The British Empire Library

Bwana Karani

by Mervyn Maciel

Bwana Karani is an autobiographical account of the life and career of Mervyn Maciel in Kenya stretching throughout the post-war period until just beyond Kenyan Independence. It is an eloquently told story that casts light on an interesting branch (indeed branches) of colonial government in a period of rapid and fundamental change for the institution. What makes this book so intriguing is the perspective of the author. Nearly everyone who has ever worked in any reasonably sized organisation knows that if you really want to know what is truly going on in that institution, you ask the secretary. The secretaries of this world move seamlessly between the decision makers at the top and those who have to implement those decisions below. They see a constant flow of information and have their finger on the pulse of activity more than pretty much anyone else in the organisation. Now, although the author was no simple secretary, his career in the Provincial Administration in Kenya undertook many of the roles that might have been found in a secretariat or in any bureaucracy. He also lived and worked in a variety of stations throughout the colony including in the restricted area of the Northern Frontier District along the hostile and disputed borders to the north of the colony. Consequently, Mervyn Maciel's book gives a fascinating insight into the inner workings of colonial administration and allows the reader to also chart its changes and reforms from within the nearly two decades of the author's service. Additionally, as you track the author's career you begin to appreciate just how diverse the responsibilities for these servants of Empire could be. It should also be pointed out that the final couple of chapters also refer to his time in the Ministry of Agriculture on the cusp of Kenyan Independence providing yet another perspective into a key colonial department.

This book also provides something of an insight into how the Goan community came to play such an fundamental role in imperial government in the mid-twentieth century. The author himself was born in East Africa to Goan parents. His father worked for the colonial government and was well respected for his work ethic and professionalism. The author himself was sent to Goa with his brothers for their education. Sadly, the author was orphaned at a young age when his mother died in East Africa and his father was killed by a Japanese submarine whilst travelling between Bombay and Mombasa in 1942. As his father had effectively died on active service, a small pension was paid to the surviving family. Furthermore, when the author graduated from school, a letter to his father's old boss for a position in the Provincial Administration was looked on favourably thanks largely to the high regard his father had been held in. This is also the first hint that the colonial service could be far more humane than is often appreciated. In fact, the overwhelming picture built up throughout this book, often subliminally, is how reasonable and responsive the imperial bureaucracy could indeed be. Although it was certainly still largely constrained by a racial hierarchy of Europeans first, Asians second and Africans third. Still, it seems as if the new breed of post-war colonial bureaucrats were often conscious of the difficulties and challenges faced by its Asian and African employees and they seemed to frequently bend or break the rules as ideas of equality and respect slowly permeated through the system. The Provincial Administration may well have appeared to the outside world to have been a faceless bureaucracy, but it seems that reasonable requests were often followed up, medical emergencies, such as those experienced by the author's own family, saw planes, doctors and transport put at the disposal of their employees. Indeed, requests for expenses for hospital or travel seem to have been met even if certain bureaucratic hoops were jumped through first. There is an air of teamwork and being on the same side that textbooks about imperial bureaucracy might well miss or underplay. It is all too easy to cast any civil service as an unfeeling and cold institution but the Kenyan Provincial Administration seems to have been full of people willing to help each other's careers, write supporting letters in disputes or references for new positions and to keep in touch with one another even when scattered hither and thither as they invariably were.

If anything, I would say that this book is a book about communities. Whether it is the formidable Goan community in East Africa or religious or regional or professional communities, this is a book about groups of people helping and supporting one another. As far as the Goan community is concerned they seem to have had a remarkable network spread throughout East Africa and back across the Indian Ocean. It seems as if the author never made a journey without staying at a myriad of friends' or cousins' or workmates' houses en route. Every settlement seems to have had a Goan club or institute of some kind which provided an important social venue and where any member of the Goan community could be sure of a welcome and almost certainly know some of the members by name or by referral from friends and family. Another community that overlaps with the author's Goan ancestry is that of the Catholic faith. Having been a Portuguese colony for many centuries, Catholicism came to play a central role for the Goan community as well as for some of the European colonists in East Africa. Sadly for the author's family, tragedy struck when a child of theirs died in Kenya of a congenital heart condition and was touchingly buried in a Catholic mission in a plot normally reserved for missionaries. The importance of faith for the author and the Goan community in general is made clear in this book. I am sure this faith goes some way to explaining why the British felt at ease with the Goan community whose morals, conscientiousness, work ethic and ideas of service melded perfectly with what the imperial bureaucracy required. Of course, the various communities could and did exist in isolation from one another as Europeans attended their own clubs and lived in better quality housing and were often paid higher salaries for jobs of commensurate difficulty. Although even in this case, the book illustrates that these barriers began to be slowly broken down as the colony headed towards independence and fresh more forward looking ideas travelled to Kenya from Britain by the new breed of colonial servant. One example of this is provided when the author was finally allocated European style accommodation, after some hectoring, whilst working for the Agricultural Ministry. Change may have been slow and incremental, but this book shows that it was occurring steadily.

The book makes it clear that the author's heart was very much in the wilds and open expanses of Northern Kenya in particular and the Northern Frontier District (NFD) in particular. This region was a restricted zone with harsh climactic conditions, disputed borders and hardy tribes people. Despite, or perhaps because of, these traits, the author seems to have appreciated the extra responsibilities and the simple honesty of the people he had to work with and live amongst there. It seems as if the NFD personnel really did regard themselves as something of an elite within the Provincial Administration and their pay and promotion prospects seemed to reflect that fact. In fact, they almost lived a world apart from the rest of the colony as they might refer to travelling to and from 'Kenya' despite still being in the colony! They also had to literally be self-sufficient provisions-wise as supplies could be intermittent at best and so stockpiling of food and drink was an important part of life. It appears that the Asian staff being given kerosene refrigerators in the NFD was something of an important landmark on the long road to equality within the colonial service as was the assigning of the Goan staff to safaris for the first time. Previously, the Goan administrators had largely been confined to working in the hot and stuffy offices with few opportunities to get out and about. Having said that, it appears that the NFD authorities were more liberal than most and had allowed the Goan staff to visit Lake Rudolf and relax away from the stuffy climactic conditions of the northern plains and provided transport and accommodation on a fairly regular basis. Being a restricted zone meant that there were few visitors and virtually no tourists to the region whatsoever. It was also an overwhelmingly male preserve. However, this isolation also meant that it was an ideal location for the authorities to move the most high profile political opponents which turned into something of a flood during the Mau Mau emergency. It does appear that the author missed much of the worst aspects of the Mau Mau emergency due to his posting to the NFD and so most of his interaction was helping with the administration of these prisoners. It does not appear that the staff were overly concerned with attacks and security largely due to the fact that the tribes people in this zone had little in common or in sympathy with the largely Kikuyu inspired Mau Mau further south. Although the author did come in to contact with the defence counsel for the high profile prisoners and kept an appropriately professional and sympathetic relationship - especially when they had initially been denied the ability to stay in a 'European' hotel thanks to the presence of some Indians on the defence team. Often it was settlers and private institutions who were slowest to change their racial attitudes - and those of Boer descent, as the author alludes to, were the most reticent of all to modernise and accept ideas of racial equality. It is often too easy to lump all colonists into the same boat and tar them all with the same brush. Memoirs like Mervyn Maciel's help return nuance to the argument and show that there was always a wide gamut of ideas and prejudices and that empires were made up of individuals with deeply complex, frequently evolving and often contradictory motivations. There were cultures and communities that had core beliefs and preconceptions but even within these, there was always room for individuals to have their own unique understanding of the world.

One particularly valuable aspect of this book to any historian is the minutiae detailed in the various jobs that a colonial servant like Mervyn Maciel was expected to perform - and how these changed over time, from place to place and under differing leadership. As an example, whilst in the NFD, he breaks down some of his responsibilities as a District Clerk: a Personal Secretary to the DC handling all official and personal correspondence; postal agent handling the stocking and selling of stamps, parcels, postal orders and Post Office savings; Coordinating office staff and ensuring that all daily routines in the boma were completed; a part time weatherman sending reports to Nairobi Meteorological Services; Unofficial accountant to the local 'Lodwar Athanaeum Club' to ensure that the government officers did not run out of beer! This fairly eclectic selection of jobs helps illustrate just why the author was so fascinated with his life in this part of Kenya and with working in the Provincial Administration. I was equally interested to read about a typical inspection in the other NFD office the author worked in at Marsabit. In this case, he explains how he would follow his District Commissioner with his notebook noting down all the tasks given to the various inspected buildings and comments from people throughout the town. They would start off in the police quarters for a full inspection, then move to the government officers' quarters, then go on to the prisons where they would also hear complaints and requests from the prisoners, then head into the town itself and inspect the stores and again hear petitions and make recommendations. In many ways this one example gives a good overview of a highly responsive colonial government machine in operation and one that seems very much in touch with the people it was responsible for. To me at least, it seems far more responsive than most modern forms of local government in the 21st Century with someone taking responsibility for getting to know the area and to show both concern for the ideas of the local people whilst also trying to encourage them to improve their own lot. I can't recall the last time I even saw my local councillor or MP where I live!

There are many other fascinating insights and asides throughout this book. This book is far more than just of interest to the Maciel family (although I am sure future generations of the Maciel generation will be delighted to read about one of their forebear's lives in such detail). There are many autobiographies written by people who have had interesting lives but who often fail to convey their fascinating lives due to difficulties with communicating them in an engaging manner. Many people assume that writing a memoir is a simple process. Unfortunately, I have read too many that are real hard slogs for anyone other than a committed historian or family member to complete. However, this is not a problem that Mervyn Maciel's book suffers from. His writing is very clear, logical and engaging. You can certainly understand why his bosses appreciated his writing abilities and were keen to put these skills to use. The memoir manages to transcend being a purely simple account of one man's life of interest only to his immediate friends and family and it becomes a far more universal tale of a diligent colonial servant whose insights shine light upon both a colonial bureaucracy and the East African Goan community at a time of monumental change and which had far reaching consequences for all the communities involved and indeed for Kenya itself. It is so useful to read a book from the perspective of an insider but also from one who is just getting on with his life and job and trying to help govern and administer on a day to day basis. This is not the story of the movers and shakers of history - of great decision makers nor the victims of injustice. Rather this book is the story of an everyman but one who happens to be in a captivating part of the world, part of a supportive community, with a loving family, at an interesting time and in a stimulating job. What historian could ask for more?

Review by Elspeth Huxley, (writer on Africa, with many books to her credit, including The Flame Trees of Thika)
Bwana Karani
Elspeth Huxley
Like other countries, Kenya has its unsung heroes and heroines who served their country well when the foundations for independence were being laid. One such was MERVYN MACIEL who in telling his personal story in 'Bwana Karani', also puts on record the part played by members of the Goan community, whose industry and integrity underpinned so much of the development of their adopted land. As District clerks, cashiers, secretaries and in many other capacities, they did much of the nitty-gritty work of nation building in colonial days.

Born in Nairobi, Mervyn joined the Secretariat in 1947 straight from school. Two years later, he moved to Lodwar in Turkana, a posting most Asians disliked for its isolation, heat and general discomfort. Mervyn lost his heart to these parched and pitiless deserts of Turkana and the former N.F.D. (Northern Frontier District), and to the peoples who wrung a meagre living from this harsh environment. He also lost his heart to a young lady in Kitale, and after his marriage moved from Marsabit to Kisii and to Machakos, ending his career as Office Superintendent at the well-known Plant Breeding Station at Njoro. Then came independence followed by Africanisation, and the Maciel family retired to live in the U.K., in a house called "Manyatta".

"This is a book that is going to appeal to a wide range of readers", wrote Sir Richard Turnbull in his introduction. He was right. Informally and pleasingly written, MERVYN MACIEL chronicles a slice of Kenya's history from an unfamiliar angle. He loved his job, got on famously with almost everyone from Boran cattle-herds to British Provincial Commissioners, had a happy marriage and was a happy man - a nice change in this so often troubled and acrimonious world.

Review from Royal African Society
BWANA KARANI is the Swahili title and term of address given to government clerks and cashiers. This memoir of life in Kenya in the ’fifties and ’sixties is based on what must have been carefully kept diaries. It records daily BOM A life as it appeared through the eyes of a sensitive, enterprising and active Goan who was eager to expose himself to all that life could offer, rough or smooth. The author’s open nature is apparent in the style and in the narrative; the book hardly contains a harsh word though a few of the people he mentions probably deserved them. The book is not just a nostalgic read for old timers from what the locals still call the N.F.D. (Northern Frontier District), but also a useful account of colonial life from a point of view which I do not think has been recorded before. The Foreword succinctly describes what a District Administration did.

Bwana Karani has also been included in the ‘Africa Bibliography’ edited by Dr. Hector Blackhurst.

British Empire Book
Mervyn Maciel
Merlin Books
The author has very kindly allowed us to reproduce his book in full here on this website. In return for his generosity would you consider sending a donation to his chosen charity at the Catholic Mission in Marsabit, Northern Kenya. He would appreciate any cheques (made out to 'Consolata Fathers') being sent to: The Superior, Consolata Fathers, 3 Salisbury Avenue, Finchley, London N3 3AJ - and please mention "Bwana Karani"
The Author
219 Collingwood Road
Also by the Author
From Mtoto to Mzee.