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Mau Mau

Mau Mau Uprising or Rebellion was a guerilla war between African Mau Mau rebels and British and Kenyan forces in Kenya.

Mau Mau (kikuyu for “burning spear”) was a semi-clandestine insurgent organization in Kenya. It was mainly composed of members of Kikuyu tribe with many Embu and Meru as well. British banned Mau Mau 1950 but they just went underground. Initially they numbered maybe 150.000.

One of the reasons for Kikuyu enmity was an influx of white settlers to so-called “White Highlands” after World War Two. In 1952 there were 42,000 white European settlers living in Kenya, alongside 1.25 million Africans.

By 1950 Kikuyu resistance in White Highlands increased to violence and sabotage against white settlers. Still, even kikuyu members of the Kenya Legislative Council doubted that Mau Mau would actually exist in significant numbers. In Nairobi, sympathizers collected funds and even acquired ammunition and guns by various means. By 1952 assaults upon Europeans become more frequent and extended to districts of Nakuru[?], Naivasha[?] and the Laikipia[?]. In October, conflict became a full-scale war.

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Mau Mau

Mau Mau exploited Kikuyu ritual traditions and bound their members – many of them unwillingly - to their cause with blood oath[?] rituals. Those who refused were tortured and killed. Mau Mau oaths stated that a member should never inform on other member or sell land or otherwise assist the Europeans. They swore to drive out all white settlers and kill them when they were told to. Initiation ritual included sacrifice of a sheep, cutting off its heart and drinking its blood mixed with the blood of participants. Further degrees of membership required additional oaths and additional rituals. Afterwards they made three tiny scratches on the left wrist and called it “Ndemure Ithatu”.

Mau Mau begun with attacks against other Africans who refused to join them, even under intimidation, or who they suspected of being informers.

At the same time they formed armed guerilla force they called Land Freedom Army. They were armed with spears, “simi”s (native longswords), “kiboko”s (rhino hide whips) and “panga”s (version of machete made of soft iron). Panga was their favorite weapon. They also made their own guns and also stole or captured 460 guns. Many of the homemade guns exploded when fired.

Mau Mau hid in bamboo forests of the Aberdare and Mount Kenya[?]. They had lookouts and hideouts for clothes, weapons and even an armoury. Still they were apparently short of equipment. They used pit traps to defend their hideouts in Mount Kenya forests.

Mau Mau soldiers originally dressed in khaki shorts and tunics with no badges to speak of. They let their beards grow to look fiercer. They wanted to portray themselves as ferocious warriors. Mau mau organized themselves with a cell structure but many armed bands also used British military ranks and organizations. They also had their own judges that could hand out fines and other penalties. Associating with non-Mau Mau was punishable by fine or worse.

Average Mau Mau band was about 100 strong. Different bands and their leaders had their differences. Leaders demanded total obedience from their members. Three of the most dominant leaders were Stanley Methengi[?]; Waruhiu Itote[?] (known as General China), leader of Mount Kenya Mau Mau; and Dedan Kimathi[?], leader of Mau Mau of Aberdari forest. Dedan Kimathi was a self-declared “Knight Commander of the African Hemisphere and Lord of the Southern Hemisphere”.

Reputedly the loyalty rituals at their worst begun to include ritual cannibalism, bestiality and necrophilia[?] with goats and sexual orgies. Ritual places were decorated with intestines and goat's eyes. Oaths now included promise to kill, dismember and burn. In what extent these rituals happened is unclear.

Mau Mau attacked in darkness – often in dinnertime. They attacked mainly isolated farms but occasionally also households in suburbs of Nairobi.

Mau Mau used brutal tactics. They killed and mutilated people – including Kikuyu policemen - with their pangas. They mutilated livestock and burned down buildings. Victims were sometimes found devoured, disemboweled, dismembered, decapitated, strangled, buried alive or cut in half. They often cut off the hands and the head of the body so the victim could not be identified.

State of Emergency

On October 20 1952 British Colonial Secretary[?] Oliver Lyttleton[?] declared the state of emergency[?] in Kenya and informed the British House of Commons. Amount of violence increased. Governor accused native political leaders with complicity and security forces arrested 183 of them, including Jomo Kenyatta.

One battalion of Lancashire Fusiliers[?] was flown from the Middle East to Nairobi in the first day. 2nd Battalion of King's African Rifles[?] already in Kenya was enforced from one battalion from Uganda and two companies from Tanganyika. Royal Air Force sent pilots. Cruiser Kenya came to Mombasa harbor with Royal Marines. During the conflict, other British units like Royal Highland Regiment served for a short time. The British fielded 55,000 troops in total.

Start was not an easy. British forces were short of reliable intelligence. Senior British officers thought that Mau Mau were a sideshow compared to Malayan Emergency. Some soldiers could not make out a difference between Mau Mau and ordinary Africans. Many collected cut-off Mau Mau hands to collect unofficial 5-shilling bounty for killed enemies. They apparently also shot completely innocent people.

White settlers – many of them upper middle class - fired all their Kikuyu help because they feared that any – if not all - of them would be a secret Mau Mau. They armed themselves with anything they could find or smuggle and in some cases built full-scale forts. Women carried holstered guns with them. Many white settlers also joined auxiliary police units like Kenya Regiment.

British colonial officials were also suspicious of all Kikuyu. They apparently regarded KCA (Kikuyu Central Association) as political wing of Mau Mau. They made carrying a gun and associating with Mau Mau a capital offence. Most of the Kikuyu tribe was resettled to “new villages”, detention camps.

In January 24 1953 Mau Mau killed Ruck family - mother, father and a 6-year-old son - in their farm. They were killed with pangas, possibly by their former household help.

In March 25-26 1953 Mau Mau attacked a village of Lari, where they burned 84-150 (sources disagree) non-Mau Mau Kikuyu alive in their huts. Most of them were wives and children of Kikuyu Home Guard soldiers serving elsewhere.

British and non-Mau Mau native soldiers answered in kind with beatings and summary executions.

In May 1953 Kikuyu Home Guard became an official part of the security forces. It became the significant part of the anti-Mau Mau effort. Many were members of allied tribes or Africans converted to Christianity. They organized their own espionage network and made punitive raids to areas that were suspected of harboring or supporting Mau Mau.

Senior Chief Njiri suggested that unwilling Mau Mau could be “de-oathed”, released from their oaths by appropriate counter-rituals. Colonial authorities authorized this. Fee was 2 shillings.

In 1953 Mau Mau forces begun to decline, possibly because of military action bit also for their internal squabbles. In the same year the colonial government created so-called pseudo-gangs composed of de-oathed and turned ex-Mau Mau and allied Africans with white officers. They tried to infiltrate Mau Mau ranks and made search and destroy missions Pseudo-gangs also included white settler volunteers who even tried to disguise themselves as Africans.

In late 1953 security forces swept the Aberdare forest in the Operation Blitz and captured and killed 125 guerillas.

In January 15 1954 Waruhiu Itote was captured. He was briefly hospitalized and then heavily interrogated. Later he was put into negotiation table with the Mount Kenya Mau Mau forces in the China Peace Overture, which lasted only three months and failed.

In April 1954 army launched Operation Anvil in Nairobi. The city was put under military siege. Security forces screened 30.000 and arrested 17.000 for the slightest suspicion of complicity – including many people that were later revealed to be innocent. They had to prove their innocence or otherwise they would be sent to a detention camps. The city remained under military control for the rest of the year.

By 1955 some 15.000 Mau Mau guerillas were at large. In January King's African Rifles[?] begun Operation Hammer. They combed the forests of Aberdare mountains but met very little resistance – most guerillas had already left. Eventually the operation was moved to Mount Kenya area. There they captured 5500 guerillas and killed 24 of 51 band leaders. Mau Mau were forced deeper into forest.

Most Kikuyu had begun to turn against Mau Mau already. The Kikuyu Home Guard and white soldiers, however, were accused of brutal handling of civilians and prisoners. Interrogations included physical violence and press-gang tactics of village elders shouting at the target to confess. In Hola[?] detention camp 11 were killed and 22-60 injured after the guards tried to force 88 uncooperative prisoners to work. There were also reports of Home Guard soldiers that castrated Mau Mau prisoners with pliers. Governor's attempt to belittle and cover up the incidents lead to widespread condemnation.

Later in the year, amnesty was declared. It both absolved Home Guard members from prosecution and gave Mau Mau soldiers a chance to surrender. Peace talks with Mau Mau collapsed in May 20 1955. Army begun its last offensive against Aberdare Mau Mau. They used heavily pseudo-gangs. By this time Mau Mau were practically out of ammunition.

Last Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi was captured by Kikuyu pseudo-gang police in October 21 1956 in Nyeri[?] with 13 remaining guerillas. British army units left the rest for the Kenyan security forces.


Kimathi was executed early in 1957 and state of emergency was finally lifted in December 1960. Moderate African leaders were admitted to the Legislative Council. Their numbers were doubled the next year, which increased their influence significantly. Jomo Kenyatta was released 1961 and became the first president of the independent Kenya in December 12 1963. Last known active Mau Mau gave up their weapons to him.


As usual, estimates of the death toll vary. Kikuyu Home Guard claimed 4686 killed Mau Mau out of total of 10527 (although other estimates rise to 30.000). Mau Mau were also killed in inter-band fights and internal purges and due to harsh conditions. In the end Mau Mau killed only 32 white settlers – and at least 2484 but maybe up to 11.000 Africans.

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