Image-ining Gender – ‘the backbone of Mau Mau’: Women’s Contributions in Conflict, Kenya by Beth Rebisz

(Photograph taken by author)

On 12th September 2015, a memorial in honour of Kenya’s freedom fighters was unveiled in Uhuru Park, Nairobi. The memorial was part of an out-of-court settlement reached between the British government and a group of Kenyans who had fought through the 1950s in an armed conflict against their colonial rulers. This group is now popularly referred to as the Mau Mau. The statue, at the heart of the memorial site, depicts a man and a woman. The woman is passing the man a basket filled with what we can assume to be food from the accounts gathered of those who fought in this war. Both figures are looking away from one another. This was a method used by men and women to avoid recognising each other should they be captured and expected to identify other insurgents. In contrast to previous memorials for the conflict, and unlike many war-focused statues, this structure equally represents men and women who fought in the struggle. The statue signifies a vital feature of this conflict – ‘the backbone of the Mau Mau’, ie. Kenyan women’s contributions to the cause.[i]

The unprecedented High Court hearing in London (2011-2013) signified a huge turning point in this shared history, with Britain finally acknowledging the horrors of this period in Kenya. This group of Kenyans had sued the British government for compensation for the torture and ill-treatment they suffered between 1952-1960 in the detention camps, work camps and fortified villages that made up the colonial government’s punitive counter-insurgency infrastructure. Along with the £19.9 million of compensation paid and the forced release of the colonial records which corroborated the testimonies of the claimants, the British government commissioned a memorial to commemorate the Kenyans who had been tortured or killed during the Mau Mau insurgency.

While it has been all too common in military scholarship to centre men as agents in war, recent research has worked to re-evaluate the key roles women have played in liberation struggles. Kenya is a particularly unique case study for this. As this statue would suggest, Britain recognised women’s contributions in the conflict. They recognised very early on that Kenyan women were quite literally keeping the movement alive. This can be determined by Britain’s response to Kenyan women. Not only did they establish two detention camps – Kamiti and Gitamayu – to specifically house suspected Mau Mau women, they extended the forced resettlement of the remaining population assumed to be supporting the forest fighters. Using this villagisation process to separate the ‘fish from the water’, the British hoped to drain insurgent fighters of key resources.

The statue depicts a Kenyan woman in her role in feeding the male forest fighters. Women were perceived to be the guardians of their local communities: nurturers and mothers. In the testimonies of women who were forcibly resettled, stories are shared of the ways in which they subverted the barriers put in place to separate them from the forest fighters. Women cut the wires of the surrounding village fence to sneak out at night to leave supplies at a designated spot. Women found ways to hide food outside of the village when they were taken out during the day to complete forced labour tasks for the colonial government. For many women in the villages, they continued to risk the extreme punishments to feed their male family members on the other side of the fence.

Women did not, however, provide just a supporting role in this conflict. While the statue does not depict women in this way, women were leaders in this fight too. One example of this is Field Marshal Muthoni. Muthoni wa Kirima was a top-ranking female fighter in the insurgency. She was the only woman to gain the rank of field marshal and fought in the forest for the entire duration of the Emergency Period. Muthoni was never captured, was never detained, and emerged from the forest in 1963 when Kenya attained independence from their colonial oppressors. During her time in the forest, she worked as a spy on the lookout for opposition activity. In her reflections on the contributions women made in this conflict, she said, ‘and let me tell you, women are something of substance indeed! Women! They should be honoured!’[ii]

As we have seen through the events of the last few weeks, statues and memorials are never apolitical. As the debate continues regarding the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, a ruling to remove the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford, and for so many more, statues rarely tell us the full story. In ways, the memorial constructed in Uhuru Park has been successful in acknowledging the all-encompassing horrors of the 1950s conflict. There are several large labels of comprehensive text that reflect this in both of Kenya’s national languages, Swahili and English. It does, however, fail to address the generational aspects of the Mau Mau and how the British responded to this. Only recently is scholarship turning to explore the roles children played in the armed struggle, and the measures with which Britain attempted to ‘rehabilitate’ these children. The statue of Robert Baden-Powell in Dorset, founder of the scout movement, has been targeted by campaigners for his ruthless military actions in Africa during the colonial period. While the scout movement is celebrated by many, it was an aspect of the British colonial government’s counter-insurgency in Kenya to reinvigorate British ‘masculinity, militarism, imperial purpose, and racial superiority’.[iii] In comparison to the Boys Scouts re-establishing respect and discipline among young boys, young girls received training in domestic science which readied them for a Christian marriage and as custodians of the community.

[i] Katherine Bruce-Lockhart, ‘Reconsidering Women’s Roles in the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, 1952-60’, in: Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds). Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Legacies (London, 2017), 160.

[ii] Interview Bethany Rebisz with Muthoni wa Kirima, Museum of British Colonialism <https://www.museumofbritishcolonialism.org/emergencyexhibition> Accessed 22nd June 2020.

[iii] Paul Ocobock, An Uncertain Age: The Politics of Manhood in Kenya (Ohio, 2017), 37.

 

Beth Rebisz is a doctoral research at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @BRebisz

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