Readers of this blog know me as a student of city politics and city planning, but I have a past. As a graduate student, my primary interest was African politics. My first major academic study was about the politics of land in Kenya, and in the past I’ve taught African and third world politics.
In order to do my Kenya study, I learned Swahili, lived in Kenya for two-and-a-half years, interviewed hundreds of small farmers, as well as administrators, politicians and business people, and burrowed through the Kenya National Archives. For the better part of a year, I lived in the small city of Nyahururu and became completely immersed in the life of that town, and of the surrounding countryside.
The main outcome of my Kenya study was the publication of a book, Land and Class in Kenya, a study of the struggles over land from the late 19th Century, when Europeans first came to Kenya and helped themselves to large tracts of some of Kenya’s best farm and ranch land, until the 1980s, by which time Africans were back in charge of their own country.
Since those years in Kenya, I’ve been a university professor, as well as a researcher, for more than three decades, and I’ve helped to raise six children, all of which has taught me a great deal. But my years in Kenya remain the richest learning experience of my life.
I learned far more than I can summarize, but I can offer one small example. During my year in Nyahururu, I was one of only a small handful of Europeans (the descriptor used there for all white people) in the region. Many a day passed in which I would hear no English and see no white faces. From that I learned that we take our self-image, not from what we see in the mirror, but what we see around us. That became clear to me when, upon looking in the mirror every morning, I experienced a small shock at seeing a white face looking back at me.