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Chun-Hsien Wu (Sharon) 93122011


Professors Amie Parry and Guy Beauregard
Thesis Proposal

A History Refusing to be Enclosed:


Mau Mau Historiography, Ngugi wa Thiongos A Grain of Wheat, and M.G.
Vassanjis The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

I: The Mau Mau memory as a problem


This thesis investigates the contested memory of the Mau Mau rebellion1 in latecolonial Kenya (1952-1960).2 An anti-imperialist resistance movement led by
Kenyas largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu, during the 1950s, the Mau Mau rebellion
has been a hotspot where Kenyas pasts and Kenyas possible futures have been
debated, contested and fought over (Atieno-Odhiambo 300). Despite the fact that
fifty years have passed since its occurrence, the Mau Mau movement is still the
subject of constant revisitations, refusing to be enclosed as a static memory. This
thesis attempts to explore the ways of memorializing this critical anti-colonial
resistance movement by focusing upon three sites of representation: Mau Mau
historiography; the representation of Mau Mau memories in Ngugi wa Thiongos
novel A Grain of Wheat (1967); and an updated reconsideration of the Mau Mau
rebellion in M.G. Vassanjis novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003). With
1

Historians still hold no consensus over the official appellation attached to the historical event
recognized as Mau Mau. Part of the reason originates from the ambivalent attitude of the colonial
government, which shunned using war or rebellion in addressing the enemy but rather preferred
the less politically-charged term civil disturbance (Anderson 238). With a purpose to employ a
postcolonial critique in reading this historical event as a problematic issue, this thesis will stick to the
term the Mau Mau rebellion to designate the failed but significant anti-colonial resistance movement.
2
The length of the Mau Mau war I provide here is in accordance with Kenyas emergency period,
which was declared by Kenyan colonial government on 20 October 1952. Although the major militant
actions within the Mau Mau war had only lasted into 1956, it was not until 12 January 1960 that the
emergency was then officially lifted from Kenya. Given that, in the extra four years, many so-called
Mau Mau adherents were forcibly detained by the colonial government, an experience actually very
few Kikuyu people managed to escape in the emergency period, I think it is justifiable to include the
whole length of the emergency period as the period of the Mau Mau rebellion.

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an examination of the tensions within this triangular dialogue, I hope to explore how
and why the Mau Mau rebellion has been represented and memorialized.
As an important source of images in the twentieth-century Wests representation of
Africa (Lewis 230), the Mau Mau rebellion intriguingly gained its publicity in the
most crooked manner. Memorialized as the greatest horror story of Britains empire
in the 1950s (Anderson 1), the Mau Mau rebellion stood for the wests long-invested
imagination of Africa: the Dark Continent. In Something of Value (1955), which is
known as the first novel representing the Mau Mau story and which remains the mostwell known account of the rebellion, the American writer Robert Ruark inculcates his
western readers with the necessary portable attitude to the Dark Continent and
simultaneously promises them to expect the luring dangers in his adventure story: To
understand Africa you must understand a basic impulsive savagery that is greater than
anything we civilized people have encountered in two centuries (qtd. in Anderson 1).
The black-magic oathing rituals which mesmerized Africans into deranged,
murderous savages; the bodies which were brutally mutilated by the farming utensilsturned-into-weapons pangas; and finally the unkempt, animal-like Mau Mau fighters
scurrying around in the dark African forestthese breathtaking images of Mau
Mau rebels daily devoured by western readers in the 1950s simply confirmed for them
the characteristic African impulsive savagery that is presented by Ruark.
Despite such high exposure to the public gaze, the Mau Mau rebellion remains
elusive to its beholders. The linguistic void the term Mau Mau entails seems to
reassert its mysteriousness, justifiably enshrouding the resistance movement into
layers of myths (Kennedy 241).3 Attracted by its call, its pursuers have in the past
3
The origin of the appellation Mau Mau remains a mystery to its examiners. According to
Carol Sicherman, the term Maumau was first used by the official colonial reports in 1948 to inform
the colonial government the presence of a secret organization. In the following years, the term would
be popularized by the Europeans to refer to the anti-colonial movement, even though the Kikuyu rebels
preferred to call themselves the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. See Carol Sichermans Ngugi wa
Thiongo: The Making of a Rebel (London: Hans Zell, 1990): 214-27.

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half-century embarked on a series of efforts to demystify the Mau Mau rebellion


yet, in the meantime, have inscribed new myths over it.4 In the following proposal of
this thesis, I will try to probe into these efforts to see how the myths of Mau Mau
came to be the dominant enterprise in Mau Mau historiography. My focus will be on
the following questions: What kinds of myths have been created to explain the Mau
Mau rebellion? For what reasons are they created? And: how, and toward what ends,
can we read these myths today?

II: Mau Mau historiography


a. Creating the Myth of Mau Mau
The creation of the Mau Mau myth was rooted in the unusual phenomenon of
the numerous Mau Mau writings that were immediately produced when the event
was not yet a closed history. As the British declared war on the Kikuyu rebels
through the emergency in 1952, they meanwhile embarked on one of the most
sophisticated propaganda wars on defining the nature of the Mau Mau rebellion.
With a firm denial of the economic and political grievances suffered by the Kikuyu
people under colonial rule, they constructed a colonial discourse to diagnose the cause
of the rebellion as an expression of a psychological disease. According to the
colonialist official version, Mau Mau was a secret society organized by several badintentioned Kikuyu agitators who wanted to pursue their self-interests. Ungrateful for
Europeans introduction of modernity and progress to build Africa, these agitators
returned good for evil by aiming at subverting British rule. To rally their whole tribe

It is interesting to note that the exponents of the Mau Mau rebellion have stuck to the title the
Myth of Mau Mau. With Carl Rosberg and John Nottinghams pioneer academic study on the Mau
Mau rebellion The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya published in 1966, there have been a
long list of similar titles, including: Robert Buijtenhuijss Mau Mau Twenty Years After: The Myth and
the Survivors (1973); A.S. Clearys The Myth of Mau Mau in Its International Context (1990); Dane
Kennedys Constructing the Colonial Myth of Mau Mau (1992); and Galia Sbar-Friedmans The
Mau Mau Myth: Kenyan Political Discourse in Search of Democracy (1995). From the popularity of
this phrase in these titles, we can see the tenacity and ongoing currency of the Mau Mau myth.

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into aligning with them, these Kikuyu masterminds mobilized the traditional ritual
practiced in their tribeoathsto bind their fellow tribesmen into participating in
their insurgent plan. Contaminated by the black magic of the oaths, the Kikuyu
people were transformed from peace-loving though nave people into atavistic
savages who could not control their impulse for atrocious killings.
This official version of the rebellion was established by two monumental
scientific studies. Both published in 1954, L.S.B. Leakeys Defeating Mau Mau and
Dr. J.C. Carotherss The Psychology of Mau Mau offered an anthropological
interpretation and an ethno-psychiatric reasoning respectively to backup such disease
theory. Brandishing a panoptic quasi-scientific viewpoint (Said 215) to
psychologizeand produce knowledge aboutthe Mau Mau rebellion, Leakey and
Carothers diverted attention from Kikuyu peoples real grievances and instead molded
the rebellion into its dominant image as myth. Leakey and Carothers reasoned that
the ameliorating but rapid social change brought out by the European civilization had
disturbed the mental health of the African in transition (Lonsdale, Mau Mau 410).
Frightened by the sudden ruin of their traditional life styles, the Kikuyu people, they
suggested, were allured by the nativistic religion called Mau Mau-ism for mental
security. Appropriating the traditional Kikuyu tribal ritual oathing to shock the
Kikuyu people, Mau Mau exploited Kikuyu peoples mental instability, turning
them into atavistic killers.
However, as colonial discourse provided the first cornerstone to mythologize the
Mau Mau rebellion, the real crisis of the Mau Mau memory would happen when it
finally became a de facto memory. Marshaled by Kenyas founding father Jomo
Kenyatta, the post-independence state of Kenya had imposed a policy of amnesia to
suppress the Mau Mau memory (Clough 256). As early as in his 1962 speech to a

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crowd of Kenyas peasants, Kenyatta had taken up the Britishs stigmatization of the
Mau Mau rebellion. Charged as the Mau Mau mastermind by the British and as a
result detained throughout the emergency, Kenyatta nevertheless appropriated and
extended colonial discourse to condemn the Mau Mau rebellion as a disease which
had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again (qtd. in Clough 255).
Following its presidents open denunciation of the Mau Mau rebellion, the postindependence state accordingly propagandized slogans like Forgive and Forget and
We all fought for freedom (Elkins 360-61) to discredit the Mau Mau rebellions
contribution to Kenyas independence. With the suppression of memorializing the
Mau Mau rebellion as an anti-colonial resistance movement, the post-independence
state then collaborated with the colonizers to mythologize the rebellion.
b. The counter-myth: the nationalist myth
In the 1960s, a conspicuous voice emerged to challenge this first version of the
Mau Mau myth. Dissatisfied with the demonization of their resistance efforts by the
British and their neo-colonial successor, former Mau Mau fighters began to selfportray their aims and activities in participating the rebellion. Starting with J.M.
Kariukis Mau Mau Detainee (1963),5 these Mau Mau memoirs refuted the
psychological myth charted out by the colonialist official version. Under their
portrayal, Mau Mau rebels were by no means atavistic savages but, rather, heroic
fighters of the Land and Freedom Army who were inspired by patriotism to fight for
Kenyas independence. Claiming their contributions to Kenyas independence, these
Mau Mau memoirs attempted to legitimize the Mau Mau rebellion as a righteous antiimperial resistance movement.

Along with Kariukis Mau Mau Detainee, some of the most notable Mau Mau memoirs include:
Karari Njamas Mau Mau from Within (1966), a first-person narrative co-written with the radical
anthropologist Donald Barnett; and Mau Mau General (1967), written by one of the most famous
Mau Mau generals, Waruhiu Itote.

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This revisionist version of the Mau Mau rebellion was further supported by the
publication of Carl G. Rosberg, Jr. and John Nottinghams The Myth of Mau Mau:
Nationalism in Kenya in 1966. In this pioneering academic study on the origins of the
Mau Mau rebellion, Rosberg and Nottingham explicitly demonstrated their revisionist
spirit to the colonial myth of the Mau Mau rebellion: In suggesting that the European
conception of Mau Mau constituted a myth, we maintain that Mau Mau was indeed
an integral part of an ongoing, rationally conceived nationalist movement (xvii). In
contrast to the colonial discourses blame on the African side, Rosberg and
Nottingham attributed the eruption of the Mau Mau rebellion to a European failure:
it was the failure of the European oppressors to recognize the social and political
strains on the Kikuyu people that eventually drove the ordinary people into pursuing
violence. Identifying the Mau Mau rebellion with the militant nationalism, The
Myth of Mau Mau countered the colonial myth of the rebellion as manifestation of
savagery and instead credited it as a paradigmatic expression of African nationalism
(xvii).
c. Demystifying and re-mystifying the Mau Mau rebellion
To counterattack the colonial and neo-colonial cooperation of mythologizing the
Mau Mau rebellion, Mau Mau fighters themselves and the first academic writing
asserted the nationalist quality of the rebellion. Under their portrayal, the movement
is represented as the legitimate expression of African nationalism to resist the
subjugation of colonial rule. However, as Robert Buijtenhuijs observes, the new
alliance between the Mau Mau fighters and the earliest historians created the African
myth of Mau Mau (qtd. in Clough 259). While these revisionists located the Mau
Mau rebellion within the sanctuary of nationalism, they forgot to attend to one of the
significant features of this movement: its ethnic dimension. Indeed, the Mau Mau

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rebellion was not so much a wholesale national movement participated by all Kenyan
natives as a regionally and ethnically restricted rebellion led by one ethnic group, the
Kikuyu. Can such an ethnic-bound movement be valorized as a heroic nationalist
anti-colonial resistance?6
This question has come to be a focal point in the debates of later Mau Mau
historiography. As Peter Simatei observes, two clamorous voices have emerged to
dominate the current debates over the role of the Mau Mau rebellion. Led by Kenyas
prominent historian Bethwell A. Ogot, a group of so-called Nairobi historians, most
of them non-Kikuyu, have argued that instead of being an all-sweeping nationalist
movement, the Mau Mau war was at best a mere internecine feud among the
Kikuyu (Versions 154). They observe that the overt attention on the Mau Mau
rebellion has restricted the fruits of freedom within certain interested groups,
marginalizing other peoples contributions to Kenyas independence.7 In contrast to
the first threads argument that the Mau Mau rebellion was a internal tribal war of
Kikuyu people, advocates of the second group have dwell[ed] on [the Mau Mau
rebellions] social significance and have offered deconstructions of colonialist and

6
In this review of Mau Mau historiography, I have tried to schematize the different
representations of the Mau Mau rebellion into three distinct phases by investigating the debates and
agreements within historians discussions. While I would like to suggest that historians have generally
agreed upon the development of the first two phases, that is, how the first myth of the rebellion was
collaboratively created by the colonizers and their successors, and how the revisionists accordingly
created a nationalist myth to counteract the first myth, what I try to chart out in the third phase
actually remains an on-going battlefield of unclosed debates. Therefore, in the so-called third phase of
Mau Mau historiography, I will simply explore one conspicuous trajectorythe ethnic problem of the
Mau Mau rebellionwithin the current debates among historians.
7
The debates over the ethnic problem of the Mau Mau rebellion reached the peak in the 1986
Historical Association conference. In a paper presented in his absence, the British historian John
Lonsdale writes in his paper that However one approaches the subject, Mau Mau is an
embarrassment. In the following question and answer section, Kenyan historian William Ochieng
immediately picked up the sentence to confirm that Yes, Mau Mau is an embarrassment to all of us,
with an explanation that the rebellion had been appropriated by the Kikuyu elites to secure their rule by
recognizing the Mau Mau rebellion. However, the next day newspaper excised Ochiengs explanation,
retaining only the provocative statement: Mau Mau is an embarrassment. The following fervent
public debates, which once again stimulated Mau Mau fighters self-valorization and the criticisms that
Ochieng received, which focused on his ethnic and generational exclusivenessdemonstrate how the
Mau Mau rebellion has been and remains a sensitive topic in Kenyan national narratives. See E.S.
Atieno-Odhiambos The Production of History in Kenya: The Mau Mau Debate, Canadian Journal
of African Studies 25.2 (1991), especially pp. 300-02.

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conservative versions of the war (Versions 155). These radicals have not only
succeeded the earlier revisionists recognition of the Mau Mau rebellion as a glorified
anti-colonial resistance movement, but have further extended it into an inspiring
symbol in resisting the continued colonialist suppression in the post-independence
state.8
In Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa, the book co-written with the
political scientist Bruce Berman, the British historian John Lonsdale has intervened in
the current dichotomized contestations over the ethnicity of the Mau Mau rebellion by
evoking the question of moral economy. In a long essay that extends into two
separate chapters with the shared title The Moral Economy of Mau Mau, Lonsdale
has explored how the seemingly incompatible opposition of ethnicity and nationality
can be dissolved on the grounds of morality: [T]ribes, Lonsdale observes, like
nationsand they are alike in most respects other than in their lack of a stateare
changing moral arenas of political debate (267). Lonsdale points out that both
parties within the ethnic problem debateswhat Lonsdale identifies as liberals and
radicals have been mocked by the myth of modernization, and thus both have
failed to attend to the dynamics of Mau Maus ethnicity (315). While Lonsdale
rejects liberals accusation that ethnicity is limited, he meanwhile disavows the
master narrative pursued by radicals. He observes that the more productive way to
investigate the Mau Mau rebellion should move away from the question Why did
Kenyan nationalism fail? to the question Why did colonial Kenyas African politics
take the forms that it did? (315). With an emphasis on the internal struggle that the
Kikuyu people underwent under colonial rule, Lonsdale has relocated the discussions
concerning the ethnic problem to bridge the gap of ethnicity and nationality of the
Mau Mau rebellion.
8
Ngugis participation and contribution to the Mau Mau debate will be further discussed in the
following chapter.

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III: Overview of the chapters


Chapter One of this thesis will explore the different constructions of the Mau
Mau rebellion as myth in Mau Mau historiography; it will also map out the
structure of the thesis as a whole. As I have begun to discuss in this proposal, the
collaboration of the colonial and neo-colonial powers created the first myth of the
rebellion. I would like to suggest that by mythologizing the rebellion as a
psychological disease of the Kikuyu people, the first myth not only disavowed the
economic and political grievances suffered by the Kikuyu people but also attempted
to delegitimize the Mau Mau rebellion as the righteous resistance of the oppressed.
Following this mapping of the first myth of the rebellion, I will then explore how the
second myththe nationalist mythemerged in the 1960s. I would like to argue that
with the negligence to attend to one of the most significant features of the rebellion
its ethnicitythe revisionist version of the Mau Mau rebellion failed to ground the
rebellion as a glorious nationalist movement but rather once again perpetrated a
mythologization of the rebellion. After examining the two classic myths of the Mau
Mau rebellion, I will end with an examination of one major trajectory within current
Mau Mau historiography: the ethnic problem of the Mau Mau rebellion. By
borrowing Lonsdales idea of moral economy to intervene in the current
formulation of the Mau Mau rebellion as a dichotomized opposition between ethnicity
and nationality, I would like to suggest that the ongoing discussions of the rebellion
have demystified and re-mystified the rebellion, which remains subject to new modes
of representation and narration.
Chapter Two will turn to Ngugi wa Thiongo literary representation of the Mau
Mau rebellion in his classic postcolonial novel A Grain of Wheat (1967). In this

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novel, Ngugi brings us back to the eve of Kenyan independence on 12 December


1963 to reexamine the meaning of freedom in a community divided by different
loyalties. Through the dramatization of the motif of betrayal, Ngugi revisits the
wreckages brought out by the Mau Mau rebellion yet suggests that the memory of the
Mau Mau rebellion is betrayed by the post-independence state. Composed in the
context of the state-sanctioned amnesia of the Mau Mau rebellion, A Grain of Wheat
critiques how the post-independence state had disavowed the Mau Mau rebellions
contribution to Kenyan independencethat the fruits of freedom gained by the
peasant-led anti-colonial resistance had been appropriated by the nationalist elites.
My reading of Ngugis novel would like to highlight how Ngugi deliberately employs
multiple perspectives to dramatize the disintegration of a community brought out by
the Mau Mau rebellion and through the structure of this narrative, further rejects the
master narrative upheld by the post-independence state. By depicting how a
disintegrated communityboth on the individual level and in the nation as a whole
had tried to mend its broken parts back to unity through a confrontation with its past,
Ngugi reminds us of the importance of memorializing the Mau Mau rebellion as a
way to figure out Kenyas future.
Chapter Three will investigate an updated reconsideration of the Mau Mau
rebellion in M.G. Vassanjis novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003).
Narrated by the protagonist Vikram Lall, the novel depicts how his community, the
African-Asians in Kenya, had complicated the colonial scenario of a white-black
racial clash with their in-betweenness. Vassanjis novel deliberately interweaves the
life story of Vikram and his community with political developments in Kenya from
the late colonial period all the way to the post-independence period. My reading of
Vassanjis novel will investigate how this angle of memorializing the Mau Mau

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rebellion has been made absent in both the narratives of Mau Mau historiography
and Ngugis A Grain of Wheat: the white-black opposition that dominated the
memory of the rebellion had excluded the voice of African-Asians. While Ngugi uses
co-present multiple voices to oppose the suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion,
Vassanji formulates a first-person narrative in a dialogical structure: the in-between
protagonist Vikram is constantly propelled to undergo numerous modes of
negotiations between different temporalities and localities, in Kenya and in Canada.
With the presentation of an in-between Indian voice to re-narrate the Mau Mau
rebellion, Vassanji thereby provides new perspectives that further enlarge the
understanding of this historical event.
Chapter Four will conclude this thesis. After investigating the triangular
dialogue of Mau Mau historiography, Ngugis A Grain of Wheat, and Vassanjis The
In-Between World of Vikram Lall, this thesis would like to suggest the multifacetedness of the Mau Mau rebellion. As a history refusing to be enclosed, the
contested memory of the Mau Mau rebellion will demand its pursuers to constantly
explore its meanings and, through such remembrance, to think of a better future.

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