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Modern World History

Colonization & Resistance

Precolonial Societies Kenya

Directions: Read, highlight, and annotate this document with your group (may want to divide up
the work). Be able to share what you learned about the following:
different groups/ethnicities/languages
political systems
economic systems & products
cultural practices
organization of society

"Kenya." New Encyclopedia of Africa. Ed. John Middleton and Joseph C. Miller. 2nd ed. Vol. 3.
Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008. 96-108. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 9
Sept. 2016.

Kenya is a land of 37 million people and over forty ethnic communities. The Kikuyu group, which
makes up 22 percent of the population, is the largest; the Elmolo, who number under three hundred
individuals, is the smallest. Other ethnic groups of significant size include the Kalenjin (12%), Luo
(13%), Luyha (14%), Kamba (11%), Kisii (6%), and Meru (6%). None of the other groups,
sometimes better known, such as the Maasai, Samburu, Somali, Swahili, and Turkana, makes up
more than 2 percent of the countrys total population; non-Africans (Arab, Asian, and European)
together account for 1 percent. Ethnically then, Kenya is not one Kenya but many Kenyas. Spread
across a diverse range of environments, speaking languages from three different major families
(Bantu, Nilotic, and Cushitic) that are not intelligible to each other, ethnic groups are composed of
believers from many faiths who practice a broad range of customs.

What scholars call ethnicity, Kenyans talk about tribalism. Largely formations of the recent
precolonial era, they are all too often depicted as having existed forever and with fixed boundaries.
A legend of the coast suggests that an ancient migration of peoples from a place called Singwaya
brought all the people who now live there and in the adjacent hills, including the Mijikenda, Swahili,
Taita, and Pokomo. Yet this tradition conveniently leaves out other movements of other peoples
and the merging of these new arrivals with communities that already existed in the region.
Similarly, the Maasai, or Maa-speaking peoples who epitomize the herding peoples of Africa, also
include agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers, and the pastoralists among them came to dominate
the plains of East Africa only in the eighteenth century. Traditions from across the north of Kenya
tell the same tale with the agro-pastoral Dasanech, for example, an amalgam of peoples. Some
already lived along the northern reaches of Lake Turkana, and they were joined by others who
migrated from both the east and the west, and still others who arrived as identifiable Samburu and
Rendille groups, at the end of the nineteenth century.

Ethnic boundaries have always been rather permeable and became especially so at times of
ecological crises and civil disorder. Well understood was the principle that in times of peril an
individual, family, or even larger group could find refuge and ultimately permanent residency in a
neighboring society, leading quickly to adoption of a new ethnic identity. The succession of
droughts, famines, and diseases of the 1880s and 1890s provides some of the best documentation
for these shifts in ethnicity, with groups of Samburu and Rendille becoming Dasanech, and
individual Samburu and Turkana in the dry north becoming Elmolo. However, the relationships and
ties that made these population shifts possible in bad times had been previously established in good
times as aspects of everyday life. Networks of trading partners existed for the exchange of
foodstuffs, livestock, and material goods. For example, Giriama traders from the Tana River valley
had partners among the coastal Swahili, upland Kamba, and Oromo pastoralists. The Kamba had
partners all around Mount Kenya and with herders to the north. Other relationships were formed
around marriageable women. The Luo and Gusii, the Kalenjin and Luhya, all in the western Kenya
highlands, and the Kikuyu and Maasai, among others, were known for marrying each others
women. People also loaned needed labor, pawned children, and acknowledged a relationship that
they phrased as a shared clan name, and therefore an assumed history. Even when there was
discord, when for example warriors of these same societies were raiding each other, established
customs, including among the Kikuyu and Maasai, and Kikuyu and Samburu, allowed women to
continue trading peacefully with each other.

Despite this history of cooperation and coming together, ethnicity has had profound consequences
for peoples lives, and more often than not togetherness represents separateness from others. This
sense of division and competition is in large measure a product of the colonial period, when rigid
Western notions of tribe were imposed by colonial administrators, who labeled individuals and
communities as belonging to one and only one ethnic group, and defining hard-and-fast artificial
boundaries between neighbors. The British assumed deeply rooted antagonisms between ethnic
groups, and in their mission to enlighten and civilize the groups, fixated on the need to eliminate
the raiding that upset the peaceful balance the colonizers sought to impose. Although the results of
raids were obviousanimals missing, people injured and killedthe colonizers ignored the less
visible relationships that had promoted peaceful interaction. Without trade, exchange, and
intermarriage, people, by being identified with belonging to a particular tribe, were left with few
proven means to lessen interethnic strains, and as a result, ethnic rivalries were aggravated.

Where historically there existed a wide variety of forms of political leadership, the colonial
authorities appointed chiefs according to a one-size-fits-all model. The Luhya, for example, had a
hereditary [based on inheritance, i.e., passed from parent to child] ruler, a Nabongo, who ruled
through appointed chiefs. The Gusii and Kuria also had hereditary chiefs, but a council of elders
could remove a chief who proved incompetent. In the precolonial period, councils of elders were
probably the most widespread form of political leadership. Responsible for dispelling [getting rid
of] discord and maintaining and promoting harmony within and among social groups, these
councils worked at the community or clan level to build consensus. Among the Luo, the ruoth was
the leading elder in a council of his peers who advised him. Councils of elders, called kiama, also
governed the Meru, and there, as in most elder councils, the ability to speak well and offer sound
advice was regarded highly. The Meru called this quality ugambe, and depending on the nature of
the relationship one elder might have with anotherfor example, if he owed livestock from a
bridewealth payment, or loaned livestock in times of ecological disasterone elder in a traditional
council could have significantly more ugambe. Although the voices of elders were not entirely
silenced, the ones to whom British colonial officials listened primarily were the ones the British
appointed chiefs, and later to Local Native Councils at the larger level of the administrative districts
they created.

Some proved to be voices that raised concern over low wages, scarcity of employment, the need for
better health services, and lack of agricultural extension education. A particular point of continuing
tension was over the erosion of the customs that people felt made them who they were by the
imposition of Western ways. These sensitivities were particularly strong when women were
involved. Colonial and customary paternalisms might have found common ground, except for the
constraint of Western legal definitions of marriage, which included no legal status for polygamous
[where someone (usually a man) has multiple spouses] arrangements, and the opening of space for
women to seek education and ultimately wage employment in colonial institutions. Bridewealth
was about forming a relationship between the two families of the groom and bride, and the formal
recognition of giving a bride to the grooms family and replacing loss of the brides labor to her own
family. Where bridewealth was once negotiated, or followed a culturally prescribed transfer of
livestock, as for example heads of cattle or camels among peoples such as the Maasai, Rendille,
Samburu, and Turkana, the modern practice increasingly has a Kenyan shilling equivalent, or
demand for certain material goods.

Groups Political Economic Cultural Societal





European Views Political Economic Slavery Imperialism

Africa &