I’ll be away from my desk for much of October. The recent, untimely death of my wife has made me keenly aware of the precariousness of life, and brought a renewed focus to my long-standing conviction that, although a productive, socially useful career is very important, family and friends are equally important.
So I’m going to take a break from my blog and spend some serious time with relatives, and, in the process, strengthen my connection to my own origins. I still have important stories to tell — including a review of a critical chapter in Kenya’s history that has been largely shrouded in darkness. It’s all in Land and Class in Kenya, but I’m dogged by the feeling that there’s so much in the book that, at least for some readers, the most important point has been lost.
I’ll get to that if I still have breath left after spending some time with relatives.
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. Continue reading
In a previous post we saw how increasing shortages of land were making life harder for Africans who had no land rights. The development of agriculture, both in the White Highlands and in the reserves, was working to the detriment of Kikuyus who had little or no land of their own. Source: University of Texas Libraries, http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/kenya.html
Posted in Africa, Kenya, Kiambu, Murang'a, Nyandarua, Nyeri, The lives of your grandparents
Tagged Africa, colonialism, Embu, European land seizures, Kikuyu, Meru
The establishment in Kenya of what Europeans liked to call the White Highlands — land reserved for occupation by themselves — cut off the land frontier that Africans relied upon to accommodate normal population growth. In time, Kikuyus were forced into participation in the colonial economy. As it turned out, they were better prepared for that than Europeans generally expected. I’ve covered all that in previous posts, and you can find it by following the links.
Even those who lacked the skills or resources for a business career were not immediately left landless by the Europeans’ closure of the land frontier, because they were able to use European land. For many Africans, their first contact with the modern economy was the experience of working as a labourer in the White Highlands. In the early days of white settlement, such employment, for many, represented (or seemed to represent) a real opportunity. Continue reading
Nandi warriors (date unknown)
The stiffest resistance to European encroachment on African land in Kenya came from the Nandi on the Mau plateau west of the Rift Valley. In the 1890s, and in the first part of the Twentieth Century, they harassed European caravans and railway workers, forcing some early settlers to retreat. The defeat of the Nandi, therefore, was regarded as a prerequisite for European settlement in the western highlands.
Rift Valley, in orange, until 2013 a province of Kenya
Farmland at Rift Valley’s edge (click on picture)
Source: Wallaroo Images
Kikuyus took the hardest beating when white Kenyans went after African land, but they were not the only victims of European land grabs. In my last post, and a previous one I showed how flagrant Kenya’s colonial regime was about stealing African land, and how it introduced the policies of interpenetration and “tribal” reserves, to regularize the process.
Like the Kikuyus, the Masai — nomadic, pastoral occupants of Kenya’s Rift Valley whom we first encountered here — suffered their most significant losses during the period of interpenetration. Among the early European settlers, those who were interested in farming headed first for the green highlands of central Kenya. Those who wanted to go into ranching were most attracted to the Rift Valley because the presence of Masai herds there made it clear that the land was suitable for ranching.
Masai herders (Click on picture)
In a previous post, I catalogued some of the lame excuses Europeans in Kenya offered for their seizures of African land. A Swahili saying offers a more realistic take on what happened: Wazungu walikuja, wakaona ardhi yenye mafuta, wakaichukua. (“Europeans came, saw fertile land, and helped themselves.”) Kikuyus, who, like European settlers, were generally capable farmers and often keen entrepreneurs, spent the period of colonial rule (from the late 19th Century until 1963) locked in an intense, sometimes violent and competitive relationship with Europeans. Continue reading
As European settlement spread through Kenya’s highlands early in the 20th Century, considerable amounts of African land were included in what became known as the White Highlands. In later years, defenders found a variety of justifications for these alienations of land.
Some land, it was said, was unoccupied or so sparsely occupied as to be virtually unoccupied. Some was taken by right of conquest. Some areas, it was maintained, were buffer zones between hostile “tribes” and European settlement was merely a means of bringing peace to the land. In other cases, mistakes were allegedly made and later on some minimal compensation was offered.
I’ve never understood how the term “tribe” has survived into the 21st Century as a supposedly acceptable usage. Its meaning is indistinguishable from the meaning of the phrase “ethnic group” (or perhaps “small ethnic group”) except that it is never used to describe white people. In other words — with whatever apologies may be due to my colleagues who are anthropologists — it looks like a racist usage to me.
In order to understand what happened after Europeans took over the country we now call Kenya, we have to know something about both the attitudes of the invaders and the reality of African life.
Elspeth Huxley, a writer who was popular with residents of what used to be called Kenya’s White Highlands, has done those of us who want to understand what happened the favour of speaking plainly in her defence of colonialism. She argued that colonization was founded, among other things, on
…an inherent conviction that civilization in itself was good. In [the early days of European settlement], when abstract morality had a concrete meaning, there was a Right and a Wrong, people did not doubt that it was better to be civilized than savage… There could be no question therefore, but that the white man was paramount, and must remain so until the native became — if he ever did — the intellectual equal of the European. (Huxley [see below], pp. 80-1)