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Research in African Literatures 30.1 (1999) 154-161

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Versions and Inversions: Mau Mau in Kahiga's Dedan Kimathi:
The Real Story

Peter Simatei

Through the subtitle of his novel Dedan Kimathi: The Real Story, Sam Kahiga situates the text at once at the center of the controversial discourse of Mau Mau historiography. The novel's subtitle makes no real claims to authentic historicity but it nevertheless signals the author's intention to contest the status of prior histories of Mau Mau, histories that he already implicitly considers "unreal." Indeed Kahiga finds it necessary to state in a note to the reader that "a considerable amount of research went into the writing of [the novel]"—an unusual statement from a writer of fiction but one that is meant to forestall stock accusations of inauthenticity, myth-making, and lack of research often leveled against Mau Mau novels by historians.

Kahiga's portrayal of Dedan Kimathi and the Mau Mau war of independence has been shaped by his awareness of and attitudes to the conflictual claims of prior fictional and historical texts. Kahiga's version of the story becomes "real" not because it actually displaces the other versions by its claims to factual verity, but ironically because it tends to present these versions as inevitable elements of the ever evolving Kimathi/Mau Mau narrative.

First, what is the nature of the controversy surrounding the reorganization of facts concerning the Mau Mau revolt? Both fictional and historical discourses on Mau Mau reveal two important tendencies that have in turn led to the classification of these discourses into two broad and contradictory categories. There is first the tendency to portray Mau Mau war as a mere internecine feud among the Kikuyu and in so doing deny its nationalist and liberative impulse. Historian William Ochieng', for example, admits that the revolt was motivated by the desire "to expel the British from Kenya" but goes ahead to emphasize the ethnic nature of the movement and also what he calls the degeneration of the war "into a Kikuyu civil war between the haves and the have-nots, the nationalists and the quislings" (28).The proponents of this view are often criticized for perpetuating the colonialist myth of the war and for colluding with the postindependent ruling class to transform the latter's "record of collaboration into a myth of national struggle by obliterating the social radicalism of Mau Mau"(Maughan-Brown 199).

Falling also into this first category are works of fiction—including autobiographies by former fighters themselves—that stress the degeneration of the freedom fighters into rival groups that, when not raiding each other for arms and food, are robbing villagers of their livestock and grain. Novels such as Godwin Wachira's Ordeal in the Forest and Wamweya's Freedom Struggle tend to do exactly this and so are autobiographies like Gucu Gikonyo's We Foughtfor Freedom and Kiboi Murithi's War in the Forest. The interest of Meja Mwangi in both Taste of Death and Carcass for Hounds lies more in the dramatic [End Page 154] excitements of the clash between the colonial forces and freedom fighters than in any attempt at probing the social dynamics of the revolt. His portrayal of General Haraka, the Kimathi-like figure in Carcass for Hounds, is totally negative, focusing as it were on Haraka's deterioration into a blood-thirsty psychopath who is finally wasted away into a "living carcass" by gangrene he obtains through a bullet wound. An overwhelming sense of futility governs this novel so that Harish Narang's observation that "Mwangi is not only distorting the truth about the freedom struggle but is also proving himself to be a prophet of doom who holds no vision of hope for his readers" (248) holds true.

According to Ali Mazrui, one weakness of most thematizations of Mau Mau lies in their tendency to foreground "individual idiosyncrasies of participants in the movement" to an extent where "the broader social phenomenon which the whole revolt signified" is rendered obscure (9).Yet, and as Mazrui...