The British Empire Library

Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa

by Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Brian Eccles (Zanzibar, Tanganyika, Nigeria 1952-1989)
Unhappy Valley is a slick but misleading title for a book which purports to be "a considerable revision in the understanding of the history of colonial Kenya and, more widely, colonialism in Africa". The two volumes start, as many a fairy story does, with the words "Once upon a time" and pursue their course with a blind disregard for the intentions - however, but not always, mistaken - of bureaucrats in Europe, European administrators in Africa and even those settlers, for example Karen Blixen, who could see beyond the "Happy Valley" and did not follow the dictates of the Muthaiga Club as it used to be. It contributes no conclusions to the study of colonialism in Africa, but does provide a thoughtful and thought-provoking view of its nature and particularly of Mau Mau.

However, the Marxist analysis of Mau Mau is as foreign to Kikuyu thought in general as these two volumes are irrelevant to an assessment of modern states in Africa, which owe more to arbitrary decisions made at the Congress of Berlin in 1884/5 and the development of nation states based on their geographical limitations.

Although they may have satisfied the demands of the authors' students, these two books should not be regarded either as a comprehensive interpretation of Kenyan history for international scholars or as an interpretation of Kenyan history in African terms - albeit they do illustrate the limitations of a narrowly structuralist Marxist theory of the creation of one East African state. The realities of politics are overlooked. The concept of Kenyan nationality - which Kenyatta emphasised against Kimathi and Mau Mau - is not considered. (Moreover, as long ago as 1945 Kenyatta had been associated with Du Bois in England, thinking and planning in far wider terms than the geographical boundaries of Kenya.) The role of Kenyans who are not Kikuyu is overlooked in these books and the role of Kenyans who are not black (like Asian merchants), but who are citizens, is ignored.

However, there must be praise for John Lonsdale's Section Eleven when he admits to uncertainty as to the motivation of Kenyan Africans and as to the strength of their concept of nationhood. Even the concept of the tribe, as a unit, is shown to be a European one - an imposed central paramountcy rather than an autochthonous growth. But you cannot generalise about colonialism in Africa by 'interpreting' the example of one modern African state 30 years into an independence which followed only twice as long a period of dependence.

British Empire Book
Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale
James Currey


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