The intangible narration of the ‘Emergency’: Different layers of trauma construction of the Mau Mau uprising

As I write this post, there are hearings going on in the British High Court, where elderly Kenyans are giving testimonies on the abuse they suffered in British concentration camps in the 1950s, including forced labor, rape and mutilations. There are more than 40,000 survivors, who are suing the British government this time. This lawsuit follows the one that ended in 2013, in which four Kenyans won a case, gaining compensation for more than 5000 survivors, who were held captive and abused in the system of concentration camps called ‘the Pipeline’, and also in restricted villages, during the so-called Mau Mau Emergency.

The current lawsuit gives us the opportunity to take a closer look on the reconstruction of the collective memory of the Mau Mau uprising, and its effects on the political discourses on different levels. What makes this task intriguing is the intertwining of the manifold ways of trauma work, the emergence of a powerful political symbol, and the aftermath of the colonial era. How do these lawsuits twist the otherwise already greatly diversified attempts on trauma work?


“Settle in Kenya, Britain’s youngest and most attractive colony”

Advertisement in a British newspaper (Elkins, 2005)

Kenya spent a relatively short and violent time under British colonial rule (Alam, 2007). During colonization, British settlers mostly acquired land in the most fertile Central Province, which later became known as the White Highlands, and which happened to be the home of the largest ethnic group of Kenya, the Kikuyu (Furedi, [1989] 2016). By confining Kikuyu people, to live in reservations their living conditions generally worsened. This resulted in the Mau Mau uprising, in which Kenyans mobilized to reclaim their land and freedom. The Europeans’ declared state of emergency in response, also called ‘Mau Mau Emergency’. (Elkins, 2005). It was a long period of harsh repression of the uprising. Men, mostly Kikuyu, suspected to be associated with the Mau Mau were brought to concentration camps. Women and children, more than 1,000,000 people, were transferred to restricted villages (Melegh, 2015).

According to the Harvard historian, Caroline Elkins, Kenyans in these camps and villages were subject to abuse, rape, and forced labor. The system of circa 100 concentration camps was called ‘the Pipeline’, which was said to serve the ‘rehabilitation’ of the Mau Mau rebels, starting with one breaking the Kikuyu oath (Elkins, 2016), thought to be a special Mau Mau characteristic (Furedi, [1989] 2016). ‘The Pipeline’ had to be emptied and closed after the scandal caused by the death of eleven detainees from forced labor and torture. There’s evidence on the central colonial administration’s approval of the use of torture on detainees, and that British politicians, and even Churchill knew about the details of the government’s and settlers’ actions in Kenya (Elkins, 2016).


“Collective traumas are not found; they are made”

Jeffrey C. Alexander in Trauma: A Social Theory (2012)

There is a particular formation in collective memory, that I will call collective trauma in the sense of Jeffrey C. Alexander. Collective traumas are culturally constructed (thus traumatic is not an inherent quality), and generally but not exclusively such events that are deeply traumatic on a personal level too. There is constant struggle for the construction of a collective trauma, for the reinforcement or reshaping of collective identity through it (Alexander, 2012). The evidence is showing that the construction of such a collective trauma was made difficult by historical circumstances on different levels in Kenyan society, and also from the British side.

In order to understand workings of collective memory, one should consider it as a dynamic process, and focus on the ways and reasons in the changing of the narrations of the past. These changes of memory are rather complex phenomena, since events are remembered as chains of events, using Hayden White’s term, these events are narrativized. In the analysis of collective memory, one should examine the chain of events, and how this the change of one element changes the whole chain, which must still keep up the appearance of a consistent plot  (Zerubavel, 2003, Olick 2007).


 “But how can one arrest the wheels of history?”

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenyan intellectual (1993)

One of the levels, where remembering the repression is obstructed, is the local level, the everyday life of the survivors. As one of the interviewees, Esther, explains in the BBC documentary, White Terror, that it can be shameful to talk about the abuses suffered under the ‘Emergency’. One cannot talk about rape and castration, and the fact that even when both spouses survived, they were not able to have children in many cases, which led to several women leaving their husbands. Esther talks about how she decided to have children anyway, not telling them while growing up, that their biological father was not her husband. She says, that otherwise they would not have respected her husband the way a father should be respected. The silence could be so deafening in some cases, that there were children growing up not knowing that their parents or grandparents were kept in one of the concentration camps.

With time, discourse on Mau Mau in Kenya has became more open, and the narratives of the events has grown to be more diverse, as the memories of the uprising mix with the different interpretation of the current political situation. We can see from Paterson’s paper, that the narration of the events hugely depends on one’s ethnic origins, since current tensions between ethnic groups influence readings of the past. This is important since Mau Mau as a mostly Kikuyu movement, has been used as a powerful political symbol on the national level (Paterson, 2016). There can be seen some change in the situation with for example the Mau Mau not being a banned movement since 2002.


Mau Mau “must never be remembered”

Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president after its independence

The issue of how Mau Mau is narrated is highly political and connected to ideology and power, which we can observe on the level of national politics too (Sabar-Friedman, 1995). The first black majority government after independence was led by Jomo Kenyatta. He was previously imprisoned for being involved with the Mau Mau, but by the time he was convicted, he had already cut ties with the group. As the first president of Kenya, he stabilized the relationship with the British becoming that moderate, conservative ally, they wished for (Anderson, 2005). Kenyatta worked for national independence that demanded of him to incorporate the European views on Mau Mau to some extent, while his relation to the uprising remained more complicated and conflicted (Sabar-Friedman, 1995). The first government marginalized the Mau Mau in the narration of the independence, tried not to focus on the events of the uprising (Furedi, [1989] 2016). Kenyatta himself used to refer to the importance of “forgive and forget” and how Kenya should “bury the past” (Anderson, 2005).

The following president of Kenya reopened the case of the Mau Mau to gain more support among the Kikuyu. During the Moi regime, from 1978 to 1992, the uprising was used with constant shifts in the narration of the uprising, specifically in its place on the ethnic versus national scale. However, the topic of the uprising was an issue intentionally mentioned only in speeches given on national holidays. This carried great importance, as the Mau Mau as a symbol proved to be powerful in Kenyan political discourse, and could serve as a tool for creating the sense of divisions and unity (Sabar-Friedman, 1995).

Moreover the Mau Mau was applied by opposition groups and intellectuals in the political struggle. When demanding the introduction of a multi-party system in Kenya, many people sang songs with lyrics that referenced the Mau Mau. Such occasions shed light to an important characteristic of the discursive use of the Mau Mau, since in the public discourse the movement was mostly evoked through indirect references, which still unmistakably pointed at the symbol of political struggle, that the uprising has become  (Sabar-Friedman, 1995).

These examples illustrate the great array of meanings and forms that were given to the Mau Mau since the independence of the country, and how they were constructed as part of the collective memory of the Kenyan nation.

“If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.”

Kenyan attorney general Eric Griffiths-Jones in a 1957 memorandum

When the British hastily closed the concentration camps, they ordered officials to destroy documents that can serve as proof of the atrocities and abuses. The amount of documentation was so great, that they struggled to burn all of it in such a short time. This was not an unusual step in the history of British decolonization, it is thickly larded with destruction of documentation and state secrecy.

During and since the lawsuit in 2013, British officials have used different strategies trying to avoid any liability. These range from claiming that since the British left 1963, it is the Kenyan government that should be held accountable for the incidents, through the notion of the Foreign Office’s lawyer that it would not be possible to find the alleged perpetrators of the abuses, to the claim that too much time has passed, and it is not possible to have a fair trial anymore.

It is obviously inadmissible for the British administration to admit the colonial crimes committed, and to question the image of the benevolent Empire, since the colonial past is still a prevalent constitutive element of British identity promoted by the establishment. In the current lawsuit, then-foreign secretary, William Hague makes it clear in his responses, that the British are not willing to admit liability in this case, or any other case related to colonial-era abuses, and that the former Kenyan case is to be handled as a single exception.


“I said gosh, you know, I know nothing about this”

Caroline Elkins, historian in “Mau Mau.” Narrated by Jamie York (2015).

There has been intensive trauma work done on the Mau Mau uprising, even if it was distorted, or did not add up to an integrated narrative. How do the lawsuits on the British High Court add to these ways of construction? In 1999 there was already an unsuccessful attempt of a group of Kenyans to get compensation for the abuses they have suffered during the repression of the uprising. What made the successful 2013 lawsuits possible, is the work of two Western historians, Elkins and Anderson, whose works, both published in 2005, reframed the events of the Mau Mau uprising as they both focused on the suffering of the Kenyan victims caused by British cruelty (Paterson, 2016). So we have to zoom out to this field, and see that the power relations are the remnants of those of the colonial system, and where there needs to be further grounding for the claims of the elderly Kenyans seeking justice in Britain, than their claims supposed validity.

What was more important in the work of these scholars for the case? The fact, that they validated the claim of the survivors by writing in the West, and drawing international attention to the events. Or them, serving evidence and also giving testimonies in court (Paterson, 2016). It is known, that Elkins’s way of framing her work as a personal discovery, helped her book get the recognition it did. She has been criticized by scholars for the style and setting of her research, but it can also be recognized as a tool used smartly, to get the public’s attention to the abuses suffered by the Mau Mau veterans.



In the complex system of postcolonial condition a phenomenon like the Mau Mau uprising and its consequences are manifold, when the constructed narrations of the events diplay a colorful variation. These variants appear in the Kenyan political life in a repressed manner, surrounded by the underlying tensions of the past and current struggles. The current lawsuit of Mau Mau survivors is an example is at least as much a struggle for the power to narrate one’s history, then it is for the material compensation. These narrations are all possibilities for the construction of this collective trauma – a narrative which attempts to embrace the complex reality of the anticolonial struggle.


Post by Ági Fernengel, pictures from The GuardianBBC, Al Jazeera



Alam, S. M. S. (2007). Rethinking Mau Mau in colonial Kenya (1st ed). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Alexander, J. C. (2012). Trauma: a social theory. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity.

Anderson, D. (2005). Histories of the hanged: the dirty war in Kenya and the end of empire (1st American ed). New York: W.W. Norton.

Elkins, C. (2005). Imperial reckoning: the untold story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (1st ed). New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Elkins, C. (2016). A Mau Mau-felkelés Kenyában és a brit gyarmati terror. [Excerpts from the testimony of Caroline Elkins.] Eszmélet, 28(111), 184-205.

Furedi, F. (2016). A Mau Mau háború – történelmi távlatból. Eszmélet, 28(111), 206-220.

Melegh, A. (2015). Globális ötvenes évek. Eszmélet, 27(105), 182-191.

Ngugi, wa T. (1993). Moving the Center: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom. (Nairobi: Hainemann)

Olick, J. K. (2007). The politics of regret: on collective memory and historial responsibility. New York: Routledge.

Paterson, T. (2016, April). Mau Mau Remembered: How Narratives Transform and Reflect Power and Identity in Kenya. Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut.

Sabar-Friedman, G. (1995). The Mau Mau Myth : Kenyan Political Discourse in Search of Democracy. Cahiers d’études africaines, 35(137), 101–131.

Zerubavel, E. (2003). Time maps: collective memory and the social shape of the past. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.

York, J. (2015). Mau Mau. Radiolab, July 3, accessed January 28, 2016.


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