The struggle in Kenya by the Mau Mau movement [1948-1960) is a revolutionary chapter in the history of Kenya and revolutions in the South. It is this revolution, under the leadership of Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, that won Kenya its freedom from British colonialism. It used tactics of guerilla warfare as a way to achieve independence and end colonialism in Kenya. The Mau Mau movement has commanded the attention of researchers and scholars on the subject of revolutionary uprising and rebellion for years, with every scholar giving their own perspectives of the Mau Mau struggle.

Mau Mau war was fought by the peasants, working class, landless squatters and the urban poor, with the trade unions forming the backbone of the organization. The trade unions led by Makhan Singh, Chege wa Kibacia, Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia were key in organizing workers, who would later formed the militant forces of Mau Mau. It is the trade unions that provided Mau Mau with a revolutionary agenda. It was the only revolutionary movement in Africa that did not receive any military assistance in terms of weapons or training from the outside world, compared to other movements such as African Independence Party for Guinea and Cape Verde’s (PAIGC) guerilla movement in Guinea, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in Mozambique or the Peoples Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Mau Mau organized its fighting forces in small battalions, used stolen or self-made weapons and united its forces by a loyalty oath. It thus launched one of the most dramatic and revolutionary wars of its time against the British Empire.

The movement developed out of the radical quarters of Kenya African Union led by Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia, both from the radical trade union movement who had come to believe that the British would not give Kenya its independence through negotiations.

Though Mau Mau has continued to be an interesting topic for researchers, historians and the general public, it also seems to be a mystery to many, especially in regard to its origins. One aspect that lacks clarity is the origin and meaning of the name Mau Mau. This article examines the origin and meaning of the term Mau Mau as argued by various scholars and as interpreted in various documents.

The most popular version of the origin of the name is the claim that Mau Mau was the acronym for the Kiswahili phrase Mzungu Aende Ulaya- Mwafrika Apate Uhuru (Let the white man go back to Europe so that the African can become Independent). The surviving Mau Mau freedom fighters have disagreed on this version. According to Bildad Kaggia (Kaggia, B., Leeuw and M. Kaggia 2012), a member of the Central Committee, Mau Mau has no meaning in either Kikuyu or Kiswahili.

The name Mau Mau has also been associated with the numerous mountains bordering the Rift-Valley, North-East of lake Naivasha, from where Mau Mau activities were believed to have sought and obtained inspiration and guidance in their revolt against imperial rule (Alau, Abiodun 2006,pg 5)

J.M Kariuki (1975, p 24) Give’s a detailed account of how the name Mau Mau might have originated:

One evening, people went to a house in Naivasha area where the oath was to be administered. It was the duty of the administrator to see that there was a reliable guard to keep watch outside while the oath was being administered. That evening, the guard was given instructions that should he hear any footsteps and suspected it was the police or the enemy, he should shout the anagram ‘Mau Mau ‘so that those in the house couldW escape. It would be a clear sign only for those in the house, for the enemy would not understand what the words ‘Mau Mau ‘meant. That night the police did come to the house and the guard shouted out. The people left the house. When the police came they found no people but the oathing paraphernalia only. When they reported back to the police headquarters, they said they heard the words ‘Mau Mau’ being shouted as they approached.

It has also been argued that it could have originated from basic European propaganda to ridicule and denigrate the movement. According to Kaggia (Kaggia, B, Leeuw and Kaggia M.) although Mau Mau had become the name by which the movement was known, they had no particular name for it in its early days. The name Muhimu meaning ‘important’ was coined by the Central Committee in order to disguise itself within KAU as people would often think that it meant KAU activities. The name was only known to members and it never went into newspapers. Mau Mau was always used by the European press.

This version is also supported by Barnett (1973) when he asserts:

The very name ‘Mau Mau’ is an illustration of how successful propaganda can down an entire movement to which thousands sacrificed everything, including their lives, by attaching it to an appellation that conjures up all the clichés about the ‘dark continent’ which all concurs the European mind.”

The ridicule and mockery of the movement is confirmed in the following sentence in the correspondence dated 14th September 1953 between the Provincial Information Officer, Central Province, and the executive officer of African information services: “I would advise you that the only thing I have produced outside your own campaign was 25 posters printed Keep Mau Mauth shut.

Though the movement was already being referred to as Mau Mau by the time of the active stage of resistance revolt against the British, it was only on 21st September 1948, according to a government official Cornfield (1960), that the name Mau Mau was mentioned in an official government document. The Kenyan historian and foremost Mau Mau scholar, Maina Wa Kinyatti (2008), also gives his account on the origin of the name Mau Mau:

On May 12, 1950, thirty-nine Kenyan farm workers were arrested in Naivasha after nyapara Njihia wa Kinuthia reported to his white colonial employer S.V. Aitchison, that he had been coerced by the arrested workers to join a secret organization whose political goal was to drive wazungu out of Kenya by violent means. Specifically, he informed Aitchison that the organization was using a traditional oath as a tool of recruitment, unity and commitment.

The 39 workers refused to reveal the aims and the name of the secret organization and were taken to court. During the court session one of the arrested workers, Magrougi ole Kodogoya, under crossexamination, absolutely refused to cooperate prosecutor and reveal the nature of the movement. The Magistrate angrily insisted that Kodogoya answer the question put to him by the prosecutor. Kodogoya firmly told the kangaroo magistrate ‘Ndingikwira Maundu “Mau Mau “nderirwo ndikoige ni Kiama; ni hitho iitu.Ningi we uri thu iitu. Ni inyui mwatutunyire bururi na hinya,Mugitutua Ngombo cianyu. Bururi uyu ni witu twatigiirwo ni Aagu na Aagu.Tukikaurekia [I cannot reveal to you the aims and objectives of the movement. It is our secret. Besides, you are our enemy. You white people took our country by force and made us your slaves. This is our country; we inherited it from our ancestors. We shall never abandon.]

The prosecutor was not satisfied with Kodogoya’s answer. He asked him, “Are you telling this court that the name of your secret society is ‘Mau Mau’? I want an answer yes or no. “Instead of explaining to Kodogoya what the Prosecutor was asking, the interpreter told him, “Buana ndakwenda Uhoro Muingi; akwenda ucokie, I kana Aaca.” (The boss does not want a detailed explanation to this question; he wants you to answer yes or no). Confused by the question, Kodogoya said, ‘’yes’’. This was a linguistic confusion, but out of this confusion and seeking a way to characterize the clandestine organization, the colonial English press seized upon the words Mau Mau as the name of the movement. 

According to Maina Wa Kinyatti, the British Colonizers coined the term Mau Mau to insult, denigrate and debase the Kenyan anti-imperialist resistance. The freedom fighters, according to Kinyatti, only referred to themselves as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA).

The different theories on the origin and meaning of the words Mau Mau infer that the words possibly did not have a particular meaning. The militant tag of Kenya land and freedom army is more accepted as the name for the Mau Mau freedom fighters.


Alao A., 2006, Mau Mau Warrior. Osprey Publishing. Peterborough Corfield, F.D., 1960, Historical Survey and the Origins and Growth of Mau Mau, H.M.Stationery Office, 

Kaggia B, Leeuw W. Dee & Kaggia M, 2012, The struggle for freedom and Justice: The life and times of Bildad M. Kaggia, 1921- 2005, Nairobi, Trans Africa Press. 

Kinyatti M, 2008, History of Resistance in Kenya 1884-2002, Mau Mau Research Center, Nairobi Kariuki .M., 1975, Mau Mau Detainee, Nairobi, Oxford University Press. 

Muchai K., 1973, The story of Karigo Muchai, LSM Information Center, Richmond, Canada

General Mwariama and Mau Mau Guerrila Army in 1964

Bildad Kaggia on Socialism

  1. The main objective of socialism is to enable man to know the unjust economic conditions so as to stop the exploitation of one human being by another. An exploiter is an exploiter, whether an Asian, a Jew, an African or a Japanese. Any economic system whether you call it African Socialism or Arab Socialism which does not have the aim of ending the exploitation of man by man is not socialism. 
  2. All socialists are aiming at one ideal society — a classless society, just fellowship, cooperative and so on. 
  3. The most important thing is the means to achieve these objectives, which are essential to every socialist state. It is essential to end exploitation of man by man through public ownership of the means for production, distribution and exchange except during the transition period. If we leave the Kenya highlands to be owned individually we shall still have exploitation of man by man whether you say the Africans now own land there – so long as one man waits for the fruits of his employees and pays them a token wage – that is still capitalism whether black or white. What is important is that the means of production should be in the hands of the public and all people should share the natural wealth of their country and not leave it in the hand of a few rich foreigners, mainly Asians and Europeans. 
  4. What is essential to create a socialist state Kenya is to give equal opportunities to all citizens of the country to develop their intellectual talents to improve their health, to use their ability to earn a living. 
  5. One of the special circumstances is that the masses of Kenyan people have political power which is a vital weapon against any other exploiter. The difficult thing is whether people to whom the masses have given political power are socialist or capitalist at heart. Whatever it is, our party must be democratized. Our party officials must study socialism thoroughly and master the techniques of socialist economic planning and thereby be fully capable of piloting our socialist ship.

– Kaggia, Bildad M, W. de Leeuw and M. Kaggia (2012): The Struggle for Freedom and Justice: The Life and Times of the Freedom Fighter and Politician Bildad M. Kaggia (1921-2005). Nairobi: Transafrica Press.