Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Kenya's Colonial Past

I recently watched two historical films about Kenya, in a showing by the 100 Black Men of London.

The first one, “A Country for White Men”, depicted what happened from the time the British arrived, in the early 20th century, until they left in the 1960s. Although I knew a lot of what the film depicted already, I didn’t know the details.

The British arrived and started grabbing the best –quality farmland for themselves, as the Europeans did in South Africa, Zimbabwe and presumably many other countries as well.

They massacred hundreds, if not thousands, of people in order to steal their land. At one point, Winston Churchill expressed concern about how many African people were being slaughtered. He also said that, if the House of Commons got wind of what was happening, the British plans for Kenya would have to be scrapped.

Kenyans who were interviewed in the film said that they only had spears against the guns of the British, so although they fought back, they could not win. One man said that if the British had come with swords rather than guns, it would have been a different story.

The attitude of the British was that they were bringing British values into what would become a ‘new country’, and they considered this to be a good thing.

Those Kenyans who were not massacred by the British were made homeless and forced to do menial jobs for the white settlers.

We heard one white person remarking that the Kenyans had never done any work a day in their lives until then. So what were they doing on their farmland for all those generations before the white settlers arrived?

This reminds me so much of what happened in the Americas. The white people arrived, slaughtered the original people and stole our land. My father, who is part Cherokee, told me this story from the time I was a young child. But although I knew it happened in many parts of Africa as well, it was useful to be given specific information about what happened.

Teddy Roosevelt, when he visited Kenya, described it as a ‘playground’ and said that the people who did well there were the same people who had done well in the Old West forty years earlier.

During the First World War, Kenyans were forced into the British Army where they again did menial jobs. Hundreds of them died of starvation and disease. They were told they were fighting the Germans, who were occupying a neighbouring country which bordered with Kenya, and that they were fighting to secure their own country. But after the war, they were still confined to menial jobs and continued to be ruled by the British.
For many years, the Kenyans formed political parties to fight the British, and petitioned the British government, but their needs were ignored by the colonial rulers. At one point, members of one Kenyan political party were slaughtered at an anti-colonial demonstration. The Kenyans’ political parties were outlawed by the colonials.

Eventually, after many years of trying to achieve their aims of independence and self-determination through nonviolent means, the so-called Mau Mau were formed, which used violence.

I have seen another film about the ‘Mau Mau’, in which one man explained that, if a Black man were walking down the street and saw a white man, the Kenyan was supposed to stop and say ‘good morning’ and tip his hat. If the Kenyan failed to do this, the white man would beat him. And if the Kenyan defended himself, he would be arrested.

At last, after more than 60 years of colonisation, the British left Kenya to independent rule.

The next film was called ‘Mau Mau’.

The first thing this film clarified was that ‘Mau Mau’ is a term that means nothing in any Kenyan language. It was a term that was made up by white people. The Kenyans called themselves the Land Freedom Army. Clearly, if that had been widely known outside of Kenya, there might have been a lot more international support for the Kenyans’ aims and criticism, if not condemnation, of the colonial rulers.

After many years of killing people and displacing Kenyan people into what were effectively concentration camps, there was a scandal when some of the people in the camps were taken out into the bush by British Army personnel who tried to force them to work, digging ditches. I had seen a film about this before. The Kenyans refused to do this work – their attitude was, “We are not slaves, why should we work for the British?”.

The soldiers were then ordered to beat the Kenyans with their rifle butts, which they did. Some of the Kenyans died as a result of their injuries, and others were badly injured. The British then put out the story that these Kenyans had died as a result of drinking bad water.

Charities sent helicopters to airlift out these Kenyans who were supposedly ill, and found that they had injuries which were not consistent with having drunk bad water. When what really happened came out, it was the beginning of the end of the British colonial occupation of Kenya.

After the second film showing, a Kenyan man gave some up-to-date information. He explained that the people who run the safaris and make a lot of money from tourism are white people who live in Kenya (as I have been told, these people consider themselves to be Kenyans).

Again, I thought what he was saying was obvious, but it probably is not obvious for some people, so it’s useful to be told this information. We see similar situations in South Africa and many other places that were colonised by European powers.

When we see these stories in the news of the instability and unrest in Kenya and the violence around the recent elections, it is important to have a historical perspective. The instability of the country can be traced back to the fact that it was invaded and occupied by the British for many years, and they took people off their land, which destabilised the local economy, displaced Kenyan people, killed them, forced them to do menial jobs and denied them any kind of political voice.


Eddie G. Griffin said...

Very good work. You are right. The pattern was the same throughout the colonial world.

The Mau Mau were portrayed in the media as a wild gang of black savages that was thirsty for white blood. As I recall, that was during the 1950s.

Most African colonies were liberated during the 1960s, mainly with the help of the Communists of the Soviet Union or China.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing this blog post with me. There is no doubt that remarkably EVIL things have been done by despotic rulers all around the world ... and Africa is not exempt.

I hope that things will improve in Kenya as we move further into the 21st century.

Zhana21 said...

Thanks for your comments. Yes, let's hope things improve everywhere. We need to continue to work for this.

It's true that despots in Africa have behaved in very destructive ways. My argument is that a lot of this was rooted in European colonisation.