Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"Be like Firm Soldiers to Develop the Country": Political Imagination and the Geography of Gikuyuland

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

"Be like Firm Soldiers to Develop the Country": Political Imagination and the Geography of Gikuyuland

Article excerpt

Toward the end of 1932, Judge Morris Carter's Land Commission began taking testimony to determine how far Africans in the British colony of Kenya were owed compensation for land taken from them by white settlers. Thousands of people attended the commission's public hearings. In Nyeri district, 129 Gikuyu sub-clans representing 105,550 people made claims before the commission.1 Nyeri's district commissioner reported that virtually every person could be seen walking about with typewritten claim and map in hand.2 In Kiambu District, Chief Koinange and his colleagues became part-time pamphleteers producing petitions to sway Carter's opinion.3 And in Fort Hall, local opinion was so strong that Charles Muhoro, the translator for the commission, was confounded at the profanity the presenters employed.4

The Carter Land Commission was plainly a major event in Gikuyu political life. It is therefore surprising that one of Nyeri's major parties, the Kikuyu Central Association, did not pay the commissioners heed. Only a minor KCA official, Waiga Kibanya, testified before the commission during its Nyeri hearings.5 He spoke for a few scant minutes about Gikuyu claims to the Mount Kenya forest. Observers thought him ill prepared.6 The KCA in Nyeri did not present a written memorandum for the commission's review. Instead, its officials gatecrashed a meeting of the Progressive Kikuyu Party, their political opponents, hanging about while PKP members drafted a memorandum.7

This essay inquires into the history of Gikuyu political thought by exploring why the Kikuyu Central Association's Nyeri branch had so little to say to Judge Carter. It focuses on the tension between the polite theater of colonial advocacy and the noisy brawl of ethnic argument. It was John Lonsdale who first tuned historians' ears to the competing strains of political discourse within African communities. In his seminal essay "The Moral Economy of Mau Mau," Lonsdale contrasted the spare discourse of Kenya's high politics with the earthy culture of Gikuyu thought.8 African leaders represented themselves as leaders of homogeneous, unified peoples, in order to compete for influence on the colonial stage. But within the "tribes" that leaders purported to represent, people kept arguing. Ethnicities, Lonsdale showed, are forums of argument. Political leaders had always to do creative work in order to convince their doubting constituents to follow their lead.

The present essay applies Lonsdale's insights to the study of land politics in northern Gikuyuland. My thesis, put simply, is that colonial-era political entrepreneurs created a Gikuyu people by reformulating property as territory. By the sweat of their brows, the precolonial pioneers of central Kenya had once hewn their homesteads from the encroaching forest. They and their descendants saw land as a patrimony, an endowment that enabled family members to flourish. Colonial-era politicians asked central Kenya's proudly independent homesteaders to think about their hard-won property as territory, a gift from a paternal God to an identifiable Gikuyu nation. By refiguring property as territory, political entrepreneurs drew clansmen together as soldiers dedicated to serving their country.

Where organizers asked Gikuyu to practice a single-minded discipline, Judge Carter brought clannish local politics to the fore. Carter asked Nyeri people to recount the local histories that divided them. It was this parochial parade, I suggest, that terrified the unifiers of the KCA. Nyeri's organizers did not pronounce on Gikuyu land tenure because they could not. Their project was founded on constituents' strategic willingness to overlook the local politics that set them at odds. Judge Carter threatened to turn organizers' imagined community into a fratricidal absurdity.

John Lonsdale taught us to see how thoroughly people sharing an ethnicity could disagree. This essay pays tribute to Lonsdale's pioneering scholarship by documenting the political work by which Gikuyuland was made. …

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