1938 - An African point of view


The Wakamba are an African tribe about 400,000 strong, who live in Kenya on the east side of the Athi River. Cattle are, as they have been for centuries, the Wakamba farmer's currency, the symbol of his standing in the tribe, and the indispensable traditional token in every ritual and domestic ceremony. Since the white man came to Kenya, the Wakamba have suffered from a shortage of land. In the old days, they used to graze their cattle over a wide area, shifting from one district to another, and making seasonal use of the Yatta plateau, where the best grazing land is now reserved for Europeans. Today, they are crowded into inadequate reserves, like all other native tribes of Kenya.

When too many cattle are grazed on too small an area, the inevitable result is erosion of the soil. Having deprived the Kenya peoples of the best of their land, the Government authorities advise them to cut down their cattle to match. They assert that this is in the best interests of the people themselves, and that it is only short-sightedness and ignorance of the principles of good husbandry which make cattle-owners object to reducing their stock. The cattle-owners, however, object strongly. They know that before the white man came they could possess as many cattle as they liked without in any way endangering the tribal welfare.

This May, the Government decided to reduce the Wakamba cattle by half. The chiefs refused to co-operate so the Government organised a forced sale and 1,485 cattle were sold, at an average price of less than £1 per head. Unanimous in their resistance, the Wakamba sent a petition to the Colonial Office which throws a new light on the Government policy:

"Recently [it says] a European company has erected a factory for the canning of beef and other meat products on land adjoining the Athi River Station. It seems that, as a result, efforts are being made by the administration to ensure a steady supply of cattle for slaughter at that factory. Whether because there are no, or not enough, European-owned cattle to keep the factory going, pressure is being brought to bear on our tribe to dispose of our stock. It is being stated that our reserve is over-stocked and such overstocking is the cause of soil erosion and that is being made the excuse for compelling us to sell our cattle to the company owning the factory at a price being a quarter or less of the market price. Ordinary prices vary from 50s to 100s."

The petition goes on to describe how the District Commissioner informed the Wakamba that their cattle were to be sold at a fixed price of 12s per head, and that those which were not compulsorily sold would be branded with a Government mark. The people refused. Three successive meetings were called to try to persuade them to agree, but the Wakamba spokesman insisted that there were markets all over the district, and that anyone wishing to purchase cattle should do so at those markets at the ordinary market prices. The forced sale in May is the sequel to this struggle. The petition sums up the Wakamba view:

"We feel that it is a strange doctrine which lays down that one should not possess more than a certain number of cattle, or more than a certain amount of money, for that, in effect, is what the order means. We cheerfully pay our taxes and would equally cheerfully pay more, each according to his means, if the extra taxation were for our benefit, but the policy of compelling even the poorest among us - those who have three cows must sell two and keep one - to contribute to the profits of a wealthy concern, is not understood by us."

Mr Lionel Curtis, writing on another African question, once made a significant observation: "A British official of long experience in the Dominions once said in my hearing that no Government can be trusted to enforce veterinary restrictions on purely veterinary grounds." This is worth quoting, as many British readers will feel that no British administration could be guilty of the underhand intentions implied in the Wakamba statement. The Government has certainly incurred the suspicion, to say the least, of using its power to benefit a European firm at the Wakamba people's expense. In a country which lives by cattle-farming, few things could undermine trust in the Government more fundamentally.

The people of England object to Fascism; they are ready to fight to save other democratic countries from coming under the Fascist or Nazi yoke. But if ever they have to fight in earnest, they will need the wholehearted support of the colonial peoples themselves. How can they expect that support unless they convince them that British methods are different and that British claims to stand for democracy and freedom are true?

Jomo Kenyatta
General Secretary
The Kikenya Central Association
15 Cranleigh House,
Cranleigh St, London NW1

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery