Kenya and the Crimes of Colonialism

Kikuyu are rounded up for internment and interrogation
during white Kenya’s “Operation Anvil”, April 24th 1954

The dirty war Britain fought to maintain its control of Kenya was tantamount to genocide.

The entire Kikuyu nation (the largest national group within Kenya) was considered to be under the sway of the Mau Mau insurgents, and treated accordingly.

Hundreds of thousands of men were sent to prison camps, while almost the entire female population (along with children and elderly) were imprisoned in fortified “villages” set up by the British, surrounded by spiked trenches and barbed wire, the site of torture, starvation and forced slave labour.

Indeed, at one point or another almost the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million were detained.

Such are the crimes of colonialism.

Earlier this year i read an interesting book – Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson – which recounts and explains the most important episodes of this dirty war. From my position of ignorance, it was a good introduction to the history of the anti-colonial struggle in Kenya, and (amongst its strengths) Anderson’s book provides ample description of the role class struggle within the Kikuyu nation played. (Indeed, while Mau Mau killed almost two thousand African collaborators, only thirty two European settlers were killed during the entire rebellion – estimates of the number of Mau Mau killed range from 12,000 to 20,000.)

As a liberal “coming to terms” with Britain’s colonial crimes, Anderson’s book works. There is an unfortunate bias, though, in that the thread he follows is the list of incidents around which men were sentenced to die by the settler government (merely being a member of or associating with members of the Mau Mau was a capital crime). As he notes, the number of men sent to the gallows in Kenya was “more than double the number of executions carried out against convicted terrorists in Algeria, and many more than in all the other British colonial emergencies of the post-war period – in Palestine, Malaya, Cyprus and Aden.” (7)

However, as he also points out, of the 1574 freedom fighters who were sentenced to hang, fewer than thirty were women, and of these every single one had their sentence commuted to a life sentence. So although the British imprisoned the entire female population in prison-villages, although rape and other forms of violence were directed against the Kikuyu women, and although the colonial government time and time again described the women as the most steadfast Mau Mau… women are marginalized from the very title of Histories of the Hanged, by virtue of the fact that they were subject to other mechanisms of social violence and control.


i was making buttons yesterday, and as many of you must know, this means i was looking for podcasts to keep my brain occupied. (I needed a break from Quirks and Quarks…)

I don’t know if it’s just me, but there don’t seem to be a lot of good educational podcasts out there. Seriously, lots of links, but not lots of quality.

Which is why i was particularly pleased to find that Kennesaw State University in Georgia is putting the 2006-2007 Kenya Lecture Series online

The most recent lecture is by Caroline Elkins, Associate Professor of African Studies at Harvard University, whose book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya is a study of concentration camps Britain ran in Kenya during the dirty war. The book took ten years to research, and relies heavily on oral histories of both victims and perpetrators.

I have not read her book, but after listening to her lecture and reading some reviews online it is being added to my list.


While we’re on the subject: can anyone recommend a good book about Mau Mau and the anti-colonial war in Kenya and what it meant to women?


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