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The Lesson of the Mau Mau : MAU MAU An African Crucible <i> by Robert B. Edgerton (The Free Press: $22.95; 282 pp.) </i>

<i> Johnson's most recent book is "Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970."</i>

Picture an African country “larger than France and only a little smaller than Texas.” It is ruled by a white minority of settlers convinced of their racial superiority and the inferiority of the indigenous people. Many of these impoverished Africans, who are ordered to go about barefoot and forced to carry passes, support the white government in which they have no say. Their tribal chiefs have betrayed them and are simply tools the settlers use to take African land and tax the natives.

Naturally, the settlers do all they can to control the press. There is an underground nationalist movement determined to expel the Europeans, but its aging leader, a charismatic man often accused of being a Communist, has been imprisoned after a trial everyone knows was rigged. His followers, who have taken blood oaths and established their camps in the forest are committed to guerrilla warfare and murder until their land has been returned.

In this drama, 30,000 rebels take on the government; 11,000 are killed, 1,000 hanged as criminals and 80,000 Africans are sent to concentration camps before the nationalist leader is released and makes peace with the settlers who have not fled or sold their farms during the costly civil war.

Is this story based on South Africa? While the archetypal ingredients for this violent clash of cultures could characterize several countries that shook off colonialism, it is actually Robert B. Edgerton’s story in “Mau Mau,” a painstakingly researched study of the first modern black African (Kikuyu) rebellion against white rule, “a modern-day equivalent of a slave uprising,” with so many horrors and atrocities on both sides, black and white, that Edgerton urges us not to “glorify” any faction.

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It is clear we cannot glorify those individual Mau Mau (neither the origin nor the meaning of their name ever has been decided) who hacked whole families, even children, to pieces, and systematically killed loyalist Christian Kikuyu; but Edgerton helps us understand how bravely most of the rebels fought against the might of the British empire, and how the bloodbath that began in 1952 and lasted until 1960 was the product of 67 years of servitude.

This is meant literally. The British colonial administration, according to Edgerton, lured settlers and soldiers to Kenya with promises of free land. As early as 1890, the Kikuyu fought back, were brutally suppressed, and a “hut tax” was imposed upon them--as well a prohibition from growing their most profitable crops--in order to confiscate their land and drive them toward whites as a source of cheap labor and servants.

There can be no question that the rebels of the Mau Mau, or “Land and Freedom,” movement were driven to revolt and often to excesses of violence. But Edgerton raises a deeper question about the blind spots in the colonial mind. How could these settlers, some of whom migrated from South Africa, be so astonishingly and stupidly indifferent for so long to the suffering of the Africans raising their children and tending their fields?

Even after the killings began, and despite warnings from outsiders who saw trouble coming, whites in Nairobi regarded Kenya as “white man’s country” and dismissed the Kikuyu as sub-human people incapable of fighting. They sealed themselves off in idyllic, self-absorbed lives like those of the Virginia plantation gentry, devoting their energies to wife-swapping and horseracing and, with the bedraggled Mau Mau sharpening machetes just outside their doors, taking as their liveliest topic of conversation “the arrival in Kenya of Grace Kelly and Ava Gardner to act in the film ‘Mogambo’ directed by John Ford. On New Year’s Day, 1953, however, two more European farmers were killed.”

When the crisis finally was clear enough to shock the settlers and British into declaring a state of emergency, they responded not by trying to understanding Mau Mau but by portraying it to the world and themselves as “an atavistic return to the savagery that they believed had pervaded all of Africa before European colonization.” Thus, they justified to themselves the need for every variety of torture and mutilation against the Mau Mau.

Here, the reader, especially the black reader, will be sickened by Edgerton’s research, his almost voyeuristic report on every black testicle crushed by pliers and every hand taken by the whites as a trophy. But we do need to dwell on these slaughterhouse details, and wonder, as the author urges us to, about the disturbing aftermath of African revolutions.

Edgerton describes Kenya today as “a bastion of prosperity and privilege, the passions of Mau Mau nearly gone,” after the release in 1961 of Jomo Kenyatta from prison. Two years later, Kenyatta, a moderate who frequently denounced the Mau Mau, became Kenya’s first Prime Minister. He made his peace with the whites who chose to stay and made as well tremendous wealth for himself, his family and his close associates “through the open practice of nepotism, favoritism, and bribery.”

The veteran forest fighters, the survivors of civil agony, shared little of Kenya’s prosperity and became a “political embarrassment.” For them there was no free land, no aid for their widows, no jobs, no educational programs for their children. Dissent was so thoroughly suppressed that in 1975 a London Sunday Times article could report that, “The system survived by eliminating anyone who threatened the reign of the ruling elite.”

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In closing remarks that cast this important study almost in the mold of a chilling Orwellian parable, and make it an essential work for students of African history, Edgerton writes, “Ironically, most of the men and women who actively supported the movement gained nothing from it. . . . A rebellion by poor Africans forced Britain to withdraw from Kenya, but the land they had hoped to share and the government they had hoped to lead was taken over by wealthy and educated Africans who had either not fought at all, or had fought against the rebellion.”


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