09:00 - 10:30
Room: Arts – Lecture Room 5
Stream: Text, Paratext and Context in African Autobiographical Narratives
Dina Ligaga
‘Whose past? Self-realisation and Authorship in Mau Mau Autobiographical Writing’
Inge Brinkman
African Languages & Cultures, Ghent University (Belgium), Ghent

‘Nations must have a history and they must get it wrong.’ It was no coincidence that John Lonsdale (1992: 265) paraphrased these words of Ernest Renan of 1882 in connection to Kenya’s postcolonial context. The first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, referred to the late colonial period in terms of ‘We all fought for freedom’ and ‘Forgive and forget.’ With this policy, he sought to create an all-inclusive national myth that would at the same time counter the claims of Mau Mau fighters, who sought compensation for the sacrifices they had made during the Mau Mau war of the 1950s.

State production or negation of history is often accompanied by the repression of alternative representations of the past. Indeed, also in postcolonial Kenya the state’s ‘forgive and forget’ policy led to the detention of authors and academics, the banning of books and songs, and the employment of other strategies to quell views on Mau Mau’s history that were not in line with official policy. This struggle over the history of Mau Mau has never ended and Mau Mau remains a sensitive issue also now. With the publication of Caroline Elkins’ and Anderson’s books (2005) and the subsequent Mau Mau lawsuits in the UK, whereby over 45,000 Kenyans sought redress for inhuman treatment inflicted by the British during the Emergency, the fight over the history of Mau Mau has now hit the international headlines.

In their autobiographical writings, former Mau Mau fighters have since the 1960s stated their case. More than twenty memoirs were written, in which the authors expound on their personal role in the historical events and spell out in detail how they contributed to the independence of Kenya. On the one hand stressing heroic action, they at the same time remain ambivalent about the violence inflicted by Mau Mau and the fact that the Mau Mau had lost the war. In their writings they also discuss the postcolonial policies of oblivion concerning Mau Mau’s legacy, again showing ambivalence in their statements. Furthermore, the authorship of these memoirs is in many cases much more complex than appears at first sight: translators and editors, introductions by people from different political outlook bear an influence on form and contents of these memoirs.

This paper will discuss the claims and denials made vis-à-vis the past in early postcolonial Mau Mau autobiographical writing in the wider context of Kenya’s postcolonial memory politics. The focus thereby is not so much on the legal-political context or even on the contents of their claims, but rather on the agency involved, the strategies employed and the ambivalences in the manner in which the claims and denials to the past are made.

Th-A41 Autobiography 4-P-001
Inge Brinkman
Presentation type:
Arts – Lecture Room 5
Dina Ligaga
Thursday, 13 September
09:00 - 09:15
Session times:
09:00 - 10:30