Kenya in the 1950s

Copyright: G J Wright

KENYA IN 1950s

(Based upon my perceptions and opinion, errors and inaccuracies are mine)

In 1955, when I first went to Kenya, I doubt that many of us gave much thought to the circumstances and conditions that pertained in the colony. At that time, the Mau Mau emergency was three years old and among Europeans it was very much case of them or us.  Very few people, European or Asian, had any sympathy for the insurgents, who were ostensibly waging a campaign for independence. That said, there were some among the political establishment in the UK who not only offered sympathy to the likes of Jomo Kenyatta, but actively supported the struggle for independence from Britain.  Notable among them were the UK members of Parliament such as Mrs Barbara Castle and Mr Fenner Brockway, both members of the Labour Party.

The population of Kenya at that time comprised some 6 million Africans, about a quarter of a million Asians: Muslims, Hindus and Goanese Catholics, together with about 60,000 Europeans who were, with few exceptions, British.

Although they were originally brought to East Africa by the East Africa Corporation, a Chartered Company,  at the turn of the century as coolies to work on the construction of the Mombasa to Kampala railway, by 1955 most Asians were artisans and shopkeepers.  Being Catholics of mixed Indian and Portuguese blood, although some worked in trade and commerce, the Goanese were the backbone of the clerical grades in the colonial administration.

Kenya did not become a British Colony until 1920.  A 10 mile deep coastal strip extending from the Somali border to the Tanganyika border formed the Protectorate, a dependency of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The Colony and Protectorate disappeared when Kenya became independent in December 1963.  The Island of Zanzibar was absorbed into the newly independent Tanganyika, which became Tanzania,

During the emergency, the Mau Mau were confined almost entirely to three tribes in the central province, all of Bantu origin, the Kikuyu, Embu, Meru and possibly a few disaffected Wakamba.  It was this that probably isolated the insurgency, because there was no love lost between the five or six African ethnic groups in Kenya.

A lot has been said and written about this period, but in truth, if Mau Mau was about attaining national independence, then it was very poorly organised and ill armed.  Groups, or gangs as they were known, even resorted to fabricating primitive firearms out of iron or steel piping.  In general, the gangs remained concealed in the forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range, emerging only to raid settlements and farms for food.  Most of their actions were against isolated European farms or African settlements.  Almost all of their killings and depredations were carried out using a traditional agricultural implement known as a Panga, which is similar to a Machete.  Although most infrastructure, bridges, railway lines, roads, power and water supplies were vulnerable, none were attacked.

In line with the proclivity of the involved Bantu tribes for secret societies, the gangs relied upon coercion and satanic oaths.  Apart from the few Europeans attacked and killed, the main victims were members of their own tribes who refused to join or aid them.  Officially, they killed about 30,000 Africans, but the actual figure is thought to have been much higher.

In the 1990s, there emerged a movement, mainly in academia, to whitewash these events and to paint Mau Mau as freedom fighters.  This encouraged lawyers to seek out elderly Africans who claim to have been victims of British oppression and aid them in seeking compensation from the British government.

I, along with many other former Kenya hands, was invited by the British Commonwealth Office legal department to offer recollections of those times and to stand as a witness.  Needless to say, these invitations were fruitless.  However, a court in London did award compensation to some Africans and at British taxpayer expense a statue depicting a Mau Mau fighter was unveiled in Nairobi.

In 2005 an American academic, one Caroline Elkins, published a book: Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.  She interviewed, through an interpreter, a group of aged former Mau Mau terrorists from whom she believes that she obtained an objective account of events in the 1950s.

In 1952 the colonial administration was confronted with a situation.  Plainly Ms Elkins expected the government to sit on their hands and let things take their course.  Predictably the government acted and the Governor declared a State of Emergency.  A factor which she overlooks was that the terrorists were not uniformed and were unidentifiable among the mass of the population (later, they became identifiable clothed in animal skins and wearing hair long in ringlets).  Suspects were detained for screening, the inhabitants of Central Province were moved to defended villages to deny coerced support to the insurgents, and the terrorist gangs were actively pursued.  By 1960, things had run their course and the State of Emergency was lifted.

The idea of African nationalism has always been something of a myth because national boundaries were quite arbitrarily drawn by the Western colonial powers.  A glance at an atlas will show many improbably straight lines.  The most notable in Kenya, and perhaps most controversial, are those in the North and East of the country that were causing trouble well before independence in 1963.  Tribal rivalries, drawn along ethnic lines were always more potent than any idea of a national entity.

The 6 million Africans in Kenya were drawn from some five main ethnic groups; the Bantu, Nilotic. Nilo-hamitic, Hamitic, and mixed-race Swahilis on the Coast. Although the Swahili language is the lingua franca of East Africa, spoken and understood to a greater or lesser extent by most of the population, each of the tribes in the various ethnic groups has its own language which total about 50.

Kenya is a diverse country, two-thirds arid desert in the North with the remainder divided between temperate highlands with considerable rain forest on the slopes of Mount Kenya, the western Mau and the Aberdare ranges, to dry open savannah in the Great Rift Valley. Towards the coast the dry savannah, the nyika, varies between the thorn scrub and poor grasslands.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, depending upon tribe and location, the Africans had lived variously as subsistence farmers or nomadic herdsman.  As diet improved and the colonial government provided public health services, clean water, education and a semblance of sanitation, so the African population increased, particularly in the less remote parts among the settled population in the central province.

The traditional system of land tenure among the Bantu tribes of the central province had brought pressure on available land, especially as African servicemen returned from World War II.  Independence apart, this pressure became one of the underlying causes of the Mau Mau rebellion.  On the death of the male member of a household, family land was traditionally divided among surviving sons.  This probably served well in the days when there was no public health system and many children died in infancy. But as more males survived, not only did the available family holdings become smaller, but were often fractured into discrete parcels sometimes some distance apart.

This was well recognised by the colonial administration and as the emergency wound down in the late 1950s, so a program, often complex, of land consolidation was commenced in the central province.  Although the benefits of such a programme were clear, there was nonetheless considerable opposition from traditionalists.  The programme, which involved a lot of negotiation and survey, and not been completed when independence arrived in December 1963.

Elsewhere, in the upper two-thirds of the colony the nomadic tribes, Hamitic, Nilo Hamitic and Nilotic groups eked a scant existence from their livestock; cattle, camels, sheep and goats.  Not only did they have to contend with fickle climatic conditions, but also the toll levied by predators, Lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena and wild dog.  Along the northern and eastern frontiers there was also considerable stock raiding across international boundaries.

Now, the population of Kenya has exploded, and more than 30 million people compete for the same liveable space!  Half of those people are under the age of 20 years and when they procreate…?


Copyright: G J Wright