A lot of authors of Mau Mau history decry of how an important aspect of their guerrilla war against the British was for a long time neglected by many historians. Although the Mau Mau fighters were heralded as a formidable enemy, some have been quick to present the movement (and mistakenly so) as a loosely threaded rag tag gang lacking in discipline and tact, mostly preying on the weak. Many also forget that numerous Mau Mau fighters were veterans of the Second World War having fought for the British in various theaters such as North Africa or even as far as Burma.
However, the author Prof Kennell Jackson in the book Mau Mau and Nationhood presents a very cogent argument of the “survival craft” of the Mau Mau movement that rivals that of other world-famous guerrilla movements such as the Viet Cong of Vietnam or the FLN of Algeria that launched highly successful and persistent insurgency campaigns against their enemy.
Indeed, Jackson talks of many books that were written by British police and army officers who fought against the Mau Mau that were quick to talk derogatorily about the cause of the movement but on the same breath quick to concede that it was “impossible to ignore the greatness of the Mau Mau fighters.” Just to name a few, below are some of the survival techniques Jackson lists that made the Mau Mau an elusive enemy for the British:
‘Flair for Engineering’ – As British officer Peter Hewitt describes in his book “Kenya Cowboy” a swamp settlement occupied by Field Marshal Mbaria Kaniu and his camp of 50-plus soldiers on Lake Naivasha, Hewitt has nothing but admiration for the engineering prowess and ingenuity that went into building this settlement. The camp is described as a floating abode that even moved back-and-forth with the currents of the lake.
World class camouflaging techniques – The Mau Mau were masters of camouflage with an ability to hide their large settlements in plain sight of the British using the forest foliage. As the war against them became more and more heated, group hideouts had to be dismantled in favor of one-man hideouts and cave system akin to those used by the Viet Cong against the Americans during the Vietnam war. For counterinsurgency (COIN) the British resorted to blanket bombing the forest in-order to drive out the fighters. This is the same technique that was used by Americans in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Food security – Admittedly food shortage and hunger were commonplace for the movement especially in the early years of the British onslaught. But as the war advanced, the fighters adapted and became less dependent on supplies from outside eating what the forests had to offer. For example, in the forest of Nyandarua, thousands of bee-hives were installed for honey. Honey served as preservative and was infused into meat, making it last for nearly two weeks. The fighters also survived on wild vegetable and fruits to meet other nutritional needs. However, it must be noted that women player a very pivotal role in replenishing the movement’s food reserves and ensuring food security as described by Prof. Tabitha Kanogo in her book Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau, 1905–1963. She writes of such fighters as Wanjiru Nyamarutu also dubbed as General-wa-Rigu (roughly General-in-charge-of-food) who coordinated the collection of food and other essential supplies as medicine, clothing and materials to build weapons for the movement.
Superior running skills – A lot of British colonial forces accounts talk of the “vanishing” nature of the Mau Mau fighters. They were highly trained on how to deftly navigate the forest to get away from the enemy. So adept were the fighters that they sometimes walked for miles on buffalo tracks to avoid leaving their own tracks.
Courier System – Just like in the spy movies, the movement had elaborate drop off points in the forests for messages between the different camps delivered by couriers. Being great runners, couriers could cover tens of kilometers per day as they delivered messages to other camps or to the outside world.
Perimeter defense techniques – Camps were protected by layers of sentries strategically placed along their perimeters to allow free movement and activity within the camp itself. In conclusion, by developing multiple survival skills, Mau Mau fighters became masters of their environment. They could even tell of an imminent attack through the movement patterns of birds or forest foliage. These tactics (in addition to other military skills honed by the movement) led to a stalemate that was eventually resolved only by British retreat.