In the cradle of humanity
As a nation, Kenya celebrated the 50th anniversary of independence on December 12, 2013. But in most of the manuals, Kenya’s history begins with the archaeological finds of skeletons of early hominids. To this day, the country sees itself as a cradle of mankind, including in the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi, a claim that Ethiopia and Tanzania also make for themselves.
Like other areas of the continent, East Africa has been shaped by migratory movements of different cultures in the past 2000 years, by violent conflicts, but also by regional and international coexistence and trade and exchange and, more recently, by increasing integration.
The history of the Swahili culture on the East African coast reflects African and Arab influences, particularly visible on Lamu on the north coast. The archaeological excavations in the abandoned city of Gedi provide evidence of the urban lifestyle more than 600 years ago and trade connections to China, a fact that is often emphasized in the course of the current intensification of relations between China and Kenya, a country located in eastern Africa according to oxfordastronomy.
The area of today’s Kenya has long been considered to be multiethnic, with armed conflicts as well as extreme weather events triggering migration movements and permanent feuds over land, cattle and water. Tribal myths, which imply a kind of eternal right to certain lands, are to be questioned, since almost every group only got to where they can be found today during a migration. This does not discredit all claims, but questions their historicizing or even mythological justification. The Kenyans are relatively unanimous in the perception that the violent land grab by the colonialists since the end of the 19th century massively increased the pressure on land as a resource and that a previously unknown political culture of the-winner-takes-it-all Mentality and dictatorial arbitrariness established.
More recently, standard works on African and Kenyan history have appeared, especially since the time of the independence movement, which put contemporary Kenyan history in a completely new light and make current developments easier to understand. The historians Charles Hornsby (Kenya. A History Since Independence) and Daniel Branch (Kenya. Between Hope and Despair 1963-2011) deserve special mention. Martin Meredith in The State of Africa provides a legible overview of African history up to the turn of the millennium. In addition, many autobiographies worth reading have recently appeared, including those of the opposition leader Raila Odinga, the avowed gay writer Binyavanga Wainaina and the most famous author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Anyone interested in lived history is also right with the autobiography of the environmentalist Wangari Maathai.
Uhuru means freedom – the way to the nation state
The future President Jomo Kenyatta giving a speech
Jomo Kenyatta, 1966
The first three presidents since independence until 2013 as shop decorations
The road to independence on December 12, 1963 (Uhuru Day) is connected with the name of the later first president Jomo Kenyatta and with the guerrilla movement ‘Mau Mau’. In contrast to other African nations, the Kenyans have violently rebelled against colonial oppression and fought for their freedom and made sacrifices. This is part of the historical self-image; many of those involved and contemporary witnesses are still alive. However, since not all groups were equally involved in this struggle and some even sided with the British, not even the struggle for freedom offers a homogeneous projection surface.
As one of the few Africans who got the opportunity to study at university during the colonial period, Kenyatta (the name was a self-chosen pseudonym and should mean something like “Burning Arrow”) wrote his ethnographic monograph on the Kikuyu ethnic group “Facing Mount Kenya” in Europe “which was published in 1938. Before that, however, he was active as a journalist and agitator in representing the interests of the African population in Kenya. When in 1952 a secret movement called ‘Mau Mau’ first made headlines by raiding white settlers’ farms, Kenyatta was suspected by the colonial authorities as a mastermind.in Nyeri by himself. Nevertheless, on October 20, 1952, he was arrested as a ringleader with five comrades-in- arms (Kapenguria Six), tried and held in captivity in a remote location for almost a decade. One of the unsolved puzzles in Kenyatta’s biography is the question of how he – although imprisoned for almost 20 years in Great Britain and a decade later – was able to maintain his contacts and to maintain or revive his political influence.
October 20th has been one of the national holidays since independence; for a long time it was called Kenyatta Day and was mistaken for the politician’s unknown date of birth. Today it is called Hero’s Day, Mashujaa Day, and so extends the commemoration to other freedom fighters.
The Mau Mau uprising, which was essentially supported by the Kikuyu and related ethnic groups, caused the colonial power Great Britain to militarize all life in Kenya. How many Kenyans died is unknown. Historians are now trying to come to terms with the war, which officially could not be called war, in order not to be subject to the rules of the Geneva Convention. But the archives were apparently cleaned up by the otherwise meticulous British people in order to hide alleged crimes against humanity. At least that is the thesis of Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Elkins. It assumes that at least 100,000 and possibly up to 300,000 people lost their lives during the suppression of the Mau Mau, often due to hunger or disease.
With the capture and execution of guerrilla field marshal Dedan Kimathi, the British brought the situation under military control. But this bloody episode remained a political disaster that finally forced the government in London to give up this colony as well. After a transition period called Madaraka (self-government), Jomo Kenyatta became the first president of independent Kenya, who was also valued by the West because of its western orientation during the Cold War. The country gained independence on December 12, 1963. The day is celebrated as Uhuru Day to this day.