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
My African life II: What speech and silence taught me about African culture
When I went to Kenya, I knew that, in order to gain more than a superficial understanding of the country, I would have to learn Swahili – the one language almost everyone in Kenya spoke. A university advisor, who spoke Swahili, offered sage advice: Learning a language is much more than learning how to express yourself. It’s learning what to say.
I took the advice to heart, and found it to be true – true of any language, when you think about it. Continue reading
Readers of this blog know me as a student of city politics and city planning, but I have a past. As a graduate student, my primary interest was African politics. My first major academic study was about the politics of land in Kenya, and in the past I’ve taught African and third world politics.
In order to do my Kenya study, I learned Swahili, lived in Kenya for two-and-a-half years, interviewed hundreds of small farmers, as well as administrators, politicians and business people, and burrowed through the Kenya National Archives. For the better part of a year, I lived in the small city of Nyahururu and became completely immersed in the life of that town, and of the surrounding countryside.