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Life Histories from the Revolution: Three militants from the Kenya Land and Freedom Army tell their stories
In the early 1970s, Donald Barnett — who worked with Karari Njama to produce Mau Mau From Within (published by Daraja Press) — also worked with three militants of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army to enable them to tell the story of their experience in fighting for freedom and against British colonialism. These rarely acknowledged militants were Karigo Muchai, Ngugi Kabiru and Mohamed Mathu. Their stories were published in 1973 by LSM Information Center (Richmond, British Columbia, Canada) as part of a series entitled Life Histories of the Revolution, as The Hardcore: The Story of Karigo Muchai; The Man in the Middle by Ngugi Kabiru; and The Urban Guerrilla by Mohamed Mathu.
As part of its mission of Nurturing reflection, sheltering hope and inspiring audacity, Daraja Press is please to republish the three booklets as a book that will help a new generation of activists — Kenyan and international — reflect on a history that might inspire audacious struggles to continue the struggle for freedom that was the goal of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army.
Donald Barnett wrote the foreword to each of the booklets as follows:
One of our objectives in launching this series of LIFE HISTORIES FROM THE REVOLUTION is to provide a medium through which individual members of these classes-in-motion within the revolution can speak. We also believe it important that they be heard by those of us who comprise imperialism’s privileged and literate metropolitan minority. Their recounted lives throw our own into sharp relief, while at the same time they offer us fresh perspectives on the processes of repression and revolution from a unique vantage point: from below. Their life stories provide us with a window into the qualitative—as distinct from the merely statistical and quantitative—aspects of class conflict, thus enabling us to better understand and weigh the various factors at work in transforming oppressed masses into revolutionary classes. Again, their remembered life experiences can provide us with significant insights into the dialectical relationships between material and subjective conditions which shape the revolutionary situation, embrace the revolutionary transformation of individuals and classes alike, and move humanity forward toward a new international social formation.
Not all of the individuals whose life histories are included in this series are illiterate peasants or workers. Some are educated defectors from petty bourgeois classes who have joined the revolution and identified their interests with those of the oppressed masses in a very concrete way. They constitute a very important part of the revolutionary vanguard—i.e., the middle cadres who articulate the relationship between leadership and base, who carry forward the military and civilian programs in day-to-day contact with the armed militants and popular masses. The selfless dedication, integrity, comportment and skill of the middle cadres is an essential ingredient within any successful revolutionary process.
The life histories in this series have been recorded and prepared as historical documents from the revolutionary struggles of our time. The techniques and methods employed at each stage of the process, from initial contact to final editing, have therefore been chosen or fashioned with the purpose of guaranteeing the authenticity and integrity of the life history concerned. These stories, then, to the best of our ability to make them so, constitute a body of data and testimony as revealed by a few of those history-makers normally condemned to silence while others speak on their behalf.
We would like to express our thanks to Ole Gjersta, Steve Goldfield and others involved in the LSM Information Centre for making these booklets available.
….to free oneself or assist in liberating others involves taking risks, being suspicious of the status quo, leaving the safety of the shore and launching out into the deep and the unknown. This is a very lonely calling too as one immerses oneself into the whole of reality with courage to confront and listen. Yet, the calling is not to be the liberator of the oppressed but to make a commitment to fight alongside them, as Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. — Fr Gabriel Dolan
From his work in Turkana, Kitale, Kapenguria and Mombasa, Father Gabriel reminds us that true transformative change comes from the people themselves, from the bottom up. This is a challenge that the social justice/human rights practitioners must internalize and the sooner the better. The idea of being the “voice of the voiceless” must transform to facilitating, encouraging and giving space to those who suffer the indignities of injustice, violence, poverty and repression. Indeed, one of the most significant tasks for the human rights community is to devolve away from Nairobi, in real, practical, and substantive ways.
It is not easy for a white man, with all the attendant privileges that brings, to become an integral part of the struggle for pro-poor transformative change in Kenya, and be subject to arrest, harassment, and repression. For those who read these memoirs, please circulate them to everyone you know. Translate them, read them in the mosques, churches and under trees so that Kenyans can get a sense of where we have come from, what we should avoid, and what it takes to make some gains that benefit the majority of our people. — Maina Kiai
This book is published by Zand Graphics Ltd (Kenya) in association with Daraja Press.
The inside story of the struggles of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, referred to by British colonialism as the ‘Mau Mau rebellion’, is little known today. The autobiographical material written by Karari Njama (a senior leader in the Mau Mau hierarchy) and compiled by Donald L. Barnett was first published by Monthly Review Press in 1966, as Mau Mau From Within: An analysis of Kenya’s Peasant Revolt. It was reprinted in 1970; it has remained out of print for many years. As the late Basil Davidson put it in his review of the first edition: “Njama writes of the forest leaders’ efforts to overcome dissension, to evolve effective tactics, to keep discipline, mete out justice … and to teach men how to survive in those merciless forests. His narrative is crowded with excitement. Those who know much of Africa and those who know little will alike find it compulsive reading. Some 10,000 Africans died fighting in those years . Here, in the harsh detail of everyday experience, are the reasons why.”
The book is an extraordinary story of courage, passion, heroism, combined with recounting of colonial terror, brutality and betrayal. It is a story of how the very idea of being ‘Kenyan’ was intimately linked to the idea of freedom, a connection that was destroyed not only by the firepower of the British, but also by those who collaborated and established themselves as the beneficiaries of neocolonial rule. Disconnecting notions of freedom from identity left only a caricature that rapidly descended into tribalism and ethnicity.
This momentous story of the struggle for freedom described here is relevant not only for a new generation of Kenyans but also for all those engaged in emancipatory struggles internationally. For so long as the experiences arising from the struggles described in this book are perceived as merely ‘African’ or ‘Kenyan’, it is not possible to fully grasp the contributions they have made to the struggle for a universalist humanity.
What is recounted in this publication is more than an ‘analysis of a peasant revolt’. It is above all a history of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. As Ngūgī wa Thiong’o points out in his Preface to this new edition, ‘we don’t have to use the vocabulary of the colonial to describe our struggles.’ We were tempted to rename the book ‘Kenya Land and Freedom Army from Within.’ But because the original title has wide recognition, and and as one of the characteristics of movements of the oppressed is to appropriate derogatory terms used by their oppressors and repurpose them as an expression of pride in their own experiences, this book retains the original title, but with a change in the subtitle as ‘The Story of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army.’
We were delighted that Karari Njama was able to provide us with a Prologue to the new edition (Kamoji Wachiira, a former political prisoner, connected us with Karari and translated the text of the Prologue). Shujaa Hon Dr Gitu wa Kahengeri, Secretary-General of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association reminds us how the veterans of the liberation movement, like Karari Njama, continue to live in extreme poverty today despite the enormous contribution that they made to the struggle for freedom.
Kenya’s leading writer and academic, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, points out in the Preface, how so much of the narratives about the Kenya Land and Freedom Army has been written from ‘without’, emphasizing the importance of a book that speaks to the personal testimony from within the movement. We are honoured to have Mīcere Gīthae Mugo, Emerita Professor of Literature at Syracuse University, provide reflections on the importance of the republication of this historical text. There are many who, as children, lived through the terrifying events of the Emergency during which so many were tortured and killed by the British (and their local collaborators) and whose psyche remains deeply affected by what they witnessed. Kamoji Wachiira describes some of these experiences vividly in his Introduction to the new edition. He highlights the extent of betrayal by successive post-independence governments, and the development of the post-independence revival of resistance which he was a central part of. He also emphasizes the importance for a new generation of Kenyans “to gain not only a deep understanding of Kenya’s revolutionary history but also to reflect on what lessons may be drawn for the struggle to achieve real freedom.”
The original publication had no biographical information about Don Barnett. Few are aware of the extent of Don’s political engagement with the cause of liberation, of which Mau Mau From Within was only one aspect. He was a founder of the Liberation Support Movement in Canada, and had close contact with the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola). Don sadly joined the ancestors in 1975. We are fortunate, however, that Don and Daphne’s son and daughter, Michael Barnett and Dawn Barnett, were able to provide, together with Ole Gjerstad, a revealing biography.
We have endeavoured to retain the content of the original book (but for a few minor corrections) including the original Selected Bibliography. An updated Further Reading list is provided.