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Identities in Transition: The Violent Path to Decolonization in Kenya

Identities in Transition: The Violent Path to Decolonization in Kenya

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Published by: amanda_sperber on Jan 23, 2012
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Dr. Joanna LewisIn his seminal work,
 Pedagogy of the Oppressed 
, Paulo Freire says thatcolonialism is a system of domination that ultimately restricts both parties involved: thesubjugators and the subjugated. The dehumanizing aspects of this unnatural structuremean the colonizers and the colonized are in a constant crisis of identity. The existentialdifficulties implicit in Friere’s argument on the human impact of colonialism aregrounded in context with “Concerning Violence” from Frantz Fanon’s
The Wretched of the Earth
. Here, Fanon explains that decolonization is an inherently violent process because it involves a forced transition (27). Freire’s and Fanon’s understandings are verymuch related as decolonization involves redefining one’s place in a preset socialhierarchy.The violent path to decolonization in Kenya illustrates the tensions of identities intransition. A lethal combination of social, political and economic factors festered andcame to a head causing the 1952 State of Emergency and the heavy-handed Britishcounterinsurgency. This paper looks at the various social, political and economic factorsthat made the path to decolonization in Kenya so violent through the lens of the crisis of identity the forced social structure colonialism imposes. The paper, moreover, focuses onthe factors that caused the state of Emergency and the severe British response. Thishastened the end of colonial rule, as it created a split between the white settler communityand the metropole.The British governing style of divide and rule separated the Kikuyu communities.This division and the internal debate about identity that it incited was a factor in much of the intense African-on-African violence that began before, and continued after theEmergency. As David Anderson notes, less than 300 British civilians and soldiers werekilled throughout the entire conflict as compared to the more than 1,800 African civilians
murdered by Mau Mau (4).
Bruce Berman says, “The impact of colonial capitalism andthe colonial state hit the Kikuyu with greater force and effect than any other of Kenya’s peoples, setting off new processes of differentiation and class formation” (196). TheBritish allocated control to a few African chiefs who had power and privilege, and benefitted from their loyalty to the crown (Berman 197).Charles Tilly offers a sound analysis on the social implications this type of governance has on communities. He cites “opportunity hoarding” as a key potentialfactor in collective violence- a relational apparatus that promotes and sustains an array of inequalities within a group. “Opportunity hoarding operates when members of acategorically bounded network acquire access to a resource that is valuable, renewable,subject to monopoly, supportive of network activities and enhanced by the network’smodus operandi” (10). Due to the system of indirect rule, the Kikuyu people weredivided between a wealthy politically connected minority and a poor, disempoweredmajority (Berman 196). In “Mau Mau’s of the Mind,” John Lonsdale describes theKikuyu as “increasingly, a divided and mutually hostile people” (395). This schismgenerated not only a sense of bitterness within the group, but created a crisis of identityabout what it meant to be a Kikuyu. The British missions’ campaign against the Kikuyutradition of clitoridectomy further widened the gap in the community, some KikuyuChristians left the churches and mission schools and created their own KikuyuIndependent Schools Association (Anderson 19-20).Mau Mau murdered a number of high-profile African Loyalist Chiefs. The mostinfamous case being the 1952 massacre at Lari during which approximately 70 KikuyuChiefs were killed. The African Home Guard retaliated, killing almost two people for every one killed by Mau Mau (Anderson 126-133). Cases of local score settling occurredonce the British declared a state of Emergency and removed the Kikuyu to camps for interrogation. Loyalists participated in screening operations and were provided theopportunity to identify old enemies, torture prisoners and take their land (Elkins 69).
This number does not include the rebel losses at the hands of the British. Officialfigures have the total number of Mau Mau killed at around 12,000 but Andersonthinks the actual figure is more like 20,000 (Anderson 4).
Another social factor that affected the violent path to decolonization in Kenya wasthe British Victorian racist view of Africans. Long-held racial understandings are one of the explanations for the British counterinsurgency’s brutal treatment of Mau Mau and theKikuyu people. The British empire was united in their so-called liberal opinion that partof their duty in Africa was to bring light to the backwards, savage Dark Continent (Elkins5). One of the goals of colonialism was the “civilizing” aspect of the missions andimplicit in this is the paternalistic view that one race is superior to another. Many eventhought because Africans were a primitive and savage people, more force was necessaryin order to make a point and restore order (Vandervort 210). Because the British didn’tsee Africans as equals, their treatment of them in response to the insurgency was in kind.The Mau Mau oathing process and the violent way they killed their victims,generally by hacking them to death, added to the view that Mau Mau were even moresavage than most Africans (Elkins 113). The oathing procedure, with symbols includinggoat’s blood, ram intestines and eyeballs was used to solidify political allegiance in adivided and tense time (Lonsdale 399). The process emphasized what the British saw asthe primal African nature and added to the extreme counterinsurgent response (Elkins47). Berman explains that throughout the years of the Emergency into the first years of Kenya’s independence the British ignored the economic and political issues Mau Mauwere reacting to, and chose to view the rebel group through an essentialist lens, seeing itstrictly as a primitive cult (182).Before the Emergency in Kenya approximately 29,000 European settlers lived ina colony with about 5 million Africans (Anderson 9). Living as a white minority in acolony and exploiting a black majority generally viewed as barely human causes a stateof constant tension. This worsened and came to a head when stories (often exaggerated)about Mau Mau spread (Lewis). The fear of a ferocious, atavistic cult drove settlers intoa state of terror (Elkins 47). Convincing the officials of colonial Kenya that Mau Mauwas an “evil” group empowered the British and African Loyalists to legitimize the cruelguerrilla response they orchestrated (Berman 192).The extensive reaction to the Mau Mau guerilla attacks was enacted through aseries of large-scale military operations. Bombing and acts of mass retaliation wereorganized (Lewis). In addition, Kikuyu were forcefully rounded up, taken to enclosed

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