Mau Mau at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi

Mau Mau’s place in Kenya’s national memory is an endlessly complex subject; subject to valorisation, silencing and awkward fudges depending on time, place, and identity. This stretches as far back as the State of Emergency itself, with alternative interpretations shaping ‘Mau Maus of the Mind’ that persist till today. This conflict, an anti-colonial revolt which ended effectively in 1956, seven years before Kenya’s independence in 1963, sits at the heart of questions of who has the rightful claim to the benefits of freedom or as it is called in Kenya: the ’fruits of Uhuru’. What complicates this especially is that the conflict centred on the Gikuyu tribe, who have dominated Kenya’s post-colonial political history but were themselves divided between Mau Mau and colonial loyalists during the uprising.  The result was decades of an official doctrine of ‘forgive and forget’ and ‘we all fought for Uhuru’. In reality, grassroots memories and activism continued to claim that Mau Mau fighters deserved a central place in the pantheon of Kenya’s history. This has changed a great deal after 2003, with Mau Mau becoming much more politically acceptable – and in fact valorised by a Gikuyu elite who rallied its ethnic electorate in 2007, involving severe inter-communal clashes.

Collection of Mau Mau homemade guns, with a Home Guard badge in the corner. This dominates the Mau Mau exhibit but lacks any contextual explanation.

Therefore, it was extremely interesting to see how Kenya’s primary museum, the National Museum in Nairobi, reflected on this period. So, I trundled down on a hot and dusty Saturday morning, after a death-defying crossing of a highway which covers the museum’s front entrance. Above the multiple exhibits on natural history is the corridor that attracted my attention, the ‘Story of Kenya’. The first thing that struck me was that the constant focus in the museum on Kenya’s ‘42 tribes’. Almost every exhibit was marked by a specific reference to the customs and history of specific communities. This came to a head in the temporary exhibit ‘Shujaa [Hero] Stories’ which hopes to raise a new pantheon of Kenya’s national heroes. They are overwhelmingly pre-colonial individuals in many different fields: folk heroes, ancient Kings, doctors, and prophets. But every one of the ‘tribes’ gets a hero, carefully labelled, and an ethnically-federal historical memory is hereby inscribed. However, this is also taking up an older narrative. Here is ‘We all fought for Uhuru’ again, but stripped of the intense tensions and political fractiousness that surrounds the actual struggle for independence in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Shujaa [Hero] Stories temporary exhibit in the NMK. Every ‘hero’ is specifically assigned to one of Kenya’s ’42 tribes’.

This approach too is present in the older ‘Story of Kenya’ section. The anti-colonial work of Kenyan Asian Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee is recognised, and so is the work of trade unionists and politicians during the 1950s. Mau Mau gets a wall of exhibits, but only a small, rather breathless, plaque. This plaque, interestingly enough and in sharp contrast to the rest of the museum, has no emphasis on this being a specifically ethnic movement at all. Mau Mau are just the ‘radicals’ of the constitutional independence movement, with the emphasis on the genuine impact on women and children. Mau Mau is thus claimed for the whole nation, but also relegated to a co-equal role with trade unionism and political agitation in leading to independence. While they have some fascinating articles: the gun and clothes of Dedan Kimathi, a series of passbooks and a Homeguard badge – they are not placed in any context. The fascinating cultural work of detainee writing, the symbolic value of homemade weapons, or the bureaucratic culture established by detainees in the forest is absent. The fudge at the heart of Kenyan national memory is thus complete: Mau Mau is too important to be an example of especially Gikuyu resistance, but not important enough to be the central factor in Kenya’s Uhuru. This is in no way the museum’s fault, they have done their level-best with a fragmented, contested history that is still to a great extent unspoken. 

Map of detention camps in the Mau Mau exhibit at the NMK – it does not include every camp, but most of the main ones.

As part of my work with the Imperial War Museum I am actively thinking about what place the conflict should have in Britain’s historical memory – and especially in its primary military museum. Whereas in Kenya a focus on colonial atrocities (represented in the museum by the passes and a map of detention camps) can efface the contentious divisions that were perpetuated by the conflict, this is precisely what is difficult to discuss in Britain. If the IWM came now with an exhibition focussed on the atrocities committed against the Mau Mau they would soon be faced with angry editorials in the Spectator and become another frontline in the endless ‘culture war’. Neo-imperial claims about all the good the Empire did for Kenyans, and the savagery of the rebels, would no doubt surface. The truth is that Britain’s late-colonial wars are just as much a silence at the heart of the national story, as the Mau Mau in Kenya. Spoken, but never really reckoned with. The Museum’s Shujaa Stories reminds one of laudable attempts to find new heroes in Britain, like Mary Seacole replacing Florence Nightingale in national status, or a BLM protestor taking Colston’s place on a Bristol plinth. However, this cannot take the place of reckoning with the imperial past and facing up to its demons. This remains as true for the colonised as for the coloniser. 

3 thoughts on “Mau Mau at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi

  1. If you haven’t read it already, please read the book I wrote with Annie Coombes and Karega-Munene, especially my chapter 5 on the development of the Kenyan history exhibit at NMK. Managing Heritage, Making Peace: History, identity and memory in contemporary Kenya.


  2. Thanks for sharing. You outline the divisions and the difficulties really clearly. I think an exhibition of the Mau Mau uprising that was factual and complete, as far as is possible, presenting the facts, would be well-received generally. The public and, perhaps, the media, would appreciate attempts to address the complexities of the divisions within Kenya, at the time and in the legacy.

    In recent years, IWM has featured artistic works critiquing British contemporary militarism in temporary exhibitions (Peter Kennard, Mawish Chishty etc), but hasn’t yet made the important step towards addressing British colonial conflicts and actions. It is a necessary step and if done with sufficient factual attention and critical thinking, would be beyond the occasional criticisms from right wing sources.

    However, with the recent transformation of the Museum in London, with new WW2 and Holocaust Galleries and the announcement of a major individual donation for art galleries, I wonder whether curators will still be given the space and opportunity to provide platforms for critical perspectives of victims and dissidents.

    It’s really interesting to hear of your fascinating and important work. I hope it continues to go well and receive the attention it deserves.


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