The Unreluctant King

Written by | Features

Kenyatta was never Mau Mau, and never pretended to be.

In 1965, Sir Evelyn Baring returned to Kenya. He had been away for six years during which time the last of the British tyranny he had built was dismantled. Most of the detainment camps were no more, although some were being turned into prisons. The million people he had harassed, detained, and jailed for close to a decade were slowly going back to their lives. Those who had survived, anyway, by some stroke of luck. The most important change though was that the British colony was no more. Or so he must have thought.

In what had once been his office was Jomo Kenyatta, now a seventy-something year old man presiding over Kenya as its first president. Since 1952, when Baring and Kenyatta had met briefly at the burial of Chief Waruhiu, they had never met. But they had interacted. Baring had written Kenyatta’s detention orders and bribed the judge who ensured that Rawson Macharia’s rather ridiculous testimony was taken as sufficient fact. He had had the final say on Kenyatta’s life for eight years, and could with the stroke of a pen, get him transferred to the depths of hell.

Baring, barely two weeks into his reign as Kenya’s governor, had walked himself into a powder keg. There had already been a few attacks before Waruhiu’s murder on a dusty road in Gachie but nothing had prepared him for what was to come. In the years leading up to the October 1952 meeting, Kenyatta had risen to the core of the freedom movement but only as a moderate politician. An eloquent, missionary-trained leader, Kenya’s first president spent a decade and a half in Britain within which time he got married and went on with his life. Back at home, the men who had sent him there carved a story of his glory, and the fact that he would eventually be their liberator.

As a leader, as would happen with Mandela in the decades to come, his actual principles were of no consequence. In fact, the vaguer they were the better. Kenya’s true liberators understood this, and contended that it was necessary for the would-be king to keep his hands clean. When he turned their overtures down, in the months leading up to October 1952, they took it in stride as his political genius.

Governor Baring and the settler community saw the other side of the coin. In this glorified figure they saw an enemy, despite the fact that he was actually closer to their ideals than to those of ordinary Kenyans who worked the fields and washed their homes. It took them years, with Kenyatta’s mates at Maralal, the five others in the Kapenguria Six, driving that paradigm shift.

At Maralal, Kenyatta was the oldest and was assigned the easiest work detail, the kitchen. When other hardcore revolutionaries like Kariuki Chotara joined the camp, they found a group that was growing increasingly suspicious of Kenyatta’s true leanings. He trashed the party they tried to form and continually ignored, or blatantly downplayed their attempts to discuss the war in the forest.

What the Kapenguria Six didn’t know, and perhaps what Kenyatta, as a status quo politician, instinctively understood was that the Empire was a brutal maniac with a self-imposed sense of civility and purpose. That purpose drove Baring in his systematic imprisonment of an entire population, and his men, led by such deranged bureaucrats as Taxi Lewis, to kill more than a hundred thousand people. Even more, he understood in some way his role as a symbol, and even when jailed for the crime of leading the Mau Mau, refused to lead the Mau Mau. He had benefited from the system, even if it now had him locked up in a hell-hole far from the lifestyle he was used to, and he was not about to oppose it.

The other prisoners, themselves guilty of the crime for which they were sentenced, took some time to realize this. There was fistfight in prison between Chotara and Kenyatta about food. Kenyatta, as master of the kitchen, was selling food to the Homeguards. Food, as any accounts from that time show, held vast bargaining power among those jailed within the Pipeline. Chotara and Kenyatta’s rather famous fistfight, which would end up with stories of an attempted assassination, were the events that eventually exposed the larger-than-life man to his compatriots. He was separated from them, by a government that finally had to admit he was actually on their side.

As Baring had detained the Kikuyu population and ignored the mass killings done by his men, the survivors found hope in the one unifying figure they had. The mans political brand grew ever the more powerful despite attempts by Baring’s men to demonize him. It became mystical even, and they were even willing to ignore some blatant transgressions done by Kenyatta’s scion. His son, Magana Kenyatta, had surrendered and then become an interrogator. Together with other infamous names like Jeremiah Kiereini and Thuo Mathenge, the men rained havoc on their fellow countrymen. Detainees told Magana that his father would punish him when the Union Jack finally fell, a clear indication that they clearly misunderstood the man they worshiped. Magana had already visited his father and gotten his blessing.

Within a few months of becoming the president, Kenyatta had made it clear he wanted and had nothing to do with Mau Mau. Loyalists, who had held power and privilege in that decade, were his choice of mates. He appointed their sons, realistically the only people who had had time and money to go to school, into his new government. He rewarded his son too, and very few former Mau Mau intellectuals and fighters would thrive in his government. ?Pio Gama Pinto was shot just eight months before Baring’s visit but his wasnt even the first such assassinations. General Baimuingi and his lieutenants were mowed down by Kenyas first government in the days after independence. Their deaths were not enough and Kenyatta’s government borrowed something macabre from the British, as they would even more in the years to come. The bodies were displayed publicly in Chuka for three days, a stark indicator that only the masters had changed, the rules remained the same. The Mau Mau had clearly lost the fight, as their symbolic leader would go on to say, publicly, that “Mau Mau was a disease which was eradicated, and must never be remembered again.”

When the former Governor visited the new President at State House, what used to be Baring’s home, he found a man just like him. Just how alike they were became apparent when he sadistically said“By the way, I was sitting at that very desk when I signed your detention order thirteen years ago.”

To which Kenyatta quipped “If I had been in your shoes I would have done exactly the same.”Pointing to the desk, he added slyly “And I myself have signed a number of detention orders sitting right there too.”


Primary Source: Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins.

Owaahh, 2015

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till Another is told.

Last modified: November 8, 2018