The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Gīkūyū: Learning from the Mau-mau

When the Europeans came to Africa on their civilizing mission, their idea was to transform the savage into their own image. Any studies done on the natives were for the sole purpose of affecting a smooth transformation and not for the learning of any useful life skills from the savages. Today we are beginning to understand that not only was it a serious mistake for the so-called natives to be be forced to abandon their traditions and customs, but that the Traditional Knowledge Systems resident in seemingly simple people are very useful to a so-called civilised being. A good example is the traditional fermentation science of the Nandi whose understanding would go a long way in solving today’s health problems and the dress of the native Africans and how environmentally sensitive it was as opposed to the colonial attire. Professor Kihumbū Thairū has documented many of these Traditional Knowledge Systems and practices in his book, The African Civilization. He shows that the seemingly simple down to earth is literally in tune with the earth. It is an uncommon wisdom.

As one side advances for a transformative so-called liberating force, the other hesitates and looks for answers in conservative traditions. This translates to the classic right/left clash of values. In the field of medicine, this clash of values between highly technical and seemingly advanced methods of medical treatment come face to face with simple traditional healing systems based on common sense old wives tales and shamanic healing practices. The operative words on the left and right divide are treatment and healing respectively where the left is civilizational, modern, and foreign and the right is conservative, traditional and local. Treatment deals with sickness and its eradication while healing deals with health and the organism’s relationships to the overall gestalt. One is disease care, the other is health care. One is mechanistic and the other is natural. One is expensive and the other is dirt cheap, literally. One is cold and distant while the other is loving and nurturing.

In 1952 a state of emergency was declared in Kenya due to the clash between the colonial British Governmet and the Gīkūyū-led Kenya Land Freedom Army better known as the Mau Mau. Never were two armies so different. While one was a Western trained formal army, the other was a ragtag collection of “untrained” warriors. According to one writer, the “Mau Mau was an aberration, a diseased limb on the body of the native society that required nothing less than a swift and comprehensive amputation”. Like Western medicine is apt to use military lingua like destroy, kill, targeted, etc, this is the military using medical lingua like diseased limb and amputation. The Mau Mau however proved a hard nut to crack for the British army. Mau Mau bushcraft and ability to interpret the minutest detail was in the words of Peter Hewitt “absolutely phenomenal” The Mau Mau were able to present an impenetrable and incomprehensible war environment to the British army. To the British, the abominable oathing and esoteric rituals seemed to be utter madness but even madness has a method to it. The Mau Mau understood that war happens within a physical, social-cultural and psychic environment and not in a clean surgical operation theatre or is it a theater of operations? The British only began to make headway when they called upon experts in the social-cultural domain like Dr. John Carothers who authored “The Psychology of Mau Mau” and the famous anthropologist and Gīkūyū long time student, L. S. B. Leakey who authored “Mau Mau and the Kikuyu.” Out of this broader knowledge the British were able to change tactics. In the field the army began to use local trackers and embedded whites like Ian Henderson. The local population was herded into concentration fortified and protected villages. The war for the minds and hearts of the Gīkūyū then moved a notch higher with the use of psyops (psychological operations) by staging low flying plane manoeuvres and the dropping of millions of propaganda pamphlets that were strewn over Gīkūyūland. What do we learn from all this?

Amerlinck in his book Architectural Anthropology writes, “it is obvious that minds moulded by one discipline alone will not be able to tackle the significant problems, because the real world transcends the limits of previously established disciplines.” He calls for a multi disciplinally approach to the complex modern society we face today and yet we see more and more cocoons and specialist approaches to very complex issues like health, urbanization, education et al.

Obesity for instance is a combination of several factors: physics, biochemistry, endocrinology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology and environmental health, all rolled into one problem. The factors that drive the obesity pandemic are as myriad as the number of people who suffer from it. Yet it is common to see a simplistic approach to the problem of obesity and sometimes it is reduced to a mere number, (BMI), nutrition science or exercise. One would expect the School of The Built Environment for instance, where Architecture, Human Settlement and Planning are interrogated to also focus on solutions to the obesity crises through the design of healthy living human habitats but this is probably asking too much of fragmented, specialized enclaves. Medicine for one has painted itself into a corner where doctors have become over glorified white coated prescription clerks for pharmaceutical companies so they will either offer the solution to obesity of a highly expensive surgical procedure or some magic drug.

We need to learn from the Mau Mau and for those of us who have followed the taking down of independent governments like Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq etc, the Mau Mau methodology of presenting an impenetrable wall through the psychological control of its people is telling. The Modus Operandi of conquest has always been to use local turncoats to eat the movement from within. Local armies who understand the terrain and the complex social-political and psychic structures are always the ones who do the dirty work for the generals in Washimgton. The Mau Mau by focusing and targeting these local turncoats were way ahead of their time. They show us the need for a radical traditionalisn when solving local problems and challenges. Tradition of cause is never static but ever changing and dynamic.

Today, the dichotomy of tradition and modernity continues. In a PhD Thesis, “Transformation of Kikuyu Traditional Architecture”, Joseph Kamenju records the tension between the traditional hearth cooking space, Riiko, and the modern sitting room. The traditional storytelling around the fire is now being replaced by the radio and television where conversation is muted and this too is being challenged by the social media and World Wide Web where a relativism that hides a heavy handed conformity is in contrast with the certainty and truths that are explored at the hearth where Maitū, our mother rules. Ma iitū – “Our Truth”.

Modernity verses Tradition in Africa. The question of appropriateness.
British use of Terror as a psychological weapon in Kenya 1952
Psychology of Mau Mau by Dr John Carothers.
British Terrorism in Kenya of 1952
Mau May Oathing. A form of Psychological Control.


5 thoughts on “The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Gīkūyū: Learning from the Mau-mau

  1. In reference to this Article and what i have managed to gather from my parents, my parents agemates all of who participated or witnessed the war for the liberation of not just our land but our battered African souls and by britons partially aided by turncoats who were paid thirty pieces of silver each, I must conclude that the Mau mau were never defeated. They emerged the moral victors who present an immortal inspiration to marginalized African countries who aspire unapologetically stamp authority on their existence.


    1. I believe that christianity has played a big part in keeping our minds colonized being part of the three C’s that the british used to colonize us. The moment you start learning about your culture then you start seeing things in a different perspective and understand the part the religion plays in propping our corrupt leaders. The promise of heaven up high has made many an African docile to an extent the thought of fighting to liberate themselves does not even remotely come to mind. The Mau Mau won the war of liberation of land but a bigger war of liberating the mind is yet to be won. Note that all long the Mau Mau prayed to Mwenenyaga who gave them victory upon victory.


  2. Thank you. We, the traditional, not savages any more have the solutions to what is ailing the world today. When a critical mass stops and reflects on who we are and tap into the wisdom of sages past and present, we can and will put it tonether again. We are winning!!!!!!! WANJUKU WA MAITU (MA-IITU)


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