New Books | The Kenya Land and Freedom Army

Kamoji Wachiira introduces Karari Njama and Donald Barnett’s story of courage and heroism in the face of colonial brutality during the uprising in Kenya between 1952 and 1957.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Kamoji Wachiira’s introduction to the new edition of Mau Mau From Within: The Story of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (Daraja Press, 2021) by Donald Barnett and Karari Njama.

The timing could not be better for this new and expanded edition of Donald Barnett and Karari Njama’s momentous book Mau Mau From Within. It comes at a time when Kenyans, especially its youth, are questioning the direction the country has taken since independence and are once again organising resistance against rising impoverishment, the capture of the economy by a tiny minority in collusion with transnational corporations and finance capital, the rise of autocratic rule and the steady loss of democratic rights. Many Kenyans are also searching for dependable information on the real history of the various movements that led resistance to British colonial rule, and in particular the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (labelled Mau Mau by the British). They hope to understand what may have gone so awry that, from 1963 onwards, a self-serving class was able to grab and privatise the apparatus of the young state and turn them into instruments of grand accumulation and corruption – leaving the people of Kenya effectively voiceless. Republishing this book at this time is important as it provides people with a rich source of original material and documentation. Readers will find clear explanations of the harsh realities that the Mau Mau fighting forces faced, their resilience and successes, their strengths and weaknesses and, more importantly, lessons for progressive political work.

Barnett and Njama helped us understand the operation of the Mau Mau war machine from deep inside. Donald Barnett accomplished this by giving voice to Mau Mau cadres to document freely their war-time experiences, speaking in their own words. Of particular significance is the central role that General Karari Njama’s first-person writings occupy in the book. Njama’s contribution is one of the most original and noteworthy Mau Mau narratives from that period, even if at times the translations could have preserved better the richness of the original phrasing. It is to Donald Barnett’s great credit that he transformed what might have been a dry academic dissertation into a historical study of anti-colonial and revolutionary resistance, eliciting perspectives directly from former combatants. The book contains an instructive profile of a Mau Mau fighter, an autobiographical portrait of Karari Njama, a former schoolteacher who became a freedom fighter after experiencing colonial injustices suffered by his family. He represented the idealistic young rebels of his era, educated, imaginative and, as is made clear in the book, a strategist-cum-diplomat among the Mau Mau. As the administrative assistant, he helped Dedan Kimathi, the senior military leader of the Mau Mau uprising, plan and establish several new Mau Mau institutions such as the Kenya Defence Forces and later the Kenya Parliament. He helped plan and organise negotiations between hostile factions and drafted policies. He distinguished himself as a sensitive revolutionary by rejecting the practice which was common in some forest bases of forcing most women to serve mostly as servants or as mere sexual objects.

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The book describes how the Mau Mau leadership navigated the shake-up caused by the sudden declaration of the Emergency declared by the British in 1952 and the imprisonment of almost 200 leading Mau Mau and ex-KAU (Kenya African Union) leaders. In spite of that, the Mau Mau’s underground cells survived and continued to function. Barnett and Njama show how the surviving leaders quickly marshalled the “remainders” of the KAU’s previous network of local councils (which otherwise risked falling into disarray) and “prepped” themselves ready to face the urgent task of the moment: initiating an armed counter-offensive against the British onslaught. The fact that they were able to mount a speedy turnaround reflected their remarkable resilience and capacity to adapt to the crisis. They re-configured the resistance strategy, shifting from a largely urban-based struggle to one based among people in the countryside and in the forests. The shift in strategy was made possible because many district council leaders had already secretly affiliated with the Mau Mau well before KAU was banned. The shift ensured survival and continuity of the organisation and at the same time enhanced the impact of the armed struggle against the colonial regime. According to Njama, this shift helped firm up reliance on guerilla warfare as the main tactic for combat, emphasising agile operations such as ambushes, hit and run operations and surprise attacks.

I have been in close contact with Karari Njama over many years. I have admired his lifelong commitment to the liberation of Kenya – not just from colonialism then but also from neo-colonialism today. Despite the sacrifices that he made for freedom, Njama lives out his old age on a tiny patch of land, impoverished but not bowed, receiving little recognition or assistance, and not even a war pension.

Wartime experience and perspectives

In writing this introduction, it was difficult to retain a detached perspective. I grew up during the State of Emergency surrounded by fierce fighting and suffering that accompanies war. Along with my cohort, we witnessed first-hand most of the horrors that the book describes so vividly. Children’s minds register events differently from adults. We suffered the psychological impact of violence and terror perhaps more profoundly than did adults. No one sought to explain what was happening, and many of us were convinced that there were actually three sides to that war – the terrorist colonial army, the Mau Mau guerillas and then ourselves together with our mothers.

We sang about land and freedom in the lyrics of liberation songs. We felt suspicious about colonial broadcasts and propaganda pamphlets and we hungered for real news. In its absence we made up our own stories to fill the gap. In that context, the appearance of Barnett and Njama’s Mau Mau from Within a decade later had a significant impact on us as we learned about the history and experiences of the freedom army as seen from their own perspective. The book read like belated “dispatches from the war front”.

My family lived just to the south of Karari Njama’s home across the Gura River which was the northern flank of the Nyeri/Murang’a epicentre of the war. I was eight years old in 1952 when Sir Evelyn Baring, the British governor, declared the State of Emergency followed in 1953 by a full-blown war between the mightiest colonial power of the times and a barely armed peasant insurgency. A more asymmetric confrontation and disproportionate use of force is difficult to imagine. Our family’s home was commandeered by the Lancashire Fusiliers battalion with only a six-hour notice given to quit. Our once sleepy market village was suddenly turned into a huge army base populated by white soldiers. My family was broken up into four separate pieces and scattered to different so-called “villagisation camps” – a good example of colonial double-speak for concentration camps – to stay with distant relatives, one child here, two there, while the parents were separated and dispatched elsewhere. Most of the men and older boys had either been taken away on forced government labour or had otherwise been “disappeared”. “Inmates” of the camps were held for weeks in the camps except during outings on forced labour work days when all adult women were required to do back-breaking “public works” activities outside the moat. Families had no access to crops growing in distant fields which resulted in starvation and disease. So strict was the lockdown that even the bravest of the boys dared not venture outside to forage for wild pickings or hunt for grasshoppers to roast. Famine and disease caused the death of many more people than died in actual combat, a fact which is often overlooked in the statistics of the war’s total mortality.

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As children, we learned how to identify the guns and other instruments of war by both sight and sounds – Bren and Sten guns, single-shot rifles, shot guns, revolvers, bazookas, mortar bombs, and worst of all the staccato fusillade of automatic assault weapons which the colonial army used to casually clear (“sweep” as we called it) civilians out of the way. Children would often be ordered to collect the resulting mutilated bodies for loading on army trucks for transport to mass graves. In almost all cases the dead were ordinary folk, people caught in the crossfire, not Mau Mau fighters as the government always claimed. In fact, on several occasions we recognised the bodies of our own classmates who had been shot on the way home from school. I know the location of at least three mass graves at or near what was Mukurweini Chief’s centre and many of my cohort also have recollections of similar sites around their respective home areas. Karari Njama once mentioned to me that there were two mass graves he personally knew, one located at Kamakwa, just outside Nyeri municipality and the other near the old Othaya administrative centre. 

British propaganda used to broadcast that those were dead “terrorists” (itoi), until we identified the bodies of our schoolmates on the piles. In fact, innocent civilians were the main casualties of the British war campaign. Hopefully a DNA-based census of the remains in those mass graveyards will be conducted soon so as to identify the victims and get a more accurate measure of the death toll. The commonly cited figure of 11 000 dead in most colonial and academic sources is probably hugely understated. In Mukurweini sub-district alone I would estimate seeing several thousand corpses on those mounds between 1952 and 1955/6. It would be useful to catalogue all the known mass grave sites so that a proper posthumous “census” and DNA-based identification of the dead can be recorded. It is highly likely that the total dead as well as the actual identities would be both revealing and surprising if observations in Mukurweini sub-district are indicative of other areas.

The war was an experience so unspeakably frightening for us children that today, seven decades later, I still get the occasional nightmare. Those of my cohorts who dare speak about it at all tell similar stories of psychological disorientation and other traumas that result from exposure to prolonged violence.

Returning after the war

Donald Barnett conducted his primary research during the period 1960/61 when the state of emergency had officially ended. Between 1958 and 1966, the last remnants of Mau Mau survivors had left their mountain hideaways or had limped home from prison. I remember seeing them arriving eerily silent, sickly or lame from injuries suffered in the war or from torture in prison. They must have felt like vanquished soldiers walking unto surrender. They had once hoped that on their return they would be able to hold ceremonies in memory of their fallen comrades. But that wasn’t to happen. Even today, the nation has not been able to mourn for those who died in the struggle for freedom. The militants returned to what was essentially the same British colony they had battled so hard against. They were mostly landless or homeless – their land having been confiscated or stolen during their absence. Many discovered that their family members had either been killed or scattered to different parts of the country, while their children appeared unfamiliar after long absences. As a result of land consolidation, the militants learned how their ancestral graveyards and sacred sites had been allocated to strangers and were no longer accessible. Many traditions had been trampled under. In brief, former fighters and detainees returned, not to a triumphant, public welcome from a grateful population, but rather to a depressingly alien world.

Despite formal independence, there were few signs of positive social transformation. Instead, the militants heard the rhetoric of harambee, maendeleo and sasa tuko huru (“we are free now”). Kenyatta, they learned, had caved-in to white settler pressure. He conceded to the policy in which privileged Kenyans would be able to purchase land from the same settler class who had enriched themselves from stolen lands. To their disbelief they heard that Jomo Kenyatta was already appeasing settler farmers while telling citizens to forgive and forget the Mau Mau. Britain forced Kenya to accept loans with which to “compensate” or buy-out the white settlers at exorbitant “market prices”.


After reading about the fighters’ experiences in the forests, one can appreciate why Mau Mau survivors felt so demoralised and let down on their return. As Karari Njama illustrates in this book, the fighting brigades had a high degree of selflessness and personal commitment to the struggle during the first years of the war. From 1951 up to 1953, when the British army battalions under General Hinde moved in from bases overseas, the Mau Mau forces had the upper hand in the war despite the huge logistical disadvantages they faced.

The sudden replacement of General Hinde with General Erskine as commander of British war operations, plus the overwhelming military force brought to bear after 1953, effectively ended that period of Mau Mau ascendance. By late 1955 it was evident to all that the military operations of the Mau Mau were facing defeat. Bombings on the mountains had escalated, the daily army convoys crawling up the mountain roads grew longer and more heavily laden with munitions. It took some 20 000 British troops supported by the Royal Airforce to inflict this military defeat against some 20 000 Mau Mau fighters armed largely with homemade weapons and with no military or financial support from outside Kenya. This is to say nothing about the targeting of civilians who were imprisoned in detention camps – effectively concentration camps that held more than 100 000 civilians. It is believed that another 100 000 or more people died from physical brutality, torture, exhaustion, disease and starvation.

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Then, one unforgettable day in April 1956 military vehicles and aircrafts swarmed all over the countryside, megaphones blaring repeatedly: “Hear this, hear this, Dedan Kimathi is dead, the end of the war is here, come out and be free, it’s now time to give up and surrender.”

The early battlefield successes of the Land and Freedom Army frightened the settlers enough to pressure the British government to propose concessions such as those in the Lyttleton Commission’s report of 1955, granting African representation in the Legislative Council. There were also hints of a possible future self-government, albeit one composed of loyalists, as a first step towards cutting off the Mau Mau and ensuring political compromise with settler interests. 

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