Solving an African mystery: Everything I thought I knew was wrong

When I arrived in Kenya in the early 1970s to do research for my Ph.D. thesis, an advisor suggested I do a study of something called the Million-Acre Settlement Scheme, a massive government program to settle thousands of African families on small farms. It was the best advice I ever had, because it propelled me into a mystery that fascinates me still, and experiences that changed the way I looked at the world, deeply enriching my understanding of it.

It’s a long story. I can’t tell it all at once, so let’s start with the mystery.

Reading about the Million-Acre Scheme, here are some of the things I learned: It was, I gathered, a British government program, in which the government of Kenya, then a British colony, bought up large tracts of land from British and South African owners of large farms to sign over to Africans who needed it and to improve African agriculture. Although it consisted of two separate programs, low-density and high-density settlement, the difference between the two was not great.

All wrong

In the course of my research, I learned that almost everything I thought I knew was wrong. High-density and low-density, far from being similar, were markers of class. Low-density was for well-off Africans, high-density for the poor. Moreover, the purpose of the Million-Acre Scheme was not the development of African agriculture. That was a cover for what was, first and foremost, a way of getting Africans, most of them dirt-poor, to foot the bill for obligations incurred by the British government.

I have told this story before, in book entitled Land and Class in Kenya, but I plan to retell the gist of it in an occasional series of blog posts, because it’s an important and insufficiently understood piece of African history. (If you want to take a look at the book for yourself, a few dozen copies are still available at amazon.com, and no doubt others are in university libraries.) I spent two-and-a-half years in Kenya on the research. I started by reading everything I could find on Kenya politics, focussing especially on the importance of land and on the manoeuvres and negotiations that accompanied Kenya’s transition from colony to independent country.

Living in Nyahururu

Next I toured the Million-Acre Scheme, interviewing administrators and the occasional politician in central Kenya, the Rift Valley, western Kenya, and the coast. In the process I selected two adjacent settlement schemes, one high-density and one low-density, for closer study. I moved to the farm town of Nyahururu and took up residence in a roughly-renovated building that had, in colonial times, served as a meeting-place for “Asians” — Kenya residents whose ancestors came from the Indian sub-continent.

In each of the two settlement schemes I chose, I drew a 40 per cent random sample of the smallholdings and interviewed the settlers of those smallholdings, enquiring into their experiences with their farms, as well as their personal histories: What were they doing before settlement? How did they acquire their smallholding? What happened to them on the way from their former life to their present one?

As I spoke to those settlers — 120 interviews in all — it gradually dawned on me that their stories did not jibe with what I had gathered from my background reading. Much of the big picture of Kenya’s politics of land that I thought I understood, as well as many details, were proving wrong.

Nairobi

After completing my interviews, therefore, I moved to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and largest city, and haunted the Kenya National Archives, going through all the relevant documents I could find — such things as administrative accounts of the land settlement process, agriculturists’ assessments of the settlement land, debates about settlement in the colonial legislative assembly and communications among administrators as well as between administrators and politicians.

It was a giant jig-saw puzzle, but bit by bit the pieces came together and a picture emerged. As it proceeded, my work was subject to detailed, and often sharply critical assessments, to which I responded with revisions. As I wrote up the research, I sent chapters to my three thesis advisors, professors at the University of Toronto. The study was first published as a thesis and earned me my Ph.D. degree. It was subsequently published, first by the University of Toronto Press and then, in a later edition, by Nehanda Publishers in Harare, Zimbabwe. At each stage, it was carefully scrutinized by editors.

As a result, I’m confident that the story I’m telling in this and subsequent posts is factually accurate and theoretically sound. I hope that my account will be useful for those who take an interest in African politics, and most especially for Kenyans today who are interested in the lives and experiences of their grandparents. The work I did helped me to get to know the country well, and through that, as well as numerous contacts with many individual Kenyans from all walks of life, I came to love the country very much.

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