A Grain of Wheat

A Grain of Wheat State of Emergency and Mau Mau

The State of Emergency was a period in Kenyan history in which the British government, led by Sir Evelyn Baring, tried to stamp out resistance to its colonial rule. Beginning in 1952 and lasting until 1959-60, the Emergency was characterized by the aggressive resistance of the Mau Mau, an infamous rebel group.

Throughout the early decades of the 20th century, dissent simmered among the Kikuyu, the major ethnic group in Kenya. Jomo Kenyatta and other nationalists had pressured the British to enact political and land reforms, but they were not successful. Some members of their group, the Kenya African Union (KAU), split off to form a more militant nationalist group.

These Mau Mau rebels began to attack their political opponents and raid farms, killing white settlers’ livestock. Members took oaths to bind them to the cause. They often attacked other Africans for being loyal to the British or refusing to take the oath; this incurred a lot of tension and resentment amongst Kenyans. The Lari massacre in 1953 saw over 120 Kenyans murdered for being “loyalists.” Kenyatta publicly referred to the Mau Mau as “scum.”

The African Home Guard, African men recruited by the British, countered the Mau Mau. Search-and-destroy missions against the Mau Mau were conducted in the forests, and concentration camps were used to pressure members to renounce the group and their oath. The camps featured torture, beatings, sexual assault, and malnutrition. A letter from a Police Commissioner to Baring in 1954 read, “[T]he horror of some of the so-called Screening Camps now present a state of affairs so deplorable that they should be investigated without delay, so that the ever increasing allegations of inhumanity and disregard of the rights of the African citizen are dealt with and so that the Government will have no reason to be ashamed of the acts which are done in its own name by its own servants.” At home, villages were forcibly resettled and harassed.

In terms of numbers killed, official numbers stand at 11,000 for the rebels and only 32 for whites. However, the Kenya Human Rights Commission says 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured, or maimed; 160,000 were detained.

Currently there are many debates, discussions, and lawsuits pending regarding compensation for the Kenyans. The Mau Mau remain controversial in Kenya.