Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In Mau Mau country

Unable to find a warden on my third day in the Aberdares to continue the trek, my guide David and I went a ways across the Nyeri plains to the edges of Mt Kenya National Park. The elevation across the region is high (many of the towns rest at well over 6,000 feet), and amongst the cornfields and potato patches, stands of eucalyptus, cedar and pine trees grow in even lines. This is clearly farmers' territory, and though there are a few ranches, the countryside, whether on the open plain or the undulating hills, is dominated by small wooden homesteads, surrounded by neatly-furrowed shambas, with the occasional crumbling brick house visible through the vegetation. Families, couples, men and women walked along the road coming to or from church. A cart laden with vegetables and drawn by donkeys rattled by. A passing lorry threw up a vast cloud of dust, and a squeaky apparition emerged from it: a man in a suit and tie on a bicycle, weaving furiously to negotiate the deep ruts in the road, and pedalling madly to get somewhere.

The faces are farmers' faces too. The men leaning on fence posts, in tweed flat caps, coats and wellingtons, look as though they'd be at home in the Yorkshire Dales as their English counterparts would be in the Kenyan Highlands. And you suspect that they might have more to talk about than either would with a countryman from Nairobi or London.

Walking through the forest, we came on a deep cave which had been used by Mau Mau fighters during the ten-year Emergency. As many as 300 men and women would have sheltered here during the day, leaving at night to collect (sometimes forcibly) food from the villages or to raid Home Guard posts.

I paused on the hillside coming back up from the cave and looked across the dense, dry forest. It was still but for the hint of a breeze making its stately way through the tall, well-spaced pine trees on the hill. It was difficult to imagine the smoke and fire of war, the roar of aircraft, the swift descent of bombs in such a peaceful place. An old man in a greatcoat, leaning on a stick, moved slowly amongst the trees, eyes downcast. What did he know of this place and its history? What stories could he have told of this land that many fought on, over and for? But the stories that people could tell and the ones that they do are very different things. Mau Mau remains a touchy subject for a variety of reasons. David told me that his grandfather had fought in the war, and that when asked about his experiences he might say a few words, and then grow silent and even weep, the memories proving too painful, as well they might. The British invented an internment system known as the 'Pipeline', and the horrors they perpetrated within on hundreds of thousands of Kenyans make Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib look like the work of a pack of disinterested amateurs.

But there is also the awkwardness that comes from the fact that many Kenyans fought for the British, and that those reviled Home Guards are thought by many Mau Mau veterans to have got some of the best land after Independence in 1963. David also suggested that his grandfather felt bound by the Mau Mau oath to discuss as little as possible of what he and his fellow fighters had done--less than pleasant things, to be sure. Then there is the tribal issue--some Kikuyu claim that the war was fought almost exclusively by them, and that the spoils should fall accordingly. Finally, there is a desire, I think, to forget the past--to forget the violence of the independence struggle, to buy that myth so carefully constructed by the British that their Empire ended peacefully, beneath the serene drifting up and down of flags. It was convenient for most, in 1963 and after, to forget that the ceremonies of decolonisation were the stage-managed aftermath of violent struggle--what one of that empire's greatest proponents called the 'savage wars of peace'.

On the matatu ride back to Nairobi the following day, I looked once more across the plains. This was the land that people had fought and died for. The land that had been taken by the British from people who owned it. Owned it, marked it out, used it, treasured it--not, as the British imagined, wandered aimlessly across it. You don't need to take Jomo Kenyatta's word in his elegant treatise on the Kikuyu, Facing Mt Kenya (Kenyatta was Kenya's first Prime Minister and later President, who exhibited a strong dictatorial bent that is often glossed over)...the British compiled the evidence themselves in the 1934 Land Commission. But as with empires past and present, they read what they wrote carelessly, and thousands suffered the needless consequences.

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