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Humiliation and Violence in Kenya’s Colonial Days

When King Charles visited Kenya in November 2023, many Kenyans renewed their demands for an official apology for atrocities committed by the British government during the colonial era. The widespread human rights abuses during the Mau Mau rebellion are the best-known of these atrocities. Yet we should not forget more mundane, everyday acts of domination.

I am a social historian who has studied race, violence, colonialism and white settlement in Kenya. From the start of colonialism in 1895 to the drawing down of the Union Jack on 12 December 1963, black Kenyans were constantly subjected to violence and humiliation at the hands of colonial officials, settlers and missionaries alike.

In one book chapter, drawing on a set of political tracts, autobiographies and novels written by Gikuyu men since 1950s, I demonstrate how humiliation and violence were central to their experience of colonialism.

Because the Mau Mau rebellion largely involved Gikuyu, and the education system favoured boys, Gikuyu men’s reminiscences about the era were more likely to be published than women’s or those of other Kenyans.

These men were well aware of the structural iniquities of British colonialism. But it was also intensely personal.

This drove them to respond. Some went on to join radical politics, others took up arms.

The individual humiliation and violence became for them a basis for collective political action and organised resistance. While we cannot downplay the impact of land alienation, mass incarceration and racial dictatorship, the personal experience played a key role in the dismantling of British rule in Kenya.Humiliating words

Left-wing activist and post-independence martyr J.M. Kariuki explained how white people could humiliate educated Africans, elder men and Africans of socio-economic means:

Many Europeans refused to talk to educated Africans in any language but their deplorably bad Swahili; old men were addressed as boys and monkeys; Africans were barred from hotels and clubs.

Any status that an African man might achieve was denied respect by whites.

The kipande – registration papers kept in a tin canister around the neck when Africans left their “reserves” – was one common humiliation. Another was that of “a European calling a 70-year-old African ‘boy’.” (Mugo Gatheru).

The words and blows struck these Gikuyu men particularly hard because they had undergone initiation which had transformed them from boys into men who could, Gatheru wrote, “now make our own choices.” They would “walk with great confidence … and take responsibilities that are assumed only by the circumcised ones.”

Muga Gicaru, who in the 1950s tried to alert Britons to the violence and humiliations endemic in their east African colony, explained how initiated men “acquired self-respect” and a sense of self-mastery, maturity and adulthood.

Yet they weren’t granted respect, and they were disregarded as “men”. Radical pamphleteer Gakaara wa Wanjau charged that whites believed that Africans’ “minds are the minds of children and therefore our leaders do not qualify for wise mature leadership.”Use of violence

To the stings of these words and policies were added those of violence.

Charles Muhoro Kareri, who would in 1961 become the first African moderator of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, wrote a dozen years after independence that:

people may fail to comprehend how the whites used to beat black people … missionaries, farmers, or government officers, all whites beat black people.

The full power of the state stood behind white people, and protesting against this violence could bring yet more violence.

Recalling one brutal assault he witnessed, Kareri and others could only watch “in amazement, for there was nothing for us to do.” This inability to retaliate could be just as painful as the physical blows.

World-famous novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o tells of being struck by a white officer when Ngugi failed to address him as “effendi” (sir). Then he was ordered to utter the word:

‘Yes, effendi!’ I said, tears at the edges of my eyelids. I was now a man (having been initiated); I was not supposed to cry. But a man is supposed to fight back, to defend himself and his own, but I could not summon even a gesture of self-defence.

In that moment of humiliation and violence, the pain was personal: Ngugi felt crushed when he could not react as he should.

Before he became a radical trade union activist and advocated for violent anti-colonialism, Bildad Kaggia was a clerk for the colonial state. One day when he was yelled at by his white supervisor for not removing his hat, he was “very embarrassed.” Kaggia and the friend he was with did not speak of it, “but I felt very indignant at being humiliated in his presence.”

The spectacle was meant to remind Kaggia of his station in life. Despite being an educated, white-collar employee of the state, Kaggia concluded that “what mattered was colour.”

The examples of white people humiliating and beating Africans are extensive in the writings of these Gikuyu men, as well as in the writings of white people who lived in colonial Kenya.

These everyday acts were central to the racial dictatorship. White people were daily reinforcing a hierarchy that allowed one person to abuse another, like a parent scolding and spanking a child.From humiliation to political action

Kaggia, and others, took their personal hurt and used it towards a broader political programme. They sought ways to organise resistance through pamphlets, political parties, and force of arms to end a colonialism that was based on racial hierarchies.

Gakaara began writing radical treatises after witnessing Africans suffering “constant physical assaults and verbal abuse by white land owners.”

Gatheru wrote that “Africans were being regarded as small children.” Their treatment in “such humiliating and degrading fashion” led him to organised politics.

Each of these men fought for freedom of their people, their passions raised by experiencing colonialism as a personal attack on their dignity.

Source: The Star



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