The British Empire Library

From Mau Mau to Harambee: Memoirs and Memoranda of Colonial Kenya

by Tom Askwith

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by (Dr) Mary Tiffen (Consultant in rural socio-economics; researched in several African countries including Kenya 1990 to 1996)

This book consists of an introduction by Joanna Lewis (26 pages) and some 180 pages by Tom Askwith, on the last half of his career in Kenya, from 1945 to about 1960. He became Municipal Native Affairs Officer for Nairobi in 1945, and Commissioner for Community Development in 1949. He was also, until 1951, Principal of the Jeanes School. Normal work was then drastically cut as the focus shifted to the rehabilitation of people involved in Mau Mau activities. He opposed the later introduction of compulsory, rather than voluntary, labour in the camps. The Hola incident proved him right. His resignation enabled him to devote more attention to working with groups in rural areas, laying the foundation of the still flourishing Kenyan self-help movement.

Askwith stresses the idealism that induced many colonial administrative and technical staff to work hard for development, and the hardships and enterprise of the white settlers. Nevertheless, he had by the late 1940s recognised that white attitudes needed to change, particularly in relation to educated Africans, the low wages insufficient to support a family, and the provision of land to the landless. He saw these as creating the social problems that eventually exploded as the Mau Mau revolt. He devotes some 30 pages to reproducing memoranda that he wrote at the time and an extract from the Royal Commission on Land and Population of 1953. Since the latter in particular is available to scholars and well known to old Kenyan hands, one could have wished for a greater explanation of the influences on his thinking, including his pre-1945 career as a District Officer. It would seem that his post-1945 work was characterised by much closer partnership with African staff, starting with Dedan Githege as Assistant and colleague in Nairobi, and a mutual development of ideas.

While the rehabilitation programme was for the most part successful, the most enduring part of Tom Askwith’s work has been in community development. Anyone still working in Kenya will know the ability of groups and communities to choose leaders, work out a programme, organise tasks, raise funds, and achieve their goals - house improvement, or community facilities such as schools and bridges, or a commercial enterprise or improvement of farm land. The first efforts of the Department were geared to adult literacy, information and sport, and it was only gradually that it was realised that the key lay in encouraging people to use and modernise their traditional institutions for mutual help, to select their own leaders, and choose their own priorities, seeking technical advice where necessary. It is not from the text but from the Introduction that one gleans he was Principal of the Jeanes School, whose courses for leaders and Community Development Assistants he describes, and whose influence was long-lasting. (Unfortunately, the course for CD As was closed down in the 1980s, leading to deterioration in staff quality by the 1990s). Askwith describes the start in Machakos, where top-down destocking and contour ditch programmes had aroused hostility, but where an African Administrative Officer, John Malindi, working with a young DO, persuaded one village to work on their priority, house improvement. Askwith also describes developments in other districts. He facilitated exchange of ideas between districts, through staff conferences and the training of leaders at the Jeanes School, which led to multiplying achievement at modest cost to the government.

The book is marred by poor editing and proof-reading, a careless glossary and a bibliography that generally omits publishers. The Editor could have done more to provide a framework, both in detailing Askwith’s own career and by describing the future development of the work he initiated. There is a reference to our own study of Machakos in the bibliography, but not to our description of the development of the selfhelp and women’s groups, nor to Hill’s interview with John Malindi, published in 1991, nor to Mutiso’s 1975 work on their political importance, which led finally to the women’s groups being partly subsumed into the political party. (Fortunately, they also exist independently of this). Despite the faults in editing, this book will be one useful source for future students of self-help, and a reminder of achievement for those who were there.

British Empire Book
Tom Askwith
University of Cambridge African Studies Centre