Wednesday, December 18, 2013



Mwacha asili ni mtumwa -
He who renounces his ancestry is like a slave
Swahili proverb

Over the five hundred years since Europe began its process of world domination, the traditional societies and cultures of Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas, have suffered great and often violent and disastrous change. Far from being the 'civilizing' influence its apologists claim it to be, the European presence was often the most destructive event ever to have occurred among the people who came into contact with it.

The vast majority of such cultures simply did not survive the shock of the collision, whilst those that did lost much of their original traditions and ways of life, as well as their cosmologies - their conception of the universe, and of their place within it.

In Africa, it is these cosmologies which bind all peoples together, for ultimately the entire continent is interconnected - not only on the real level of people and trade, culture and beliefs, but also in supernatural and metaphysical terms. Everything is bound and connected, known and relativised... tales relate the lives of founders of lineages, tribes, civilisations and kingdoms; they relate encounters with spirits and supernatural forces, battles with them, kingly figures, ritual leaders, images of nature and people and the things known and unknown which held them together. The tales talk of dreams as much as they preserve the remembrance of the past in the form of oral history. They were a way of educating children. In short, the universe itself was explained, and known.

These last five centuries have witnessed the mass extinction of human cultures, each one of which was unique to the world. Each loss is irreversible, and only adds to the increasing impoverishment of mankind as a whole. Sadly, this process of change and destruction has only accelerated in the twentieth century, as the Europeans finally gave the world its formal independence.

The new cultural entities that resulted - nation states - are largely artificial creations whose boundaries were decided by European interests, invariably ignoring older boundaries that may have existed between various groups of peoples and cultures before the Europeans came. As a result, the new post-colonial nations often have no strong historical or cultural roots, for they are essentially European creations.

Economically, they are still largely controlled (or owned) by European or North American multinational corporations, on whom their crop markets depend, and on whose governments they rely for loans (to be paid back with swingeing interest) when things go wrong. This phenomenon is called neo-colonialism.

The new countries are also politically unstable, in part because the original political, social and judicial structures which ensured a degree of peace or status quo were long ago discarded; the new Western-style governments which have taken their place are easily corruptible, notably by those who can afford to pay: Western companies and governments. The end result, of course, is the colossal mess we know today, fed to us via news reports about civil wars, brutal dictatorships, embezzlement of entire nations' resources in Swiss bank accounts, coups d'etats, famines and epidemics, and the plight of isolated and powerless peoples such as the Ogoni of Nigeria and the Okiek of Kenya.

Meanwhile, who in power - political or economic - gives a damn about the people of these countries? The majority, certainly in Kenya, are now poorer in both money and material terms than they were immediately after independence. Culturally, their entire ways of life have been changed, from their sense of identity to their religions. And despite the best efforts of certain enlightened African scholars, leaders, and indeed some non-African organisations, the changes cannot be unmade.

Of Kenya's forty-two officially-recognised tribes (there are many more in reality), about half - roughly 70% of the population - have lost the majority of their traditional ways. By this, I mean that their essential cultural institutions have been almost entirely 'Westernized' - society, laws, religions, cultures, marriage customs, their economic mode of life, dress, and music.

Christianity is the most visible agent of change in Kenya, though ironically the religion has its roots in the colonial experience. It was used by European administrators to create an African elite - albeit one far beneath the rank and influence of the European settlers - which served the colonial administration in the form of clerks, policemen and minor officials.

Christianity was also used as a 'pacifying' influence, through which it was hoped that the 'natives' would recognise the moral superiority of the colonists, and so not oppose them. The Christian missionaries of course themselves believed in their own righteousness, and in their right to impose by hook or crook their cosmological views and values upon the locals. Sadly, too many such Church missions organised around the very same principles are still active today - their aim, as ever, to convert the 'pagan natives' to the Love of Jesus, at whatever cost. For more on this, see my contextual essay about Kenyan Religions & Beliefs.

The Colonial Experience

The east African Republic of Kenya is a young nation which did not even exist 150 years ago, and which only achieved its independence from the British in 1963, after a long and bloody struggle against its colonial oppressors.

It's a kind of irony that Kenya was not even conceived by Africans, but by European politicians, militarists, colonists and administrators at the end of the nineteenth century, who had between them agreed respective 'spheres of influence' in East Africa. This period, which is seen by historians as one of the crucial stages in the escalation of inter-European rivalry which ultimately led to the First World War, was called the 'Scramble for Africa'. In East Africa, Britain received control of what is now Kenya and Uganda; the Italians were given free rein in Abyssinia (Ethiopia and Somalia); and the new nation-state of Germany received the area to the south of Kenya, namely modern-day Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda.

Mount KilimanjaroAt no time in this period - or indeed throughout the seventy years of abusive colonialism which followed - was ever more than fleeting consideration given to the people who actually lived in East Africa, and whose lives were being turned upside-down by the Europeans.


The arrogant disregard shown by the new overlords was even set down in black and white in the form of Kenya's borders, which were determined not by the languages or distribution of its peoples, nor by their cultures or traditions, and not even by geography, but by military interests and even haphazard whimsy, which is how the southern border with Tanzania came to be defined.

The German Emperor Wilhelm I, who had been given control of what became Tanzania, very much wanted possession of Africa's highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. To appease his ego, the British (in the form of his grandmother, Queen Victoria) relented, and through the 1886 Anglo-German Agreement the otherwise straight border was drawn with a large kink around Kilimanjaro, so that the mountain was entirely included in German-controlled territory.

The period of colonialism which followed was a litany of abuse, oppression, fear and misrule. Although the British had spent much of the nineteenth century opposing slavery (after much pushing from the Anti-slavery Society), it became abundantly clear that as far as the government was concerned, this had been not so much for moral reasons as for financial, military and political gain: an opportunity to hit its rivals.

Within a decade of venturing into the Kenyan interior, vast tracts of Kenya's most fertile land were being stolen by the British for their own farms and estates.

The theft lasted for several more decades at the beginning of the twentieth century, and included the sacred mountains of Mount Kenya (Kirinyaga), Nyandarua (the Aberdare Range), much of the Rift Valley, the far west north of Nyanza (Lake Victoria), and over eighty percent of Maasai grazing lands. Access to the land was restricted by barbed wire fences and armed sentries, although some people were tolerated as 'squatters' (on their own lands!), so long as they agreed to spend part of their labours for the benefit of the new landowner.

To make way for these farms, millions of people were uprooted and forced to settle elsewhere, often in crowded 'Reserves' or 'protected villages' (nothing other than concentration camps) on inferior land controlled by the British, where the movements and activities of the 'natives' were severely restricted. As though losing their land and freedom was not enough, large numbers of livestock were also confiscated or forcibly sold by the colonial government, ostensibly to prevent overstocking (logically, in a Machiavellian sense, for most of the land had been stolen), but in reality to protect the investment of the new European ranches.

Other Africans were forced into the urban labour markets of cities such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru to become dependant on the cash economy (if they were lucky enough to avoid unemployment), whilst others were conscripted into the army to fight in the white men's wars, notably in the First World War.

Others were simply taken from their homes and used as forced labour, and were whipped, beaten or imprisoned if they refused or attempted to escape. And if an entire village was unlucky enough to have chosen to oppose the colonial government, they were brutally 'pacified' by military patrols, who seemed happy to massacre entire villages in their mission to quell 'dissent'. Needless to say, never was a penny in compensation ever paid to those dispossessed by the new order, unless one counts the farcical 'land treaties' by which some embattled local leaders were obliged to cede control of their land for a pittance.

Colonisation was officially-sanctioned theft on an unimaginably large scale - that of entire peoples and, ultimately, of their cultures. Needless to say, the British did not see it that way. They convinced themselves that people who wore skins, who lived in 'mud huts', who used bows and arrows, and who perhaps worshipped their ancestors and dozens of spirits - in short, a people whom they did not understand - were nothing other than 'savage' or 'primitive'. I have a 1934 book called 'The Story of the World in Pictures', which refers to the Kikuyu as 'Middle Barbarians', yet even this is something of a complement given that that accolade was four ranks higher than the status of 'Lower Savage' accorded the Vedda of Sri Lanka, among others.

These savages and barbarians, the Europeans believed, certainly could not have developed the supposedly advanced notion of land ownership; therefore, they thought, all the land in Kenya was rightfully theirs to take.

Apart from such twisted and racist logic, also helping the colonists smooth away their guilt and doubts, if such guilt and doubts ever existed, were the Christian missionaries who followed them, and who had in many parts actually preceded the establishment of the colony, paving the way for a more efficient conquest. From the coast to the far west of the country, they went loudly proclaiming the heathen status of the natives, or worse: some tribes were accused of devil worship, others of worshipping multiple gods or ancestors. All these preconceptions, needless to say, were completely false, and arose both out of utter ignorance as well as simple racism.

Of course, there was nothing more primitive than the British point of view itself - its disregard for entire peoples, traditions, lands and customs; its persistent misinterpretation of facts to suit their own purposes; the unwillingness of the British to consider Africans as equals; their racism; their views that Africans were 'heathens'... The only really dark thing about the continent was the European's ignorance of it: as the Nigerian author Chinweizu wrote in his short poem "Colonizer's Logic":

These natives are unintelligent -
We can't understand their language.

No comments: