War Stories from Africa

Some people prefer something more meaty for their summer reading, so I’m slipping two non-fiction books about armed conflict in between beach, romance and mystery novels. The Boy Is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General , and an older book Watching the Door: Drinking Up, Getting Down, and Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast, about the Irish civil conflict.

I just happened to be reading both at the same time. One is new, one is old, and they take place in very different places. But I could not help thinking how similar people’s motivations were in both, and what the armed conflict around them did to the participants.

Book: The Boy is Gone, by Laura Lee P. Huttenbach, NEW published in 2015 as part of Ohio University’s “Africa in World History” series.

Destination: Kenya

Mt. Kenya
Mt. Kenya. Photo by OI IO, from Flckr.com

Through the introduction and the footnotes of this book, the reader can learn a great deal about Kenya, the various people who live there, and how the land is divided between forest, farms and cities. That makes this valuable to the traveler who is brave enough to venture into a still unstable country. Although the Mau Mau is gone, the struggles continue. Safaris are apparently safe, although I wouldn’t advise shooting a favorite lion. The BBC gave this excellent Kenya travel advice to President Obama for his recent visit.

In The Boy is Gone, Laura Lee Huttenbach lets the former Mau Mau general tell his own story, gleaned from her many, many hours of recorded conversations at his home in Kenya.  This lends the book an immediacy and a tone that is unique, if sometimes rather challenging at times, since his English vocabulary is somewhat limited.

The General himself points out that English has many more words than the Kenyan languages. That means that he condenses many meanings into one English word. For instance, as the author explains in an introductory chapter, “Serious, in the General’s usage, means severe, desperate, dangerous, or brutal.”

This technique of recorded personal narrative means that we are hearing the story of the Mau Mau from an insider’s point of view. I realized that my knowledge of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya was all based on  news coverage influenced by the British. I had never heard from the Mau Mau, and therefore, ironically, had strong opinions about them.  As the old saw goes, the victors write history.  Today, with more points of view represented on television, and more investigative journalism in print, we might have heard both sides of the story, but in the sixties, whatever Walter Cronkite said on the evening news was the basis for our understanding of events.

The biggest misconception that Huttenbach refutes early in the book, is how besieged the British planters in Kenya were.  We saw stories of them slaughtered in their beds, farms burned, being driven from the only home they had ever known.  A footnote quoting the book Histories of the Hanged, states that most of the casualties of the uprising were native Africans, not the Europeans.

…only thirty-two European settlers died in the rebellion, and there were fewer than two hundred casualties among the British regiments and police who served Kenya over these years.  Yet more than 1800 African civilians are known to have been murdered by Mau Mau, and many hundreds more to have disappeared…

Officially, the author of Histories, David Anderson, goes on to say, official numbers of Mau Mau rebels killed in combat is 12,000, but the real figure is likely to have been more than 20,000. I do not doubt that it was a terrifying time–the Mau Mau wanted the British to be terrified enough to leave, but when it comes to actual deaths, the Africans suffered more.

We learn from the General’s recollection that those African civilian casualties were not necessarily caused by the British.  Just as the Islamic State today is murdering Muslims who do not measure up to their own ideas of purity, the most radical Mau Maus eliminated anyone they suspected of being a collaborator with the Europeans.

At first I felt a sympathy toward General Japhet Thambu as he explained the ways in which the British missionaries and then settlers and businessmen had wronged the Kenyan natives.  It is easy to understand the simmering resentment that finally brought rebellion. The General clearly is intelligent and charismatic as he emerged as a leader not only in the military of the Mau Mau but later as a leader of the tea growers alliance.

However, there were aspects of his personality that were hard to swallow. For instance, when  in the opinion of the rebels someone needed to be killed,  he made sure that someone else did the killing and he was not present so that he would not be brought up on charges later.  He differentiates between the thugs who only wanted to raise undisciplined havoc and those who were seriously fighting for freedom (a fight he compares to the American Revolution). However, he clearly is proud as he rationalizes the techniques of the Mau Mau  to appear as uncivilized as possible in order to frighten the European population. If that isn’t a definition of terrorism, I’m not sure what is.

Thambu  frequently mentions people who were his enemy, and I couldn’t help wanting to hear their side of the story. It certainly is necessary to take someone’s self description with a bit of skepticism.

Because of the format of the The Boy is Gone, we hear a side of this conflict that we never heard before, learning their motivation and that not all of them were wild blood-thirsty natives.  But within the Mau Mau we only hear one side.  Since this book is meant for students of African history, one hopes that it will stimulate more researchers to delve into the many complexities that are simplified by hearing one man’s tale.

Meanwhile if you are interested in widening and deepening your view of Africa, this is an important book to read.

Page down to the next post to see the review of Watching the Door, for another conflict with similarities.

Note:  The publisher provided a review copy of this book, which is standard practice, and does not influence my opinion. There are links here to The Boy is Gone so that you can purchase it on Amazon. You should know that I am an Amazon affiliate, which means I make a few cents on each sale.  Thank you for supporting A Traveler’s Library.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

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