The British Empire Library

Jomo's Jailor - The Life of Leslie Whitehouse

by Elizabeth Watkins

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by C. Chenevix Trench (Kenya Administration 1948-1964)
Administrative officers in Kenya used to complain that they were never left long enough in one district to know its people and their language; no sooner had one learned Kikuyu or Masai or Somali than one was posted away, never to speak it again. In juggling seniority, suitability, health, leave and family commitments, those in charge of postings seemed to ignore continuity. There may have been a rationale in this: a District Commissioner left too long with one tribe tended to become less its administrator than its champion against neighbouring tribes, even against the government. So the officer who wanted to get to the top should not specialise and must do at least one tour in the Secretariat.

L. E. Whitehouse ('Wouse') was a bachelor and backwoodsman who rated job satisfaction far higher than promotion. He spent 20 years with the Masai and 12 with the Turkana, separated by only two years in an 'advanced' district. He should have retired without making any impact outside his two tribes, but as things happened, he probably had a greater effect on Kenya after Independence than all the Provincial Commissioners and Secretariat luminaries put together.

His is a difficult posthumous biography to write. He left practically no useful notes on his years in Masai, so his biographer must rely on letters and diaries written by other people, some with little relevance to Wouse (much of this material, however, is fascinating, such as Daphne Moore's description of a lion hunt by Masai moran.) One ean fault this book in detail: for instance. Lari, the scene of the Mau Mau's most horrific massacre, was an ordinary village of Kikuyu loyalists, by no means a 'settlement of Kenya Police, their wives and families'; the illustrations are unworthy of the text. But enough of nit-picking; this is a first class biography of a man who deserved one.

Wouse believed that rules, even his own, were meant to be broken. As a headmaster and Third Class Magistrate he trespassed many miles into Tanganyika to arrest, illegally, the murderer of his clerk. He always obstructed the recruitment of Turkana labour by European settlers, believing that exposure to civilisation would teach them (the Turkana, not the settlers) bad habits. But when, after retirement, he bought a farm himself, he would employ on it only Turkana. He was adamant that married officers should not bring their wives into Turkana, but connived at one District Officer doing so because he had known the wife as a little girl. She became his biographer, so the core of her excellent book is based on personal knowledge of Wouse's work in Turkana, which pointed the way (without one-fiftieth of the funds) for post-Independence development there.

Jomo Kenyatta was imprisoned in Turkana from 1952 to 1959. He arrived an undoubted promoter of terrorism and left there a magnanimous elder statesman, inclined to nepotism and closing an eye to corruption by his nearest and dearest, but prepared to forgive and forget. For this transformation, which created modern Kenya, Wouse is widely believed to be responsible.

He made no such claim himself. Probably the visits to Turkana of the Kikuyu Bishop Kariuki, a stout opponent of Mau Mau, did most to change Kenyatta. But Wouse, while never breaking or bending a prison rule, treated 'Mzee' with friendliness, lent him books, protected bim against thuggish fellow convicts who bullied him. The author points out that, although Wouse had no such intention, this treatment followed the classic pattern of brainwashing - the hardship of prison food and conditions alternating with the District Commissioner's humanity. All that Wouse would claim was that he and Mzee established a 'rapport'. The generosity towards him of the government of independent Kenya suggests that this was an understatement.

British Empire Book
Elizabeth Watkins
Mulberry Books


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