Kikuyu - Colonial History

In this page:
First contacts with the Wazungu
Organized Protest, 1920s-1930s
The Road towards Independence
Kenyatta and the Kenya African Union (KAU)

First contacts with the Wazungu

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Kikuyu had become a wealthy and land-conscious people, with an ethos that linked wealth (but not the coveting of it) to virtue, and virtue to a sense of history that regarded land and livestock ownership as a trust for future generations.
   But what appeared to be the unstoppable rise of the Kikuyu came to an abrupt end with the arrival of colonialism. After a few early contacts with explorers and missionaries, the "protectorate" was proclaimed in 1895. The wazungu (white men) arrived in earnest a few years later, and by 1904 the new government was already actively advertising land for settlers in both Britain and South Africa.

Still controversial is the history of the early land appropriations by the British, which had followed shortly after the devastating famine, rinderpest and smallpox epidemics of the 1890s, which had decimated not only Maasai herds and the human population, but those of many other peoples also. With their livestock and human population severely reduced, the Kikuyu withdrew from certain areas, particularly around Nairobi, Kiambu, Thika and Ruiru, vacating much of the land in what is now Kiambu district. When the European land surveyors arrived, they found an apparently empty land. Unwilling to accept that the 'primitive' people of Kenya were capable of conceiving the notion of land ownership, the British thought it within their rights to take the land and do of it what they wanted. Of course they were wrong. The Kikuyu had a complicated and effective concept of land ownership, which - by the system of Gethaka - meant that certain areas belonged to certain families, and could be used in times of hardship.
   The Kikuyu and the neighbouring Kamba, of course, simply opposed what appeared to them to be an unwarranted invasion of their territory, and in 1896 and 1897 small military expeditions were sent against them by the new administration.
   Soon enough, the British began fencing the good uplands and forbade Kikuyu entry, cultivation, or grazing rights. The elders reported this trespass to the European administrator, John Ainsworth, who sided however with his kinsmen. His attitude was that the Kikuyu should understand that conditions had changed.


Change: women at a bus stopAs the new economic overlords, the British presence shattered Kikuyu society. Kikuyu trade, especially with the Kamba and the Maasai, the latter having been forcibly relocated to the far south of Kenya, simply disappeared. But the most damaging aspect of the colonial period was the wholesale theft of Kikuyu land for the benefit of white settlers and their ranches and farms, especially the lands in and around the Nyandarua Mountains (Aberdares), which became known as the 'White Highlands'.

Colonial rule saw the Kikuyu dispossessed of between thirty and seventy percent of their best lands, as large numbers of people were herded into restricted "Native Reserves" on inferior land. Deprived of their own allotments, many took on work as labourers on European farms, where the sweat of Kikuyu women produced coffee, tea and pyrethrum for the profit of British multinationals and white settlers. Over time, the farms came more and more to reply on an exploitative system involving 'resident labourers', whom the settlers more commonly called 'squatters'. These were Kikuyu who had settled on the European farms in return for their labour, and were also given small 2 to 3 acre plots on which to build their homes and graze their goats. Others, who still had cattle, came to other arrangements whereby they accepted to work for the European farmers for six months, in return for a low wage, and for remaining six months were free from labour.
   Others who were not so 'lucky' began to move towards the towns, like the burgeoning capital, Nairobi, in search of work, whilst others moved west into the Rift Valley to relieve population pressure, laying the seeds for the present conflict with the Kalenjin and Maasai.

"These ancient hills and ridges were the heart and soul of the land ... They kept the tribes' magic and rituals, pure and intact. Their people rejoiced together, giving one another the blood and warmth of their laughter ... To the stranger, they kept dumb, breathing none of the secrets of which they were the guardians"

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, The River Between

Being highly fertile, as well as enjoying a temperate climate, Kikuyu land was of course highly attractive to the Europeans, and over the seventy years that the manifold abuses of colonialism lasted, the Europeans managed to make quite a little England out of these lands, most infamously in the shape of the 'Happy Valley', where the most obnoxious, racist and otherwise degenerate settlers settled in the 1920s and '30s - a time of quasi-apartheid for black Kenyans - to indulge an obsessive life of hedonism and intrigue, culminating in the notorious unsolved murder of Lord Errol, one of Kenya's most aristocratic settlers, in 1941.
   Many of these lands have still not been returned, as they remain either privately-owned small holdings or electric-fenced multinational plantations (notably owned by the Delmonte Corporation), producing anything from wheat, pineapples and coffee to pyrethrum and flowers for the European market.

European colonization was quick to establish itself. In 1904, the first commercial sisal plantation was founded near Thika, coinciding with the first revolts against colonial rule as the first Kikuyus were forcibly relocated to the Native Reserves. By 1910, large-scale coffee growing had begun, and the colonial framework was well established, with a full administrative system, a District Commissioner in the Kikuyu Reserve at Fort Hall (Murang'a), and punitive hut taxes which forced the Kikuyu to enter the waged labour market. There was never a question of violent resistance: the British controlled the means of violence, for the simple reason that spears and arrows were no match for guns.
   By the end of the First World War, the colonial government was so confident of its control over the land and its people that it started a soldier settlement scheme, offering cheap land in the highlands to British veterans. This increased the European population from 3,000 in 1912 to around 10,000, who together now owned the bulk of the fertile highlands. In 1920, Kenya was officially declared a colony. Meanwhile, the majority of Kikuyu had been crowded into a crowded "Native Reserve" around Murang'a.

Kikuyu schoolchildrenBut European interest was not just limited to land. The people - hard-working, industrious and adaptable - were just what the colonial regime needed to fill the roles of clerks and minor administration for the colony. Western education - provided by Christian missionary schools - was crucial in this, and so it was - and remains - that the Kikuyu became the most westernized and Christianized of Kenya's people (for more on the conflict that Christianity engendered, see the section on Christianity).
   In modern terms, the early access to colonial education set the Kikuyu and the Kamba well ahead of other ethnic groups, with the result that today, even after two decades of Kalenjin rule (Moi et al), the Kikuyu and the Kamba have the least preference for large families, and Central Province has better infrastructure, education, and health facilities than other parts of the country.
   But for the majority, gaining a western-style education was simply not possible: numbers were limited, and few had the means to pay for it. For the majority, a dimmer prospect beckoned: the new European farms needed manpower, and so the reticent Kikuyu were obliged to work them either as forced labour, or indirectly through the punitive effect of 'hut taxes', creating a dependence on money and an economic trap that inevitably led to increased poverty. Racial barriers were also erected - in the civil service, in business and in day-to-day life - and by the 1930s, the colony was nothing other than a racist, apartheid state.

Organized Protest, 1920s-1930s

Kikuyu woman collecting firewoodAmong the Kikuyu, who supplied a considerable proportion of the labour force on the European farms and whose proximity to Nairobi brought many of them into regular contact with Europeans, the Kikuyu quickly learned the new political system. The first mass Kikuyu protests and demonstrations against the growing injustice and inequality of their lot occurred in 1921, when European employers attempted to cut the already paltry wages of their indigenous employees.
   A workers' meeting held in a Nairobi suburb condemned the wage cuts and the refusal on the part of European estate and factory owners to provide housing, food and medical services. This meeting gave rise to the Young Kikuyu Association (also called the East Africa Association), Kenya's first all-African political organization.
   This association soon formed branches in many parts of the country to protest against the allocation of most of the colony's fertile land to Europeans. The Association drew up a list of grievances and delivered it to the Chief Native Commissioner. The list changed little during the colonial period with forced labour, land expropriation, and the lack of public services and educational opportunities being the major issues.
   Of course, changing this was the last thing that the Europeans had on their mind, and in March 1922 they responded by arresting the Association's leader, Harry Thuku, who was subsequently deported for several years.
   Undeterred, over the following years the Association intensified its campaign against land alienation, and against tax and labour laws. In 1923 the British government announced that "the interests of the African natives" would forthwith be under their control, and two years later local councils were organized to assist the colonial power in governing Africans; but these councils operated through government-appointed chiefs who, among the Kikuyu, had little or no traditional standing (the long-trusted colonial policy of divide-and-rule was simple and effective: by giving people a limited sense of power, they would be too preoccupied with their own power struggles to see the real enemy - the British).
   In 1925, the East Africa Association was disbanded by the government, but quickly reformed as the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA). Its original programme was a combination of radical demands such as the return of expropriated lands and the elimination of the passbook scheme (part of the racist colour-bar system), with a striving to return to the traditional pre-colonial past.

In also demanding African representation in the legislature, the association was in advance not only of the government but also of most of the members of the tribe. It won support among the Kikuyu, however, when it complained about low wages, the prohibition of coffee growing by Africans, and the condemnation by Christian missionaries of such tribal practices as clitoridectomy. The association never represented the tribe as a whole, though, because its members were mainly young men whom the chiefs did not trust. For this reason, too, the European administration tended to look with disfavour upon its activities. Attempts to win the support of other tribes failed owing to their unwillingness to accept Kikuyu leadership.
   In 1929-1931, the leader of the KCA - Kamau Ngengi, who became known to the world as Jomo Kenyatta - was sent twice to Great Britain in an unsuccessful effort to voice KCA views and African grievances before a parliamentary committee on the union of Kenya, Tanganyika, and Uganda. An eloquent speaker, Kenyatta wrote a letter to the Times newspaper in March 1930, setting out five aims of the KCA:


security of land tenure and the return of lands allotted to European settlers


increased educational facilities


repeal of hut taxes on women, which forced some to earn money by prostitution


African representation in the Legislative Council


noninterference with traditional customs

He concluded by saying that the lack of these measures "must inevitably result in a dangerous explosion - the one thing all sane men wish to avoid."

Kenyatta's first contact with Europeans had come at the age of ten, when a Church of Scotland mission treated his foot for jiggers. Fascinated with what he had seen during his recuperation, Kamau ran away from home to become a resident pupil at the mission. He studied the Bible, English, mathematics, and carpentry and paid his fees by working as a houseboy and cook for a European settler. In August 1914 he was baptized with the name Johnstone Kamau. He was one of the earliest of the Kikuyu to leave the confines of his own culture, and moved to Nairobi at an early age, where he found work as a clerk with the Public Works Department. After serving briefly as an interpreter in the High Court, Kenyatta transferred to a post with the Nairobi Town Council and began a family.
   Kenyatta was to remain away from Kenya until 1946, though spent his time extremely productively, travelling extensively throughout Europe (including two years spent at Moscow State University), and studied anthropology at the London School of Economics under Bronislaw Malinowski, which resulted in his unmatched book about the Kikuyu people, Facing Mount Kenya (1938).
   In his absence, the KCA grew to become the voice of an emerging Kikuyu consciousness, leading a wave of resistance to the forced sale of livestock to the government in the late 1930s, until it was officially banned in 1940. In the late 1930s the Kamba and Taita formed associations of their own that were similarly designed to serve tribal aims.

Yet the attitude of the British remained essentially unchanged. Better armed and economically all-powerful, they persisted in seeing the Kikuyu as little more than a passive work force, who should have been grateful for the limited education and enlightenment (through Christianity) that was being passed their way. This attitude was to last throughout most of the colonial period, until matters finally came to a head after the Second World War.

The Road towards Independence

By the end of Second World War, Kenya was a fully-fledged apartheid state. Many Kenyans had been turned into little more than 'squatters', living on European farms by providing poorly-waged labour, while women cultivated small land allotments for food to feed their families and sell in the local markets, worked on European coffee plantations, and coped with the burdens of raising their children with little or no money. Poor men lost their positions as heads of households, whilst others languished in poverty in the city of Nairobi and other towns, unable to find employment.
   Hundreds of thousands of other Kenyans were not even so lucky, and had been removed by the British to "Native Reserves" where they were prevented by law from producing coffee or tea in competition with the whites. The land in the reserves was usually poor and unsuitable for agriculture, the best having been taken for the Europeans: by 1945, 10,000 European settlers owned 43,000 square kilometres of the most fertile land, only 6 percent of which they cultivated. In the whole of Kenya, the African population of 5.25 million occupied, without ownership rights, less than 135,000 square kilometres of the poorest land.
   The lot of the landless Kikuyu (ahoi) became hopeless as they no longer had access to landowning patrons, could not find regular jobs for lack of skills, nor educate their children to the standard required by the colonial regime for waged employment. The destruction of traditional Kikuyu society was well underway.

Many of the African soldiers who returned from the Second World War were bitterly disappointed. They had fought for the British, they considered themselves as good as any other soldiers, and of course they had been fighting for freedom. Not their own, but that of France, Belgium, Holland and all the other Axis-occupied countries.
   But back in their own country, nothing had changed. They were not rewarded for their part in protecting Britain, they still found their land occupied by foreigners, they had little freedom, they were poor, racially abused and ignored, and were expected to get back to their rural lives in the reserves or as squatters as though nothing, indeed, had happened. And when they protested, through strikes or demonstrations in Nairobi, they were fired upon by the same people they had fought alongside in the war.
   As John Maina Kahihu, from the Mau Mau's political wing, said, "In 1942 we had fought for the British. But when we came home from the war they gave us nothing."

The settlers, for their part, felt themselves immune to the changing times. In the words of Willoughby Smith, a district officer in the Colonial Service from 1948 to 1955: "The settler knew a lot about how to use African labour. But he could not see what the use of that labour and the production of money was beginning to bring about. He could not see the political change."

Kenyatta and the Kenya African Union (KAU)

But something had changed, and not only the consciousness of the returning Kikuyu soldiers. The protest movements of the pre-war years had survived and flourished, and in 1944, Kenya's first genuine African nationalist organization - the Kenya African Union (KAU) - was formed, and promptly demanded access to the "White Highlands" - tantamount to demanding the end of colonization itself. At the same time, a similar process was occurring across the whole of the continent, as one by one the African countries demanded self-rule.
   At first, the KAU drew its support from the Kikuyu elite, but quickly began gathering support from the Kikuyu masses, believing that it was possible to consolidate their support through the administration of a oath (see the section on the Mau Mau). In the same period, Oginga Odinga formed Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation to help build a formidable economic base for the Luo struggles against the colonial establishment. Together with other popular organisations, such as North Kavirondo Central Association (NKCA) for the Kakamega Luhya; Ukamba Members Association; and Taita Hills Association, the struggle for decolonization considerably weakened the colonial state.

In late 1946 Jomo Kenyatta returned to Kenya as the unrivalled leader of the nationalist movement, and the following year was elected to the presidency of the KAU. It was Kenyatta's ambition to bring together the country's disparate political bodies into the KAU. To achieve this goal, Kenyatta proposed that the ethnic character of KAU leadership be broadened. In 1950, Oginga Odinga's Luo Thrift and Trading Corporation joined KAU, and by 1951, KAU membership had risen to 150,000 nationwide.


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