Sanitizing the Kenyattas
Why are Kenya's ruling family trying to reinvent themselves as friends of Mau Mau so many years later?
The Kenyatta family is trying to falsely reinsert itself into Mau Mau history, and thereby bask in its legacy, with ahistorical claims that both Jomo and his widow Mama Ngina fought in the forests. Mama Ngina is seen shaving the dreadlocks of a nonogenarian former forest fighter, while curiously adorned in Maasai dress. What can it all mean?
The reality is that Jomo Kenyatta was never in Mau Mau, let alone spent any time in the forests. He spent much of his life post-1951 (the year Mau Mau began, although its seeds were planted earlier) railing against Mau Mau, which he called a “disease.” It is highly unlikely that Mama Ngina, who married him in 1951, was a forest fighter either. This story asks, why are the Kenyattas trying to reinvent themselves as friends of Mau Mau so many years later? The historical legacy of Kenya’s first family is at stake …
“We fought for our children’s sake,” declared Mama Ngina after shaving the long dreadlocks of 92-year-old former Mau Mau fighter Mary Muthoni wa Kirima at her home near Nyeri. In a bizarre ceremony organized by the women’s wing of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, the former First Lady wore Maasai-style clothing and adornment. Mama Ngina wrapped the 70-year-old dreads in the Kenyan flag and placed them in a traditional kiondo basket, saying they would be stored at the national museum.
But who exactly fought the colonialists? Not Jomo Kenyatta, nor Mama Ngina—not in the literal sense. Yet the Nation’s version of this story went on to claim that Ngina had been Muthoni’s “friend during their stay in the forest and jail term at Kamiti Prison.” Given that Mau Mau only began officially in 1951, the year Mama Ngina became Jomo’s fourth wife, it is highly unlikely that the new bride spent the early 1950s in the forests fighting alongside the people he so despised. The Kamiti story has surfaced before, but no evidence has ever been provided.
Let us remind ourselves what Jomo Kenyatta’s stance on Mau Mau was. “Mau Mau was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again,” he declared in a public speech at Githunguri in 1962. This heralded the start of a period of suppression of public memory of the Mau Mau movement. Mau Mau was banned by Kenyatta, and remained banned under his successor, Daniel arap Moi. As Hughes has written before: “National unity was to be achieved at all costs, with history the bloodless casualty.” The Kenyatta regime maintained a “deafening silence about Mau Mau,” according to historian David Anderson. This was interspersed at times with limited recognition of Mau Mau veterans, when it suited Kenyatta politically. This selective “forgetting” has led to the apparent confusion and ambivalence many Kenyans feel about Kenyatta’s legacy. How can a man who denied leading or even endorsing Mau Mau, which is widely seen as having brought about uhuru, be regarded as the person who led Kenya to independence? The two things do not hang together. Kenyatta also sharply told poor landless veterans that they shouldn’t expect anything for free, when they asked, after independence, for land and other rewards for their sacrifice. Veterans have been crying ever since.
One of Hughes’s best research informants was the late Paul Thuku Njembui. He fought in the forests, spent seven years in British detention camps, and claimed to have sheltered Dedan Kimathi for a while in his home at Karima Forest, Othaya. If anyone knew what Kenyatta did in the war, it was men like Thuku. He was adamant on that point:
I want you to pay attention. Kenyatta was not a Mau Mau. Who could have become the first president of Kenya? Is it Kenyatta or Kimathi? Kimathi continued fighting for freedom up to the end of his life, but Kenyatta surrendered—he betrayed his people, even though he became president. If Kenyatta was a forest fighter, or had he been, he could have helped the forest fighters thereafter. But he did not. The colonial government of course declared Mau Mau an illegal movement and Kenyatta remained with the same idea that Mau Mau was illegal. So did Moi.
He also believed that Kenyatta told the British to execute Kimathi: “Kenyatta was there to say, ‘Kill Kimathi! Let him die!’ Because he knew that he would [otherwise] have no chance of being president.” In other words, Thuku alleged that British officials consulted Kenyatta about this. That is highly unlikely, if not impossible.
A leading historian of Kenya, who asks to remain anonymous, had this to say:
Mama Ngina is clearly trying to write herself into heroic history. A senior chief’s daughter, she was more likely to have been under Home Guard protection than in the forest. Nor can she ever have been in Kamiti. Some of Jomo’s children were lodged with Nairobi’s Etonian grocer, Derek Erskine, for quite some time during the Emergency. Mama Ngina was certainly with Jomo during his period of detention at Lodwar and then Maralal, after his jail term had expired. How else was Uhuru conceived? I remember one Kenyan friend [another leading historian] saying how important it was politically for Jomo to have proved himself still sexually potent before taking on political power.
On checking with other historians, they too have not found any evidence that Mama Ngina was in the forest in the 1950s. If she had been, why have we not heard anything about it until now?
It is not clear from the press coverage whether the journalists concocted these claims, or whether they reported what Mama Ngina had told them. Either way, it is a very strange concoction, since the claims can be so easily dismissed by historians who have researched this period.
The symbolism of the imagery is easy to decode. Mama Ngina is wearing an elaborate white mantle, similar to that worn by important elders or (in another culture) royalty. In her hair sits a tiara or Kenyan-style crown. It is Maasai in derivation, but branded with the Kenyan flag. Hughes, who has long researched Maasai culture and history, has never seen this style, with a vertical piece standing up over the forehead, worn by older women, only little girls, so that is odd in itself. This story began by describing her dress as “Maasai style” because it is not authentic. Red dresses and shirts to which tiny metal mirrors are sewn (are they not Indian in origin?) have only become popular among Maasai in the past 10 to 20 years or so; they didn’t wear such clothing, or even much beadwork, in the not-so-distant past. As a former First Lady she is effectively conferring an ennoblement, or blessing, on a rather bewildered-looking Muthoni.
From a cultural heritage perspective, the ceremony is a cultural invention, masquerading as traditional, though Kikuyu co-wives and friends did traditionally shave each other’s heads. In a rite of passage not dissimilar in some ways to FGM/C (female genital mutilation/cutting), and the shaving of Maasai warriors’ dreads by their mothers when they graduate to junior elderhood, the self-styled Mother of the Nation has cut and removed a precious part of the body which symbolizes a past state of being. The only problem is: this past has nothing to do with her. Thereby, through false pretenses, she has appropriated Mau Mau-ness and its legacy for present political purposes. In so doing, she has attempted to weld Mau Mau to the Kenyattas, when in fact they have always had a deeply troubled relationship.
It is tragic that Muthoni may well not know, or remember, the history of the strained relationship between Kenyatta and Mau Mau, and could not object to being used in this way by such a powerful figure. However, others insist she knew what she was doing, and specifically asked for Mama Ngina to shave her.
Kenya’s first First Lady has always kept an extremely polite low profile. This is not to say that Mama Ngina has been inert, especially where serious, if not controversial, business interests and deals are concerned. Her extensive commercial pursuits are well known, and some have brought her the wrong kind of attention. Now, in a “reunion” hosted by the women’s wing of the Kikuyu Council of Elders during which she cut off Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima’s hair—and where it was reported that the two women had “buried old differences and together, passed on the baton to the new generation of economic freedom fighters and peace crusaders”—Mama Ngina has stepped back into the limelight, and into more public controversy.
Mama Ngina has absolutely no record of mingling with the hoi polloi, the madding crowd of have-nots such as Field Marshal Muthoni who have consistently threatened to invade the pitch of the sanitized politics of “law and order,” as they did in 1952. Having been born into a traditional chiefly family (her father was Chief Muhoho wa Gatheca), Mama Ngina married the country’s founding president and together they proceeded to amass huge family fortunes and establish a commercial empire. Some view this union as having been Jomo’s “lunch” card to African respectability, Gikuyu elderhood. In a sense, there was no Jomo without Ngina, who hailed from a kind of African “royal ancestry” that is oblivious to the struggles of ordinary people.
These people solicited her help in 1966 when they wrote to Mama Ngina, begging her to take up their case with the president. Wanjiku Wariku, writing on behalf of the Women War Council, a veterans’ group, expressed their shock. For it seemed to them that Mama Ngina had forgotten the women who had played a crucial role in producing and bringing food to forest fighters at the height of the struggle. They told Ngina they had been writing to Kenyatta for years, without success. Now they were appealing to her in the hope that she would pass their petition to the president. Their entreaty is even more forceful in its original Gikuyu rendering: “Twĩna kĩmako kĩingi nĩ tondũ tuonaga tawariganĩirwo nĩ atumia a karaĩ na gĩciko,” translated as, “We are stupefied by the fact that it seems to us that you forgot all about the women of the cooking pot and spoon.”
There is no archival record of Mama Ngina having responded to the women of Karaĩ na Gĩciko, or Pots and Spoons, as they called themselves. We may surmise that no help was forthcoming. Had she met the likes of Field Marshal Muthoni before 2022? Most probably not. Why now?
We need to go back in time in order to understand the background to this event. As an ageing Jomo drew close to the end (he died in 1978), many of the people around him, including Mama Ngina, grew increasingly apprehensive and fearful of what would happen after his death. Mama Ngina’s fears were personal, not political.
According to letters between members of the British diplomatic corps in the mid-1970s, “stories about Mama Ngina” were “interesting” (wrote a diplomat at the British High Commission, Christopher Hart, in a 23rd January 1975 confidential letter to Messrs. B.T. Holmes and Mr. Wallis). There was mention of Kenya’s endangered and dwindling elephants, the ivory trade, and the occasional mention of the word corruption. The letter mentioned reports from other sources suggesting that Kenyatta realized that when he died, Mama Ngina would “have to flee the country” and others would have to “provide for her future.” According to Hart, Kenyatta had no illusions “about popular feelings toward his family” and realized “there will be many out to get Mama Ngina as soon as his protection” was removed. Mama Ngina was justifiably afraid of Jomo’s demise.
This partly explains why the Kenyatta family remained in relative silence and obscurity until Uhuru, one of two sons Jomo had with Ngina, was plucked by Moi out of relative obscurity in the mid-1990s. It came as a surprise to many people when he was put on the KANU presidential ticket in 2002. The Kenyattas had spent more than 20 years in the political shadows, and in Gikuyu internal ethnic politics, and did not openly seek to court public support until it became clear Uhuru had a chance of gunning for State House after President Mwai Kibaki in 2013.
Even then, Kamwana, as Uhuru was popularly known, was unconvinced. He admits to having listened to mademoni (demons of self-doubt concerning the bid, and naysayers of it). What we have seen since Uhuru overcame mademoni is the re-ascendance of the Kenyatta name and family in national politics. With the looming end of ten years of Uhuru’s presidency, what is now at stake is this ascendancy and newfound credence. Their political relevance. And, most importantly, once again, the protection of their inestimable wealth and vast commercial empire. But this time around, Mama Ngina isn’t afraid. She is confident of her role in securing the double Kenyatta legacy. She has come out and spoken, finally.
What we now see, therefore, are emboldened attempts since 2013 to use the combined memory of Mau Mau and Jomo to this end—the political relevance and protection of Kenya’s royal family. Gone are the days when Uhuru Kenyatta shied away from bringing up the memory of his dad, saying that people should let him rest in peace. Here is a chance to redeem the memory of the man who publicly fell out with the KLFA. A chance to re-make and re-write the history of this blatant betrayal of freedom fighters, maladministration, brazen greed, self-aggrandizement and corruption of the two Kenyattas, elder and younger.
Unfortunately, and this should come as no surprise to the Kenyattas, this is how the supposed “reconciliation” between Mama Ngina and Field Marshal Muthoni will be seen: as a desperate and long-belated attempt to conflate the memory of the KLFA with that of the Kenyattas. Maybe there were worthy intentions behind the attempt to reconcile different generations of historical players. But this event was more than a little disturbing and shocking; it was sad, and ill-advised.
Our University of Nairobi historian colleague, Margaret Gachihi, who has researched the role women played in Mau Mau, has a different perspective:
In my view, and you can quote me on this, Marshal Muthoni’s physical and symbolic shaving of her dreadlocks marks the end of an era in the history of the Mau Mau liberation war. Not many took note of her words that at 92 years she felt the end was nigh. She’s closing a very special and important period of our nationalist history. In her shaving she shed her burden to the next generation, indeed threw the gauntlet to those who honor and uphold the legacy of what the war represented. What’s sad, and ironical, is that recognition of our gallant freedom fighters has been left to the very last of their days.
As the elections near, we will no doubt see more of this kind of crude cultural mash-up for political ends. Meanwhile, Mama Ngina, daughter of a loyalist chief, has been born again as a Mau Mau. Or has she? The last word goes to Paul Thuku. He sang an old Mau Mau song to Hughes, which referred to black chiefs: “These people wearing crowns are the ones who sold off our land.”