Kenya’s Mau Mau: Terrorists or Freedom Fighters

Letter from New Delhi

Hakuna Matata is a foot tapping ditty that become popular the world over after the release of the movie, ‘The Lion King’. Matata means no problem or no trouble in Swahili. Kenyan architect turned author Braz Menezes uses these key words in the titles of his two books: ‘Just Matata: Sin, Saints’ and Settlers’ and ‘More Matata: Love after the Mau Mau’. These are part of a trilogy now being written.

This is ‘faction’ or fiction based on facts. These two books are semi-autobiographies of the author who lived in Kenya during the colonial era, qualified as an architect/urban planner and worked as a respected professional until 1976 when he migrated to Canada. Then he studied creative writing and morphed into an author. Menezes recreates the joys, heartbreaks, frustrations and the good life in the unjust and violent colonial Kenya in the fifties and sixties.

The second book is set during and after the bloody and brutal Mau Mau Rebellion so called by the Colonials and renamed Freedom Struggle by the Kenyans after they wrested the country’s independence. Mau Mau guerrilla fighters were dubbed ‘terrorists’ by the colonials and renamed ‘freedom fighters’ by the Kenyans after independence.

Menezes describes the daily life in two colonies, Kenya ruled by the British and Goa ruled by the Portuguese. Mau Mau, the horrendous episode in Kenya’s history from 1951 to 1956 took a massive toll of lives. Between 12,000 and 20,000 Africans were killed by British forces that included 10,000 soldiers, 21,000 policemen and 21,000 Home Guards. The forest fighters killed 32 white settlers in all and about 200 British soldiers and local policemen.

The causes of this uprising was rooted in the Africans resenting their land taken over by the white settlers, thus making them landless labourers; and the racial discrimination practiced by the rulers. Africans were not allowed to grow cash crops. Plus, the unjust colour bar in education, health, law, housing, jobs, and all sectors was strongly grudged. When the Africans had enough, the violence was brutal. When the Mau Mau attacked an isolated farm owned by a white settler, they killed him and his family in a horrendous manner. In retaliation, the British Air Force bombed the forests hiding the Mau Mau, while the ground forces were ruthless in killing Africans en masse.

Tens of thousands of Africans were imprisoned and tortured to confess in so-called Detention Camps up to 1960. Kenya Indians were also caught in the crossfire. Officially, the Indian shopkeepers in rural areas had to demonstrate their loyalty to the British rulers but also support the forest fighters from the back door lest they be butchered. Despite this strategy, 26 Kenyan Indians were killed. African historians have dubbed this struggle as the greatest war for freedom in Africa. Some Mau Mau detainees have succeeded in getting some compensation for their suffering from the British government.

‘More Matata: Love after the Mau Mau’ describes this sad and brutal period of Kenyan history and the coming of age of the protagonist Lando. He was ten years old at the start of this narration. The novel traces his coming of age as the Portuguese leave India in 1961 and Britain departs from Kenya in 1963, almost a decade after the horrors of Mau Mau.

In this turmoil, the Goans were loyal to the British and worked as bartenders, tailors, clerks, chefs, bakers, mechanics, bookkeepers and musicians who kept a low profile but enjoyed the good life in their community clubs and societies. They spoke good English, wore western clothes, danced the waltzes and fox-trot, rock ’n roll and enjoyed their drinks. So in their lifestyle and as Christians, they were close to the British. As Mau Mau comes to towns, Lando’s life turns dangerous and more matata (trouble) erupts when he stars romancing across racial boundaries.

Menezes writes: “Kenya born author MG Vassanji has brilliantly covered much of the Asian experience in East Africa. But the Goan contribution has been neglected. I decided their story needed to be told: how a small community from Goa, played an inordinately important and quiet role in the administration and the services economy of British East Africa. When it was time to leave Kenya, many went. Others stayed behind in the land they loved. In previous novels by European authors, especially those set in Kenya, the Goans were merely minor ‘props and shadows’ in other people’s stories. That is how the Matata Trilogy was born.”

Thoughtfully, Braz has included an introduction that sets the scene, two maps where the action takes place: Kenya and India and East Africa with a glossary of Swahili and other abbreviations. In this book, the docile Kenyan Goans are not just marginal to the story; they are at the centre of action.

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi

 

* Published in print edition on 1  May  2015

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