Kenya’s Legacy

Kenya gained its independence from Britain on this day in 1963. Those who assembled in Nairobi’s Uhuru (Freedom) Park to celebrate the moment saw, says historian Daniel Branch, “one of the precious few moments of authentic unity in this complex and diverse country”:

As the final bars of the British national anthem echoed around the arena, the Union flag was lowered. A minute later, accompanied by the new Kenyan anthem and an outpouring of joy by the quarter of a million onlookers, the flag of the infant nation-state was raised. With its black third symbolizing the people of Kenya; it’s red third the blood lost in the struggle for freedom; and its green third the country’s abundant agricultural resources; with the white trim for unity and peace, and the shield portraying the country’s determination to defend its hard-won freedom, the new national flag was laden with meaning for local and foreign observers alike.

Branch’s Kenya: Between Hope and Despair (2011) is ambivalent about the country’s next half century. Histories of the Hanged (2005), David Anderson’s account of the Mau Mau uprisings of the 1950s, returns us to the red third of Kenya’s flag and the despair behind it. Anderson’s title refers to the information contained in recently released court documents from the trials of suspected Mau Mau participants, over 1,000 of them hanged by the British. While the documents tell “a story of atrocity and excess on both sides,” Anderson’s book is especially damning of those colonialists who covered up their role in the horror and helped to provoke it:

In the iconography of British imperial endeavor, it was the land of sunshine, gin slings and smiling, obedient servants, where the industrious white colonizer could enjoy a temperate life of peace and plenty in a tropical land. This was the “white man’s country,” with its rolling, fertile highlands. Sturdy settler farmers had made their homes here, building a little piece of England in a foreign field. They brought order and prosperity. And they held a paternal view of the Africans whose land they had appropriated, and whose labor they depended upon.… Mau Mau shattered this patronizing presence in the most poignant, disturbing manner, as trusted servants turned on their masters and slaughtered them. It was “a revolt of the domestic staff,” wrote Graham Greene, “it was as if Jeeves had taken to the jungle.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.