Recognizing rebels' role in Kenya independence

Paul Revere, Che Guevara, Maximilien Robespierre.

From Boston to Havana and Paris, the names of these legendary revolutionaries are glorified and honored. Definitely worth at least a box of fireworks and a few streamers once a year.

That reality, however, is as far away from Kenya's grassy savannahs as the ice-capped tundra. Here, the freedom fighters who battled for Kenya's independence from Britain have been virtually forgotten - with barely a mention in school books.

But some people think it's time for a new history lesson. Baragu Mutahi, for one, thinks tomorrow should be hailed as a national holiday.

Saturday marks precisely 50 years since the British colonial government banned the Mau Mau, a group which formed in the late 1940s to protest the seizure of land for white settlers and to push for freedom from colonial rule. The poor, mostly illiterate peasants and laborers took up arms in the early '50s. In response, the colonial government declared a state of emergency, giving authorities sweeping powers of arrest and detention. The law declaring the Mau Mau illegal is still on the nation's books.

Mr. Mutahi, the son of one of the few Mau Maus still living says, "What these people like my father want is just recognition."

Some Mau Mau veterans are taking the issue of recognition into their own hands by holding what they're calling a "Golden Jubilee" celebration here tomorrow. They'll sing Mau Mau songs, recite poems in the Kikuyu language, and explain to the audience what their rebellion was about.

"We are trying to teach our younger generation about why we have fought for independence," says Kingori Mbogo of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association "[They] should know that Kenya is their country."

A number of critics maintain the group and its violent tactics are not worthy of commemorations. The current chaos surrounding mass land invasions of white-owned farms in Zimbabwe by veterans of that nation's own war for independence has prompted some opponents to caution that lauding the Mau Mau might send the wrong message in Kenya - a country also beset by tension over squatting on land seized during the Colonial era.

The '50s insurrection - and the outcry over the heavy-handed response to it - helped bring an end to British rule . Yet when independence came in 1963, the Mau Mau were shut out of power. Instead, wealthier, more-educated Kenyans who promised to protect British interests entered office.

Those who support the Mau Mau say that while they wanted land redistribution, the new elite in Kenya used land to enrich themselves. Many are demanding retroactive compensation from the British government for past damages.

"The sons of those who used to oppress them are the ones who run the country," says Mutahi.

History books debate the precise number, but most agree that the Mau Mau killed fewer than 100 Europeans before the four-year uprising was quelled. Meanwhile, the authorities and white vigilantes killed some 11,000 rebels or suspected rebels and imprisoned another 80,000 alleged sympathizers.

Today's Kenyan youngsters would be hard-pressed to describe the Mau Mau's role in their country's independence. "It was a paragraph in our textbooks," says Wilson Njuki, former secretary general of the lobby group Release Political Prisoners.

Today, while other African governments celebrate their freedom fighters, in Kenya, no holidays, monuments, or burial grounds honor the Mau Mau. Mr. Njuki calls this a betrayal. "It was the sole liberation movement in this country. It inspired so many movements across this continent."

And what people like veteran Mr. Mbongo long for is a little perch in history. "Even today no one recognizes what we did," he laments. "We fought for our country, now we have got it. We would like to be a free association."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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