British Colonialism and its Effects on Kenya’s Culture
Table of Contents
British Colonialism and its Effects on Kenya’s Culture
The purpose of this paper is to show the effects of British colonialism on the different cultures in Kenya. Africa as a whole endured many changes to its culture and traditions during colonialism, and people adapted to these changes differently. This paper explains how colonialism affected every tribe in Kenya and how they each chose to accept a different life. Additionally, it will show how the British manipulated different cultures through Christianity and other means for their benefits. The establishment of the British colony through such means was bound to have some results in the country. The effects of the British influence, however, have lasted for over half a century and the country’s historians have only recently begun to revisit the past to learn from it.
Kenya is a nation found in the East African region neighboring countries, such as Sudan, Tanzania, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Uganda. It has forty-two tribes divided into three main ethnic groups: Cushites, Nilotes, and the Bantus. They all enjoy harmonious coexistence, more often than not, in different parts of the country with clashes mainly involving a fight for the inadequate resources. Other ethnic groups that later came to Kenya include the Arabs and Persians who settled on the coast of the nations and the Indians who were brought by the British colonialists.
The first group to migrate to Kenya was the Cushites in 2000 B.C. They moved from Northern Africa and settled in the northern regions of Kenya which are mostly arid or semi-arid. They consisted of two different groups: the Rift Cushites who were hunters and gatherers and the North-East Cushites who were pastoralists. Examples of Cushites include Rendile, Borana, and the Oromo. The second group was the Nilotes from the Nile Valley. They covered the Highland Nilotes, River-lake Nilotes, and the Plain Nilotes. Examples of Nilotes include the Luo, Kalenjin, and the Maasai. The Bantu were the last to move into Kenya around 1000BC, and they migrated into the central, eastern and western parts of Kenya. Examples of Bantus include the Agikuyu, Abaluhya, Ameru, Akamba, and Abagusii. The leading group among the three was the Bantu, and they were mostly mixed farmers. At the coast of Kenya were Persian and Arabic traders who made up the Swahili. Each ethnic group established its government led by a council of elders, and there was no centralized rule in the country. The tribes believed in their ancestors’ spirits and called out to them during different ceremonies for good luck. The visitors who came to the country around this period were tourists, traders, and explorers mostly from India, Greece, Arabia, and Portugal. It was not until 1498 when the missionaries arrived, and Kenya and East Africa felt the first significant European presence as a whole.
The year 1884 was the all-time high for the scramble for African colonies by European countries. It was during the Berlin Conference that partitioned Africa and the British acquired Kenya. The Imperial British East Africa Company, which was a British trading company, was founded and sent to establish Kenya as the British East Africa Protectorate. The belief that the region was full of precious gems that would provide Britain with a lot of money led the scramble for East Africa. Sir Arthur Hardinge, the first Governor, arrived in 1895 and established the beginning of a more formal British administration. The next seventy years marked a change in Kenya’s history as the country led down a dark path that spiraled and shaped its people. The British established many policies that victimized Kenya’s economically, socially and politically (Ndege). The white colonialists identified the most fertile regions in the country, evacuated all the Kenyans who lived there and later forced them to work on those farms for low wages. They encouraged European farmers to settle in the temperate highlands, a region that they referred to as the White Highlands. Initially, the settlers had introduced forced labor, but it took many efforts to keep it going and outlawed the method in 1920.
The British occupied Kenya mainly through treaties and collaboration. The signing of treaties eliminated the need to use the force on the locals to acquire land and resources. A series of agreements — including Anglo-German Treaties, Maasai Agreements, and collaborations with Wanga —saw the Sultan of Zanzibar retained control of a strip of coastal territories and Britain ruled Zanzibar as a protectorate (Atika School, “Establishment of Colonial Rule in Kenya”). The British needed to acquire resources from East Africa, and that could not be possible through forceful means. The primary reason why the British needed revenue was for the construction of the railway from the port of Mombasa all the way to Buganda. The British later introduced Indian labor to assist which caused racial unease. The establishment of the railway also brought Indian traders, and this translated to a sizable Indian population found in the interior regions of the country over time (Atika School, “Establishment of Colonial Rule in Kenya”). Politically, Britain allowed the settlers to share their opinions in government. It only permitted Africans to participate in the local government and deal with local issues. Indians despite forming a considerable portion of the population did not fit into any leadership role in the country.
The main reason why the British succeeded in establishing their control in Kenya was due to Christian missionaries. The first Europeans to arrive at the port of Mombasa were Christian preachers, who made friendships with the locals to teach them their faith. Their intentions, however, were driven by political, economic and social gains hidden in the crusade for Christianity. Firstly, they wanted to abolish the slave trade. The fight against slavery was at an all-time high, and after travelers such as DR. David Livingstone had reported on what was going on in East Africa, the missionaries felt obligated to intervene. Secondly, they wanted to see how far Islam had spread in the region. After Arabic traders had arrived at the coast of East Africa, it had begun converting to Islam, and the missionaries desired to limit the expansion from reaching the interior regions. Thirdly, they claimed they wanted to civilize people of that area. Tribal rituals in Kenya included female genital mutilation, the killing of twins and other customs that the Europeans considered barbaric. The introduction of Christianity intended to put an end to such practices. Lastly, and perhaps the most significant reason, Christian missionaries aimed to pave the way for British colonizers (Atika School, “Christian Missionaries in East Africa”). The idea was for them to preach love, tolerance, respect, obedience, temperance, and forgiveness to be less resistant and more enduring of the colonizers. Perhaps the highest victory for the British colonizers was the mental enslavement of the Kenyan people of which they are a victim of to this day.
As mentioned earlier, the white settlers upon arrival selected the most fertile lands to settle on and evacuated the Kenyans they found living there. Most of these properties belonged to the Bantu who were farmers and herders. The British settlers depended heavily on the availability of lands, labors, and capitals. This need resulted in a series of excisions and alienation of about seven million acres of land, including some of the most fertile occupied by Africans (Githuku 42). Eventually, these properties became the ‘White Highlands,’ or ‘Settled Areas,’ which set aside for British agriculture at the expense of squatters who, under the colonial rule, were to provide and act as a cheap source of farm labor on settler farms.
Consistent land excisions resulted in landlessness and subsequent pauperization of displaced people through British fiscal policies and legal measures. For example, it occurred in “Kikuyu, where British settlers alienated 60,000 acres of land between 1903 and 1906” (Githuku 42). During these colonial expeditions, they also massacred people in large numbers, especially in communities that met the British with force (Ndege). These tribes included the Giriama, Agikuyu, Ababukusu, and Nandi amongst others. Fearless warriors, who coordinated the tribes through strength and respect, led these tribes. Otenyo Nyamaterere, for example, was an exceptional Abagusii leader revered for almost killing a white man during the colonial period. Using a spear only and hiding in the bush by the roadside, Otenyo struck the white man with a spear at a time when it was illegal to look the white man in the eye. His story inspired a rebellion in Gusii land, and despite the fact that it was unsuccessful, his legend lived on and his skull is still available at the British Museum (Owaahh). Such heroes and heroines were missing as the country fought through colonialism. Leaders such as Dedan Kimathi who inspired Kenyans to struggle for their independence from the Aberdare forest got killed at a young age and did not live long enough to teach the younger generations about leadership.
The British determined to establish their authority in Kenya by all possible means. They replaced indigenous leaders with collaborative agents, and this created a lack of respect for authoritative figures. These representatives had gone against their tribes and aligned themselves with the British for their selfish gains (Lange 908). They were simply traitors. The people could, therefore, no longer want to see them in authoritative places as leaders. The country still feels this effect until the present day where government officials are greedy, self-centered and corrupt individuals who should not be in those leadership seats. Initially, Africans had a deep respect for authority and regarded all leaders as sovereign. The reverence was mainly from their acts of courage and endurance that inspired people to emulate them. It included fathers who were the leaders of the family and provided for all. Kenya and Africa as a whole had been prosperous in establishing governments they regarded with the utmost respect. They then passed down the culture from father to son. However, colonialism annihilated these heads of the states. African leaders were warriors, and the invasion of the British was a call for them to fight. Most of them lost either their lives resisting British rule or during the struggle for independence. The result was that people did not respect the majority of these individuals, who eventually become leaders, as the British through empty platitude had recruited them.
The acquisition of land by settlers also meant that capitalists could impose policies that helped them use any land they saw fit for them. There was a broad market for many goods from Africa, and there was a massive environmental degradation to meet these needs. British settlers cleared many tracts of forests, conducted rampant hunting for wildlife trophies and destroyed local industries. Before colonialism, Kenya regarded nature as sacred. The Agikuyu, for example, believed that their god, Ngai, resided on Mt. Kenya where he ruled over all the land. The destruction of forests simply for timber was, therefore, unheard of until the colonial period.
The country is still experiencing the problem where it has lost over 30% of its forest cover due to illegal logging. The people also have cohabited with wild animals, and they hunted to provide food or as a cultural practice. Poaching and the hunting of animals for sport are practices introduced by white settlers when they were trading in the west, and they kept their trophies from hunts in their houses. Currently, Kenya has been facing its most dangerous fight against poaching. It has lost the last white Northern male rhino only recently when people had rescued it from the wild. The need for money has escalated poaching in the nation and eradicated the culture of respect for the environment.
River-lake Nilotes also had a profound regard for the environment as their primary source of food was through fishing. They were also farmers and raised subsistence and cash crops, such as sugar cane, millet, and tubers (History World). However, with the introduction of industrialization through colonialism, many companies are continuously dumping chemical waste in rivers and lakes with the help of locals. Dead fish are floating in Lake Naivasha due to the dumping of chemical wastage in the lake. The waste is mostly from the horticultural companies established in the region, and Africa has become the leading exporter of flowers and other horticultural products. Many have also abandoned their environmental practices for a life in the city where there is financial gain. They are now using agricultural lands for industrial developments as opposed to farming. Also, while initially, traditional farming practices ensured the land remained uncontaminated, the white culture has introduced harmful chemicals that destroy crops. Methods have also changed over the years, and farmers are using destructive pesticides and fertilizers more and more and leaving the land contaminated. The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has also transformed the farming practices in Kenya as many communities abandon their traditional cultures.
Kenya is home to a diverse number of tribes, and each group had its ethnic practices before colonialism. Every tribe had a different name for their god and had a specific way to worship him. The Agikuyu, for example, prayed while facing Mt. Kenya where Ngai resided and would carry out religious ceremonies in the forests. The Abaluyia believed in Were, while simultaneously having their faith in their ancestral spirits. They also held beliefs in witchcraft, sorcery, and perhaps the most common practice they were famous for was having night runners. The Abagusii believed there was one God who created the world but did not interfere with human affairs directly. They had diverse healers and had faith in witchcraft and its practices. The Maasai were believers of Enkai as their god who manifested as either a black or a red god. While the former was benevolent and had all the characters that were good, the latter, however, was vengeful and punishing. These cultural practices established boundaries between different tribes as they all mutually respected each other. Noteworthy here is that these customs were a crucial part of each society, and while they had their good and evil elements, they were not practices that needed to be eliminated.
The introduction of Christianity at the shores of Mombasa had different effects on different tribes. The white settlers introduced many Christian denominations in Kenya, and they each had found a place in different tribes. Catholicism, for example, took root mostly in the eastern region among the Akamba where the effects are still evident to this day. Seventh Day Adventist churches can mostly be present between the Abagusii and the Anglican Church of Kenya among the Agikuyu. The denominations are not specific to these churches, but a majority of their practices are available within these communities. The main effect of Christianity of the previous religious practices was that it condemned them and taught its followers that such practices were evil and had to be forgotten if they were to see heaven. Consequently, communities began to regard all traditional manners as immoral and backward despite all the previous benefits they had drawn from them. Traditional healers and rainmakers were in the same class as sorceries who were also different from witch doctors, but that did not matter to the missionaries. With time, these practices eliminated. And all the people who practiced them got isolated that brewed a culture of fear rather than respect.
This paper aimed to show the effect the British colonialism had on different cultures in Kenya. African countries, their practices, and the tribes existed before colonialism. African kingdoms, governments, trade routes and cultural ways were peaceful and well developed. Kenya, for example, had a rich history with different tribes coexisting in various regions in the country. Colonialism came and disrupted this history. The research so far has shown that colonialism brought about many changes to the nation, especially in the cultural aspects. The rule of the British over Kenya took about seventy years, and during this time, many people had to adapt to this change or face death. The result was the annihilation of many cultural practices and a slow but sure adaptation of British cultures. Some of these effects are evident in the country’s environmental, political, and, most prominently, in its religious culture. The nation should take time to study these changes as it is vital for the country’s history as it shows the influence that one community can have over another, and perhaps they can learn how to recover in the future.
Atika School. Establishment of Colonial Rule in Kenya. 13 Jan. 2017, <http://notes.atikaschool.org/kcsehistorynotes/establishment-of-colonial-rule-in-kenya.> Accessed 13 Apr. 2018
Atika School. Christian Missionaries in East Africa. 13 Dec. 2016, <http://notes.atikaschool.org/kcsehistorynotes/christian-missionaries-in-east-africa.> Accessed 13 Apr.2018
Githuku, Nicholas K. Mau Mau Crucible of War: Statehood, National Identity, and Politics of Postcolonial Kenya. Lexington Books, 2015.
History World. History of Kenya. 2017, <http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ad21.> Accessed 13 Apr.2018
Lange, Matthew. “British Colonial Legacies and Political Development.” World Development, vol. 32, no.6, 2004, pp. 905-922
Ndege, Peter. “Colonialism and its Legacies in Kenya.” Lecture Delivered during Fulbright–Hays Group Project Abroad Program: July 5th to August 6th 2009. Moi University Main Campus, 2009. Accessed 13 Apr. 2018
Owaahh. The Legend of Otenyo. 22 Oct. 2015,
<http://owaahh.com/the-legend-of-otenyo.> Accessed 13 Apr.2018
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