Dedan Kimathi: His Influence on the Mau Mau and the Connection between, Rastafarianism, Dreadlocks, and the OrganizationAug 13, 2022 01:00PM ● By Candice Stewart
Dedan Kimathi Waciuri, shown at his trial in the Nyeri forest, led an armed military struggle known as the Mau Mau uprising against the British colonial government in Kenya, 1956. (Photo by Authenticated News/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Considered as a revolutionary leader who fought against British colonialists until his execution, Dedan Kimathi was one of the top insurgents of Kenya’s armed independence movement, the Mau Mau.
He was born Kimathi wa Waciuri on October 31,1920 in Thege Village near Nyeri in central Kenya.
During the colonial period and under extremely difficult conditions, Kimathi received early education. His school records show that he was exceptionally intelligent. He was particularly good in English and poetry. He was also a member of the debate club.
Kimathi reportedly started elementary school at fifteen years of age and matriculated to the Church of Scotland Mission Secondary School in the region where he had an early exit by way of expulsion due to indiscipline in 1944. Though Kimathi was known to be a smart student, it is reported that he was rude and stubborn.
Some historians have attributed his rebellious character not to his hate for White rule but rather the unfair treatment he felt was meted out to him by Black people. He was nicknamed ‘Njangu' by his peers - a Kikuyu word which means ‘rough and treacherous'
The Ambui Clan
Dedan Kimathi was from the Ambui clan, one of the nine clans that make up the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest ethnic group, which is concentrated mainly in the central part of the East African country. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's founding president, was also a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group. It is argued that Kenyatta and Kimathi were not on the same page regarding Kenya's path towards independence. Where Kenyatta preferred a non-violent approach, Kimathi was of the opinion that only guns could secure Kenya's independence.
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Kimathi the Freedom Fighter
Young Kimathi tried his luck in various jobs such as fulfilling clerical duties, tending after pigs and teaching. He was getting agitated with the way the colonial masters were running the country.
Around 1951, Kimathi joined other Kenyan freedom fighters in an armed independence movement, which later came to be known as Mau Mau. He quickly rose in ranks and started administering the obligatory ritual oath to new members. In 1952, when the British administration declared a state of emergency, Kimathi took to the forest close to Mount Kenya.
He was considered the most feared among the three field marshals who led the movement. As part of a unit named the Kenya Defence Council, he organized armed attacks against the British colonial government.
On October 21, 1956, the self-styled Field Marshall Kimathi was captured following a manhunt led by Ian Henderson, a British intelligence officer. By the time of his capture, a bounty had been placed on him. It was however not Henderson who first caught him: He was captured after having been wounded by gunshots from two Home Guards belonging to a self-defense militia of his own Kikuyu ethnic group.
Kimathi was quickly put on trial. On November 19th 1956, Chief Justice Kenneth O’Connor found Dedan Kimathi guilty of unlawful possession of a firearm and ammunition, actions made illegal by the Emergency Regulations put in place by the British Government in an attempt to quell the violence of the rebellion.
On November 19,1956, at the Supreme Court of Kenya at Nyeri, the colonial government sentenced Kimathi to death. In the early hours of 18th February 1957, Kimathi was hanged to death.
The British Government’s decision to execute Kimathi for such a minor charge, was fueled by their desperation to eradicate the Mau Mau rebellion. Since Kimathi was such a fervent, famous anti-colonialist, his death could stand as a warning. To this day, Kimathi remains an icon of the Mau Mau rebellion
The colonialists then dumped his body in an unmarked grave at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, presumably to stop Kenyans from turning the grave into a shrine.
For several decades, the family, relatives and the Kenyan government pleaded with London to reveal the location where Kimathi's remains lay but to no avail. It was only in 2019 that news of his burial site being discovered was released.
In October of 2019, a nonprofit established in his name, the Dedan Kimathi Foundation, announced that it had found Kimathi’s resting place after a years-long search.
“It is with great joy we would like to announce that… the gravesite of liberation hero Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi Waciuri has finally been identified! The development is not just great news for the Dedan Kimathi family but also the larger freedom struggle heroes’ fraternity,” a statement from the foundation said.
His grave was located beneath the prison.
The Mau Mau Movement
Mau Mau was a movement founded with the purpose of removing White settlers who had taken up land previously owned by Kenyans. Initially, Mau Mau fighters were mainly Kikuyu, whose territory was preferred by the White settlers, but later, Meru, Embu, Kamba and other ethnic groups joined in the struggle.
It is uncertain where the term Mau Mau originated from. Some say it was coined as an anagram of the Kikuyu word ‘uma' which means, ‘go'. However, members of the movement preferred to be referred to as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA). Later the term Mau Mau came to mean: ‘Mzungu arudi Ulaya, mwafrika apate uhuru'. It is a Swahili phrase which means: 'Let the foreigner go back to Europe, so the African can regain independence'.
The fighters acted on the basis of an oath which bound them to the goals of the movement. However, former members would later speak of forced enrolment.
The insurgency instilled fear in British settlers and moderate Africans alike, who were targeted for allegedly betraying the movement's cause and collaborating with the settlers.
Official records at the Kenya National Archives point to more than 10,000 Kenyans killed by the British colonial security forces and nearly 50,000 were detained after the colonial administration declared the State of Emergency in October 1952. The British colonial government also carried out an approximate 1,090 executions.
While the Mau Mau was a key step towards independence, it also provoked bitter divisions between those who backed the fighters and those who served colonial forces. It remained outlawed until 2003.
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Mau Mau, Rastafariansim and Dreadlocks
Generally, for many Black people, their hair is symbolic of something important in their lives. This speaks to the reason Black women and men prefer that people don’t touch their hair without invitation. It also speaks to the time and effort we spend to get our hair the way we want it. This, regardless of the style and hair type.
Firstly, dreadlocks or locs transcends culture, races and even religions as history has proven time and time again that forefathers wore their hair similarly to modern day people with locs.
For some, locs are perceived as a connection to wisdom, and some believe that the head and hair are spiritual energy conductors. According to the views of Rastafarians, locs are believed to be a part of the Nazarite vows of Leviticus, which cautioned against shaving the head's four corners. Additionally, locs also have connections to the Lion of Judah, which represents the power and strength of a person.
However, dreadlocks are not only a way to house divine energy. It has also been a way to rebel against authority with nonconformity and nonviolence.
For a majority of Mau Mau fighters, dreadlocks were seen as a sacred symbol of defiance against British colonizers. Once free from captivity, the Mau Mau continue to wear their dreadlocks as a symbol of anti-colonialism as well as a demonstration of self-love and self-acceptance.
One of the forefathers of Rastafarianism, Leonard Howell was reported to be particularly proud of and inspired by the Mau Mau. For the Rastafarian community in Jamaica, Mau Mau epitomized a different strand of pan-Africanism that had most in common with the ideas of Marcus Garvey.
Like the Mau Mau, Rastafarians regard their locks as both a sign of their African identity and a religious vow of their separation from their oppressors.
Memorializing Dedan Kimathi
In memorializing the freedom fighter, a street in Nairobi, Kenya was named after him. On that same street in 2007, former Kenyan President, Mwai Kibaki unveiled a two-meter bronze statue of Kimathi that bears the insurgent’s name.
There is also the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology and the Dedan Kimathi Stadium in Nyeri as among several institutions that honor the legendary Mau Mau fighter.
Writer’s insight: Before putting this article together, I knew very little of the Mau Mau freedom fighters or of Dedan Kimathi. However, my research has taught me how connected I am to my African roots.
I have grown my hair in its current form for a little over 10 years. Though I am not of the Rastafarian faith or of the Mau Mau, I have to say that I relate to the philosophy of being ‘dreadlocked’. I started to ‘lock my hair as a means of defiance and protest to the Eurocentric views and standards of beauty. I also started the journey to rebel against particular authority restricting my autonomous nature. Additionally, my hair is a demonstration of self-love and self-acceptance.
Brown, L. (2020, June 20). Dedan Kimathi (1920-1957). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/people-global-african-history/dedan-kimathi-1920-1957/
Grave site of anti-colonial rebel hero Dedan Kimathi found – The Independent
The Truth Behind the Bitter Betrayal of Dedan Kimathi , the Kenyan Anti-colonialist Hero - The African Exponent
What is the Spiritual Meaning of Dreadlocks? - Lion Locs Blog
Why dreadlocks were an important symbol for Kenya’s Mau Mau – Pulse live.co.ke
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