Reading ‘The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General’

I first heard about this book via an interview that Jeff Koinange conducted with the author Laura Huttenbach on, KTN, I believe. I am generally interested in Kenya Land Freedom Army  (Mau Mau) struggle for self-determination, and would like to understand it from from different perspectives. Most of the books I had read at that point were centred around Gikuyu Mau Mau guerillas. This was, therefore, a welcome addition because it was telling the story of General Nkungi, Japhlet Thambu, a Meru guerilla. General Nkungi narrates his story from his childhood through to old age, but lays emphasis on the advent of colonialism and the Mau Mau struggle for independence.

The boy is gone cover

  1. We got mixed up!

One of the striking threads of his story (as is the case with many biographies that juxtapose the pre-colonial and colonial period), is the discussion around dismantling of African cultural infrastructure and ways of being.  The General recalls that:

My mother was the one to tell the local women when to plant. She got permission from God, and then she planted. She knew when it will be the time of rain. Women would never plant before she planted. When the missionaries came, they said this was an evil thing. All our good things were called evil. Oh- they cut down our lovely trees, our sacred churches. The Christian people spoiled our wonderful environment. They said, “There is no God there. Do not believe in that tree or whatever is is. We will clear each and everywhere”. Our sacred place was changed by the new religion,. Instead of studying and knowing what we were doing, missionaries imposed completely everything. They did not want to know. They said we had to turn away and leave everything. We had to follow them. Everything of ours was dirty and evil. We lost our connectivity – the traditions – that gathered and joined us together. We got mixed up.


I like the way he puts it. We got mixed up. Yaani, tulichanganyikiwa! This is a very good metaphor of the impact of colonialism on African peoples. Their cultures were uprooted and dumped into the rubbish heap, and the people were left asking – who are we? To be Christian, it appears, is to completely let go of all your heritage that defines your humanity and that helps locate you in your landscape. In this case, the culture was tied to food production systems, ecological cycles, communication with the divine, and harmony between the environment and people. Missionaries dismantle and dismember all of this, and as Wangari Maathai writes in ‘The Challenge for Africa’:

When communities were told that their culture was demonic and primitive, they lost their sense of collective power and responsibility and succumbed, not to the god of love and compassion they knew, but the gods of commercialism, materialism, and individualism. The result was an expanding impoverishment, with the peoples’ granaries and stomachs as empty as their souls.


2. The Nothing Culture!

Following the same train of thought that Wangari Maathai articulates above, the General argues that the long term effect of colonialism is that the people ended up with what he refers to as “the nothing culture”

But the missionaries told us that each and everything was sinful. They said it’s not civilized, its not a good thing – it’s evil, as it does not relate to western civilization. Our people who were Athome, the Christians, they left the custom of our people and cleared {away} all the tradition we were carrying. They think whatever was done was primitive. They have been bent  in the Christianity way, where they had very little learning concerning our country’s [Meru] culture. They read from the book but not from our tradition. They refused to pray to our God on Kirinyaga. They have known another God whom we do not see, neither do we know where He lives. They said He lives in heaven. In our area people ran away from our nice culture with no system and no good leader. We took this white culture in a very wrong way. We did not even know their culture. We mixed our own culture and the other one, and something new came out. Nobody can tell which it is. It is not European culture, not Kimeru Culture – I do not know. We call it “nothing culture”.


A people without a cultural/heritage foundation can be bent into all different directions and blown away by the wind. Culture gives a people a sense of clarity or direction and unity of purporse. With the avdent of myriad Christian denominations, the Ameru people became  methodists, catholics, presbyterians, etc. How many people know of the very democratic Ameru people’s governance systems and other systems of societal organization. Christianity reinforces the belief that there was nothing and no thought proccess before the coming of missionaries. That Africans were just a howling mass of people groping in the darkness. How many people recall the revolutionary resistance of the Ameru people to oppression from Mbwaa (Manda Island), where they were enslaved by the Nguu Ntune/Arabs?



3. British Colonial Corruption

There is a pervasive belief that the so-called white people are not or cannot be corrupt. I love history so much, because it helps dismantle those kinds of myths and arms us with the tools to treat those beliefs with the contempt that they deserve. There is also a misguided belief that Africans were better off under colonialism. Needless to say, this position is informed by a lack of proper engagement or understanding of the destructive legacy of colonialism. Listen to general as he describes the ins and outs of British filthy corruption:

In January I started  work in Meru at the cereal board as assistant to the European marketing officer, Mr. Cross. We had cereal boards to control our produce – maize, beans, peas, chai, grains, millet. All produce was controlled. We had to sell it to the cereal board, and then the cereal board sold it to the brokers to distribute it. The market was for the Europeans because they pay you for the produce, but they never let you know they prices that they are selling. So the farmer brings the produce to the cereal board, and there are a lot of charges. You have to pay the inspection fees, whatever fees, then you get a very low price. Big trucks owned by Indians will come and collect the produce and drive it to Mombasa…You find a European in every situation, They are manning the produce in the stores. A farmer can never sell it direct to the buyer, no. You could never pass through a barrier even with a tin of that produce unless you have a letter from the boss at the cereal board, because they didn’t want anybody to interfere with the market they are selling those things. This was very direct corruption.

It is not very hard to see that this system of farmer exploitation has remained intact, especially in the production of cash crops like tea and coffee.


4. Land dispossession and political awkening and on being “Mbaya sana”

The main grievances put forward by Africans were the loss of land to white settlers and loss of freedom. To put it bluntly, Africans were enslaved on their own land, because they had to work on settler farms to raise money to pay the plethora of taxes that were imposed by the colonial government. When both World Wars Broke out, the British mobilized their colonial subject to go and fight in far off lands. The experiences of these Africans in the wars sparked their political awakening. They started asking questions like: Why am I fighting? Should I be caught up fighting European wars or fighting for my own liberation back home? Whites are not that superior, are they? After all, they are here murdering one another, right?  The General illuminates the scenario.

In Meru we had a DC called Bwana Johnston, but we called him Bithumbi because he has floppy bangs [that] hung over his face. Bwana Johnston had been in the army. Before the war, and African could never ask a question in a meeting. But after, people started asking questions in Bwana Johnston’s meetings. When somebody wanted to ask ask question, the DC would say, “Have you been in the military”?  If the person said yes then Bwana Johnston would say, “No. Sit down. Somebody else who was not in the army can ask a question, but not you. You are Mbaya sana. ” He had know those words in Swahili: Mbaya sana [very bad].

In addition:

Because of that mzungu, our while age group name was changed. The name which our fathers gave to us was Gwantai. But because it was our group who fought in the war, it got changed to Mbaya. Our old name got lost, and we were Mbaya. We liked being called Mbaya sana. We were proud because we knew what it meant.

Mau Mau Getty

5. The Mau Mau war – the forest as an arena for self-determination

The General eventually joined the Mau Mau in the forests and mobilized his compatriots to fight for the land that had been stolen by both the British settlers and missionaries. When the British learnt about his involvement int he revolt, all his coffee trees uprooted and burned.  His timber house was demolished. This was brutal economic sabotage. This is how poverty among Mau Mau guerillas got entrenched, because while they were fighting in the forest, the collaborators and colonizers were plundering their land, crops, livestock, etc. So how did they survive in the forest and what kept them going?

We were sharing the forest with animals. Even Mwariama was in the forest of  [what is today] Meru National Park, living with the very furious animals – lions and leopards – but still those animals were far better to deal with than the British, because those animals could give us meat.


In the forest I kept away from any thinking of my children and family. I was only thinking of the people who we are fighting. We were claiming our land from Europeans. That was the agenda. If you are shot, before you die, you are to scoop some soil and put it in your mouth. That is to say that you are dying because of that soil. You are innocent. And you can never cry. Never. When you are shot, you die without noise. You die without committing any wrong. You did not go to the forest because you wanted to kill anybody, but you were against the people who took your land. That’s the only be belief we put in our head. If you can get soil in your mouth before you die, you have won. You are free now.

Mau Mau Getty 2
When the general was captured, he was thrust into one of these concentration camps.

5. Betrayal by “Black Europeans”

The Mau Mau referred to loyalists and collaborators as “Black Europeans.” To be called so was nothing to be proud of. This was a word imbued with disdain. The Mau Mau fought bravely. They gave their all and remained committed to the ideals of African freedom and dignity to the very end. But the cancer of betrayal lives amongst us. In the end loyalists and collaborators ended up enjoying “matunda ya uhuru. Total betrayal. Is there a God out there who listens to the cry of the oppressed and their descendants?  As the general painfully recalls:

The original people who occupied the land are thinking: You chased me from this land, and you paid nothing to me. You put your cattle on the land, occupied it, whatever you did. I ran away because you chased me away. I was fearing you because of power. Now you want to leave the Shamba, but you sold it to somebody, not me. Instead of the land going back to the original people , “black Europeans”  came in and took all the lands. When the mzungu left, another black man became mzungu.


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The philosophy of the Kiondo

The Kiondo is a basket that is native to Kenya. Embedded in the Kiondo are teachings and philosophies about life, environmental consciousness, social organization, and so much more. What is the philosophy of the Kiondo?

  1. The Kiondo teaches us that to understand anything you have to go to the very beginning, or to the root of the matter. A kiondo is woven by joining several strands of sisal and thread to form the navel, followed by the base, which then supports the cylindrical section. Nobody makes a Kiondo starting from the rim. The Kiondo teaches us that history is important, because history is about going back to the beginning. And the beginning has a bearing on the present.
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2.  The Kiondo encapsulates wholeness/completeness. The Kiondo is essentially a circle, and circles are very important in African cosmology. They represent continuity and connectedness.

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3. The Kiondo is woven by interdependent threads and sisal strings. Nobody weaves a Kiondo using a single thread or sisal rope. Hence, the Kiondo teaches us about interdependence, as expressed in the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which is the belief that you become human in the midst of others, and also that all of nature (including humans as part of nature) is interconnected. In that sense, it teaches us respect, responsibility, and the need to cultivate peaceful co-existence.

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4.  The Kiondo is a good representation of reciprocity. In many cultures the Kiondo or equivalent is what you use to carry a gift/offering when visiting someone. The person you are visiting also puts something for you in the Kiondo before you leave. That is reciprocity. NB: Some of these practices have been watered down by capitalistic ideologies that encourage exploitative relationships.

Mifuko-IMG-Kenya04-Kiondo-baskets-upcycling5. The Kiondo is about nourishment. It is the carrier of food. When you go to the farm, you carry a Kiondo and use it to carry food. When you go to the market, you use the Kiondo to carry food. Food production and associated practices are arenas of knowledge production.

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6. The Kiondo is about environmental consciousness. The Kiondo is about African environmentalism. It is made from elements of the land: sisal (or other fibres), wool, and leather. So, it is about plants and animals – all products of the Land. So, the Kiondo is Land, and Land is the Kiondo.

pikkukiondot2That is the philosophy of the Kiondo. The Kiondo has been largely relegated to the graveyard of primitive objects, and since we are now ‘civilized’, only elders carry Kiondo’s nowadays.  We would rather use plastic bags. What is the philosophy of the plastic bag? The philosophy of the plastic bag is environmental catastrophe. And environmental catastrophe=death. Hence, the philosophy of the plastic bag is DEATH, both for human beings and other living beings. Now, livestock and even the fish in the seas are swallowing plastic bags. Is it not time to return to the philosophy of the Kiondo or other forms of baskets?


On becoming a ‘countryman’- My first encounter with Aboriginal people in Australia’s Northern Territory

In 2012 I joined a group of South African colleagues for an exchange programme/ study tour to Australia’s northern territory. I did not know what to expect but I was sure excited about seeing the country and interacting with different people. We had extensive tours in the area around world famous Kakadu National Park and some fantastic rock art sites in Aboriginal territory. I met and interacted with many Aboriginal Australians and felt a sense of kinship with them. The Aboriginal tribes here refer to white people as balanda. One of the white people in our group asked the Aboriginal people what they would call us the Black Africans who were in the group. The Aboriginal man smiled and said “these are countrymen!” And for the rest of the trip we referred to ourselves as countrymen or country man! It did not bother me in the least that I was not a man. The point is: the connection made on sacred territory.

I am generally interested in conservation of both cultural heritage and natural heritage. In my view there is no point separating these in the African context. I like to look at all conservation areas as cultural landscapes. The model of creating pristine landscapes that lock out communities from accessing their ancestral territories have failed. Conservationists and governments are looking at other ways. The answer, in my view lies with honest and constructive engagement with communities.

The Aboriginal tribes in Australia demonstrated to me an unparalleled understanding of their landscapes. They actively apply indigenous knowledge systems in forging sustainable resource management agendas in the most admirable fashion. I was in awe the whole time and I kept thinking about how we as Africans could honour our own ways of knowing and apply it in resource use as well as well as in all other facets of our lives. This encounter with the Aboriginal Australians sparked my interest in indigenous issues – I realized we share a similar cultural heritage(s).

One of the elders said to us “we do not own the land. The land owns us.” This is something that greatly struck me and is something that I continue to reflect on since land is at the centre of every conflict in Africa. What if we looked at land differently? The way we looked at it before the encounter with colonialism? I think we would open ourselves to a world of possibilities!    Sunset at Kakadu Pational ParkKangaroo rock art imageWith fellow countrymenKangaroos