The Little Red Book of Mau Mau

I am officially ahead of last semester in terms of books finished for pleasure. This brings my total up to three, which is actually kind of sad. But I did finish it, and not a moment too soon, since I have had it out on InterLibrary Loan from Northwestern University since last November. Fortunately, they let me return it a day late, otherwise I would have not been able to finish it. The book? Mau Mau’s Children: The Makings of Kenya’s Postcolonial Elite by David P. Sandgren.

Mau Mau’s Children is a memoir/revisiting of the years author David P. Sandgren spent as a teacher at the Giakanja Secondary School in Nyeri, Kenya. A newly-minted university graduate from Minnesota, Sandgren had no experience in Africa when he went to teach there, in the era of independence. Specific stories about his time there are few, but he does mention the roles that his students played in the Mau Mau Rebellion and how it affected them. Many lost family members and homes. Sandgren doesn’t dwell on that, however; he writes about the Kenyan school system and how, though Giakanja was a new type of school, a day school (most high schools in Kenya are boarding schools), it presented its own set of challenges, but quickly rose in reputation, especially when Sandgren caught up with his former students several decades later, which is the majority of the content of the book. Even the weaker students, those who failed exams, went on to become a “new elite” in Kenya, having received a high standard of higher education. Sandgren’s students’ occupations ranged from lawyers to postal workers, railroad executives to bank managers. Above all, they were (and are) able to provide a better future for their children due in part to the education they received at Giakanja.

Another important factor of note was that all the students were from the Gikuyu ethnic group. Also known as the Kikuyu, they are the largest ethnic group in Kenya. They lived in the central highlands of Kenya during the colonial era, placing them in a central part of the conflict between Kenya and Britain, its colonizer. Although they count many powerful and influential people among their ranks, the man who led Kenya for the bulk of its life as an independent nation was not one of them. There was some commentary in the book about the Gikuyu and politics, especially under the reign of president Daniel arap Moi, a member of the Kalenjin people.

I know this is kind of a simplistic review, but it was a good, solid book, and not too long, at under 200 pages. Sandgren also provided an appendix of the activities of the students he mentions the most, although he interviewed at least a hundred people, including siblings, parents, and wives.

Probably one of the most interesting parts in the book were the pages about the CE, or Comprehensive Exam. As Kenyan education was modeled after the British system, the curriculum was largely Eurocentric. When the exams came around, Sandgren’s students found themselves answering questions and writing essays about people and events that happened for all intents and purposes on another planet, far away in England. The only mentions of Africa didn’t even include Kenya; those mostly pertained to African geography, or questions such as “how the annexation of Northern Rhodesia benefited the British Empire.” Kind of an interesting reflective mirror effect; citizens of an independent nation, yet still subjects of the crown according to their schoolbooks.

This week has been incredibly tiring, hence the lack of blog posts, but I’m still here, come visit, stay awhile. And thanks for another six-continent day despite waning traffic. As usual, shoutouts to North America (USA and Canada), South America (Brazil and Bolivia), Europe (Germany, Czech Republic, and the UK), Africa (Ghana), Asia (Kuwait), and Oceania (Papua New Guinea).