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Book Review: 'Mau Mau and the Kikuyu'

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'Mau Mau and the Kikuyu', by L.S.B. Leakey

A man who was born and reared amongst a primitive people, who speaks their language fluently, who has been accepted and initiated into a high and respected rank in their community and who is a student of anthropology, such a man is in a remarkably good position to write of their history and social organisation. Mr. L. S. B. Leakey has all these qualifications to write of the Kikuyu people of Kenya and the Mau Mau organisation that has developed amongst them.

Mr. Leakey spent a number of years, working with Kikuyu elders, compiling a very lengthy and detailed book on these people, but the book has not yet found a publisher. Last year Mr. Leakey wrote a shorter book, now published by Methuen and Co. under the title “Mau Mau and the Kikuyu,” for 7/6d.

Since September, 1952, when the Kenya Government declared a state of emergency, the press in this country has told us of the murders and terrorist tactics perpetrated by Mau Mau without giving us much of an inkling why an erstwhile peaceable people have suddenly resorted to these measures, and for what object.

Mr. Leakey does not seek to explain the trouble in Kenya merely by reference to the present set-up. He takes us back to the misty origins of the Kikuyu tribe and traces their history briefly from those times to the present day. He leans very much to the idea of “the white man’s burden” and tries to whitewash the activities of the white colonists and their governments, a task which he obviously finds difficult.

Before their contact with white men the Kikuyu were an agricultural people living in the highlands of Kenya with a favourable climate and a fertile soil.

    “. . . by the closing decades of the nineteenth century the early travellers and explorers of Kenya, describing Kikuyu land as they saw it. used such terms as ‘ as far as the eye could sec it was one vast garden.” (page 7)

Their social organisation was simple but highly effective. Land was held by families and sub-clans, the sub-clan being a sort of extended family. They had no chiefs; the head of the family was the senior man and the head of the sub-clan was an elected man chosen for his wisdom. But these heads had no arbitrary powers and any trading in land could only be done through consultation with the elders. Tenants on a piece of land did not claim property rights but only the right to cultivate it, and could be called upon to give it up subject to certain compensations.

The social administration was on a tribal basis and tribal councils were democratic. The marriage customs, education, religion and the system of magic were complicated but fitted in with the social conditions prevailing. Theft and immorality were practically unknown. The fear of social ostracism was sufficient to deter any possible wrongdoer. The religion, like all religions, was steeped in superstition but was peculiarly adapted to the conditions under which the Kikuyu lived.

Then came the white man at a time immediately following a tragic period in the history of these people, when they had been decimated by plague, famine and epidemics. The rest of the story is the age old one of the breaking down of primitive social organisation, the expropriation of the land and the creation of an army of wage workers with all the evils that capitalism brings in its train. The missionaries attacked the tribal religion and broke down the system of native education in favour of Christianity and capitalist ethics. The capitalist government took over the functions of the tribal councils. Many of the Kikuyu were rendered landless and reduced to abject poverty with none of their old security of livelihood.

Mr. Leakey tells us in simple words of the results:

    “At the same time the temptation to steal has increased a thousandfold. The needs of young men and women in the olden days were small, and they were met without difficulty by their own families. Young men, seeking to enhance their reputation with the girls, did so by deeds of bravery, by excelling at dancing, by being such good organisers or speech-makers that they were chosen by their fellows as leaders. Today, a young man, after initiation, feels that in order to make an impression with the girls, he must dress well in European clothes, must have a bicycle with a pillion to take his girl friends for rides, and so on. As he often cannot earn enough to fulfil this need for exhibitionism of the average courting male, the temptation to steal becomes measurably greater." (page 79)

Unemployment and hunger also drive these people to steal, and the breakdown of the tribal moral code removes the fear of social ostracism for theft. As the author tells us, under the old tribal conditions, thieving “ just wasn’t done.” Now it is.

    “Under present day conditions, too, it often happens that the difficulties which face a young married couple are much more serious than in the olden days, and the circumstances are far less conducive to a happy marriage, so that many of these marriages break up. The woman is far from her people, and if she leaves her husband she often does not return to her home, but may join the ever increasing number of prostitutes in the towns or else make a semi-permanent liaison with some man to whom she is not married, either by native law and custom, or by Christian ceremony, or by ordinary civil marriage." (page75)

So with drunkenness, bribery, corruption and the rest. A few Kikuyu have become very wealthy, the majority have sunk to poverty that they never knew before.

Out of all this grew the Kikuyu political organisations; the Kikuyu Central Association, the Kenya African Union and finally Mau Mau. They threw up such men as Harry Thuku, Peter Koinage and Jomo Kenyatta. The suppression of the K.C.A. drove its members underground and gave rise to the present terrorist movement.

This is a useful, topical and easily read little book. The reader will find in it, not only the story of the Kikuyu but also the story of all primitive peoples when capital permeates their society. Despite the author’s reformist conclusions and his feeble apologies for the actions of capitalist governments, we can unhesitatingly recommend this book.

“The Naked and the Dead,” by Norman Mailer was reviewed in The Socialist Standard in the July, 1950 issue. It is a very gruesome and ugly war bode of World War II with the scene laid in a tropical jungle island. We have nothing to add to the previous review. But it may interest readers to know that a cheap edition (by Allan Wingate, 8/6d.) is now available. Of its kind it is good.

W. Waters