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
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
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.
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.
Statue of Dedan Kimathi, a leader of the Land Freedom Army
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. Continue reading
We don’t read a lot of good news about Africa. As I write this, and google “Africa —- News”, the top hits are:
• Convoy attack kills three children, 19 adults in Central African Republic… Bodies burnt in street….
• South Africa marks worst year in rhino killings…
• South African [mineworkers] strike at… platinum producers
• China and Japan scramble for Africa
These headlines are not representative of African reality. They’re certainly a far cry from the Africa I came to know when I lived there for two-and-a-half years in the early 1970s. To be sure, one of my earliest African memories is of being adrift — the first time I ventured outside of Nairobi’s tourist bubble — in a bewildering sea of black faces. But once I got to know Africans personally, it became clear, on one hand, that they were just people like everyone else, and, on the other, that they had ways of understanding themselves and relating to others that were distinctly African. Continue reading
Renault Roho (see below)
In the early 1970s, I spent two-and-a-half years in Kenya. I wanted to gain a real understanding of Africa, but there was no point pretending that I was anything other than a white Canadian graduate student. On the other hand, I didn’t want to emulate some of my fellow Europeans, living in expatriate ice castles, being waited on hand and foot by African servants. Avoiding that turned out to be a tall order.
It was in Nyandarua District, a rural area northwest of Nairobi, the capital, and northeast of Nakuru (see maps below) that I learned how to navigate my African life. The people I particularly wanted to get to know — for purposes of my research and out of personal interest — were small farmers who worked their land mainly by hand labour. Many of my academic colleagues referred to them as peasants, but it was clear that the small farmers who understood English would not wish to be referred to that way.
I began to love Kenya when I moved to Nyandarua District, a largely rural area, in 1971, but my first few months in the country, when I had temporary quarters in Nairobi, the capital city, were disheartening. Everywhere I went, I encountered racial self-segregation so strict one might almost think the era of British colonial rule was not yet over. Continue reading