The British Empire Library

Kenya: From Colonization To Independence 1888-1970

by R. Mugo Gatheru

Courtesy of OSPA

Edward Paice (Author of Lost Lion of Empire: The Life of 'Cape-to-Cairo' Grogan and Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of The Great War in Africa)
This is, without doubt, an extraordinary book. Mr Gatheru's love of Kenya is made clear during the first few pages, as are his credentials and connections. Furthermore, he sets out his stall in the Preface in encouraging fashion. 'The object of this volume' writes Gatheru, 'is to deal effectively with the molding (sic) of the present-day Kenya. The book may perhaps offend some people, but it is a small man who cannot face the truth. Propaganda is certainly not the motive for its writing. The aim is not to stir up the ashes of discord, any more than historians of two world wars seek to revive hatred of Germany. However, insidious neo-colonialism still exists in the world, and with it one cause of war, at least, which is avoidable'.

So far, so good. Here, I imagined, we have a thought-provoking study written by a Kenyan to add to the collection of recent works (some controversial in their methodology, some meticulously researched and presented) on the late colonial and early Independence era in Kenya. But having read the first three chapters (People of Kenya, The Birth of Mistrust, Mistrust Flourishes), alarm bells began to ring. I felt as if I were in some kind of academic time-warp.

Mr Gatheru's approach is clear, concise and - at this stage - even-handed. Indeed his style is endearing, if rather quaint: we have Kenyatta 'with eyes burning like fire, generous but ruthless when aggravated... at no time [attempting] to represent the interests of the Kikuyu people only' (p52); and we have the Abaluhya, who 'are not lacking in physical courage' (p83). The problem is that the tome could have been penned in the same decade as the oft-cited George Bennett's Kenya: A Political History (published in 1966). A quick glance at the bibliography shows that there is scarcely a work of scholarship listed that was written post-1980; most sources date from the 1960s and early 1970s. This shortcoming would have rendered Mr Gatheru's work obsolete when I started my African Studies course in 1983; worse still, a great number of the standard texts even of that era - the work of MPK Sorrenson, for example - are inexplicably absent. As a result we have Mau Mau described as a 'nationalist movement' (p212) which 'began with African frustration over the land issue' (pl46), assertions that are now accepted as being either over-simplistic or simply incorrect.

There are other 'drawbacks' to add to the book's anachronistic character. Sir Harry Johnston's name is mis-spelt, and to cite the white hunter C T Stoneham as an 'authority (pl38) on anything except hunting is generous. His views on Mau Mau and its origins may have been shared by a section of the European population, but 'authoritative they are not (nor ever were). Far more disturbing, however, are Mr Gatheru's concluding remarks, which can only be described as a rant rather than a summary of an argument. After 214 pages of attempting to maintain a balanced and factual approach he delivers the following broadside: 'Among the European settlers, one might give a rough guess that 95.5 percent of the population was hostile to the Africans. There were exceptions, but these were few and far between...These very few Europeans, even though they constituted about .5 percent, should not be forgotten. Individuals like these were like William Wiberforce [i/c], Mother Teresa or Pope Paul II [i/c - John Paul II, I assume] and they deserve a mention in history'. The final paragraph continues in the same vein (though without any further mathematical or papal errata): 'Comparatively speaking, the Britons who live or reside in the United Kingdom are highly civilized, generous, innovative, creative, determined, gentle and polite people...Why did they send such abrasive, rude and inconsiderate members of their society abroad to establish their colonies? It was unfortunate' (pp214-5). Need one say more? This is not a demonstrable 'truth' that the 'small man' might shy away from. It is a subjective opinion, to which Mr Gatheru is fully entitled (even if the invective is liable to make any reader, of whatever colonial or anti-colonial persuasion, laugh out loud). And I fear that neither it, nor their reading lists, bode well for the degree of academic rigour imparted to his students of African Studies at California State University.

British Empire Book
R. Mugo Gatheru
McFarland & Company Inc
0 7864 2199 1