By Nyambura Mutanyi

The Mau Mau War has recently been in the news on account of the court case regarding British culpability in the various atrocities that occurred then. The work of this book has been pivotal in their case and it’s not for nothing that we look at it this week.

Elkins traces the path of the Mau Mau War from the grievances that led to it to its conclusion and the eventual granting of independence to the colony. It’s a piercing look at a part of Kenya’s history that she so rightly points out has been snuffed out of the national discourse. The author went to great lengths to acquire information regarding the events that form the sum of the war, sometimes following leads that the exiting colonial government worked to ensure were inscrutable.

Those of us who paid some attention in our History classes remember that the war was founded on the clamour by the Kikuyu for land. While the British took land across the country (‘land grabbing’ before we had the term in our lexicon), their stated goal across the Empire was to bring peace and civilisation to the natives they encountered in the colonies. This is a goal that Elkins queries throughout the book. We also remember the laws and land expropriation that preceded it. Here, though, we get into the apparatus that was set up to quell the war and learn just what lengths the British were willing to go to set the Kikuyu back on the course of civilisation.

This book is an illuminating take on Kenya’s past written by someone who has no vested interests. Here we have a Harvard scholar who looks at all the sides of the story and deviates from the commonly accepted narrative that has been passed down to us for decades. On its pages, we encounter the disenfranchised Kikuyu who established the Mau Mau and the Africans and Europeans who aided and curtailed their quest for freedom. In matters such as these; Apartheid, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and so many similar occurrences across the world, those that wield power determine the story that is told. Neither British nor Kenyan, she manages to project some objectivity.

The paucity of African accounts in the written record is not surprising considering the leadership that the nation was bequeathed with the end of British rule. Elkins went to great lengths to record the accounts of those Kikuyu who lived through the War. The tales she heard are, by any standards, harrowing. War is not pretty, that goes without saying, but the one that was waged in the 1950s in Kenya was incredibly horrific. That the events that occurred took place so soon after World War Two and all the self-flagellation that the West carried out is indicative of just how low Africans were in the eyes of the British. Incidents abound in the pages of the book where the colonising power went out of its way to wiggle out of the rules. She tables startling evidence that the British retain to this day of the atrocities committed with the assent of their government. The familiarity of this is unsettling.

Elkins wrote this book as a graduate student and her academic bent sometimes peeps through. She also quite obviously wrote for a Western audience. This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the field of African history-Western academia that knows us better than we know ourselves. However, it does not subtract from its immense readability and the message so succinctly conveyed. This book is an important asset; not just in the history of the Kenya but also in the understanding of the depths to which humanity can sink and the ever-present danger of the indignities man is capable of.

Title: Britain’s Gulag
Author: Caroline Elkins
Publisher: Pimlico
Year published: 2005

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