My search for the truth about Kenya’s Million-Acre Settlement Scheme turned me into a student of history, and helped me understand why, in the 1950s, Kenya endured a bloodbath. Kenya’s freedom fighters, known to Western journalists as Mau Mau, took to the forests of central Kenya in a bloody, seemingly hopeless battle with handmade weapons against the might of Kenya’s colonial regime.
In the kind of contradiction that never seems to deter purveyors of media myths, much of the Western press portrayed Mau Mau as bloodthirsty savages on one hand and crafty agents of Communism on the other. To Africans in Kenya, they came to be known as the Land Freedom Army and in retrospect it’s clear that their apparently suicidal assault on the colonial regime was in fact a turning point on the road to Kenya’s independence.
Land Freedom Army: The linkage of “land” and “freedom” expresses the ideas for which forest fighters gave their lives. An understanding of that linkage was key to an understanding of land and class in Kenya, even decades later. For those Africans who suffered most at the hands of the colonialists, it was loss of land rights that was at the heart of their suffering.
The colonial system dealt a double blow to Africans who were poor to begin with, or who were less able than others to adapt to the changes brought about by British rule. First it led to the loss of land rights they had enjoyed in pre-colonial society, and then it spurred the development of an economy within which landless Africans were the most helpless and exploited group. A knowledge of this course of events helps to explain the extraordinary importance of Kenya’s land, both as a political symbol and as a material resource well worth fighting for.
In order to understand the causes of the Mau Mau rebellion, and the political and social changes that grew out of the rebellion, therefore, we have to develop a basic understanding of pre-colonial African land rights. For those of us who have grown up in Europe or North America, this is no mean feat, because our conceptions are fundamentally different from the notions that prevailed in pre-colonial African society.
In our mind-set, it’s a given that personal and familial matters are subject to different rules than economic activities — so much so that when economic concerns encroach on the personal and familial, we get nervous. For example, when there’s a death in the family, we’re apprehensive about the issues that may arise as brothers and sisters, parents and children, aunts, uncles and cousins, are potentially pitted against each other over inheritance issues.
In pre-colonial Kikuyu society — it was Kikuyus who lived in central Kenya and were most directly affected by colonialism — there was no discomfort in mixing the personal and familial with economic matters. On the contrary, the Kikuyu economy was personal and familial. Most Kikuyus were small farmers who relied on large families to supply the labour needed to work a farm with strong backs and hand implements.
Not only farm labour, but the farm itself, was a product of personal relations. The founder of a farm, who was also the founder of a family, acquired land by clearing virgin forest or purchasing it. Running a farm required labour, and a very successful farmer typically had multiple wives and scores of children. The founder and his successors distributed land to members of the extended family according to their need for it.
They might also establish other personal relations by granting tenancies to people who needed land, or wanted more land, in return for such things as the first fruits of the harvest or a loan of livestock, or simply by admitting them to membership in the extended family. Most pre-colonial Kikuyus were farmers and, in practice, anyone who needed land could acquire it, either through extended family membership, or by arranging a tenancy.
When a family was on the point of becoming unmanageably large, a junior member could move onto virgin land, clear it, and found a new family. The availability of virgin land to accommodate population growth, and to continue the establishment of the familial and personal relations that were integral to the functioning of Kikuyu society, was taken for granted. Normal life depended on the availability of unoccupied land — of a frontier in the American sense of land available for occupation.
When Europeans arrived in central Kenya, they unilaterally claimed land rights — as I will show in subsequent posts — that, in some instances, cut off the Kikuyu frontier, and in others actually turned Kikuyus into squatters on their own land. If we have some understanding of the importance of land in Kikuyu life (look for more detail, and exhaustive documentation, in chapter 2 of Land and Class in Kenya), it becomes clear that rendering Kikuyus landless not only cut the heart out of the Kikuyu economy, but also truncated the formation of personal and familial relations, thereby cutting the heart out of social life as well.
In later years, Europeans wondered why Africans kept harping on the same old land grievances decade after decade, even after the colonial system had brought new economic opportunities in commerce, industry and the public service. But Africans — especially those who became landless while being denied access to the new opportunities — could not so easily forget that the liquidation of traditional land usages had destroyed their way of life.
Years later, I interviewed Africans from 120 families, mostly Kikuyus, who had lived through the the battle for land and freedom. When I asked them to tell me about their lives before the Mau Mau war, I was often told that life was beautiful in a way that they obviously struggled to express. I had to read anthropology and history to learn how life on the land involved the development of deep personal relations — relations that began to fall apart when Europeans claimed the Kikuyu frontier.
The material in this post was previously published in Christopher Leo, Land and Class in Kenya (Toronto, 1984, and Harare, 1989).