I read this book a while back and have been meaning to blog about it for a long time. This is a book that humanizes the Mau Mau struggle and historicizes the colonial enterprise in a compelling manner. I want to highlight some of the issues discussed and link them to present-day happenings. The book was published in the 80’s, but since Kenya has never really decolonized, what was written then mirrors the scenario today.
- The IBEA, the politics of naming, and ’empty land’
The Imperial British East African Company (IBEAC) was the administrator of the British stolen lands in the East African region. The central goal of the IBEAC was to facilitate trade for Britain, of course, through extractive kind of arrangements. The IBEAC first set shop in Gikuyuland after getting into an agreement with Waiyaki wa Hinga, a Gikuyu elder. This agreement was quickly reneged by the IBEAC leading to a serious of disastrous consequences, culminating in the exiling of Waiyaki, who was buried upside down (head first) in Kibwezi on the way to the Kenyan Coast. Edgerton writes:
Whatever inclination the Kikuyu may initially have had to welcome the white foreigners disappeared when the IBEA’s African troops, who were very often staggering drunk, stole Kikuyu crops or raped Kikuyu women, killing some who resisted. When the Kikuyu fought back, the British officers organized punitive expeditions that went on “nigger hunts,” as they were known to white Kenyans. In 1893, an officer of the IBEA named Francis Hall (after whom the town of Fort Hall was later named) mounted two so-called punitive expeditions that killed about 90 Kikuyu. The following year, Halls’s troops killed a similar number. Hall was so incensed by continuing Kikuyu resistance that he wrote to his father, a British Colonel, that “There is only one way of improving the Wakikuyu (and t) that is to wipe them out; I should be only too delighted to do so, but we have to depend on them for food supplies. However, beginning in 1894 and lasting until 1899, nature made it unnecessary for Hall to “improve” the Kikuyu”. Plagues of locusts, prolonged, cattle disease, and small pox decimated the southern region of Kikuyu territory close to the route the rail road would follow. It was a this disaster that created what appeared to be empty land when the first European settlers arrived in 1902.
Now, here is the kicker – there are still people who name their businesses and other ventures “Fort Hall” and they are Agikuyu people. Fort hall was renamed Muranga after the attainment of flag independence. What about land? Of course land remains the most sore point in Kenya’s history. In addition, Kenya is still run like a corporation, following the imperial, colonial, oppressive model where the land is seen a place from which to get things. The government appears to be more concerned about foreign investors (white people) and tourists ( also white people) than about its own citizens. This is well articulated in this piece by Dr. Wandia Njoya ‘Invisible Citizens: Branding Kenya for foreign investors and tourists.’
2. Delamare inc
Kenya colony (yes, still) remains white man’s country. The goal of settlers at the time of colonial conquest was to turn Kenya into white man’s country – think along the lines of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and USA. One of the leading settler figures was Delamere. One of the leading settlers today is Delamare, err sorry, I mean LORD Delamare. Delamare owns an estimated 48,000 acres of land, some of which has been converted into a CONservancy where two Kenyans were shot dead by Delamare’s offspring, Tom Cholmondeley. Delamare was one of the leading figures in the debate about alienation of African lands for European settlement. The very best lands were stolen from Africans and given to settlers for a 99 -year lease, which was extended to 999 years. And what LORD D’s ultimate goal?
As Lord Delamare the acknowledged leader of these first settlers, made plain, their goal was to recreate the Virginia plantocracy in which white gentlemen of breeding and leisure oversaw vast plantations worked by Black men. Sir Eliot’s [the then governor] plan for Kenya was to attract more men of breeding and wealthy like Lord Delamere. The healthy and fertile highlands were reserved for men like these. Indians would not be allowed to own land in highlands and poor whites were discouraged from coming to Kenya at all. And as one English gentleman told Winston Churchill when Churchill visited Kenya, “It would destroy the respect of the native for the white man, if he saw what miserable people we have got at home.” These gentlemen-settlers also thought it dangerous to let Africans see white men actually working.
What has changed re land ownership? Not that much much. Kenya is still a plantation economy with a few people and companies (both local and foreign) owning huge tracts of land and establishing and entrenching the Virginia plantocracy model that Delamare talked about at the beginning of colonial occupation in the late 1800’s. Read more here: ‘It is a dog’s life for many plantation workers‘.
3. Dismantling of community livelihoods and dislocating Africans from their landscapes
Labour was needed to sustain to sustain the settler plantation economy. Where was this to come from? From the African population. How do you make Africans work for you? First, you steal their land, then you introduce a wage economy and taxation. Cash to pay taxes could only be obtained from settlers. That is how Africans became enslaved on their own lands. Edgerton illuminates the scenario:
Lord Delamere explained to the government that Africans should be forced into the labor market by cutting the amount of land available to them so that the wage work would their only means of survival. When the government was slow to take action, other settlers threatened to use force to obtain labour. Alarmed, the government responded by ordering chiefs to deliver a quota of labourers to the desired localities
4. How poverty was created
People assume that poverty in Africa is a naturally occurring condition. That there has always been poverty, because Africans do not know how to use the bounty that nature has provided to them. At the time of colonial occupation, the communities that the settler murderous gang encountered were people with absolute control over their lives- economically, politically, socially, philosophically, etc. Recall, that is actually trade that brought some of these communities into contact with settlers. In other words, they had surplus to sell. They were not poor. But colonialism entrenched poverty through various dimensions, and entrenched various forms of poverty, including the poverty of ideas (the worst form of poverty), by convincing Africans that they did not know anything and did not have knowledge. This passage below illustration explains the impoverishment of Africans under colonial occupation:
At that time, a cheap shirt bought in an African market cost 4 shilings, and the annual poll tax was 20 shilings. With wages like these a labourer could only stay alive by cultivating the single acre that he was lent as a tenant farmer. Regulations required the “squatters” as the British called their tenant laborers, to sell the produce from their plot of land to their employers at a fixed price. For example, an employer would pay his “squatter” 14 or 15 shillings for a bag of maize. Thanks to government subsidies, the employer could then sell that same bag for 32 shillings. Moreover, while it was the Europeans who benefited most from government services, until 1930 it was African taxes that paid the bulk of the expense. In addition, the Europeans paid no direct income tax until 1936.
What about today? It is the political class that took the place of settlers. Actually, a combination of settlers and the political class. White people and those that the Mau Mau referred to as ‘Black Europeans’ consume most of the taxes that are paid by the masses. Majority of the people remain poor and work themselves to death to support the lavish lifestyles of settlers, former and current colonizers, and the political class.
5. Africans are not human
Settlers not only believed that Africans had the minds of children, they were convinced that they did not feel pain as Europeans did, were able to will themselves to die whenever they wished (both Elspeth Huxley and Karen Blixen subscribed to this view). They also believed that Africans had altogether different nutritional requirements than white people. For example, it was widely argued that a bowl of maize-meal porridge was all that an African needed for good health. As a result, many settler employers gave each of their labourers a pound and half [about 0.6 kgs] of posho (maize meal) per day, a ration that was thought quite adequate. Many settlers, particularly women, never quite overcame their fear of Africans’ blackness, or their supposed resemblance to apes. The settlers saw no reason to understand Africans because they believed absolutely that before the coming of the white men, Kenya had been nothing more than a “howling wilderness” of superstition and death.
So, what is new? Did a Chinese national not refer to Kenyans, including the president as monkeys in September 2018? What is the relationship between Asians, Europeans, and Africans in places of work in Kenya colony? Who occupies the top leadership positions? Who does most of the work? How much posho (in this case salary) are the Africans paid? Is it still not 0.6 kgs – metaphorically speaking? By the way, when the Mau Mau war broke out, settlers were furious that Africans were not grateful for the gift of civilization. If you have ever tried to ask your white boss for a salary raise, you will confirm that they will usually get pretty furious and will not understand why you are not GRATEFUL for what they are ‘giving’ you. Just to go back to the nutrition and impoverishment of Africans, Edgerton provides an interesting piece of information ” 90% of the Kikuyu recruits for the British Army in World War 2 had to be rejected because of malnutrition, primarily due to a lack of animal protein in their diets.” An elder once told me that before colonialism, the Agikuyu people had a lot of livestock. We ate meat all the time, he said. Now, they lacked animal protein! Another thing to note: There is museum dedicated to the life of and history of Karen Blixen and no museum or memorial for the Kenya Land Freedom Army (Mau Mau). In other words, Kenya is still celebrating racism, the dehumanization of its peoples, and colonial occupation, but not celebrating one of the worlds most formidable self-determination movements.
Colour bar remains an defining element of Kenya colony. Today, there are places where whites only live. Conservation spaces are mainly white spaces. Africans who work there are in low-level positions. There are some hotels still known as “hoteli za wazungu/hotels for white people,” because in the colonial period, there are hotels Kenyans were not allowed to go to. While one can go to those hotels these days, majority are still restricted by economic factors. Hence apartheid is firmly entrenched.
The “superior” civilization the whites brought to Kenya did not include racial integration. A visitor to Kenya in the early 1950s was quickly introduced to its color bar. In Nairobi airport, there were bathrooms marked “European Gentlemen, ” “Europeans Ladies” and others marked “Asian Gentlemen” and “Asian Ladies.” There was no bathroom at all for Africans. After surveying all of Africa, James Cameron, a journalist, wrote that Kenya had established a colour bar “of singular crudity and arrogance.”
Settlers, missionaries et al., were keen to convert Africans to Christianity. This was the one gift of civilization. What Christianity has done in Africa is to convince Africans that they are inferior, that they have no history, that whites are Gods – white Jesus is to be found everywhere in Kenya colony, for instance, and that this world is not their home, they are just passing by. Why should you agitate for land rights if this world is not your home? Shouldn’t you just wait to rejoice in heaven with white Jesus and white angels? You should know that apartheid in Kenya extended to places of worship. Question – would the whites and Africans share the same heaven upon death?
A European woman who said that she did not mind employing Africans, or even shaking hands with them, “but pray with them I will not.”
8. White supremacy
Colonialism in Kenya colony created stark disparities in wealth, with the oppressed Africans occupying the bottom of the pole – often living at the edge of starvation. This situation has remained the same into the present. And since the political class are the present day colonizers, when I replace Europeans with the political class in the passage below, I still make sense of the text.
Meanwhile these Africans were continually reminded of their destitute conditions by the conspicuous affluence of most Europeans [politicians] and many of Nairobi’s Indians, who usually dressed well, if not elegantly by European standards, lived in large houses, and drove fine cars. African men typically wore a par of tattered European trousers, a badly frayed shirt, a ragged woolen sweater, a threadbare suit coat, and a floppy felt hat. At night and on cold days many wore khaki overcoats captured from the Italian army in WW2, or ragged topcoats that have been rejected by and Goodwill Centre in the USA. [Mtumba/second hand clothing is still presented as some kind of aid, but in actual sense, it is a thriving business enterprise that sustains the supplying countries].
White supremacy reigns supreme. Africans are still wearing tattered European trousers. The African political class has ensured that Africans continue wearing tatters, because they are white in their thinking/ideology. They believe in living off the sweat and misery of their people. It reminds me of passage from Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ‘A grain of wheat.’
The white man [politician] went in cars. He lived in a big house. His children went to school. But who tilled the soil on which grew coffee, tea, pyrethrum, and sisal? Who dug the roads and paid the taxes? The white man [politician] lived on our land. He ate what we grew and cooked. And even the crumbs on the table he threw to his dogs. That is why we went to the forest.
The voices of resistance and all those who raise their voices in the struggle for African dignity are the new Mau Mau. They have refused to succumb to despair. They are in the forest!