Category Archives: Africa

Wakaichukua: An overview of European land seizures in Kenya’s Kikuyu country

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

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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Justifying the colonization of Kenya: European attitudes and African reality

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)

Savage?
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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

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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