The British Empire Library

My Enemy: My Friend

by David Lovatt Smith

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by John Lonsdale (Trinity College, Cambridge)
This is an historical novel of the 'Mau Mau' Emergency in Kenya half a century ago. The author was there at the time. He fought the Kikuyu 'terrorists' (or 'freedom fighters') as a conscript in the Kenya Regiment, the white territorial army. He went on to win their trust as a field Intelligence Officer in the Kenya Police. He tells the story, grippingly and in sometimes gory detail, through the eyes of two men, the enemies who became friends. Thiong'o wa Kimani is a Kikuyu lorry driver who joins in the slaughter of his settler employer's family and then escapes to the forests. George is a white policeman who sees the possibility of 'turning' Mau Mau captives into fighters for interracial trust and political peace.

Many readers will have been reminded of this bloody episode in British and Kenyan history by the BBC TV film White Terror, shown last November. This reported on a campaign by ex-Mau Mau veterans for reparations from Britain. They claim that British soldiers and officials, together with 'loyalist' African troops and prison warders, committed war-crimes against the Kikuyu people - torture, rape, and murder - all in an illegal regime of forced labour imposed upon tens of thousands of African detainees. The Kikuyu evidence we saw on film was pretty convincing. And the British High Commission in Nairobi is even now pondering its response to a petition with no fewer than six thousand signatures. But the film also outraged former colonial civil servants and soldiers who remember their honourable part in a tough but ultimately constructive counter-insurgency campaign.

My Enemy : My Friend takes us at first-hand to the heart of the controversy. This imperial emergency of not so long ago was one of those 'savage wars of peace' that continue to divide opinion in our own day. Those who recall the Mau Mau as bestial killers will have their memories amply confirmed. Lovatt Smith knows how to sustain both suspense and, at the moment of crisis, sheer horror. Those who believe, to the contrary, that brutal British retribution rather than African barbarism provoked a Mau Mau war of resistance will also nod their heads. Lovatt Smith portrays fear in Kikuyu huts every bit as tangible as that in settler living rooms. The villain of the piece is the racial paranoia engendered by mutual ignorance, not any cabalistic conspiracy by the bearded and supposedly Marxist anthropologist Jomo Kenyatta, 'leader to darkness and death'. But what is particularly remarkable about this story is the author's imaginative ability to paint a human picture of Mau Mau lives in the forest, more fugitives than either bandits or nationalists, under often squalidly oppressive leadership. His captives all those years ago must have been very frank with their Special Branch interrogator, perhaps grateful to be spared the less tender mercies of their fellow-African 'loyalists'. In the end the fates of Thiong'o and George intertwine; each has to trust the other with his life. That, too, is a memory that many Kenyans, black and white, will recognise. This is an action story, full of courage and shame. It is also first-rate history, if only one view among many.

British Empire Book
David Lovatt Smith
0 9544713 0 X


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