AFRICA was the continent least known to the American public until World War II took many Americans there. Soon after the war Americans began to hear of political crises at the south and north of the continent; and later the curtain lifted dramatically upon tropical Africa, west and east. Now there are stories of political trouble in no less than seven areas of Africa, to say nothing of developments in the other countries and colonies of the continent that have risen to prominence as sources of raw materials urgently needed by the North Atlantic world. At each center of political crisis violence has occurred, but nowhere has it broken out so abruptly and continued with such virulence as in Kenya, one of four British East African dependencies.

Kenya belongs to a world that has no counterpart anywhere in the United States, Canada or Europe. It bestrides the Equator, and except for a narrow strip of coastland, stands high above sea level. Its low latitude and its high altitude cancel each other, to produce a climate neither hot nor cold, but comfortably temperate. To reinforce its climatic superiority, much of its soil is the productive residue of volcanic flows, in contrast to the characteristically infertile soils of the tropics. As a further amenity, the land has rare beauty, with magnificent volcanic peaks, inviting lakes, forested slopes and expanses of grassland where big game roves.

Not all of Kenya is equally desirable. The barren desert of the north is scantily peopled by nomads. The coastal strip is hot and humid. The most populous parts are low highlands, 3,500 to 5,000 feet above sea level, where African farmers have tilled the soil for several centuries. Europeans make careers there, but only in the towns, and on retirement they return to their homeland or move to higher elevations in Kenya. Those high highlands were rather scantily occupied by Africans when Europeans appeared and found the country inviting to permanent settlement. At altitudes above 5,000 feet white people need make no concessions to climate.

Except for Abyssinia, a country not open to European immigration, the high highland centered in Kenya is the largest area of the kind in tropical Africa. It has become the home of European farmers and ranchers, as well as of African cultivators and nomads, like smaller spots of similar elevation in eastern Africa. Kenya's recent rise to notice as a place of massacre can be understood only by tracing the shifts in control, utilization, and condition of the land since 1885, when a conference at Berlin, representing interested European states, marked out interior Africa for occupation and partition.[i]


The Conference of Berlin set off a scramble for territory that stamped tropical Africa in the short span of 15 years with the political pattern that has been little altered during the ensuing half century. A few European dependencies have changed hands and one independent state has been confirmed, but few boundaries have been affected. The political occupation of territory was based on coastal footholds and aimed at navigable lakes and streams of the interior--all such waterways being cut off from the coast by physical barriers.

In East Africa the British started from Mombasa, the best harbor they controlled on that side of the continent, and pushed toward Lake Victoria. To reach the lake, they had to traverse the high highland; and as an aid in holding the route they encouraged immigration. Political motives may have dominated the venture at the outset, but the British Government had also long been determined to stop the Arab slave trade, and was moved by an ardent missionary spirit which enlisted vigorous support from Christian churches. Then in the 1890's British authorities became eager to forestall French moves up to the Nile toward the great African lakes, and to rival a German push inland to Lake Victoria from the Indian Ocean coast immediately south of the British foothold.

Private incentives were even more varied. Sports attracted some individuals--big-game shooting, mountain climbing and other adventure, although few who came to Africa for such reasons remained in the country. Trade was always an enticement --the most valuable African products of the late nineteenth century being ivory and precious metals. Africans of Kenya had nothing to export from their patches of subsistence crops, and from their scrawny herds only a few hides badly cured and punctured by tickbites. But before 1900 the highland was recognized both in Britain and in South Africa as suitable for settlement. As the railway thrusting inland reached the high highland, immigrants from both countries began taking up land for livestock ranches, grain farms, and plantations of coffee, tea, sisal, wattle and other tropical crops. The products were intended for export, and have long since become the mainstay of the country's economy. As rural settlement grew and prospered, towns and cities kept pace. For many years the Europeans have not only paid their own way, but have in addition provided the government with funds for improvements in African parts of the colony. This has been possible through the cheap African labor available for private and public undertakings.

Nearly all the settlers on the land in Kenya, as well as the majority of the commercial and professional people in the towns, live on the high highland. It has the most attractive climate and the most productive soil; and when Europeans came much acreage lay unoccupied, unused, and, as the newcomers at first supposed, unclaimed. From the outset, the British Government frowned upon the taking of land which Africans were using, although official exceptions were made where administrative or trading centers were needed, and the government took a swath two miles wide for the right-of-way of the railroad. Private holdings were acquired by various methods: some by purchase from communal or individual African owners, many by grant from the British Government of lands that had been declared Crown property. Title was transferred to the Crown by treaty in at least one major case. Essentially all the land in European hands today was alienated before 1915, the bulk of it between 1902 and 1907. Immigrant farmers since that time have moved into subdivisions of earlier European holdings, many of which were too large to be used effectively.

Time has proved that Europeans can live in good health on the high highland, and children born and brought up there appear to suffer no disabilities from their equatorial habitat. But after a generation of hardships, inherent in pioneering in any novel environment, the Kenyans, as they liked to be called, find themselves in perennial disagreement with the British Colonial Office as to policy in dealing with Africans, and increasingly at odds with the Africans themselves. The issues appear at first glance to be varied, but without exception they are based on the question of use and ownership of land.

When the British entered the high highland, several tribes shared it. The nomadic Masai tribe roamed the extensive grassland of the less rainy areas--some sparsely dotted with trees, much of it treeless. These people are believed to have appeared there early in the nineteenth century with the cattle on which they depended and still depend for subsistence. Since the herbage and the waterholes were also used by wild game, they herded their cattle in tight bunches, leaving most of the land temporarily vacant. Their tribal organization featured a warrior class, organized in bands that perennially raided neighboring tribes for livestock and killed any men who resisted them. By this system they made themselves undisputed masters of the region and forced other tribes to take refuge in wooded areas, generally more rainy and more rugged than the pasture lands. The Masai occupied only spots within the vast territory over which they roamed and from which they excluded other tribes. If evenly spread, they would have averaged less than three persons per square mile, in the best of times.

In 1901-02, when the first wave of land-hungry Europeans arrived, times were hard. The tribe had recently been decimated by a concurrence of natural catastrophes rare even in Africa, where disasters singly or in pairs are almost commonplace. Severe drought had been accompanied by an invasion of locusts that consumed the vegetation over wide tracts of land. Rinderpest (distemper) had killed off large numbers of cattle, weakened as they were by hunger. Cattle losses resulted in general famine. To cap the climax, smallpox raged.

Since the Masai never tilled any of their soil, held more land by force of arms than they needed at any time, and were then reduced in numbers, they made treaties with the British Government surrendering thousands of square miles of humid land suitable for European types of farming. In the end they were relegated to the drier although larger part of their Reserve that lies south of the railway. Their cessions form a preponderant part of the 17,000 square miles of the "White Highlands," so named because settled by white families from Britain and South Africa, and subsequently reserved for Europeans.

A small amount of land now in European hands had never been used by an African. On margins of the Rift Valley, which cuts the high highland into two parts, there were tracts covered with coarse tuft-grass on which cattle languished. Left aside by the Masai, such land was likewise useless to African cultivators, whose primitive tools could not cope with the tough grassroots or whose crops did not thrive. Europeans have broken the land with tractors, fertilized it, added cobalt and other trace minerals needed to make it productive, and are now harvesting bumper crops of wheat every year.

The remainder of the farm and range land of the Europeans was alienated from several of the tribes whom the Masai had relegated to the woodlands. There they lived mainly by typical African tillage, a system generally called "shifting cultivation." This method produces only two or three crops, after which the tilled patches are abandoned to nature until the lapse of 15 years or so has regenerated the soil. Hence only a small part of the total holding is used at any one time. Many shifting cultivators graze cattle or sheep on a part of the untilled acreage, but to the European newcomers, most fallow land looked unoccupied.

In 1901-2 the tribesmen who lived nearest the Masai had likewise suffered from the catastrophes that afflicted their enemies. One such tribe, the Kikuyu, who inhabited the wooded lands northeast of the Masai, had lost from 20 to 50 percent of their population, the heaviest toll being along the Masai frontier. Many survivors had taken refuge among relatives in other parts of the tribal domain. The consequent reduction in cultivation and livestock made the woodland margin in which the frontier lay seem utterly disused.

This zone had long been a forest defense against the grassland Masai. It was not a no-man's-land, but the territory of a weak local tribe. Shortly before the famine, Kikuyu had been buying parcels of land there, not communally as is usual among Africans, but for individual holdings. This is uncommon procedure, but recognized as valid when the transfer strictly observes native practice. When European individuals in turn paid money to the Kikuyu owners, they assumed they were buying the land for keeps, but because they neglected the forms for a sale required by native custom, the Kikuyu assumed that the Europeans were renting the land for a period of time, until they themselves, as owners, chose to reclaim it.


So long as the African population remained small, trouble resulting from constriction of the tribal lands was only a sporadic aftermath of mutual misunderstanding. To minimize disagreements, each tribe was assigned to land reserved for it by the British Government. Enough land was available at the time to permit extensive areas, both within and outside tribal reservations, to be declared game preserves, and slopes high and moist enough to support commercial timber to be set aside as forest preserves. The pattern of land tenure created by these allocations, including transfers to private ownership, corresponds only here and there with nature's landscape design. Viewed from the air, European holdings form neat geometric patterns, within which the fields are terraced or plowed along the contours as a means of preventing erosion. The ground is kept under a cover of vegetation except when freshly plowed. In contrast, African farmlands look much like natural bush and grassland, except that exposed red or yellow soil betrays depleted fertility, and fresh gullies and streams running red prove that the soil is being eroded. Through contrasting land use, the borders between native reserves and European areas, originally arbitrary, have become arresting features of the landscape, even in this highland country where sharp natural contrasts are the rule.

While the design has been ever more deeply etched, the pattern has been little altered since World War I. Europeans have increased threefold, but the total number today is little more than 30,000, and the only additions to the farmer-planter group who have fitted into subdivisions of earlier and larger holdings are veterans of the two wars. Asians, all townsfolk, have increased a little faster, to 122,000. Between 1925 and 1950 the African population has risen from 2,500,000 to 5,250,000.

The sharp rise in Kenya's African population is a consequence of the amelioration of African life by the European government, and the increased opportunities afforded by European initiative. The death rate has been sharply reduced, at first by the abolition of tribal warfare and raiding for slaves, then by medical and sanitary services which have eliminated or minimized epidemics. Diseases that reduce vitality, however, are still widespread, and keep the level of achievement lower than it otherwise could be. The death rate of livestock has also been sharply cut by reducing epidemics, and the resulting surplus of cattle has intensified destructive use of grazing land. Some of the additional people have found work on European farms, and a larger number in the European towns. In Kenya, Africans perform all unskilled manual labor and household service, some semi-skilled labor, and a few clerical jobs. But the number entering European employment has not offset increase in population of the native reserves and consequent drain on the soil.

The material improvements in African life take on new meaning when viewed against a background of persisting and unaltered African attitudes that profoundly affect use of the land. In the face of a declining death rate, the birth rate has remained at its former level, and in a single generation has brought several tribes to and beyond the limit of their local food supply. In spite of shortages of food, and of land on which to grow it, farming methods of most tribesmen remain those of shifting cultivation --a valid system where land is plentiful, but destructive to the soil if periods during which the soil is rested are too short to permit regeneration. For the Africans, cattle are the mark of wealth, and this favors the rise in numbers of livestock and the consequent pressure on the land, with no corresponding increase in produce except low-grade hides from ill-nourished animals that happen to die.

The government tries to pass on to Africans the lessons of land-use learned on European farms and agricultural experiment stations. Farm experts are resident on the reserves. "Schools" which teach how to improve the soil by resting, manuring, contouring and terracing are actually farmlands where young Africans work the land for a year under supervision by the Agricultural Department of the Colony. Crop trees are started in nurseries and given to promising farmers. At best, however, it takes time for Africans to adopt practices so unlike their traditional ways. At worst, rumor raises doubts of the sincerity of the European tutors, and at least one well-planned project, which was in active operation, has been nullified by fear of further alienation of land to Europeans.

Meanwhile, the rising population increases the load the land must bear. Already the soil on African farms in several reserves has decreased in fertility. The structure of soils in a low latitude is easily broken down, and severe erosion follows quickly. To alleviate destruction of the soil on one hard-pressed reserve, the government has undertaken to prepare a large nearby area for resettling many families on land hitherto unoccupied because of predatory wild animals, tsetse fly, and bushy natural vegetation difficult to clear. On old lands and new, the authorities dig wells and dam streams to provide water for people and livestock after the seasonal rains are over.

Such are the moves that have transformed the land pattern of Kenya in 65 years. Europeans and Asians have implanted a new social structure. Africans are incorporated in it; but at the same time it upsets the balance and demolishes the base of their former existence.


In the face of change, a large part of the Africans still occupy their tribal lands and look upon their place in the life of Kenya from the viewpoint of tribal customs and conditions. Most of them are quiet and friendly, and a few individuals are interested in improving their economic and social lot. Some tribes have adequate land, but most of them are pressing hard upon the capacity of their soil to provide subsistence.

The engulfing increase of African population is not confined to the high highland. The most heavily-peopled areas are on the lower highland, where density approaches 400 persons to the square mile in some places. The largest tribe on the high highland is the Kikuyu, numbering 1,000,000. A large percentage of them live on their Reserve, where density is estimated to average 285 per square mile. By any measure, they are one of the tribes short of land.

The Kikuyu tribal territory is the only Reserve that is intermeshed with the flourishing and sparsely settled White Highlands. Originally the same kind of ground, intensified shifting cultivation on the Reserve has resulted in decreasing productivity, washing of soil and gulleying. The European lands present the demonstration of a higher level of living. The contrast is always evident, not only to the Kikuyu cultivating their own land, but also to the many who live as squatter employees on European farms, and to the large number who go to Nairobi to work. No other Kenya tribe has been in such close touch with Europeans, nor for so long a time.

The issues and conflicts are sharpest in and near Nairobi, Kenya's capital and largest city. The Kikuyu Reserve begins at the city limits, and includes the land held by individuals. Here European farms are even more closely intermixed with the Reserve than elsewhere--holdings purchased long ago from individual tribesmen, whose descendants consider the properties their own, as explained above. The European settlers have carefully managed the productive soil, and nearness to the capital and largest market of the colony has enhanced land values. They refuse to relinquish the land at the demand of the Kikuyu claimants, and the 110 square miles at issue have become the epitome of the tribal land grievances. Already, members of the tribe have demanded transfer of European-held lands which they never owned. It may be noted that no other tribe has requested the return of land, even that land which it has formerly controlled.

Besides being in closer touch with European life than other tribes, the Kikuyu appear to be more interested in political affairs than the rest. They have, as unofficial leaders, men trained in British universities as well as in the local schools. Half a dozen members of the tribe have recently been convicted in court of crimes associated with a secret society known as Mau Mau. Secret societies are common in African tribes, and ritual murder following ancient custom comes to light from time to time. Until now only Africans had been thought to be victims. When, rarely, a European has been assassinated, a personal grudge or religious fanaticism is usually found to be the cause.

Mau Mau made itself known toward the end of 1952 in gruesome massacres of many Africans and several Europeans. It is confined to the Kikuyu tribe. Its instigators are dedicated to ridding Kenya of Europeans, and many Kikuyu whose feeling toward Europeans is neutral or loyal have been terrorized into taking an oath to exterminate them. The 200 or more African victims have come from all walks of life, but they shared the reputation of being loyal to their European employers or to European officials. The much smaller number of European victims have been noted for exceptional services to the Africans. Wives or husbands and children of these individuals, black and white, have been included in the massacres. Personal grudge appears not to be a motive.

The leaders of Mau Mau may hope to dominate the country, if they can wrest control from the present authorities. It is no secret that many Kikuyu covet the Europeans' lands. It is doubtful if the few who have received more than minimum schooling possess the training and experience to take over the complex operation of a White Highlands farm, to say nothing of the segment of the interdependent world which the Europeans have made of Kenya. It is certain that transfer of the European farmlands to Africans would sharply reduce export crops, the basis of the country's economy.

The small gold mines started two decades ago in Kenya are already declining, and land is the sole foundation of human life. Whether there is enough land to support suitably the present population may be questioned. If there is, it will all have to be managed in the most efficient way known to agricultural science. Only a few scattered African cultivators now try to increase the output of their lands and check the destruction of their soil. Concerted efforts of Europeans and Africans are called for, and also enough time to modify age-old traditions and practices. The present generation of Kikuyu is rejecting body marks and deformations formerly considered essential; succeeding generations can presumably learn to improve their farming methods and to abandon practices outmoded by European innovations. The most destructive aspects of Mau Mau are its repudiation of coöperation with Europeans and its refusal to grant time for a solution acceptable to all groups in the colony.

[i] The most informative book on the tribal background of these disturbances is "Mau Mau and the Kikuyu," by L. S. B. Leakey. London: Methuen, 1952. The author is a Kenyan of European parentage who grew up among the Kikuyu and was made a member of the tribe.

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  • DERWENT WHITTLESEY, Professor of Geography at Harvard University; consultant to various government departments, 1940-46; Fulbright Research Scholar in Africa, 1951; author of "Environmental Foundations of European History," "German Strategy of World Conquest," and other works
  • More By Derwent Whittlesey