown on Mau Maus—from combat, malnutrition, or torture—run into the tens of thousands.
Elkins is the better storyteller, and the voices she has recorded preserve an important chapter in colonial history. But Anderson’s even-handed academic style offers a better window onto a war that was dirty on both sides. Both authors make clear that the Mau Mau emergency exhausted Britain’s appetite for colonial rule in Kenya. And both illuminate a critical colonial period from which far too few lessons appear to have been learned.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

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