Colonial history not to blame for all our woes

Suspected freedom fighters
Suspected freedom fighters arrested in a crackdown on Mau Mau during the State of Emergency in the 1950s. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The colonisation of Kenya by Britain over a period of about 70 years had a great impact on our religion, culture, education and government. I have often argued that while we may be the sum total of our history, nevertheless we should not allow ourselves to be held hostage by the past.

European colonisation in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa was premised on the assumption that Africans did not have a developed religion, culture, education or indeed a structured form of government.

Initially, British officials believed that African societies were governed by chiefs, and thus they sought a leading figure within a community in order to rule through him.

Even as they came to realise that most Kenyan people of the first developments under British rule was the creation of chiefs as local agents of the administration. They did not have chiefs and were ruled through a council of elders, they retained the chieftainships as a convenient, if not necessary, instrument of local rule. They deemed it necessary to hold one man accountable, who could also be moulded and manipulated to serve their best interests.

Two other developments followed, namely the introduction of Western education and wage employment. Because these changes clashed with African traditions, they were instilled by the use of considerable force and methods such as punitive expeditions were employed to ensure compliance.


The British administration relied on missionaries to take education to the African.

The missionaries were willing agents as they also saw education as a tool to train catechists who would then teach and evangelise more Africans.

At first, Africans viewed Western education as a threat to their traditions but soon realised that it was the gateway to opportunities in the new economy based on money and waged employment.

In 1910, Ojijo Oteko led a strike in Maseno School calling for an academic curriculum like that in European schools, to replace the low-level skills training that was being taught to Africans. Later that year, Maseno was the first beneficiary of a formal academic curriculum.

From the beginning, the colonial government and settlers had a voracious appetite for African labour.

Settlers depended on cheap African labour rather than elaborate machinery to bring their estates under cultivation.

In order to control the mobility and price of labour the “Kipande” system was introduced in 1919.

Punitive hut and poll taxes were introduced to force African men into wage employment on European owned enterprises.

From 1920, Harry Thuku and others led protests against pathetic working conditions and low wages for Africans as well as forced labour for women in rural areas.


Just as the government established a framework of labour legislation following the protests led by Harry Thuku, in the same decade it created a more coherent education system which brought about the female circumcision controversy of 1929 in Kikuyuland.

Although from a purist point of view these events may not be considered nationalistic phenomena, they did disseminate anticolonial sentiment and extolled precolonial Kikuyu traditions in the face of mission and state assaults.

These were important developments in the growth of anticolonial nationalism, which led to the creation of African Independent Churches and Schools.

Africans became a force to reckon with in formulating policy. Although they did not wrest decision-making powers from their overlords, they forced Europeans to take their interests into account.

In the 1930s, African nationalism became entrenched around the issue of unfair alienation of land culminating in the Mau Mau insurrection in 1952.

The writing was on the wall and eventually, Kenya won her independence in 1963.

Without appearing to oversimplify history, these events show the indomitable Kenyan spirit with which we fought for justice in different forums during the colonial period.

At independence, we were thrust into a new era of opportunity.

Suddenly many of the trappings previously only available to Europeans were accessible to Africans — their plush jobs in management, schools, churches and social amenities. Ambitious resettlement schemes were put in place giving hope to the poor and landless. A new dawn was at hand.

However, through a process of elite fragmentation, political liberalisation and state informalisation from the late 1970s to date, we have spawned a state of inertia.


The initial stability after independence relied on the collusion of a range of elites which were gradually dismantled, leaving a gaping vacuum.

The state lost its monopoly on meting out violence. The processes of democratisation and reform can be undertaken simultaneously but they require to be supported by robust institutions at the national, county and I dare say the family levels.

We have lost that fighting spirit and to quote John Githongo, we are all looking for “our turn to eat”.

The virtues of truth, honesty, honour have long since been thrown out of the window. We lionise those who contribute large sums of money at harambees even when they are held in churches and we know that such monies are proceeds of dubious dealings.

Our children became accustomed to cheating in exams because they knew their parents would pay their way. We have lost our work ethic and rely on instant gratification to meet our needs.

Gambling has become a way of life and people are spending their entire salaries and borrowing to sustain the habit in the hope that one day they will make it big. Winners of lotteries are glamorised in the media, luring others into this game of chance.

The family unit has been eviscerated of a father figure because parents are away from home making money. When known merchants of corruption, theft and murder are arrested and taken to court they are released on easy bail terms and prosecutors cannot secure a conviction because smart lawyers obfuscate and use loopholes in the law.

Parliament does not offer any reprieve. Citizens feel hopeless and have nowhere to run for justice.

Are we our own worst enemies?