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Reviewed by:
  • Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire
  • Godwin Murunga (bio)
David Anderson , Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005) xii + 406 pp., US$25.95, 0-393-05986-3 (cased).

There are two main problems a scholar is likely to confront when writing on the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya. The first is the challenge of crafting a study in a field that boasts a large historiography. Wading through this historiography to produce a story that advances the frontiers of knowledge and introduces new empirical data is always a daunting task. The second is how to construct a narrative that establishes the centrality of Mau Mau to Kenya's decolonization without minimizing the role of other nationalist movements and actors who were neither Mau Mau nor Kikuyu. David Anderson must surely have faced these challenges. How did he deal with them?

Anderson's study begins by examining internal debates within Kikuyu society, related to colonial rule, and answering questions about African wages, the Kipande, African elected representation, and land. His analysis of these four issues establishes that they remained the basic reasons for African protests and rebellion even as violence manifested itself as black-on-black. He shows that three political groups within Kikuyu society emerged as these debates grew; these were the conservatives, the moderate nationalists and the militant nationalists. Three episodes frame his discussion of how the Mau Mau rebellion developed from its initial ad hoc skirmishes to its more sustained, carefully planned, and systematically executed militant engagement. These were the Thuku protests, the emergence of independent schools and churches and the Carter Land Commission findings. Through an analysis of the status of the Kikuyu tenants who worked on European farms,1 the problem of land hunger in Kikuyu reserves,2 and the poverty and disaffection of the Kikuyu population in Nairobi's African quarters,3 Anderson shows how militancy grew around specific grievances and coalesced through political mobilization leading to the rebellion. Chapter 6 studies the organization and actual execution of fighting in the Aberdares and Mt. Kenya forests under Dedan Kimathi, Stanley Mathenge, and General China (Waruhiu Itote), while Chapter 7 looks at the British deployment of violence in the detention camp.4

In explaining the growth of militancy, Anderson is acutely aware that the basis of the Mau Mau insurrection contained the potential to divide Kikuyu society while uniting the Europeans. In tracing the initial acts of violence to the expulsion of Kikuyu squatters in the Rift Valley, Anderson shows how the desperation that this created linked the land hunger within the Kikuyu reserves with decay and inhumanity in African urban locations in Nairobi. But a process of differentiation had already taken place in Kikuyu society between those with traditional authority, those educated and in good employment, and those whose [End Page 1129] basis for survival depended on waged employment or tenancy. Such differentiation followed an urban-rural pattern. It also followed European settlement patterns and missionary preferences in providing schools and churches that created an educated cadre of Kikuyu. From the 1930s onwards, tensions between Kikuyu benefactors from the colonial system (especially chiefs) and urban tai tai on the one hand and the dispossessed landless tenants and unemployed urban dwellers on the other hand became sharp. The tensions were aggravated by the findings of the Carter Land Commission which "effectively extinguished all African claims to lands occupied by whites."5

The 1940s were marked by European prosperity and further African dispossession. Prosperity allowed settlers to mechanize agriculture and to demand more from African wage labor while reducing tenant access to land and wages. The settlers also remained completely unwilling to share political representation, seeking instead to push the colonial state to grant them more controlling rights over Africans, property ownership and agricultural produce. "European prosperity triggered African misery" in ways that fed growing disaffection, linked rural to urban grievances and send many Africans into the camp of militant nationalist, the camp controlled by muhimu, the central organizing committee of urban militants.6 For Anderson, the problem of tenancy at Olenguruone...


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