Kenya On My Mind: Representations of the Mau Mau + Gender

Currently Reading: ”Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulags in Kenya” by Caroline Elkins

This book details how the British incarcerated, tortured, and raped 1.5 million Gikuyu between 1952 and 1960 in an effort to:

1) suppress the Mau Mau

2) pit tribes/ethnic/religious groups against one another

3) clear the land for White settler farmers (mostly from Southern Africa) and aristocrats (the younger sons who could not inherit due to primogeniture){This implies the removal of displaced Gikuyu (also called “squatters”)

The British justified this by saying that 1,800 White settlers were killed, but in fact, the British killed 100,000 Kenyans in return. Clearly the lives of white settlers are worth more than those of their African counterparts.

It’s worth a read.

Mau Mau prisoners were held in terrible conditions, according to recent studies. Photograph: Terrence Spencer/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

There is an article in The Guardian dated 23 June 2009 entitled “Mau Mau Veterans Lodge Compensation Claim Against UK.  The byline reads:

Five Kenyans to present letter to No 10 calling for full inquiry into their claims of rape, castration and beatings during 1950s

Political Cartoon highlighting Brit fears of the Mau Mau- also painting the Mau Mau as rebellious

Apparently, the Mau Mau were registered as a terrorist movement until 2003.  This 1950s comic portrays Kenya as a defenseless (white) baby- which suggests a rather high level entitlement on the part of the European settlers.  Also, notice that the Mau Mau are represented as a snake- dangerous, stealthy, unpredictable. ZunguZungu (a graduate student at my alma mater) does an excellent job of breaking this down in his entry entitled “Mau Mau and Charlton Heston’s Naked Jungle.

1954′s The Naked Jungle might initially seems like it was cowritten byAnne McClintock (or maybe Timothy Burke). Ostensibly set in the Amazon, the colonial tropes line up perfectly: white aligns with cleanliness, while the dark natives are dirty. The jungle is a place of primeval chaos, but Charlton Heston has made himself into “more than a king” by tearing a plantation from the earth, building a dam and thereby (almost) literally creating land where before there was none.

Now, as a womanist, my interest in the omission of women from the histories of the Mau Mau led me to this page entitled “Mau Mau Women.”  It lists essays and excerpt written by Professors and PhD candidates on the topic of women and the Mau Mau.  I was pleased to see my former professor Tabitha Kanogo’s short essay “Kikuyu Women and the Politics of Protest: Mau Mau.”  I have a brief synopsis below:

Kikuyu Women & The Politics of Protest: Mau Mau?” (Originally pub: S. Ardenes et al.; Images of Women in Peace and War, London, Macmillan, 1987)  I had the good fortune of taking her course on the history of Africa, and she made a point of covering women’s history pre and post-colonialism.

She starts off w/ a brief overview of the role of Kikuyu women and how political power was generally confined to all-male councils, a fact which the British colonial regime took advantage of.  Because Kikuyu women were not seen as politically influential, they were rather perceived as subordinate members of society.

After this, she outlines the significance and centrality of women to the Mau Mau oaths despite there being no female oath-administrators.  Women’s sexuality and reproductive capacities were central to blood oaths- as menstrual blood was an ingredient in some oath concoctions.  In addition to this, sexual acts were important to higher oaths (yes, these acts were a breach of Kikuyu mores).  Despite this, it appears that prostitutes were still looked down upon by male members of the Mau Mau.

There were 2 groups of women associated w/ the Mau Mau- those who lived in the woods, fighting as freedom fighters, and those who lived outside of the woods, who provided sustenance to those in the forest.  (I exclude Kikuyu loyalists and Kikuyu Christians here).

It’s worth a read. Very brief, very easy to read.

Also of interest is The Fight for Fertility: Mau Mau as Gendered Class Struggle,” by Terisa E. Turner, Teena J. Neal and Leigh S. Brownhill (242).

Mau Mau + Gender

The Mau Mau differed from the general Kikuyu society in that they created joint men and women councils that incorporated women warriors’ viewpoints.  Ruth Gathoni, a former Mau Mau fighter attested to this fact (Kanogo, 279).  In June 1953, the men symbolically acknowledged Wagiri Njoroge as the Queen of the Mau Mau, while others like Muthoni Ngatha rose to senior positions such as Field Marshal.

However, for a woman soldier to maintain her status, she could not become pregnant, lest she “lose the rifle,” losing her honor and status within the army.  Earlier, I mentioned the significance and centrality of women’s sexuality to Mau Mau oaths, alluding to the ambiguous status of (female) prostitutes involved in the struggle.  Male members were forbidden from fraternizing with prostitutes, as they were seen as spies and informants who had laiasons with the enemy (Kikuyu who had not taken the Mau Mau oath, British colonial agents, Kikuyu loyalists).  One British colonial administrator noted that:

“Many prostitutes incite their clients and even withhold their favours until action [for Mau Mau] has been taken” (RH Mss Afr. S. 596 Boc 38(A) 1953) {Kanogo, 283}

In other instances, prostitutes would distract loyalists and British colonial agents while Mau Mau warriors would steal their guns (and likely kill the men).  It is interesting, however, that prostitutes were considered an exception before the Mau Mau high court- as the penalty for a woman being “friendly with the enemy” was death.  (Kanogo, 283).  One conclusion that could be reached is that prostitutes in the Mau Mau were valued for their social mobility (within and without the Aberdare Forest) and sexual flexibility- as they were not constrained as their married counterparts were.


  1. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulags in Kenya, Caroline Elkins
  2. “Mau Mau Veterans Lodge Compensation Claim Against UK, The Guardian, 23 June 2009
  3. Mau Mau and Charlton Heston’s Naked Jungle, accessed 16 November 2010
  4. Unsung Warriors, Muthoni Likimani
  5. Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy, Audrey Wipper 25
  6. The Mau Mau Rebellion, Kikuyu Women and Social Change, Cora Ann Presley
  7. Land, Freedom and Internment: ‘Mau Mau’ in Mutira Women’s Lives, Jean Davison
  8. Separating the Men from the Boys: Constructions of Gender, Sexuality, and Terrorism in Central Kenya, 1939-1959Luise White
  9. Kikuyu Women and the Politics of Protest: Mau Mau, Tabitha Kanogo
  10. Nyabingi, Mau Mau and Rastafari: Gender and Internationalism in Twentieth Century Movements for a New Society, Terisa E. Turner
  11. The Fight for Fertility: Mau Mau as Gendered Class Struggle, Terisa E. Turner, Teena J. Neal and Leigh S. Brownhill


Filed under Africa, Class, Colonialism, East Africa, Europe, Feminism, Gender, History, Human Rights, Internally Displaced Persons, Rape, Social Justice, Subaltern Studies, Womanism

6 responses to “Kenya On My Mind: Representations of the Mau Mau + Gender

  1. James Chikonamombe

    How very interesting. In all my reading on Colonial Kenya, I never approached the issue from a gender
    viewpoint. Great post!

    • aconerlycoleman

      Thank you! Yes, my focus in uni was (post)colonialism, race and gender. It surprises me how often women are excluded from history!

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  3. Ivana

    Wonderful post, you might also be interested in reading “Mau Mau’s Daughter” by Wambui Otieno. An autiobiography by the (now infamous) Wambui that explores gender issues both during the Mau Mau movement and the consequences in a post-colonial Kenyan context.

  4. srijabasu

    hello … thanks so much for this amazing information ! i would like to read up more about the prostitutes in mau mau so could you kindly recommend some books on this for me?

    thanks once again!

    • aconerlycoleman

      I only know Prof. Kanogo’s work, which I cited above. I hope you find he sources/info you need :)

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