Our Man who passed for a Mau Mau hero
Anyone with a slight familiarity with the Kenyan’s struggle against the British colonial forces is bound to know what the Mau Mau movement is.
The small band of independent fighters that emerged in 1952 among the Kikuyus of Central Kenya became popular for their dedication in the struggle against the British colonial forces, their collaborators and informants.
But as it turned out later, the movement wasn’t destined to last long, as dwindling moral and logistic come to split it. Stanley Mathange, one of the leaders, led around seventy men to the north to face a British presence there.
But on the long march, he had to lose many of its squads through defection or death after facing food and water shortages. By the time sheer survival instincts led the remaining strugglers across the border into Ethiopia, their number had been reduced to a ragtag band of two-and-dozen men.
Later, Mathenge was presumed dead, rumors about his flight to Ethiopia notwithstanding.
This is where the story begins. An amusing one at that.
In a series of newspaper articles in January 2002, Kenyan journalist Joseph Karimi claimed to have traced Mathenge’s whereabouts to the outskirts of Addis Ababa. When a supposed picture of the missing general, then in his early eighties, appeared in the Kenyan Standard of 20 January, the old man was catapulted overnight from oblivion to national celebrity.
Karimi’s articles showed a man fluent in the Amharic language and a devout practitioner of Orthodox Christianity, implying assimilation. The journalist found Mathenge (Now Lemma Ayana) leading an idyllic life with a large family, land and cattle galore.
Kenya’s excitement over Karimi’s discovery gradually wore off however, as subsequent articles raised more questions than answers.
One article, for instance, described the eighty-year-old man, despite a bullet-injured leg and a stiff back, continued to till the land and tend to his cattle.
Another article mentioned of Lemma’s favorite tactic of playing mum whenever the issue of his return to Kenya as a national hero came up. The fact that Lemma Ayana never uttered a Kikuyu or Kiswahili word, not even when his Kenyan ex-wife reportedly flew to Addis Ababa to meet him, made it equally difficult to believe that this was indeed the fabled guerilla fighter.
Despite several discrepancies in the story, the perceived legend was flown to Kenya, accompanied by his Ethiopian wife and their two children, for one-month visit as the government’s special guest. Initially, the party was received with pomp and ceremony by hundreds of enthusiasts at the airport.
But as the public gradually took note of the series of inconsistencies in the whole drama, a moment of elation turned in to a fury against a government that couldn’t even distinguish one its national icons from a foreign-born peasant farmer.
After week of confusion, Lemma Ayana and his family were whisked out of their four star hotel by government security and deported back to Addis Ababa with little fanfare.
Bond without Blood, A History of Ethiopian and New World Black Relations, 1896-1991
Africa World Press, Inc. (2005)
The author Fikru Negash is assistant professor of history at St. Thomas University in Canada.