What Mr Sanders Really Did


Written by Veronica Bellers



Looking Each Other Between The Eyes


It may surprise some that antagonism was not an emotion commonly felt by either African or British towards each other. But the clash of cultures caused frustration at times, as well as antipathy, leading occasionally to revolt. The Dini Ya Masambwa was one example where anger, a lust for power and probably a drop or two of insanity drove one man to inflame antagonism amongst his tribe.

An earlier chapter told the story of Bahati, a woman of the Kitosh people, who was found by Frederick Jackson naked and miles from home after being taken by Arab slave raiders. The first District Commissioner in Kisumu, Hobley - known as Hobley-Bobley - considered the Kitosh to be "a mystical and bellicose people" who, having lost the opportunities for fighting and raiding, directed their "turbulent blood" to a heady mixture of ancestral gods, Christianity and nationalistic fervour. Interestingly, he also had to deal with a religious fanatic in the District whose teachings were not subversive, but he forecast great trouble ahead when one arose.

Teddy Eggins, was D.O. North Nyanza in 1949, and saw the Dini ya Msambwa as:

"the Cult of the Ancestral Spirits,... one of those storms, or perhaps a mere shower, of fanaticism - partly social, partly religious, partly nationalistic - which pass from time to time across the landscape of history."

It was a movement which broke out among the Kitosh people who lived on the Kenya side of Mount Elgon on the frontier of Uganda. It centred round a person known as Elijah Masinde. He lived at the Friends Africa Mission but was evicted after he had taken a second wife. He became an obsessive reader of the Old Testament and believed that there should be a black Christ with a Christianity for black men which would allow polygamy. He alleged that God replied that the request was reasonable but so long as there were Europeans in the land he could not grant the request. Once the white men had been driven out of the country, then the Black Christ would appear and all would be well. Further, Elijah said that the missionaries were all wrong about the customs of the Kenya tribes. Of course a man should have two or four or twenty wives, if he can afford them; and of course, men and women should be circumscised, since this is right and customary.

Teddy Eggins says that Elijah Masinde was estimated to have been born in 1910. He was a strongly built man with eyes which were "concentrated and peculiar". He displayed a certain talent for football (a half back) and he captained the Kimilili side. In 1930 he played for Kenya versus Uganda. However, various responsible people such as Chief Amatullah and head of Elijah's Omubachi Clan, Tomas Warianla, thought him more or less mad.

Teddy's report says that Elijah's first appearance as leader of the Dini:

"appears to have been at a baraza held at Kimilili in 1943 by the District Commissioner, Mr. Hislop, when Elijah rose and fired a series of questions at the District Commissioner with great intensity. The incident was dramatic and Elijah enhanced his prestige as a result.

In 1944 the movement gathered impetus and its following began to increase. During that year Elijah was accused under Native Authority Ordinance 2/37 Sec. 8(e) before the Kamutiong Native Tribunal in Criminal Case 374.44 of failing to obey the order of Chief Amatullah to desist from conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace. He was sentenced to three months hard labour and a fine of Shs 100/- or I.D. a further three months hard labour. He appealed to the Native Appeal Tribunal and his appeal was dismissed. He appealed further to the District Commissioner and the conviction was unheld but the sentence reduced to two months hard labour and a fine of Shs 50/- or I.D. a further two months hard labour. The fine was paid and the substantive sentence served.

He next came into the limelight in 1944 when, in October, he and two of his closest adherents forbade an Agricultural Instructor to enter their shambas [fields] in order to carry out an inspection of the Mexican Marigold weed, and threatened to kill him if he did go. On the 30th of October Elijah and ten other men ambushed a government party, Liguru Jonathon and two civil conscription askaris, who had gone to serve summonses on Elijah to appear at a Baraza...The ambushers used pangas, clubs and sticks and all three of the Government party suffered injuries, the askaris having to spend several days in hospital....At this ambush a cry was raised, though by whom is not known, to mutilate the Government party by cutting off their penises. It seems that this has never been a local custom in inter-tribal war ... Fortunately the deed was not done as some of the ambushers demurred."

After a further arrest and imprisonment it was decided on the evidence of a Medical Officer that Elijah was mentally unbalanced and he was committed to Mathari mental hospital. When he was considered fit for discharge in 1947 the Provincial Commissioner failed to find a way to keep him away from the location and his activities intensified.

"In June 1947 [Elijah] collected about 5,000 followers and lead them to the old fort near Lugulu where Hobley fought his final battle with the Kitosh. One of his objects seem to have been to exorcise the ghosts of the men killed in the battle and a sheep was sacrificed according, he said, to ancient custom. He cut up the sheep, giving each man a small piece. Then he made a speech on the eviction of Europeans and said he would have to ask God to show him how to get rid of them.

"On the 10th of February 1948 the assistant superintendent of Police, Mr. Walker, who had some days previously established himself with a force of Police at Kimilili, went to Malakisi and saw a large and ugly crowd in the vicinity, who appeared to be making for the government Camp. He went to the Camp and when the crowd arrived tried to reason with them. A few of them attacked him and he was felled, fired in his own defence, was felled again, whereupon general fire was opened by his Police party. The crowd disappeared leaving 7 dead and 13 injured."

A week later he was found by another Police party with about three hundred followers. He gave himself up without further trouble and he was shortly afterwards deported to Lamu.

For a year or more the activities of the Dini ya Msambwa were confined to outbreaks of arson and destruction. But in 1950 one of Elijah's disciples, a man by the name of Lucas, with a gold tooth in his jaw which he said that God had given him, was preaching Elijah's doctrines to the wild people of the Suk, who lived around Lake Baringo, north of the European Highlands. In the name of Dini ya Msambwa, he proclaimed the overthrow and ejection of the white men, the appropriation of their lands, the shedding of European clothes, a return to tribal ways, and an era of fertility and plenty in the fields, among the cattle, sheep and women.

Rumours of this propaganda were reported to the British authorities. The DC, and the DC about to succeed him, together with a detachment of armed police went out to meet the Dini band. They were found (24 April 1950), about two or three hundred of them, near Baringo, some of them dressed in warlike array, with shields and spear which in fact Africans were not allowed to carry. Fighting started; the relieving DC and two British and one African police officer were killed. On the other side some twenty were killed and a good many more were wounded. Lucas of the Divine Tooth was identified to have been among the slain.

This was by no means the only cult which was springing up. A section of Kikuyu, styling themselves "Watu wa Mungu" (Men of God) speared a European assistant police inspector and his two African constables in 1948. "They had mutilated the bodies in a most gruesome fashion, slashing the inspector's face open across the eyes and mouth; ... and one poor native, with his hand half cut off, they had paraded around the village, telling him that he was on his way to a ceremonial execution. He was saved by a reinforcement of police, which had been rushed to the scene." [Farson]

And other sections of the Kikuyu tribe were brewing another fanatical, nationalistic and even uglier movement, the effects of which were so far-reaching as to ruin many lives, rock the Government in Britain and bring turmoil and bitterness to the reasonably ordered lives of many members of the colonial Administration.

But perhaps the most tragic aspect of the Mau Mau was the way the Kikuyu tribe was split in two. By far the larger section were against the Mau Mau and "some 1,800 are known to have died, but the true number will never be known". Only 58 civilian European and Asians were killed and even with the total casualties of the security forces - African, Asian and European - of 167, the extent of the tragedy to the Kikuyu compared to the rest is clear.

Enormous pressure was put on members of the tribe to sign up. In his survey of the Mau Mau F.D. Corfield described exactly how frightful that pressure was. A Kikuyu Catholic woman. [Origins and Growth of the Mau Mau]

"[A Kikuyu Catholic woman] was dragged by night from her house to a hut. After she had refused to take the oath she was stripped and beaten and informed that she would be killed and those present would drink her blood. She still refused and after again being beaten she was hoisted off the floor at the end of a rope until she lost consciousness. When she partially regained her senses she was compelled to drink some blood from a bottle and to perform the other disgusting rites constituting the Mau Mau oath-taking ceremony." [p 155]

There are many stories of loyalty and courage "of the brave, often lonely, Kikuyu and others, both Christian and pagan, who, with so little thought for their personal safety and so little effective help from government, sought to oppose Mau Mau."

At the beginning of the Mau Mau emergency Arthur Horner remembers is Kikuyu houseboy rushing into the sitting room, when he was standing at the window admiring his garden, drawing the curtains and saying fiercely to him 'Never do that Bwana." Later the houseboy was removed, like virtually all the Kikuyu, into detention camps - as much for their own protection as for the protection of the Europeans. His family were all massacred by the Mau Mau and after The Emergency was over he went back to see the Horners, a broken man.

Kit Taylor who, together with her husband Charles, farmed coffee outside Nairobi described the period known as the Mau Mau as: "Absolute anguish...It was a battle between love and loyalty to the Europeans that they worked for and the terror of dying for the oath....I know one man who knew his boy was absolutely loyal and he asked the people who had arrested him to allow them to have five minutes alone together during which the servant said 'Bwana don't stop them taking me away. I want them to take me because if they leave me here I may have to do something terrible.'"

It was not uncommon for house and farm servants to feed a gang in the forest from European produce in order to prevent them having to murder their employers and Kit Taylor believed that some of their own people did this in order to protect the Taylors' lives.

"Elizabeth Cooper rang us to say that she could see a gang coming our way up the valley. The women in the gang were carrying guns of two [European] teenage boys who had been killed. (Stupid parents had given their sons airguns to shoot birds in the middle of the Mau Mau and the gang had killed the boys and kept the guns.) The bibis [women] were rushing up the road with the police in hot pursuit. Old Gichuru walked up and down outside: you could see his throat working. He passed us twice before he could get out the words 'Keep in the house'. We did and the bullets started whistling through the garden."

The Mau Mau in Kenya was described in the Corfield Report as "the violent manifestation of a limited nationalistic revolutionary movement confined almost entirely to the Kikuyu tribe." The paper deals sympathetically with the strains imposed upon people who were having change thrust upon them at an almost unprecedented rate.

"The individual] is brought up in an environmment of the old tribal culture, but with adolescence he comes into contact with a different culture, which makes nonsense of his primitive beliefs. Once he goes into the outside world, he has lost most of his traditional moorings. His magic modes of thought persist, but the old restraints are gone....He often becomes rudderless and it is too easy for him to identify his trouble with the European, who has indirectly brought on his troubles, but it should not be forgotton that such mental conflict and confusion is not a peculiarity of the African mind it is apparent in the incidence of mental disturbance in modern cities.

This rapid transition has also produced a schizophrenic tendency in the African mind - the extraordinary facility to live two separate lives with one foot in this century and the other in witchcraft and savagery. This has often been noticed, but Mau Mau revealed the almost inexplicable lengths to which it would go. A Kikuyu leading an apparently normal life would, in one moment, become a being that was barely human. A most notable manifestation of this was the murder of the Ruck family at the end of 1953. Mr Ruck's groom, who led a gang of terrorists, enticed Mr. Ruck from his house at night on a spurious statement that a gangster had been arrested. He was battered to death in front of his wife who had come out to assist him, and she was then murdered. On the instructions of the groom, their small son, aged 6, hiding in terror in the house, was then slashed to death - a typical Mau Mau murder. The groom, who led this attack, had only a few days previously carried the boy tenderly home some miles from the house after a riding accident."

It is widely accepted that the land question was at the root of the resentment of the Kikuyu tribe. Negley Farson, in his book "Last Chance in Africa" reporting on a visit to Kenya in 1948 alerts the world to some unpalatable truths about land in the Kiambu District outside Nairobi where the Mau Mau movement is thought to have begun:

"Here are some facts from inside the reserve. The Kiambu district of the Kikuyu Reserve is its most prosperous district, containing, as I have said, some of the best-watered and most fertile valleys in all Kenya. Yet today its land is so overpopulated, overworked, over-grazed (and badly farmed) that, it is admitted officially some of its 28,500 families must be moved elsewhere. Forty per cent. of its 196,181 population is already landless. And an official report runs: "On the assumption that 40 per cent. of the population is already landless and that 10 per cent. of that figure are engaged in non-agricultural work, on the present density in Kiambu some 90,000 persons might become without means of support within a short time: something which cannot be faced with equanimity."

To quote Arthur Horner:

"I think Mau Mau was caused to some extent by land - land hunger and the desire for more land, and being told that the Europeans just went along and took it. But nobody could get land in the land units from 1939 onwards; it was impossible to buy land in the Native land units."

At a combined meeting of the Kenya African Union and the East African Indian National Congress in May 1951 (before the Mau Mau Emergency was declared), Mr Eliud Mathu said:

"It is on the land that the African lives and it means everything to him. The African cannot depend for his livelihood on profits made through trading. We cannot depend on wages. We must go back every time to the only social security we have - the piece of land. The land stolen must be restored, because without land the future of the African people is doomed. God will hear us because that is the thing he gave us."

But the Provincial Commissioner, Central Province, countered this by pointing out:

"It is easy to say, for it is true, that the African must learn, like all other races of the world, that he can no longer expect by right of birth to have the world provide him with a farm whatever the circumstances of his father; the surface of this planet cannot expand, whatever the universe may be doing, and the addition of adjacent lands would only be a palliative for a few years to this problem." [Corfield]

When the British settled in the area which was to become Kenya vast tracts of land were empty and untouched because the population was so small. However, the control of disease both in humans, crops and livestock created a great increase in the population and this in turn increased pressure for land. Added to this, many Africans both in East and West Africa, used the slash and burn method of farming. After two or three crops the soil would weaken and crops would be light, forcing the farmer to clear another area to till in order that he could leave the first patch fallow for several years.

Although it is true to say that land was never 'stolen' it was bought or negotiated by treaty. And in a few instances land was confiscated. An example of confiscation was the area around Fort Smith, where a fort near Wyaki's village, had been constructed by Major Eric Smith* in 1891 to accommodate members of the Imperial British East Africa Company on their way to or from Uganda. Some years after it was built, a Kikuyu clan which had attacked and murdered some occupants of the fort were punished by having their land expropriated.

But it was not only the need for more land which caused resentment. During the late forties other tensions manifested themselves, particularly among the Kikuyu. There was resentment over a government order to make the women terrace their land in an effort at soil conservation and in the political arena there were angry debates over a national registration and arguments also flared up over the number and make up of delegates to the East African Central Assembly.

The sparks of resentment were also being fanned by those outside the country who were against the British colonial presence in Africa. People began to believe that the African was quite capable of running his own affairs and they considered colonial government a gross imposition. These siren voices telling Africans visiting the United States, The Soviet Union or Britain, must have been tempting indeed.

Since the twenties young hotheads formed associations and agitated but recruitment in the form of oathing ceremonies appear to have begun only in 1948. These ceremonies, based on primitive superstition, which in the most extreme cases involved intercourse with sheep and adolescent girls, sucking a dismembered penis and mixing semen, publicly produced, with menstrual blood and sheeps blood. The oaths (the most extreme were never published) resolved adherents to:

(a) to burn European crops and kill European cattle,
(b) to steal firearms,
(c) if ordered to kill, to kill, no matter who is to be
the victim, even one's father or brother,
(d) when killing, to cut off the heads, extract the eyeballs and drink the liquid from them.
(e) Particularly to kill Europeans.
[Corfield]

The participants were filled with such ghastly terror that they believed they had no choice but to obey the rules of secrecy and murder.

The Mau Mau in Kenya cast a sinister shadow over the life of European and African alike. The hatred and tensions that flared up between, not only African and European, African and African but also between the officials and the settlers were at times venomous. Settlers thought they knew it all (a common settler failing, even though I partly come from settler stock) and young DO's and DC's found themselves trying to obey orders, unravel a tangle of vested interests and stay alive in a newly menacing and violent world.

In my own very minor way I remember as a small child feeling its chill over my life at our boarding prep school in the highlands. Great loops of barbed wire were laid around the school perimeter. Companies of British soldiers were given a paddock nearby in which to pitch a rest and recuperation camp in return for which they would patrol the school bounds. Most of the staff took to carrying pistols: some were hung on belts, whilst others were, fascinatingly, tucked inside female bosoms.

The African sports days which we had all enjoyed so much were stopped and instead of fire practice we were drilled in Mau Mau practice. At a given signal - I think it was a siren - the children in the dormitories facing the outside of the grounds had to rush into the inner ones and hide under the beds. (As the nights were cold and the beds themselves short of blankets, the inner domitories became rather coveted.)

Farmers organised themselves all over the country into patrols to try to protect themselves and their neighbours. It was forbidden to travel anywhere without one's firearm. This was to prevent Mau Mau gangsters from breaking in to temporarily empty houses and stealing guns. Going into church on Sundays was not merely accompanied by the organ but also by the clatter of gun butts and barrels on stone.

It became common practice to lock servants out of the houses before sundown. This way they could not be coerced by gangs to let them into the house. One family did not follow this practice, keeping the servants in the house to serve supper. The only survivor of the ensuing massacre told me that one minute there was a cheerful, chatty atmosphere around the dinner table and the next a fearful chill silence fell and into the room filed a gang of wild looking men with pangas. They circled the table in complete silence and then they fell upon the diners howling as they did so. The sole survivor who was in her teens, was badly injured and left for dead but she managed to crawl through a wheat field to a car which she then drove (despite never having driven before) for help.

Perhaps now, nearly half a century later, the Mau Mau may be seen as an heroic struggle to throw off the bonds of the oppressor. But I do not believe all that many Kikuyu saw it that way. It was too ugly, too sordid, too fearful to be heroic.

Years later just before Independence, when he had retired from the Colonial Service and was farming, my father was approached by a member of the Agricultural Workers Union who asked him if he could stage a union meeting on the farm. Dad readily agreed and a date was set for the meeting. The labour were all told that the Agricultural Workers Union representative would be in a certain paddock at ten o'clock on the appointed day.

The day arrived and to his embarrassment only the representive and my father turned up. At the evening milking he remonstrated with the men and they listened politely but noncomittally as they leaned their heads companionably against the flanks of the ayreshire/shorthorn cows they were milking. Finally, Dad picked out Mechemi, and said "Mechemi, you are an ex-Mau Mau, you of all people should have been interested in what the trade union representative had to say."

"Not I" he said firmly. "I have had societies of all kinds. They take your money, they do nothing for you and they make your life a misery. No more societies for me!"



Back to Table of Contents | Back to Articles | Chapter 22




Share