MAU MAU (Religious Movement)

Mau Mau was an insurgent religio-political movement of the 1950s that was ended by military force. There is little agreement as to what was the original meaning of Mau Mau, perhaps code for the warning ‘Uma!’ (Get out!) or a double mishearing of muma (oath). All would accept that the term referred to a more radical and underground version of the Kenyan African Union formed in 1946. A most logical meaning then of Mau would be the plural form of the diminutive KAU (pronounced Kau), a perfect expression of the aims of its first organizers. Members referred to it obliquely as Uiguana (wa Muingi) (Unity of the Community), Gikuyu (na Muumbi) the proto-ancestral Agikuyu, or Muma (wa Uiguano) (Oath of Unity).


Gikuyu elders in Kiambu made contact with the younger, more radical trade unionists in Nairobi, who would only agree to take the secret oath of the covertly revived Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), if the oath was made more militant and offered to many more Agikuyu, a term used traditionally to describe the people whose homeland is in the central region of the country extending from Mount Kenya to Nairobi. They took the oath (muma) at chief Koinange’s home in late 1948, but Fred Kubai, Bildad Kaggia, Stanley Mathenge, and others, soon split from the older generation, taking effective control of a widespread secret organization with connections between Nairobi and Kiambu, Muranga, and Nyeri. Mau Mau was proscribed in August 1950.


Gikuyu traditional associations and churches used oaths to prevent deception in critical issues. An oath was sworn by the Kikuyu Association in 1920, an oath largely continued when the KCA was formed in 1926, though swearing on the Bible was dropped as ineffectual. When Mau Mau took over the oathing, they operated from a secret central committee or muhima in Nairobi, sending out oath administrators as far as Embu or the Rift Valley without fostering any local organizations, simply using social pressure to enforce oath taking. Before the worst atrocities mission and independent Christians regarded the oath as a religious duty. It became customary to open a ceremony with prayers to the missionaries’ ‘Mwathani Ngai’ (the Lord God), whenever possible by a robed Karinga clergyman to optimize the blessing on proceedings. A goat was sacrificed at night. Candidates had to remove all metal, shoes, even clothes from their persons. A cross was drawn on the forehead, ‘May this blood mark the faithful and brave members of the Gikuyu and Mumbu Unity…’

Thus baptismal symbolism was combined with the tradition of cleansing from contact with human blood. Blood brotherhood, a regional Arab symbol of friendship was effected by smearing each other’s blood on a piece of goat meat and eating it. Candidates had to pass through an arch of sugar-cane and banana leaves seven times, investing the ceremony with all the identity-forming solemnity of initiation (kurua).

The candidates had to face Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya), holding balls of damp soil to their navels and to swear many oaths of loyalty before Mwene-Nyaga, the distinctively Gigikuyu name for Ngai (God), ending ‘May this oath kill me’, if it be broken. More stringent and dangerous oaths were used for higher degrees of commitment, yet all were new combinations of old Gikuyu or Christain rites. There was no ‘perversion’ beyond bricolage.

Trusting in the oath, the young radicals were able to build a secret, yet mass, movement on the oath. It was Ngai who gave them their fighting power. Church women regarded caring for Mau Mau as a Christian vocation. One could hardly be a ‘Mugikuyu

karinga’ without swearing the oath. Between 75 and 90 per cent of the one million Agikuyu population, besides large numbers of Embu, Meru, Akamba, Maasai, and others took the oath of unity. The political strength of the oath outlasted Mau Mau as Kenyatta showed by his anxiety that it not be used against him in 1964 and then reviving it in 1969.

Songs and prayers

In nine months from November 1951 the Mau Mau published no less than four hymn books which stressed hard work and unity as much as their political pamphlets had. They protested against the evictions of tenants and land alienation, while celebrating education, independent schools, the Kenya Teachers College, political rallies, and KAU leaders. The hymns gave Mau Mau a unity of mind and purpose that politically it lacked, not least because of organizational secrecy.

Songs then, as in traditional and Christian religion, were highly motivating. They reached Gikuyu hearts, quickly moving them to happiness. Songs were prayers that reached Ngai at once, so that he would come to their aid. The British were suspicious of Gigikuyu newspapers, but not of the tune of ‘Abide with me’, ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ and ‘God save the Queen’, however devoted to insurrection and Kenyatta as king. Prayers morning and night were also a part of Mau Mau life, even when dodging the security forces in the mountain forests. Bibles were read there too, so that Kimathi and Kenyatta became Moses and messiah.

The ‘Creed of Gikuyu and Muumbi’ asserted belief ‘in the holy ceremonies of Gikuyu and Muumbi. and the ever-lastingness of the Gikuyu tribe. God let it be so!’ It sold 20,000 copies, mostly at oathing ceremonies.

Insecurity in land

The owners of the land were the guardians of the ancestral spirits who dwelt in it, and a larger tract of land represented a greater concentration of spiritual powers. The cry of the landless was for ithaka na wiathi (lands and moral responsibility). Mau Mau was not merely a moral economy, but divinely authorized by ancestor, prophet, prayer, song, and oath. Its failure was the political aspiration of trade unionism that assumed all Agikuyu could be forcibly united for concerted action, when the house of Muumbi had long had many fractious sons vying for land. Some would become Mungiki.

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