Category Archives: The lives of your grandparents

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

The crackdown: Attempts to build a new Kikuyu society provoke a civil war

In a previous post we saw how increasing shortages of land were making life harder for Africans who had no land rights. The development of agriculture, both in the White Highlands and in the reserves, was working to the detriment of Kikuyus who had little or no land of their own. KenyaMapSource: University of Texas Libraries, http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/kenya.html

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African squatters on European land: Opportunity, followed by a squeeze

The establishment in Kenya of what Europeans liked to call the White Highlands — land reserved for occupation by themselves — cut off the land frontier that Africans relied upon to accommodate normal population growth. In time, Kikuyus were forced into participation in the colonial economy. As it turned out, they were better prepared for that than Europeans generally expected.  I’ve covered all that in previous posts, and you can find it by following the links.

Even those who lacked the skills or resources for a business career were not immediately left landless by the Europeans’ closure of the land frontier, because they were able to use European land. For many Africans, their first contact with the modern economy was the experience of working as a labourer in the White Highlands. In the early days of white settlement, such employment, for many, represented (or seemed to represent) a real opportunity. Continue reading

Kenya Europeans go after Masai land

Kikuyus took the hardest beating when white Kenyans went after African land, but they were not the only victims of European land grabs. In my last post, and a previous one I showed how flagrant Kenya’s colonial regime was about stealing African land, and how it introduced the policies of interpenetration and “tribal” reserves, to regularize the process.

Like the Kikuyus, the Masai — nomadic, pastoral occupants of Kenya’s Rift Valley whom we first encountered here — suffered their most significant losses during the period of interpenetration. Among the early European settlers, those who were interested in farming headed first for the green highlands of central Kenya. Those who wanted to go into ranching were most attracted to the Rift Valley because the presence of Masai herds there made it clear that the land was suitable for ranching.
MasaiHerdersMasai herders (Click on picture)
Source: http://www.staceyirvin.com/
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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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