02 October 2008

Expansion & Invasion: British East Africa

By Jennifer Mueller

The cradle of man. The oldest human bones in the world were found in Kenya and Tanzania. Ports along the coast were used and settled by the Arabs and Portuguese, under control of the Sultan of Oman at times, and yet once past the coast, it was all an unexplored wilderness. Not until the 1880s did the first outsider head through the lands of the Nandi, Maasai, Kikuyu, Akamba and dozens more.

With those few men's tales it took only a decade for the railroad to be put through. It was a foolhardy mission though; they built the railroad before there was hardly a colony, before there was industry to make it profitable. Much like the Field of Dreams--build it and they will come--the railroad was put through with the intention of bringing access, so the colonists would arrive and make the builders a fortune.

The Kenya/Uganda Railway was plagued by man-eating lions and Africa in general. It went over budget and took far longer to complete than anyone thought. Nairobi was just a rail supply stop built near a swamp in those days. Hardly a dozen white families were scattered across British East Africa--not much of a way to make that railroad pay for itself. For several years there was nothing, no infrastructure other than the railroad, almost no government, and no industry or business. Some Indian laborers brought in to build the railroad stayed on, opening stores near the few farms and gathering places the tribes already had. That was it though.

Excerpt from SAMBURU HILLS:

August 7, 1907

Dear Francis,

I have arrived at my new home in Africa. I give Nicholas credit, the site is beautiful. The sky is covered with a thick patchwork of black and white clouds washed in color like a painted photograph, shades of blue and yellow hover over the red dirt of the countryside. Hills rise from the plains, not gently slopping hulks like at home, but large distinct bodies that stop before the next one starts. The hills surround me like a crown and rocks jut from them like jewels.

In the diffused light outside, the conglomeration of clouds and rising sun cause the earth to be covered in odd shadows. Some hills are illuminated, some hidden in shadow, and others lost in the haze and clouds that the heat of the day has yet to burn off. The acacia trees turn a luminous gold. The trees and bushes on the hills burst forth as if viewed on a stereoscope. Now and then, herds of zebra or gazelle stop at the reduced river to drink. There is a drought on the land. Last night I heard my first lion roar and as I sat outside watching the sunrise, a giraffe passed by only a dozen feet away while the scent of Africa swirled about me.

The rest of my life is not so lovely, for when I pull back the net to keep away the dreadful mosquitoes, I am in hell. My house is made of mud with a thatch roof and a dirt floor. There are no windows or doors. Except for what I have brought with me, there is no furniture, only makeshift contraptions of packing crates and old paraffin tins. I seriously wonder what Nicholas is thinking when there is a house full of servants and no house.

Amir, the cook Nicholas brought with him from India, is quite a handsome little rascal. His wife Dunmeya has become the maid. There is a Somali butler, Sayid, in his long dress of the Musselman and a waistcoat. There is a housekeeper named Zahra, the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life. I do not have to lift a finger. He seems to forget I was raised on a farm and ran it after my mother died. Yet, he does not allow me to do anything. He talks only of India and England as if he never left. He treats the servants as servants, which means I can hardly talk to them. I share his bed and yet he tells me nothing of what he is doing. I am ignored. That is the worst hell in all of this.

Even if all I had was respect, I think I could handle this life better, but he does not even give me that. I have long wondered why he would marry the gamekeeper's daughter. I think I have arrived at an answer--it is the only way he can feel superior to a wife. Something tells me no one of title or wealth would have the lout, not as a husband anyway.

Things grew slowly for the next decade, but that wasn't for of a lack of trying on the part of the colonists. Through trial and error, slowly crops and ventures were found that withstood the harsh African climate. At one point Jewish advocates were trying to turn Kenya into new Zion in the vein of Israel, only decades earlier. It was not a popular plan with the British colonists and eventually, when it was looked at in person, the plan was deemed unsuitable and nothing ever came of it.

Already it was the place to come for sportsmen out for a good hunt. President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were only two of the famous visitors. Lords and younger sons looking for adventure were thick in the new colony.

That's the world in which Kenya's most famous citizen, Karen Blixen, arrived. Under the name Isak Dennison, she wrote the famous words: "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills." Her plight was common, a husband that was off hunting and a farm that made no money. The cows brought in for farms were often affected by rinderpest and other African diseases. Only after they were bred with local varieties were they able to have some success. Coffee prices were fickle and it took years for them to produce. Tea would come later. Rains wouldn't come. The locals wouldn't work all the time.

It was a hard life, and World War I made it even harder. Many men were off fighting the Germans--not in Europe, but in the South of Kenya. The Germans controlled what is now Tanzania and used men there to pester the Britain, hoping it would divert troops from Europe. There were skirmishes but few real battles. The true cost to the colony was the lack of supplies that never arrived. Equipment couldn't be fixed. Most farms were unable to sell their goods. The colony almost ground to a halt.

The men returning from war in Europe were the saving grace. Soldiers were given allotments of land and the population shot up. By the 1920s, Kenya was known for the Happy Valley--not a valley in the sense of location, but the hard working colonists looking to make a life there were given over to newcomers, young men and women there to have a good time. Some were even sent to Kenya after they had some scandal back home. Drugs, sexual exploits and orgies were rampant. They even gave the Prince of Wales cocaine on his visit there.

As the 1950s started, things were coming to a head. Elizabeth II was staying in a Kenyan hotel when she found out her father had died and she was Queen, but it wouldn't be long before the terror of Mau Mau took hold. Thirty thousand British settlers ruled and farmed the best land, leaving the less viable land for several million native Kenyans. The Kikuyu especially weren't happy at being forced to be tenant farmers, not for others who increasingly took more for themselves. It was their lands that were primarily taken for white farms.

The rebellion that followed killed 32 Europeans and took the lives of thousands of Kenyans--depending on who is asked, that number runs from 11,000 to as many as 50,000. A good portion of them were killed by their own people to keep some quiet, and to intimidate others. For years Kenya was an almost military state. The future president Jomo Kenyatta was convicted of being Mau Mau, even though a modern look at the evidence offers no proof. He spent six years in house arrest in the north of the country. The emergency was finally lifted in 1960, paving the way for full independence in 1963.

Not much more than sixty years of being a colony and the era was at an end.