How Machakos woes began

The Akamba grew in numbers as did their cattle, while clearing new land for shifting cultivation of food crops and chopping down trees for fuel. FILE PHOTO | NMG
The Akamba grew in numbers as did their cattle, while clearing new land for shifting cultivation of food crops and chopping down trees for fuel. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Many times, people ask me how I select the subject of my weekly articles. My answer is usually, I don’t know, I am just inspired by different events, people or objects. This week I was inspired by a name I came across when researching my article on Delamere Flats last week. Ernst May, the architect who designed Delamere Flats worked with Erica Mann while he was drawing the plans for Oceanic Hotel in 1952.

Erica Mann was a town planner who played a major role in drawing masterplans for Nairobi, Mombasa and other towns in Kenya in the 1940s and 50s. Her husband, Igor Mann was a veterinarian who worked for Liebig’s canning factory at Athi River from 1942.

At this point I remembered that there was a connection between Liebig’s and the policeman Muindi Mbingu who led a group of 2,000 Kamba men, women and children in a demonstration from Ngelani to the governors office in Nairobi in 1938 advocating for their land rights in what had come to be known as the Machakos Problem. Voila, there was my subject!

In February 1937, Colin Maher wrote a report a report in which he stated: “The Machakos Reserve is an appalling example of a large area of land, which has been subjected to unco-ordinated and practically uncontrolled development by natives whose multiplication and the increase of whose livestock has been permitted, free from the checks of war and largely from those of disease, under benevolent British rule. Every phase of misuse of land is vividly and poignantly displayed in this reserve, the inhabitants of which are rapidly drifting to a state of hopeless and miserable poverty and their land to a parching desert of rocks, stones and sand.”

With this flowery language the blame for environmental degradation in the Machakos Reserve was placed squarely on the natives. In the event, the colonial government considered that the solution to the problem lay in de-stocking of the reserve to bring it down to the ideal carrying capacity of the land.

The real problem was rooted in the colonial history of Kenya. Areas reserved for European settlement known as Scheduled Areas or White Highlands bordered the Native Reserve on two sides, and the Kamba had consistently claimed that their grazing lands had been taken.

These grazing lands, though unsettled, had been important for the survival of the herds when the rains and pastures failed in the homelands.

On the other two sides, the Akamba were confronted by newly designated Crown Lands, whose use the government felt entitled to control, and which, in the south-east were so infested with tsetse fly as to be totally useless.

Completely encircled, the Akamba grew in numbers as did their cattle, while clearing new land for shifting cultivation of food crops and chopping down trees for fuel burning and construction of their houses.

The implications for management of dry lands should have been obvious, but the government, from the beginning was more concerned with political containment and European expansion and domination.

At the invitation of the Veterinary Department, a Southern Rhodesian company, Liebig’s, opened a canning factory at Athi River in 1937. Unable to operate profitably at prevailing market prices for cattle

Liebig’s threatened to close down unless it was guaranteed a cheap supply of animals, and it was supported by settlers who saw the plant as an outlet for their own stock and of course actively supported the de-stocking policy in the Machakos Reserve. In December 1937, the governor imposed a programme of forcible de-stocking in Machakos Reserve, with cattle to be sold at public auctions where “prices would be forced down to levels that Liebig’s could buy.”

De-stocking began in April 1938 and by July prompted the most dramatic fracturing of the “concordant of coexistence” of the prewar period, an outburst all the more striking and disturbing because it occurred among a people previously esteemed for their loyalty and the large number of recruits they supplied to the Kenya Police and the King’s African Rifles.

The forced sale of cattle directly threatened the wealth of precisely those Kamba who had responded most vigorously to the opportunities for accumulation through commodity production and trade in the reserve and did so in a manner which transferred their resources to European interests.

Between April and August 1938, some 22,500 Kamba cattle were sold at auction prices ranging between a quarter and a half of the prevailing market prices of which 7,000 went to Liebig’s, 9,000 to settlers for breeding or fattening, and no less than 50 to A.N. Bailward, the District Commissioner, Machakos. The glaring transformation of a policy ostensibly “in the best interests” of the Kamba into one directly serving the interests of Liebig’s and the settlers stripped away the Provincial Administration’s guise of benevolent arbiter.

In a petition to the Secretary of State in London, the Kamba directly attacked the low prices paid at the auctions and their use to supply Liebig’s stating “the policy of compelling even the poorest among us… contribute to the profits of a wealthy concern is not understood by us”.

The protests culminated in a mass march of Kamba from northern locations of Machakos to Nairobi where they camped for four weeks while demanding audience with the governor “because they had lost confidence in their chiefs and district commissioner”.

The colonial government eventually backed down and the de-stocking programme was abandoned in December 1938 but the authorities, wishing to re-assert their control, detained the leader of the protests, Muindi Mbingu in Lamu. Liebig’s was taken over by government in 1952 and became the Kenya Meat Commission.