Category Archives: My African life

Kenya’s independence from colonial rule: How the British off-loaded compensation costs on the poor

As it dawned on the British colonial authorities that their African colonial enterprise wasn’t working for them anymore, and it became clear that they would have to end colonial rule, they faced a tricky situation. Having invited English and South African whites to settle in Kenya left them with an inescapable obligation to compensate white settlers who did not wish to cast their lot with African majority rule.

Potentially, costs of compensation could have been enormous.  Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Europeans help themselves to Nandi and Kipsigis land

NandiWarriorsNandi 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.

RiftValleyRift Valley, in orange, until 2013 a province of Kenya

RiftValley5
Farmland at Rift Valley’s edge (click on picture)
Source: Wallaroo Images

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Seeking socially acceptable descriptions for land theft in Kenya

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.

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Kenya’s Land Freedom Army: Why Africans couldn’t get over their hatred of colonial rule

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.

DedanKimathiStatue of Dedan Kimathi, a leader of the Land Freedom Army
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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. Continue reading

What I loved about Africa

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