When Laura Lee Huttenbach decided to backpack up the eastern coast of Africa, from Johannesburg to Cairo, she was only 23 years old, fresh off a year of teaching English in Brazil and hoping for adventure on a budget. She never expected to meet a freedom fighter-turned-tea farmer along the way, never expected a great-grandfather from a vastly different culture to forever change her life.
“Originally, it was going to be one meeting,” the Miami Beach resident recalled, “but we had such a rapport right away. We were telling stories the entire time. I felt from the very beginning that I was in the presence of somebody wise who knew me very well.”
That initial dinner in 2006 inspired Huttenbach to return to the tiny village of Mutunguru in Kenya three years later, armed with a recorder, a video camera, a laptop and one singular idea: Tell the story of Japhlet Thambu, a man known as the General for his role in leading 58 men in the fight against British colonial rule in the 1950s. For three months that spring of 2009, she recorded more than 100 hours of audiotape and met with colleagues, community leaders, family and former comrades.
The result: The Boy is Gone: Conversations with a Mau Mau General (Ohio University Press), a book that portrays the struggle for Kenyan independence through the eyes of a man whose life was inextricably intertwined with the modern history of his country. Huttenbach will be speaking about her book Wednesday at Books & Books in Coral Gables.
Like most Americans, the University of Virginia history major didn’t know much about the Mau Mau rebellion. In fact, her knowledge about Africa was limited. Until she was in Africa, she had no idea, for example, that 75,000 East African soldiers had fought with the British during World War II. The focus of her studies had been on Japan, Germany and the Allies.
Working on the book introduced Huttenbach to a history that has been largely ignored in the United States. The General’s stories about the rebellion against British imperialism opened her eyes in a way history books never had.
“All during that time [away from Kenya], I couldn’t get his story out of my head. I came to the idea of a book only later,” she added. “I initially didn’t want to commit to a book, so I convinced myself I would just start with the research.”
The research left her cold. Western media coverage of the Mau Mau rebellion was “disgustingly racist.” She cites a 1960 Time magazine article that described how Mau Mau chillingly murdered their victims. Some of that misinformation has since been revised both in the Western world and in Kenya, and after more than five decades labeled as an illegal terrorist society, the Mau Mau Veterans Association is now a legally registered organization.
The Boy is Gone is told in the General’s voice, from his childhood in the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya to his old age on the seven-acre tea farm. As Huttenbach writes, “Japhlet Thambu grew up wearing goatskin loincloths. At the end of his life, he donned a business suit most mornings and headed a highly successful, multimillion-dollar tea farmers’ SACCO (Savings and Credit Cooperative Organization).” She chose that first-person format because his stories were so complete and rich in detail.
“I wanted to preserve his voice, and I knew for that I had to get out of the way,” she added.
The title of the book refers to a traditional rite of passage for males in Meru, a town in Kenya, which culminates in circumcision at 16. After a young man heals from the procedure, he emerges into the community as a man. “The boy is gone,” Thambu said. “The boy has gone with men.” For Huttenbach, the title also underscores the transformation of both her subject and his country, from traditional to modern.
During the three months Huttenbach lived with the General’s son’s family on their coffee farm, life was reduced to its simplest denominator. She would breakfast on sweet potatoes and ride the back of a boda-boda (a motorcycle) to meet the General three miles uphill. They ate what the family grew. Over that time, she developed a deep friendship with his granddaughter Winnie, whom she now calls sister. She also watched “a lot of bad telenovelas” dubbed into English and hours of wrestling.
“I was asked to give my opinion on wrestling several times, though I don’t know anything about it,” said Huttenbach, now 32, teaching English as a second language and working on a second book.
Thambu died in April 2014, four months after Nelson Mandela. “In a few short months, Africa had lost two giants: one who is known to the world, and the other who is not yet known.”
For Huttenbach, her book may be one step closer to remedying that historical oversight.
If you go
Laura Lee Huttenbach discusses her book at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. For more information, go to booksandbooks.com.