Review: “The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General”

The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General is a wonderful, highly readable book. The book is a compilation of thousands of hours of interviews with Japhlet Thambu by Laura Lee P. Huttenbach. Huttenbach first met Japhlet, or the General, whilst traveling in Kenya as a recent college graduate. Struck by his rich personal history in living through British colonialism, Mau Mau, and liberation, Huttenbach returned to Kenya for the purpose of recording the General’s life story. The General’s testimonial joins the number of other oral histories reported from the Mau Mau, most notably in Caroline Elkins’ work. This collection of histories is vital, given the volume of written documentation either inaccessible or destroyed from the Mau Mau era. Whilst Professor David Anderson and others have helped bring a large number of previously ‘missing’ documents in the colonial archive to light, even these recordings of the time period are heavily biased to the British version of events.

The important work of recording Kenyan voices is brought to bear in Huttenbach’s excellent compilation: the General’s retelling of the Mau Mau period is highly vivid and complex. He is balanced in his narrative, bringing up challenging moments in the movement like the Lari camp massacre, and criticizing some of the more ‘vigilante’ elements of Mau Mau. The General carefully explains his involvement in Mau Mau, arguing repeatedly that this was about land and the rights of the indigenous Kenyan, but decrying any ruthless or senseless violence. In the General’s memories of colonialism, he is also careful to note those Europeans who helped him, who were ‘friends’ of Kenya. This pivoting between multiple sides is interesting, and demonstrates the highly pragmatic ways in which the General was forced to negotiate his position in a highly unequal society. When describing his profits from the illegal timber trading business, he recognizes the absurdity of colonial rules which limited African business pursuits, continuously reinforcing an artificial economic hierarchy based on race, but was careful to note when the dangers of the illegal trade were no longer worth the risk. The General actively resisted colonialism, but at times was also forced to comply with its rules in order to secure his livelihood and the safety of his family.

Even in Mau Mau, the General concedes that he quickly confessed to taking the Oath when placed in the infamous Manyani prison camp. This exonerated the General and allowed him to move down the detention ‘pipeline’ more quickly than other more ‘hard-core’ Mau Mau who refused to confess or cooperate. The General describes again the practicality of moving forward, peacefully. Having spent two years in the forest, fighting for the rights of Kenyans against colonial rule, the General felt he had contributed directly to Kenya’s independence. At the same time, he feels no need for compensation for his time in the forest, and is happy to govern his farm and business pursuits in peace.

To hear the General recount these life experiences is truly absorbing, and will benefit both scholars of Kenya and the lay public. As part of the Ohio University Press’ Africa in World History series, this volume helps expand narratives way from the Western-centrism of traditional history. The Boy is Gone helps place the telling of history away from the victors, demonstrating the ways in which racial biases have distorted our understanding of the world, especially Africa and colonialism. My one regret for the book is echoed by Huttenbach herself in its introduction: I want a companion volume recounting the life of Jesca, the General’s wife. Unfortunately Jesca would not go into detail about her own involvement and eventual detention for Mau Mau activities, though this would be a compelling companion to the General’s history.

Book details: Laura Lee P. Huttenbach. The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General. Ohio University Press (2015).

A review copy of The Boy is Gone was kindly furnished by the Ohio University Press. 

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