I met Mr. Japhlet Thambu, aka General Nkungi, in 2006, when I was backpacking along the east coast of Africa. I’d recently graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in history, and we had a mutual friend named Wilson Mugambi from Atlanta, my hometown.
Over a dinner of nyoma choma at a restaurant called Texas, in Nkubu, in Kenya’s fertile Eastern Province, the General told me, “Tomorrow I want you to learn how to pluck tea.” At sunrise the General collected me from Wilson’s family home in his jeep and drove us to his tea farm, eight miles off the paved road at an elevation of six thousand feet. Jesca, his wife of sixty years, was waiting for us outside their one-story stone house. From their front yard on this clear morning, I could see the snow-covered peak of Mount Kenya.
Jesca passed me a bulky wicker basket and motioned for me to place its leather strap on my forehead. Forty years of picking and carrying full baskets had carved a permanent indention across her scalp, which was hidden under an orange headscarf. The General went inside for a moment and came back clutching a brown felt cowboy hat. He placed it on my head. “You shall be called ‘Captain,’” he said. “I am the General, and you are my captain. Now, you will learn to pluck tea. You must select the stems with two leaves and a bud.” The bud was to ensure soft, fresh leaves, the highest grade.
We walked out to his seven acres of lush green terraced slopes that cascaded toward the valley below. Still wet from a night rain, leaves glistened as the sun took its place in the bright blue sky. Jesca demonstrated how to “pluck” tea, slowly at first and then picking up speed until her hands moved in a blur from plant to basket. Then she pointed to me.
I snapped off my first stem of two leaves and a bud. The General and Jesca nodded their approval, and I carefully placed it in my basket. The farmhands gathered to watch. “Ah, you are the best white worker we have ever seen,” said the General.
“Thank you,” I said, feeling flattered. “And how many other white workers have you seen?”
“None. But you are very good.”
From the tea farm, we visited the Kinoro tea factory and then the South Imenti Tea SACCO, a cooperative founded by the General. At every stop, people addressed him respectfully according to the role he played in their lives. Former primary school students called him “Mwalimu,” and SACCO members called him “Chairman.” He was also Juju or General Nkungi, or just the General, the rank he’d earned sixty years before, fighting in the forest during the Mau Mau Rebellion.
I spent the next two days by the General’s side. At every step, he told me stories. I came to feel that the history of Kenya was entwined with his life story. I wanted—I needed—to hear everything. And he needed a young person to listen.
He explained that until the British arrived, African children learned history while sitting at the feet of their elders. The legacy included instruction in morals and expectations of behavior. But when missionaries introduced the Western system of education, converts were told that true education takes place in the classroom. The General lamented that children these days seem to care about things only as they relate to Western civilization. “You never see my grandchildren coming to visit me and benefit from me,” he said. “We never knew that not all the education people get is valuable. Now they have got good TVs, but when they are given responsibility they don’t perform because they never acquired the culture.”
At our last dinner together, we were joined by the General’s youngest son, Murithi. They decided that I should have a traditional Meru name. “You shall be called ‘Nkirote’ [N-keer-OH-tay],” said Murithi. “Nkirote is the name for an independent, generous lady. She can make a home anywhere and really manages her things well. You are no longer mzungu [white person]. You are Nkirote.”
Returning to the United States, I didn’t forget about the General, but I could feel his wisdom slowly slipping away from me. I kept on hearing the words of the great African American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who said, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”
For two years I bore the General’s story inside me. Then in spring 2009, I moved to Meru and lived with the General’s son’s family on their coffee and tea farm. I spent several months there, interviewing the General and recording his story. “Unless somebody has really been in the movement,” the General observed, “he may exaggerate. When I read books by people who pretend to be Mau Mau, I find a lot of things that were not Mau Mau business. It’s the author trying to put stories in a way that will strike somebody to buy the book—that’s all. But, to me, I’m not telling a story. I’m not writing from anybody’s ideas. I’m telling you the actual things that were being done by us. You are getting your history from the people who can tell an event from memory, and that is good.”
From more than a thousand pages of interviews emerged a book, The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General, the General’s spoken autobiography, just published by Ohio University Press (June 2015).
When I brought the finished manuscript to the General in December 2013, he felt the weight of his words and hugged me. “Nkirote,” he said, “You have done it.” He knew that he would not live forever, but now his story would outlast him so that his grandchildren and new generations of Kenyans would come to know his struggles and learn what it takes to bring about change. People who live a world away and read his words will never think of Africa the same way. The General loved books. He believed his life story deserved a book of its own.
In April 2014, at age 92, the General died. While it is true that The Boy is Gone, and the Mzee (elder) now has followed, his voice can never be silenced. And what was it if not the voices of his elders that moved him to leave the comforts of home for the forest and take up arms for freedom?
About the Author: Laura Lee “Nkirote” Huttenbach is a writer from Atlanta who has written extensively about her travels in Africa and South America. The Boy is Gone is her first book. She currently lives in Miami, where she is working on her next book. To find out more, please visit her website, www.LLHuttenbach.com, follow her at @llhuttenbach, or order a copy of The Boy is Gone at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or independent booksellers.
To link to above:
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/boy-is-gone-laura-lee-p-huttenbach/1120806514?ean=9780896802919
by Mwalimu Dr. Peter Ndiang’ui
Having been born during the Mau Mau Movement, I have always been intrigued by the struggle because in many ways, I consider it my struggle. For that reason, besides listening to many stories from my forefathers and elders, I have also read all kinds of books about the movement. I can classify the books into two categories. There is the category of books in which the authors tend to take the side of the British in the colony. They often portray the British as the benevolent people who left their comfort in Europe to civilize and spread Christianity to the heathen Africans who became ungrateful and turned against their benefactors. In the other category, authors take the side of the suppressed Africans whose land had been stolen and who sacrificed their lives to reclaim their land and property. I side with the latter. I have life experience and many stories to back my position on this issue. Besides Caroline Elkins’ Imperial Reckoning, most of the books that glorified the local people and shed light on the excesses of the British have been written by Africans. I am always hesitant to read about the Mau Mau struggle from foreigners.
When Laura Lee Huttenbach sent me an email inviting me to attend her presentation for her book on a Mau Mau General, I dismissed it easily. To me this was just the fantasy of a young American messing around with a serious and very sensitive topic about which she really had no knowledge. I was not going to give credibility to a biased Western view.
Later, Laura Lee sent me a copy of her book and I reluctantly agreed to read it with the hope that I would get a chance to criticize it. After the first few pages, I realized that this was a well-researched book that narrates the life history of a dignified freedom fighter without Western bias. It provides a third and much needed category. Laura Lee, or “Nkirote” as I call her now—I believe she lives up to the name—painstakingly decoded the different stages of this great General’s life from the beginning to the very end. Through the General’s life, we acquire a view of the struggle of the Kenyan people living around Mt. Kenya to regain their land from the foreigners who had forcibly snatched it from them.
Japhlet Thambu’s story is however rather unique and interesting. It is important to note that, before the Mau Mau he was in a privileged position as a teacher. He actually did not lose any of his land. Instead of continuing to enjoy his special position in the noble profession, he chose to still join the movement in support of his people who had suffered more than him. Through The Boy is Gone, Laura Lee is able to present not just the story of the movement but also several other significant themes–the cultural values and rites of passage among the Meru people, the significant role of women in the movement, the life in the forest and after, the deception by the British and many more historical topics.
This book is a must read for people who have interest in learning how poor peasants were able to organize themselves to fight the mighty British Empire using their minimal resources. Kenyans in the Diaspora should use it as a resource for their children who are growing up in a foreign land where such topics as African freedom struggles are unheard-of. The Kenyan people’s determination to rid themselves of colonialism in spite of local and international opposition is an amazing history lesson on its own. It is important to note that Mau Mau is among the very few freedom struggles in the world that occurred within the local people on their own without support from the outside world. There is similarity to the struggle for American independence. As I stated earlier, I claim to know a lot about the Mau Mau because I consider myself to be part of it. The struggle of my forefathers is part of my rich heritage. Still, I have learned so much from reading this book particularly about life in the forest. Thank you, Laura Lee Nkirote for travelling thousands of miles to bring my life story to life story to the wide American audience and beyond. I will always treasure it. I hope others will do the same.
Dr. Peter Ndiang’ui
Florida Social Studies Instructor & Adjunct Professor
Florida Gulf Coast University