Readings on British Colonialism in Kenya

Kikuyu women Harry Thuku Harry Thuku helped found the Young Kikuyu Association, an anti-colonial group. While reading this article, consider how women were oppressed by colonialism.

maintenance of law and order What does law and order mean in the colonial context? Who is order for?

Crises of Accumulation The first several pages of this article are a tough read. But pages 61-81 give a very helpful discussion of the political economy of colonialism, and the role of the state in ensuring the necessary labor to promote production.

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12 Responses to Readings on British Colonialism in Kenya

  1. Leslie says:

    In the article about the Thuku riot, I was struck by the similarities between Mary Nyanjiru’s actions in 1922 Kenya and Leymah Gbowee’s actions in 2003 Ghana, where peace talks were occurring regarding the civil war in Liberia. The article said Nyanjiru lifted her skirt over her shoulders, which “resembles the strongest insult—a form of curse” by “displaying of one’s genitals to the person or thing being cursed.” Gbowee used a similar tactic when security attempted to arrest her for staging a sit-in that protested the lack of progress following six weeks of peace talks; instead of leaving with the arresting officers, Gbowee began undressing and said all the women at the sit-in would also undress unless serious negotiations to end the civil war in Liberia began. Gbowee has recognized that the reason she chose to begin undressing is because it is still seen as a curse in Africa. Her tactic was successful, and two weeks later a peace agreement was signed.

    I had the opportunity to view a screening of the documentary that tells Gbowee’s story, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” and Gbowee actually spoke at the event. Seeing what these women did in Liberia to bring peace to their country was inspirational. This article shows that women have been involved in social change movements for a very long time, probably in every social change movement, but their roles are often undocumented and forgotten. I really enjoyed this article because it gave a voice to the power of women. I also loved that the same tactic was used more than 80 years apart! I think we sometimes believe that we have to come up with a “new” way to instigate change or show our dissatisfaction with the status quo. However, the actions of Nyanjiru and Gbowee show that sometimes, you don’t have to reinvent the social change wheel!

    Ps: If you haven’t seen “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” but want to learn more, here is a nice a fact sheet/viewing guide for the movie: http://cdn.itvs.org/pray_the_devil_discussion.pdf

  2. Dylan P. says:

    The concept of kipande was really fascinating, especially in its similarities to Jim Crow and the institutional racism in the United Statesthat we have been discussing. Citizens were forced to register once they reached working age, and then basically any action or offense that was detrimental or counterproductive to labor needs at that particular time were made illegal and subject to fines or other punishments. Such treatment was created due to the intense need of such coercive labor to maintain the rapid growth of economic structures and infrastructure. The treatment was allowed to continue because of the coercion and manipulation of certain segments of society, which were reshaped to serve the needs of production.
    There was also significant impact of kipande on the paternalism of administration and the stratification of Kenya society. The theory of this kind of labor was justified as helping the people, but served to turn tribal leaders into enforcers of labor laws and subjugators of the proletarian masses. The legal recourse for businessmen to keep track of laborers reaches particular significance in the Wipper piece, as women are even more powerless than the men to fight against what is somewhere between wage slavery, social coercion, and human trafficking.
    What I find really interesting is the subtextual implication that in someway the kipande contributed to the empowerment of women in Kenya. The power of women derived from their agricultural work and its contribution and aid to the power of the family. As the ability of men to gain prestige and money through labor was stifled it seems that women gained more leverage to pursue their own political and social agendas.

  3. Katie Milligan says:

    Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy

    During the reading of this article, I was drawn to the issues surrounding female roles and expectations in relation to the atrocities committed against them. Femininity, virginity, and traditional female roles are defined and reinforced primarily by male dominance in society. These same “values” are tainted through the act of rape. While in Kenya it was through pregnancy out of wedlock, even more recent acts of violence and torture towards women can be found worldwide. The situation in the Darfur region seemed to have similarities in regards to scapegoating and placing blame on victims of atrocities. While Christian-educated Kenyans placed an unfair stigma on the women impregnated by those in power, Muslims in Darfur did the same thing with those raped by the Janjaweed. The “morality” of sexuality, virginity, and femininity are drastically hindering the ability of African women to get access to critical care and help; they are instead labeled, ostracized, and made fearful for their well-being and ability to lead happy and successful lives.
    On a very watered-down scale, the same battles regarding femininity, virginity, and “morals” are being waged in our own country through the fight for birth control and the promotion of women and women’s sexuality in society. The fight for sovereignty over one’s body and sexual health is obviously a historical battle.
    One thing I think the article fails to do is show the true strength, courage, and determination that these women endured to get Thuku out of jail and to provide for their families on a daily basis. These women knew they were taking their own lives in their hands every day they went to work. They knew they were playing a dangerous game, and yet they did it anyway. The article could have done a better job of emphasizing how much courage the riot and daily activities required.

  4. Trish says:

    Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy- Audry Wipper

    Laurel Ulrich urges us that, “ Well-behaved women seldom make history”. The story of Harry Thuku and the mostly nameless Kikuyu women who resisted human rights abuses in the form of forced labor and sexual exploitation certainly proves this to be true. As I reflect on the marginalization of the contributions to human history made by women, as evidenced by the fact that this story of the Kikuyu women and literally countless other instances of leadership at the hands of women go unmentioned in our children’s textbooks, I am so grateful to have readings like this on our list.

    While many of the movements involving or led by women go unmentioned in mainstream historical rhetoric and scholarship, Wipper highlights the many commonalities of women’s political movements and identifies some fantastically unique strategies employed by the Kikuyu women. The discussion of this resistance movement must include the public and formal leadership and heroism of Harry Thuku, the frequently arrested male leader of the campaign to end forced labor and oppressive policies towards women and children in Kenya. Due to Thuku’s brave refusal to accept such policies and through the support of Kikuyu women, oppressive labor policies and practices of the British supported local chiefs were brought to light and mollified over time. Even under threat of banishment, women supported Thuku in his resistance of oppression.

    From Thuku’s perspective as a member of the Kikuyu tribe, influenced heavily by Christian missionary schooling, the use of women as an exploitable labor source was admonished by both his cultural and formative, moral influences. Generally, Kikuyu men were against “their” women working under forced labor conditions and would therefore support Thuku’s protest. I wonder if this perspective, in and of itself, has sexist undertones? Were the Kikuyu and Christian perspectives oppressive in thought rather than body by insisting in confining female sexuality to cultural taboos and religious agendas? The Kikuyu women protestors would probably argue that they were most concerned with their personal safety and equality under forced labor conditions, placing, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, cultural etiquette below physical survival! Wipper points out that various critics of the resistance claimed that most of the women protesting were prostitutes. As distasteful as this information seems at first glance, consider what this indicates about gender roles and values. The ironic reality is that it is highly likely that many of the activists, as empowered, independent women, were prostitutes able to be 1) self-employed 2) property owners and 3) stakeholders in equitable political and economic policies.

    Following an arrest of Thuku, leading to the murder of 21 Kenyans by the police, the culprits of this confrontation were considered to be the ‘excitable women’ present at the protest. Wipper suggests that this was an act of scapegoating in order to maintain order and belittle the movement, yet there is good reason to believe that there were women actively agitating the resistance at that point. Although women weren’t allowed to be members of Thuku’s East African Association at this point, many did sign an oath the night before this particular incident, raising their commitment and consciousness of the movement.

    As it turns out, like in so many other stories of gender inequity, while women are publicly hidden or dismissed as second to their male “guardians”, it is the woman who actually provides the societal infrastructure not only through child rearing but through physically tending to agricultural duties, organizing exchanges like marriages in order to sustain cultural tradition, to name a few. The Kikuyu women employed various tactics to make their arguments heard. They were able to capitalize on boycotts, strikes, and protests in addition to cultural normative insults such as resistance songs, invocating the curses associated with the scratching of the buttock and displaying genitals. These women couldn’t and probably wouldn’t fight oppression with oppression; rather they fought oppression by utilizing the tools available to them, cultural sensitivities and by flipping gender taboos on their head! What is even more profound is that while the women, in solidarity with Harry Thuku, brought attention to their cause, yielding positive results in policy change, they were not then and still struggle to be rewarded for such heroism and diligence in progressing humankind.

  5. Matt Lyon says:

    It was interesting seeing the common trends of African Bourgeois and Indian Bourgeois, the chosen few natives who became the mouthpiece of the colonizers. They were seen as ‘white men’s dogs’ by their subordinates. I also found interesting how the land was obtained in the first place. Apparently, both the British and the Germans were interested in the area now known as Kenya. The British had already had a presence, but the Germans arrived and threatened all-out war to claim the land. The British then had to talk the Germans off the ledge and they agreed to a land-share deal. So, in the shadow of German warships, the British coerced Sultan Barghash to relinquish control of his sovereign territory, leaving him with a ten-mile strip of coastline. The carve-up of territory between the Brits and Germans thereafter remains the border between Kenya and Tanzania today. I find this preposterous. Under what delusion was European colonialism rationalized as anything but land-grabbing, war-mongering, and outright thuggish thievery? I don’t want to blow this out of proportion, but the question remains: If a civilization comes into power through illegitimate means, can it ever been seen as valid? If no, how are we, as Westerners, to move forward after colonialism, slave-trade, manifest destiny, etc. If yes, how long must the civilization’s ‘penance’ last?

  6. Mark Eastham says:

    “The Maintenance of Law and Order in British Colonial Africa” David Killingray

    Killingray begins the article by stating that colonial government was based on two pillars. These pillars are the maintenance of law and order to uphold the authority of the administration and the collection of adequate revenue with which to finance the running of the colony. The latter, the author feels, has been studied to a far greater degree than the former. Law and order in British held territories provides an interesting study because it was implemented by, what Killingray calls, the “traditional elite.” In this way, the British used customary law to maintain authorities that were traditional and that they supported. This meaning that law and order was maintained and controlled indirectly by the British through the local elite. The author goes on to state that British colonial rule actually maintained peace in its colonies, as compared to the, “often violent conditions that prevailed before.” I found it interesting when the author spoke about the use of force in British held territories. He mentions that armed force stood behind rulers put in place by the British, but it was rarely used. In addition, if force was used, it was usually looked at a failure on the part of the colonialists. Killingray notes that, “a European official with a walking stick and a few policemen was sufficient, so many believed, to ensure that law was obeyed.” This made me think of my time in Africa, living in Malawi and Kenya. These were two different colonial administrations that were ruled by the British. Malawi used to be part of the Federation of Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe). Of these former protectorates, Malawi and Zambia have experienced relative peace after colonization. On the other hand, settler colonies such as Zimbabwe and Kenya both had rough experiences with decolonization, partly due to the higher presence of colonial settlers in the region. Related to this, Killingray shows the reader that areas of high colonial presence were policed more, and areas in the countryside, away from the main lines of communication, were, “hit or miss” in reference to policing. I feel this is symbolic of British decolonization as a whole. Malawi, other colonies, and protectorates, with fewer British settlers, experienced smoother transitions to independence than colonies with higher numbers of colonial settlers – there were likely more “policemen” in these states.

    • Papy says:

      Mark, I like your reaction on “The maintenance of Law and Order In British Colonial Africa.” There was customary Law in Kenya likewise in other African countries, but the law was only accepted on the condition that it did not conflict with the basic principles of British Law, which were in any case considered superior on a presumed evolutionary scale of legitimate legality. What was accepted as the native African legal tradition was fundamentally a British invention, probably having more sense of reality in the minds of the British rulers only than actually in the mind of Africans themeselves. British didn’t maintain neither law nor order in Kenya at all, except for political control and economic exploitation. A you can read in Audrey Wipper’s “Kikuyu women and the Harry Disturbances” about women and girls labor issues, riots, public unrest, etc.
      The history of any colonialism in any occupied country was always entailed an alien imposition of power and a mixer of political and economic interests.

  7. Andrea says:

    The Maintenance of Law and Order in British Colonial Africa by David Killingray

    The author discussed the dual system of laws that developed in colonized nations. These systems were the “alien laws” and the “customary laws.” At the root of many of these alien laws was economics, and a motivation to protect Europeans in colonized areas. The colonizers did figure out if they got the “traditional rulers” on their side, they would have even more power and control. Some of these “traditional rulers” exploited their power and created hostility within many parts of Africa. This practice clearly created two worlds for African citizens who were colonized.

    It is difficult to imagine going from a traditional system of governance to one imposed by strangers who know nothing about a culture or customs. Not only is this system hard to imagine, it is also hard to imagine that these same colonizers wanted African citizens to serve as police in their administration and be the “ears and eyes of the white administration.” I can see how this practice could cause major rifts in communities.

    The author also discusses how the colonizers fear of rebellion led to the “Women’s War” and strict gun laws, for example. When the women in Aba stood up to colonial rule, they were killed by army firing squads. These brave women took a stand and it cost them their lives. The actions of the firing squad sent a clear message to others who opposed colonial rule. Additionally, the colonizers enacted laws that restricted the import and sale of firearms and gunpowder in sub-Saharan Africa. This was done to maintain and protect colonial rule. These acts led me to believe that some of the colonizers lived with fear and wanted to do what they could to maintain their power.

    This was an interesting read. I am interested in exploring what kind of postcolonial government was established in African countries that are currently war torn.

  8. Britney Sink says:

    In Audry Wipper’s article “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy,” one of the most interesting aspects was the section on recorded accounts of what happened during the riot that day. The author puts emphasis on the sections that suggested women to be the main perpetrators of standing ground to assert that the women may have been the scapegoats for the violence that ensued. This may be true, but it could also be accurate that the women did stand up and declare the men to be cowards. In my opinion, this is not necessarily bad, but rather empowering. Is the author calling out the men’s recollections because of their framing of the women who took charge, or the act itself? Another reason, in addition to the tax rate, forced labor and detention the riot was based on, that the women may have felt the need to act in solidarity against the imprisonment of Thuku could be that they were given no power to negotiate and thus decided to push back. The delegation of 6 men, as the author mentions, could only represent so many of the protestors, and those not most affected by Thuku’s imprisonment. He was actively seeking a better situation for women, so is it not possible that they felt desperate to force his release, whereas men might more easily back down?

    Later on in the article, Wipper mentions that women pushed back and forced change through the use of public humiliation. The one named woman in the riot, Mary, insulted the men, which forced them to assess their actions and decide whether to remain or back down. Public humiliation adds an element to one’s decision-making process through the lens of what other people will think of certain actions. The use of status degradation ceremonies achieved this end for women in other circumstances. Men were publicly humiliated for their actions and consequently changed them. However, does this change come solely from a place of anxiety over status and appearance, or a true, if somewhat limited, understanding that their actions were “wrong” in the first place?

  9. Mitchell Adams says:

    Law and Order:

    The aspect I took away from “The Maintenance of Law and Order in British Colonial Kenya” is that, though colonized countries are extremely different, the colonization process affected them similarly in some key areas. For example, Kenya and India are two extremely different countries. The culture of both places, their resources, and their system of government were, and are, very different. However, the conception of law and order in the countries, while they were being colonized, was similarly impacted by the import of British structures. Just as the administrative system installed by the British affected India by stratifying the country, the British administrative system served to cause social tension in Kenya. With this system came the transition from traditional power structures to those of British colonial governance. Similarly to in India, this meant that the Kenyan people would face having to comply with British laws while attempting to live by long held beliefs and structures. The British style of colonialism may have been implemented in very different countries, but it caused many similar problems wherever it was installed.

  10. Nathan says:

    In Kenya the Kipande was an identity document required for African males above the age 15. The strict requirements for carrying the Kipande and the some would say invasive personal information in it reminded me of the new Arizona immigration law that was passed recently. That law required every immigrant to have their passport and carry all of their documentation at all times. That law also made it legal for police officers to stop immigrants without any probable cause. Though the courts eventually struck down several parts of that law, some of it still stands today. There have been other instances of similar laws in the United States, but most of them were based in Jim Crow laws before the civil rights struggle reached its peak in the 1960s. It’s alarming that something as unjust as the Kipande could have an equivalent in the modern day United States. Granted, there are some important differences. The Kipande was made by the British, the foreign occupiers, for the natural citizens of Kenya. The law in Arizona was made by the natural citizens for those that come into the country. Still, the similarities are striking, and it shows a serious regression in policy.

  11. Kikuyu Women and The Harry Thuku Disturbances

    The article is about Harry Thuku’s Riot in Kenya in 1922 and the influence that Kikuyu women had in the protests.
    The author offers a set of working hypothesis that are intended to justify why and how country based pre-colonial and colonial structures favored that role of women at the forefront of uprisings.
    Finally the author establishes a parallel between Kikuyu’s women militancy and other tribes in West Africa in similar colonial and male dominant societies.
    Harry Thuku , founder of the Young Kikuyu Association (EEA) based his activism on his own family conservative experience (The Knapps of the Gospel Mission). He observed the exploitation perpetrated by the colonial establishment on women and children, and how the British manipulated the traditional patriarchic structures of the natives. His greatest concern was forced labor and sexual exploitation of women. His community organizing and defiance of the colonial rule led him to his arrest.
    Kikuyu women supported Thuku and hold him credit for promoting civil resistance against District Commissioners, challenging the male dominating structure of the Chiefs Councils. Ideologically Thuku was a Christian who never let the Kin. He is credited for being the first African leader to effectively challenge the “protective environment of tribal ways and male authority” while simultaneously turning that against the colonial authority.
    The displacement of women by Labour Circular Nr 1and the government taxation over wage employment were at the core of African subjugation according to Thuku.
    The Chiefs were forcefully engaged by the British to recruit and oversee the operations of communal labor and more nepotism was waived against the weaker.
    Thuku’s social conscience reflects in many ways his own experience among the missionaries. In fact his own protests saw resonance in many clergyman, such as the Bishop of Zanzibar that denounced this form of covered up enslavement, and that startled the real debate back in Britain, leading to the 1923 Masters and Servants Ordinance.
    Upon his arrest, Thuku had mobilized a crowd in his support, including several women. Women resisted repeated orders to disperse and taunted their male counterparts with native symbolisms. This whole episode is rich in folklore, women rights struggle and anti colonial resistance.
    The author claims that crowd interaction was less organized then the British say it was. Particularly questionable is their involvement with men’s leadership. This is even more true for these women who escaped the oppression of customary law and were free entrepreneurs in “free town air”. The author explores that avenue of the oath and the lodge or “secret meeting of dames”(kiama kia kia), but again that behavior may not have been as decisive to the outcomes as were other more traditional forms of cooperation among women that go further back in time.
    The reasons presented by the author about women’s support to Thuku are not necessarily related to Thuku’s political objectives. The author forwards two possible approaches like Ross, with an economic argument (money making ability equal or surpassing that of men) and the other argument is the city plan to demolish their homes.
    The basic idea seems to be that male dominated society as it were with the Kikuyu was discredited by women, at least, many years before colonial dominance. These were just isolated episodes that showed an opportunity to extrapolate repressed emotions. The author recognizes that forced labor created a window of opportunity for women to challenge authority, the same way taxation did not do the same for male Kikuyu. Kikuyu, Anlu, Kom or Igbo women’s militancy might be an overstatement from a native’s point of view, because women never acted out of place. According to their tradition they were allowed to show contempt and obscene lack of respect for male weaknesses in public. An example given was the Kom and Igbo indecent dance and property damage to an offender’s compound.
    The difference here seems to be that this was a different public setting: in the occupier’s public eye.
    The onerous tasks of working on government projects and on settler’s farms imposed by the Northey Circular only exacerbated the women’s contempt for how low the local chiefs actually went, therefore they felt compelled to ridicule them.
    In conclusion, these protests were historic patterns, whether they became more assertive after the passage from pre colonial relative egalitarianism to colonial occupation, the passage from the rule of customary law to self entrepreneurship or inherent ethnic vitality, the fact is that women did get the support of many chiefs and some missionaries that helped women change the course of action.

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