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Of low-key Mashujaa Day during a highly significant year for Mau Mau

A low people turnout was experienced at Uhuru Gardens during the 59th Mashujaa day on October 20, 2022. [Silas Otieno, Standard]

During Mashujaa Day last week, Kenyans commemorated 70 years since the official outbreak of the Mau Mau War on October 20, 1952. The event was different from past ones as it was uninspiring and poorly attended. It was also the first time that the national political leadership was in the hands of those born after 1963, the year Kenya attained independence.

President William Ruto was born in 1966, the year of political upheaval when Vice President Oginga Odinga resigned from Kanu to create KPU which led to the constitutional turn-coat amendment and the ‘little general election'. Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua was born in 1965 as Kenya entered its republican status. Not having any colonial experience, they were born-frees and grew to become President Daniel arap Moi’s effective anti-change policy implementers.

However, this year raised perceptions about the Mau Mau War narratives. There was the launch of four Mau Mau books and video recordings in March 2022 to trigger recasting. Then University of Nairobi's (UoN) History Department Chairman Kenneth Ombongi hosted a Mau Mau conference to coincide with 70 years of the “Declaration of Emergency.”

In addition, during the election campaigns, Mau Mau was used in the vote hunt as politicians competed to claim the legacy of the Mau Mau War. This year too, Queen Elizabeth II died 70 years after becoming queen of England while in Kenya.

The launch of the Mau Mau books and video in March attracted attention. In the books and video, Mau Mau veterans and survivors, who have remained largely unrecorded, agreed, for the sake of posterity, to open their hearts and tell their story and beliefs. They felt relieved as they revealed bits of information of myth and fact that collectively force adjustments in the Mau Mau narrative.

The UoN conference brought together global scholars of Mau Mau, the intellectual ‘elders’ and the younger ones, to “recast Mau Mau” and give it fresh push as a catalyst for world decolonisation. Among them was former Mau Mau War Johnnie, John Lonsdale of Cambridge University.

Although he was late in seeing anti-Mau Mau action, Lonsdale developed intense knowledge of shades of Mau Mau. In many of his writings, Lonsdale commands respect as an ‘elder’ on Mau Mau scholarship and has trained many historians including Dr Ombongi. UoN Vice Chancellor Stephen Kiama was so excited about the conference that he narrated his complicated childhood during the Mau Mau War. Prof Kiama would well fit in the category of unrecorded Mau Mau survivors and should tell more of his experience.

Mau Mau became a factor in Kenya’s 2022 elections as politicians sought to turn its legacy into political capital. In the Odinga camp, Raila sought the blessings of Dedan Kimathi’s widow and Mama Ngina identified with Field Marshal Muthoni hair cutting ceremony in Nyeri. In the Ruto camp, Gachagua and Ndindi Nyoro claimed to represent Mau Mau interests. In claiming Mau Mau heritage against perceived tumundu (ordinary people) betraying ‘dynastic’ elitism, they made the election one of class confrontation. They elevated the Mau Mau spirit in public discourse.

The events amounted to a ‘recasting’ of the Mau Mau narrative and lifted it from the zone of socio-intellectual neglect. The recasting also coincided with another symbolic event that linked the Mau Mau War to the destruction of the British Empire.

Queen Elizabeth II died 70 years after her father who died in 1952 while she was watching animals at Treetops in Nyeri. She ascended the English throne in a colony that was social politically pregnant with ‘revolution’. As young Richard Leakey noted, white people cried for their dead king but Africans did not care and seemed pre-occupied with something that became the Mau Mau War. Her death rekindled memories of Mau Mau revolutionary beginnings.