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Mau Maus of the Mind: Making Mau Mau and Remaking Kenya1

  • John Lonsdale (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 January 2009

This article explores the imaginative meanings of Mau Mau which white and black protagonists invented out of their fearful ambitions for the future of Kenya. Within the general assumptions of white superiority and the need to destroy Mau Mau savagery, four mutually incompatible European myths can be picked out. Conservatives argued that Mau Mau revealed the latent terror-laden primitivism in all Africans, the Kikuyu especially. This reversion had been stimulated by the dangerous freedoms offered by too liberal a colonialism in the post-war world. The answer must be an unapologetic reimposition of white power. Liberals blamed Mau Mau on the bewildering psychological effects of rapid social change and the collapse of orderly tribal values. Africans must be brought more decisively through the period of transition from tribal conformity to competitive society, to play a full part in a multi-racial future dominated by western culture; this would entail radical economic reforms. Christian fundamentalists saw Mau Mau as collective sin, to be overcome by individual confession and conversion. More has been read into their rehabilitating mission in the detention camps than is warranted, since they had no theology of power. The whites with decisive power were the British military. They saw the emergency as a political war which needed political solutions, for which repression, social improvement and spiritual revival were no substitute. They, and the ‘hard-core’ Mau Mau detainees at Hola camp who thought like them, cleared the way for the peace. This was won not by any of the white constructions of the rising but by Kenyatta's Kikuyu political thought, which inspired yet criminalised Mau Mau.

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Saul Dubow , Racial Segregation and the Origins of Apartheid in South Africa 1919–36 (Basingstoke, 1989).

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  • ISSN: 0021-8537
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