BOOK REVIEW: History of Kenya’s ‘martial’ tribe

Saturday June 17 2017

Ethnicity and Empire in East Africa, by Myles

Ethnicity and Empire in East Africa, by Myles Osborne. PHOTO | DANA APRIL SEIDENBER 

By Dana April Seidenberg

Myles Osborne has written an easy-to-digest, concise, line-up-the-ducks dissertation enhanced by the erudition of several celebrated scholars.

Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya (2014): Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba, c. 1800 to the Present, published by Cambridge University Press, contains an impressive bibliography, plenty of footnotes, and oral testimonies.

Speaking of his doctoral degree research, American historian Osborne acknowledges he “could no longer tolerate its presence in my house” by the time of going to press.

Was it perhaps due to the intellectual dilettantism underlying Osborne’s choice of one tribe as his theoretical framework?
In the short-lived euphoria of post-Independence East Africa, enthusiasm for nation-building and political democracy included a hoped-for reform in social consciousness.

In Tanzania, the corrosive ethos of ethnicity, considered by its first president, Julius Nyerere, as an archaic form of representation incompatible with any modern republican state, was relegated to obscurity.

As a moral obligation to Independence, East Africa’s pioneering historians were actively engaged in the construction of an African history set apart from the colonial canon scripted by empire apologists.

Despite Kenya’s distinguished postcolonial historians Godfrey Muriuki and Bethwell Ogot having written their own “tribal” histories, today this line of inquiry feels dated, inward-looking and regressive.

Only opportunistic politicians revert to this lamentable archaism at every election cycle. Otherwise, scholars and journalists of merit steer clear of it.

A well-trodden path

Osborne’s themed tale of Kamba ethnicity, martial prowess and women’s roles in shaping history begins in 1800 — despite Kikamba-speaking peoples of central-eastern Kenya only assuming this identity in the 1940s.

In “bringing ethnicity into dialogue with the colonial development agenda,” the author guides us through the well-travelled terrain of significant historical events shaping Kenya’s past.

Fresh observations and dramatic details are in store for both East Africans and anyone else new to the subject.

Early on, a favourable option for local colonial control was the choice of the Kamba as a “martial race.” As an ethnicity with killer instincts, they were not alone: British officers and colonial officials indeed came to view the Kamba as they did the Sikhs of India, the Gurkhas of Nepal, and the Scottish Highlanders — as a “race” of soldiers who “naturally” made good fighting auxiliaries.

To his credit, Osborne confronts sexist barriers in previous historiographies of “martial races,” where women have been “utterly ignored.” Commendably he also stresses women’s “strong record of supporting community interests.”

Early signifiers in the imposition of a colonial state that also shaped Kamba identity began in the 1880s, with the appearance of the Imperial British East Africa Company.

The establishment of of a colonial government station at Machakos (named after the Kamba prophet Masaku) in l889, and missionary education in Ukambani by the African Inland Mission led by evangelist George Rhoad, were key factors in shaping the Kamba identity, as was the muvunga (famine) of 1898 and 1899.

During the two World Wars, the Kamba “martial race” was in great demand. By 1917, the British had recruited 3,900 men from Machakos and 3,885 from Kitui; and by 1945, 14,389 Kamba were in military service while 25 per cent or 1,144 had joined the Kenya Police.

One of the marshalls of the monument in memory

One of the marshalls of the monument in memory of the Native African troops who fought the II World war along the Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi. PHOTO FILE | NATION

However, the “defining moment” congealing Kamba ethnicity was “the destocking episode.” In 1938, the colonial government, believing excessive stock had degraded the Machakos reserve’s “land condition,” confiscated 2,500 cattle.

Led by Samuel Muindi Mbingu, the recently formed Ukamba Members Association organised a 3,000-strong protest in a 64km march to Nairobi. The cattle were returned and the peaceful demonstration was “an unqualified success.”

Despite playing their “loyalty” card as Kenya’s supreme “martial race,” Kambas joined the anti-colonial movement in large numbers, with many volunteering for Mau Mau, the struggle’s military wing.

This was an era of violence, venality and greed. In focusing narrowly on “the tribe,” the work conceals the economic scaffolding of colonial occupation.

How this past foreshadows Kenya’s acceptance of Britain’s political model, contemporary Western interventions, and how “tribal” affiliations — as extensions of elite private power — continue to shape Kenyan politics are left unexposed.

Unfortunately, the author does not reach his own finish line as by the mid-1960s he runs out of steam, leaving a stretch of 50 years under-researched.