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
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."
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
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.
most Americans, the University of Virginia history major
didnít 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.
on the book introduced Huttenbach to a history that has
been largely ignored in the United States. The Generalís
stories about the rebellion against British imperialism
opened her eyes in a way history books never had.
during that time [away from Kenya], I couldnít get his
story out of my head. I came to the idea of a book only
later," she added. "I initially didnít want
to commit to a book, so I convinced myself I would just
start with the research."
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
Boy is Gone" is told in the Generalís 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 farmersí SACCO (Savings and
Credit Cooperative Organization)." She chose that
first-person format because his stories were so complete
and rich in detail.
wanted to preserve his voice, and I knew for that I had
to get out of the way," she added.
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.
the three months Huttenbach lived with the Generalís
sonís 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
was asked to give my opinion on wrestling several times,
though I donít know anything about it," said
Huttenbach, now 32, teaching English as a second
language and working on a second book.
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
Huttenbach, her book may be one step closer to remedying
that historical oversight.