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. Source: University of Texas Libraries, http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/kenya.html
Posted in Africa, Kenya, Kiambu, Murang'a, Nyandarua, Nyeri, The lives of your grandparents
Tagged Africa, colonialism, Embu, European land seizures, Kikuyu, Meru
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
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.
Masai herders (Click on picture)
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
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.
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)
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.
Statue of Dedan Kimathi, a leader of the Land Freedom Army
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
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.