Category Archives: Africa

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

Time out, for travel and reflection

I’ll be away from my blog until mid-October, for family time and to meet a couple of professional obligations. I’ll leave you with some posts that you may have missed the first time around.

From Henry Ford to Walmart
Nobody ever accused Henry Ford of having an overdeveloped social conscience. All the more reason to reflect on the chasm between his labour relations philosophy and the one that prevails today.

Does mixed-income housing ameliorate poverty?
A hotly-contested issue that has lost none of its currency. If anyone knows of new findings since I researched this, I’m interested in your comments. In fact, comments are always welcome.

How dangerous are our streets?
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Rattling over African roads in my Roho

RenaultRohoRenault 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.

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My African life III: Putting old people in homes

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

Who’s that white guy? An introduction to my African life

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. Thomson'sFalls

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“THE TRUTH”: EPISTEMOLOGICAL, PRACTICAL AND ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS IN CASE STUDY RESEARCH

I’ll be in Tokyo next week, delivering a paper at a conference of the International Sociological Association. Drawing on examples of research I’ve done, in both Kenya and North America, the paper discusses issues faced by researchers who undertake critical investigations of the way political power is wielded. It looks at the problem of how to get at “the truth”, as well as some obstacles posed by inappropriate research ethics protocols. Following is a brief summary of the paper, or, if you prefer, download the paper itself.

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WHEN WE INTERVIEW RESEARCH SUBJECTS, HOW DO WE KNOW WE’RE GETTING THE TRUTH?

I was having a drink with a couple of colleagues, who, like me, are engaged in case study research, and the conversation turned to interviews. One of my colleagues mentioned some questionable propositions that had been put to him in one of those interviews. “I don’t believe that,” he said, “but if that’s what they say, what are you going to do?”
I knew the answer to the question: triangulation. But it took some excavation of my own research experience to remember how I had arrived at that answer. The idea of triangulation never actually occurred to me. It presented itself, in the form of a puzzle I encountered as a graduate student immersing myself in my first primary research project, a study of Kenya’s Million-Acre Settlement Scheme, the starting point for a book I later published under the title Land and Class in Kenya.

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