The British Empire Library

Of Lions and Dung Beetles: A Man in the Middle of Colonial Administration in Kenya

by Terence Gavaghan

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Professor Pascal James Imperato (State University of New York, Brooklyn)
British Colonial Service historiography has now emerged as an extremely important area of study. That pertaining to Africa was often ignored by scholars in the immediate post- independence decades of the 1960s through the 1980s. In part, this was due to a failure to recognise that there were clear lines of historical continuity between the colonial and post-independence eras, and that colonial administrators were often agents of change who greatly facilitated the liberation of subject peoples.

The neglect to which this field of study has been subject is clearly evidenced by the paucity of published works dedicated to it. Until very recently, one would have had to consult Sir Anton Bertram's The Colonial Service (1930) or else, Sir Charles Jeffries' The Colonial Empire and its Civil Service (1938). This slim literature has now been greatly enriched by Anthony Kirk-Green's On Crown Service: A History of HM Colonial and Overseas Civil Services, 1837-1997(1999). To such comprehensive secondary sources, have been added a growing number of primary documents including the memoirs of Colonial administrators. Taken together, these works not only provide excellent insights into colonial policies and relations between administrators and the ruled, but also permit informed interpretations of the many social, cultural, economic and political connections between the imperial past and the present in Africa.

Terence Gavaghan's Of Lions and Dung Beetles chronicles his life and experiences as a Colonial administrator in Kenya from 1944 to 1963, and as such is of the memoir genre. Several characteristics place it in a superior class and set it apart from other volumes of this type. The author's service in several different districts of Kenya brought him into contact with most of the country's diverse population groups and their unique cultural, social and economic characteristics. His years of service coincided with the post-World War II devolution of the British Empire, and in Kenya, with the slow and at times violent movement towards independence. Gavaghan is a very insightful and talented writer who consistently enriches his narrative with splendid descriptions of people and places, and thoughtful analyses of events. Through him, one learns of the complex social hierarchy of the Colonial Administrative Serviced (CAS), which reflected the class stratification of the metropole and of the ramified relationships between the branches of colonial government. In this account, Africans are not cast as a group of anonymous extras, but rather are brought forth as individuals whose characters are fully developed and placed in the broader Context of the times. Their aspirations and travails are objectively recounted, as are their Interactions with a colonial government which they sometimes resented but upon which Their security and well-being often depended.

That Gavaghan was able to establish close relationships with so many Africans then and later speaks to his great interpersonal skills as well as his willingness to breach the social restraints of a rigid and hierarchical European class system. In so doing, he was better able to apply colonial policy at a local level so that it best met the needs of Africans.

The author has arranged his account in a chronological manner structured around his Various postings. These included Kitui, Nyanza, Kisii, Kisumu, Mandera, Kakamega, Mombasa Taita-Taveta, Kiambu, Samburu and Nyeri. Throughout these assignments, he had to deal with issues as diverse as nomadic Samburu grazing practices and land consolidation among the agricultural Kikuyu. His detailed and interesting accounts of these provide a window into the daily life of a district commissioner and the challenges he faced trying to resolve local problems equitably.

Toward the end of his career as a colonial servant, Gavaghan was assigned greater and broader responsibilities beginning in 1957 with his appointment as Officer-in-Charge of Rehabilitation of Mau Mau detainees.

He later became Under-Secretary for Africanisation of the Overseas Civil Service, and Interim Permanent Secretary in the cabinet office. In 1962-63, the United Nations asked him to assume the chairmanship of the Administrative, Unification Commission of independent Somalia/Somaliland. Then, between 1966 and 1973 he served as a consultant for several United Nations agencies and a number of non-governmental voluntary organisations. The latter international assignments provided him with a unique perspective from which to evaluate and recount his earlier career as a colonial administrator in an important part of the world at the twilight of the British Empire.

During the decades of the 1960s through the 1980s, scholarly writings tended to showcase the negative aspects of the colonial experience on African societies. Without dismissing these, the pendulum has now swung to a more central position in which the many positive aspects of the British colonial period are also acknowledged. Gavaghan's Of Lions and Dung Beetles presents many of these, while fully acknowledging the failings of colonial rule. As a result, his well-written and balanced volume is a valuable historical contribution to a fuller understanding of Britain's imperial past.

Additional Review: A LETTER TO MY FATHER by Veronica Betters (the daughter of C H Williams CMC OBE who joined the Kenya Administration in 1931. He became Provincial Commissioner, Nyanza and retired in 1957.)
Dear Dad,

Reading this quirkily titled book has reminded me of you, the carefree childhood that we enjoyed under yours and Mum's benevolent eye, and of the comings and goings of officials and others as you all "bucketed along" administering the people of Kenya. Deft character descriptions make it a vivid and engaging story.

Sue and I were only four and a half when Terence Gavaghan came to Kakamega and we scarcely remember him but he remembers you as "a monumental figure... called Ngombe because of his bulk not his brains. His hunched shoulder muscles usurped his neck and tendrils of russet hair overlaid a worried forehead. Innocent blue eyes were set in florid cheeks and quietly breathy utterances were economical. They hid a shrewd and lively mind which could outmatch many an unwary sophisticate."

Gavaghan is not afraid to be frank. I try to remind myself not to think how the Turkana road labourers on the Moyale/Mandera road picked up hydatid cysts. And I wonder, Dad, what you would have thought of his references to sexual relations with African women? I thought this was frowned upon. He disarmingly insists that these relations were voluntary and sweet but I cannot help wondering if the ladies' families did not lurk in the background hoping to take advantage of such indiscretions.

He recounts his role - which you commended - in resolving the tricky problem of the Dini ya Misambwa, that mystical cult that erupted amongst the turbulent Kltosh. He was a DO in Kiambu in 1950 when the Kikuyu began to tear themselves asunder by the Mau Mau. "While deep rooted conviction, fanatical belief, rage, hate, induced hysteria, even narcotics, could actuate hitherto unexpected fearlessness in the commission of terroristic acts, extraordinary bravery was also displayed in the calm acceptance of Christian martyrdom. "Faith of our fathers ... we will be true to thee till death" was lived out by many Kikuyu in the undeclared conflict looming ahead".

It was after he had been charged with invigorating the sullen congestion clogging the release of Mau Mau detainees that Gavaghan blithely caught a political potato that would have been too hot for almost anyone. How could he have foreseen the climate of political expediency that impugned the Administration's decent and faithful service to the people of Kenya? And later it would appear that he was still caught in the political mangle when he was abruptly removed from his post as DC Kiambu. This was done in a wounding manner that would have been unlawful today and which weighed heavily on him during the latter days of his service.

In helping to champion a restitution of the Colonial Service's place in history, often twisted by sloppy study and biased ideology, I am encouraged that students of the period will learn from this colourful account of the relaxed interaction enjoyed by Administrators and their "parishioners". Mutual regard was usually warm and genuine. I believe that some of the finest jobs in the world must have been DO Mandera, DC Maralal, Kiambu or Kakamega. Those of you who served in Kenya were indeed most fortunate, despite the pressures you were under trying to hold the ring among such a diverse populace.

If you had still been with us you would have enjoyed this book which is written with charm and wit. I think you would have agreed with me that Terence Gavaghan's rich, sometimes racy fluency paints a marvellous picture of that short-lived and yet great service.

Love from

British Empire Book
Terence Gavaghan
Arthur H Stockwell Ltd.


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