The story plot takes place in Kenya in the 1950’s. Mugo is the kitchen toto (child) for Mzungu (white person) Bwana (Master) Grayson and his father Kamau is the caretaker of the horses in the barn for Bwana Grayson. Mzungu Mathew, Bwana Grayson’s son become fond of each other’s company as they relatively grew up together.
Mau Mau is on the rise in Kenya and both native and Wazungus (white people) Kenyans are under threat and live in fear. The Mau Mau is the underground Kikuyu movement of resistance against colonial rule who threaten natives with death if they betray them by not joining the movement and the Wazungus fear their lives even from their own trustworthy and loyal workers.
Mathew and Mugo’s relationship remained innocent until the Mau Mau uprising. They had each other’s backs (more like Mugo had Mathews back) like friends do. Mugo often saves Mathew from grounding from his father by taking blame for most of the mischief the get up to, if and when they do get caught.
They both had learned different perceptions of the story told by their own parents, which largely influences the way they thought of the current situation happening in Kenya. They both are left to take sides based on this perception that was handed over to them from their previous parents. Does this perception change how they feel about each other? Are they able to overcome the trauma that awaits them? What is the truth and do they stay loyal to their friendship or to the story of their parents.
The Mau Mau hardly appeared in the history books, though they were a big part of the history of Kenya and Britain for at least a decade in the 1950’s. The Mau Mau horror stories reached every ear in the British household during that time bringing with it ghastliness and fear. Sometimes it was used to help keep kids disciplined in Britain with parents saying “If you do not stop that, the Mau Mau will come and get you!” that is how awful the stories were.
Unfortunately, they were not just stories. Like most histories, the uprising in countries are almost always hidden in history books as somebody would have to explain why the uprising or underground resistant movement was needed in the first place, so it remained rumored stories and not facts.
Growing up in South Africa, this book has resurfaced the emotions I experienced growing up in apartheid. It has awakened the activist in me and reminded me of the injustice that happened then and is quietly still happening through rose colored glasses.
Our country is still only 22 years young in democracy and I feel that we still have a long way to go. This book is a reminder of the hidden struggles we faced as kids. The stories we were told by my father in particular, as he was part of the underground regime here in SA, was anything but glorified horrors as the stories were not just stories but it was life, it was our reality.
A simple trip to the swimming pool turned out to be heart-wrenching when we were asked to not enter because of the colour of our skin. Then, as a 7-year-old child, innocent as kids are, never understood this, but rather, felt ashamed and embarrassed by the rejections, which we carry through our adult life.
On the other hand, as I got into adulthood and started mixing with other races, I found they had their own versions of the same horror they experienced. From the oppressed (mostly) we hear the depths (and sources of the reason) of the truth with outbursts of hatred and anger, but from the oppressors, we hear the camouflaged version that makes the oppressors the victims (based on the retaliation fuelled by anger by the oppressed).
Mugo and Mathew are the reminders of the children (both native and wazungu) of the past that had their innocence ripped away too soon by derogation, humility, fear and the (wazungu) parents deception of the truth, as children are not born with fear and resentment, it is their environment that shapes them so. I resonate with the inner struggles of Mugo and Mathew, which the author captures very guilelessly yet so profoundly. Their friendship had no bounds till they were told it did!
I feel I can go on talking about the discrimination and prejudice displayed around the world that this book has so unkindly evoked in me, as this does not stop at racism but has extended itself to discrimination of sexual and religious preferences (or non-religion for that matter); sexism and other -ism’s of the world.
The author deservedly received a Carnegie Medal Award for this book.