Beginning in 1948, members of the Kikuyu tribe in what was then the British colony of Kenya organized a secret society to oppose the expropriation of Kikuyu land by white farmers and drive out the colonial government. The Movement of Unity, to give it its proper name, grew out of a long history of legal Kikuyu organizations dating back to the 1920s. When legal measures and protest marches did not succeed, guerrilla war was the next logical step, and the Mau Mau movement formed in response.

The phrase “Mau Mau” evolved from the cry Uma uma, “Out! Out!”, given to warn that police were approaching. Members took a secret oath to support the movement, in a ceremony adapted from Kikuyu tribal rituals. Committed members took another oath, the Batuni or platoon oath, which bound them to kill the movement’s opponents on command, maintain its secrets with their lives, and protect its members.

Like most Third World insurgencies in the postwar years, the Mau Mau movement combined a sophisticated urban wing, providing support and intelligence, with guerrilla forces in isolated rural areas. The struggle that unfolded between the Mau Mau and the British government followed just as typical a pattern, with mass arrests and clumsy military actions on the part of the colonial power, matched by assassinations and atrocities on the part of the insurgents. A state of emergency was declared in 1952 and 11 infantry battalions hunted Mau Mau forces in the Aberdare range and around Mount Kenya with very mixed results.

Systematic government operations against the urban wing in Nairobi had more success, detaining some 77,000 Kikuyu on suspicion of Mau Mau involvement. Jomo Kenyatta, president of the Kenyan African Union, the political arm of the movement, was arrested in 1952 and spent nearly the entire insurgency in British colonial prisons. By 1956, harried by police and army units, Mau Mau forces in the countryside offered little further threat to the British colonial government, but by then the insurgency had achieved its goals, convincing the British government and popular opinion alike that the colonial presence in Kenya was too expensive to maintain. Kenya won its independence in 1963, with Jomo Kenyatta as its first prime minister. While a few Mau Mau bands remained in the forests after independence, claims in the British press that the Mau Mau would become a persistent problem proved inaccurate.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006