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Britain’s Gulag writer to grace freedom struggle conference

By STEPHEN MAKABILA | November 16th 2013
            Prof Caroline Elkins with Mau Mau Association chairman Gitu Kahengeri. Elkins will deliver a keynote address on the Mau Mau during an international conference on the freedom struggle at Karatina University. [PHOTO: COURTESY]


As the Kenya at 50 celebrations draw near, one of the world’s leading historians will deliver a key note address on the role of liberation movements during an international conference days to the fete.

The three-day conference jointly organised by Karatina University and the National Museums of Kenya brings together history scholars from across the globe to share their experiences on Mau Mau and other liberation movements.

Prof Caroline Elkins, a historian at Harvard University, is one of the keynote presenters at the conference.

Elkins has done extensive research on the Mau Mau that culminated in her book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britains Gulag in Kenya. The book was awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. It was also selected as one of  The Economist’s best history books for 2005 and a finalist for the Lionel Gelber Award among others.

Elkins and her research were the subject of a 2002 BBC documentary titled Kenya: White Terror, which was awarded the International Committee of the Red Cross Award at the Monte Carlos Film Festival.

Prof Elkins is also a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic and The New Republic. She has also appeared on numerous radio and television programmes including NPR’s All Things Considered, BBC’s The World and PBS’s Charlie Rose.

In her book, Elkins describes Mau Mau war as one of the bloodiest and most protracted decolonisation struggles of the past century.

Her current research interests include colonial violence and post-conflict reconciliation in Africa and violence and the decline of the British Empire. She is currently working on two projects: one examining the effects of violence and amnesia on local communities and nation-building in post-independent Kenya, the other analysing British counter-insurgency operations after the Second World War, with case studies including Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Nyasaland.

Elkins teaches courses on modern Africa, protest in East Africa, human rights in Africa and British colonial violence in the 20th century.

“Other speakers include Zarina Patel (a renowned Kenyan history author) and Macharia Munene, a professor of History and International Relations at the United States International University–Kenya,” Prof John Mwaruvie, the Dean School of Education and Social Sciences at Karatina University, told The Standard on Saturday.

Jubilee climax

Paul Muite, a senior counsel who successfully took the Mau Mau compensation case to a British court is also expected to present a paper.

“Our timing of the conference was for it to come on the Eve of Jamhuri Day, which marks the climax of our Jubilee celebrations,” noted Mwaruvie.

The conference, whose theme is, “Mau Mau and other Liberation Movements: 50 years after Independence,” also aims to demystify Mau Mau and other liberation movements, examine the role of Mau Mau as nationalist movement and undertake a comparative analysis of liberation movements in the world.

The Mau Mau Uprising (also known as the Mau Mau Revolt and Mau Mau Rebellion) that led to declaration of the state of Emergency in Kenya was a military conflict that took place in Kenya between 1952 and 1960.

It involved a Kikuyu-dominated agricultural pressure group and the British Army, auxiliaries and anti-Mau Mau Kikuyu. Other Kenyan communities were also involved in the movement but operated under different names.

 Mwaruvie   says the interest the university has in the Mau Mau movement was because its main gate directly faces a huge trench dug by the British around Mt Kenya to separate freedom fighters from surrounding villages.

“It is evident to a great extent that the Mau Mau movement shaped the history of this country but a number of these heritage resources have not been studied, mapped or documented and that is what we intend to do,” says Prof Mwaruvie.

Sub-themes of the up-coming conference include: the 1950’s as a decade of decolonisation and the “myth” of planned decolonisation by the British government, the heroes and heroines of liberation struggles, their resilience and lessons for post-independent reform movements in Kenya, gains and loses by freedom fighters and their descendants.

Other sub-themes are: the quest for reparation, Mau Mau and other liberation movements as agents of socio-economic and political developments, collection, documentation and preservation of Mau Mau and other liberation movements heritage, the quest for constitutionalism, governance and national integration and the role of gender in liberation struggles.

Already, the university and the NMK have a working agreement on the preservation of the Mau Mau heritage in the Mt Kenya region.


Mau Mau centre

The two institutions have agreed to work together in conserving and protecting the Mau Mau Heritage sites, carrying out joint research on Mau Mau, training and community outreach on Mau Mau sites, collection and preservation of Mau Mau artifacts, holding conferences and symposia, among other aspects.

In this collaboration, the two parties shall undertake joint research and conservation programmes on Mau Mau sites, utilising members and facilities drawing upon the strength of their respective experiences. The agreement also recognises the fact that the two institutions are free to develop joint research projects for the mutual benefit of each institution.

Karatina University has already established a centre for Mau Mau studies to carry out research, collect materials and preserve such materials.

The role of   the Mau Mau Centre, according to Mwaruvie, is to carry out research on the Mau Mau movement and collect materials associated with the same.

“The university encourages various sectors of the society and the nation at large to identify the need to reconnect with our rich and diverse liberation heritage in order to shape the future of our nation. The centre will also play a key role in community outreach by working closely with the local communities to conserve important Mau Mau historical sites such as the caves, post office, mass graves and the trench,” adds Mwaruvie.

He says although the Mau Mau and other freedom movements shaped the social, political and economic history of our nation, very little attention has been given to such movements.

The centre will collect and preserve all archival materials, records and documents that relate to the liberation struggle in Kenya, collaborate with local communities to conserve areas around important Mau Mau sites as part of the corporate social responsibility, collaborate with the remaining heroes of the Mau Mau and other liberation movements to tap the indigenous knowledge and collect information and other materials on other freedom movements.

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