A Kenyan official gets a humiliating taste of colonialism, on the eve of African majority rule

The bloody civil war in Kikuyu country dimmed Britain’s appetite for colonial rule, but did nothing to resolve the problem of what was to become of the Europeans Britain had invited to settle in Kenya. Initially, Britain put members of the settler community in charge of figuring out a way to compensate their fellow settlers for the inevitable approach of African majority rule by appointing them to the Land Development and Settlement Board (LDSB), the body designated to oversee land transfer.

This self-dealing approach to the settlement of serious property rights issues failed, for reasons that are detailed in Chapter 4 of Land and Class in Kenya. Edward Muceru Ayub, a Kenyan friend of mine, was there to witness their downfall. Muceru, a graduate of graduate of Alliance High School, and one of the first two Africans to be employed on the LDSB’s staff, recalled later that his first few months on the job were very difficult. His European colleagues regularly exposed him to the all-too-familiar humiliations of colonialism.

One of Muceru’s duties involved the LDSB’s attempts to negotiate the purchase of land for the settlement of African farmers. Muceru’s job as assistant district agent was to act as the LDSB’s liaison with people interested in purchasing land through the settlement program. T0 this end, his supervisor, a district land agent, took him along on visits to Europeans who were considering selling their land through the LDSB. On these trips, Muceru was to gather the information that he would later convey to prospective purchasers.

In the European settlers’ homes, Muceru related, he was not treated as a guest, but, in time-honoured White Highlands style, as his supervisor’s African assistant. When they arrived at a home, Muceru would be instructed  to wait in the yard while his supervisor and the settler went inside to discuss terms.

Before he went in, the settler would order one of his servants to bring a cup of tea for “the boy” — meaning Muceru. His noon meal would be a sack lunch while his supervisor and the settler lunched together inside. Later the district land agent, emerging from the settler’s home, would give Muceru his first real work assignment of the day: to go out in a Land Rover with some of the settler’s employees and check the boundary beacons, verifying their locations.

Looking back on that period, Muceru felt his presence on the trips had been an exercise in tokenism. He was never allowed to participate in the negotiations and was given no details of how the final price had been arrived at. The only information he was given for his liaison with prospective purchasers was the figure they would have to pay and the terms of payment. The trips, he felt, served no purpose other than to allow the settlement authorities to claim African participation in the negotiations.

These incidents occurred during Muceru’s first few months on the job, which was the final period before the LDSB’s — and therefore European settlers’ — loss of much of their influence over settlement. Later, things improved drastically for him. He had come to work in March 1962. In July, he and the other African staff member were asked to help senior settlement officials screen applicants, including Africans, for the job of settlement officer. Muceru himself became a settlement officer and rose quickly to senior settlement officer, a position of substantial authority.

As Kenya Europeans adapted to the imminence of majority rule, it became increasingly clear to those who did not wish to stay that they would not be able to exit on their own terms. Meanwhile, Britain stood guard over its own interests, ensuring that the cost of compensating departing Europeans would be borne, not by the British treasury, but by African smallholders. I will follow the money in a subsequent post.

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