Geoffrey Clarfield: From Mau Mau to Mungiki: 50 years later, Kenya is
still a bloody mess
February 05, 2008
During the last few weeks, the world has watched in horror as rival
gangs of Kenyan slum dwellers attack and kill one another. Even
Members of Parliament are now being targeted.
The anti-government vigilantes from the Luo tribe have come to call
themselves “Taliban” (this despite the fact that these Luo are mostly
non-Muslims). Pitted against them are the Kikuyu — in particular,
Kikuyu followers of the “Mungiki.”
On Jan. 9, Maina Kiai, head of the state-funded National Commission of
Human Rights, accused President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu dominated
government of “activating” members of this mysterious, formally banned
sect. Government spokesmen have dismissed the claim as groundless.
But Muthoni Wanyeki, the chairperson of an independent Kenya-based
human rights monitoring group, suggests politicians from both tribes
are financing and encouraging semi-organized tribal militias. Given
the Mungiki sect’s particularly violent history, it would be
surprising if one side or the other hadn’t sought to co-opt them.
Ritual murder, inspired by traditional religious beliefs, is on the
rise in Africa. You can read about it in any of the national papers,
from Zimbabwe to Senegal — and now Kenya.
On July 13, 2007, I was sitting in a hotel lobby in Nairobi, reading a
disturbing article in a Kenyan newspaper. The day before, a two-year-
old boy had been killed in the Korogocho slums of Nairobi. He had been
beheaded and his limbs hacked off. The boy’s body had been identified
by his shocked and grieving father, who had reported him missing a few
days earlier. The manner, style and place of his murder was no
accident. Police, sociologists and other experts immediately
identified it as an act of violence (possibly a ritual murder)
perpetrated by the Mungiki.
In the nine months leading up to the recent spasm of election-related
violence, it is estimated that the Mungiki were responsible for the
murder of more than 43 people, 13 of whom had their heads cut off,
mostly in the Kikuyu tribal heartlands of central Kenya, and in the
slums of Nairobi.
Despite the recent realignment of the Mungiki in support of the Kikuyu-
dominated government this same government declared membership in the
Mungiki sect to be illegal last Spring. So far, there have been more
than 3,000 arrests nationwide. By last July, more than 79 Mungiki
members had been killed by police.
In the Bantu language of the Kikuyu of central Kenya, mungiki means a
“united people” or a “multitude.” The name is meant to suggest that
these contemporary Kikuyu are the spiritual and political descendants
of the Mau Mau, those disenfranchised Kikuyu who, in the 1950s, rose
up in revolt against British colonial authorities and any tribe that
co-operated with them.
Although the Mau Mau were defeated, the rebellion sapped the will of
the British to stay in Kenya. In the early 1960s, Kenya became an
independent republic under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, a British-
educated Kikuyu who held a PhD in social anthropology from Manchester
University. Like most new African leaders, Kenyatta eventually used
the state apparatus to enrich his friends and relatives.
But the children of the Mau Mau were not among the beneficiaries. They
eked out subsistence existences in the villages, and when the harvest
failed, migrated to the slums of Kenya’s large cities to join the
reserve army of labour. There, they languished in growing resentment
of the Kikuyu elite and their European allies.
When Kenyatta passed away, the presidency of the country fell into the
hands of his vice-president, Daniel arap Moi, who, in imitation of his
Kikuyu mentor, used the state to support the advancement of his own
ethnic group (the Kalenjin), leaving the Kikuyu to fend for
themselves. This culminated in inter-tribal clashes that at time
bordered on civil war.
This civil strife died down with Kenya’s return to multi-party
democracy in the 1990s. The newfound political freedom gave the
disenfranchised Kikuyu time to organize themselves — including the
Mungiki. As one former Mungiki leader recently said, “We are the true
sons of the Mau Mau … today is just like 1952 [when the Mau Mau
insurgency began]. The government now is no better then those who
collaborated with the British.”
But despite what Kenyan academics and journalists might call the
“political agenda” of the Mungiki, the sect is wrapped in a complex
and murky amalgam of traditional African and modern populist beliefs —
many of them harkening back to some of the less savoury practices from
pre-Christian Kikuyu customs: magic, witchcraft and sorcery mixed with
We do not have a clear idea of the beliefs and practice of the Mungiki
sect because most of it goes on in secret. We do know from interviews
with current and former leaders that they reject modern Western
culture, including Christianity. In their hostility to the West,
Mungiki are known to have given up alcohol, smoking, watching
Hollywood movies and wearing American baseball caps.
Instead, they pray “facing mount Kenya.” They have been known to
publicly call for the circumcision of Kikuyu women, and have forced
many to undergo this rite. Many sport dreadlocks and swear oaths of
loyalty to Mungiki in secret. In some cases, they engage in ritualized
murder — a pathology that anthropologists generally observe in pre-
industrial societies going through periods of pronounced stress.
They are also notoriously involved in a whole range of extortionist
activities in Nairobi’s slums. These activities include extracting
“protection payments,” various forms of informal taxation, and the
violent domination of the informal transport sector. Mungiki leaders
claim they can deliver more than a half a million voters to any
politician who supports them.
With their bizarre rituals, and murderous ways, the Mungiki seem like
an invention out of a racist’s imagination. But they are very real,
and they symbolize many of Kenya’s problems — poverty, the agony and
vulnerability of slum life, corruption and, above all, the country’s
Despite all Kenya’s promise, it is shocking how little it has
progressed in the half-century that has passed between the Mau Mau and
Geoffrey Clarfield is a Toronto-based writer