Kenya’s first postcolonial middle class is now in its mid-60s, retiring and settling into comfortable grandparenthood. Few would have predicted this outcome, especially for the Gikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, since this generation’s early years were filled with poverty and violence. Perhaps Kenya’s example can offer encouragement to others now caught in similar circumstances.


The childhood of many Gikuyu was marred by the turbulent years of the Mau Mau Rebellion, which took place from 1952–60, and is also known as the Emergency. The majority of Gikuyu were peasant farmers who widely supported the anti-colonial rebellion, and many of them took up arms. Their particular concerns centered on the colonial government’s refusal to address their long-held grievances: the return of the land taken by European settlers; the forced settlement on an ever-shrinking “native reserve”; and “hut tax” to be paid in cash, which annually drove them to seek employment on European farms as wage laborers. Some Gikuyu remained loyal to the government. Large landowners, government employees, and the Home Guard militia had an interest in keeping the colonial system in place. And many Christian Gikuyu opposed the violent aspects of the rebellion.

It was a brutal war in which bands of guerrilla fighters attacked police stations, Home Guard posts, military patrols, European settler farms, and loyal Gikuyu. Fifty-five thousand British troops arrived in Kenya and local security forces were rapidly expanded. Over the course of the war, several hundred thousand Gikuyu were sent to detention camps, roughly a thousand were executed, and at least 14,000 were killed.

The divisions between Mau Mau supporters and loyalists split apart many Gikuyu communities and families, with many children caught in the middle as a result. As a teacher at Giakanja (1963–67), a newly built boy’s high school in Nyeri district, one of the centers of the rebellion, I learned a great deal about their young lives. Then, 30 years later, in 1995, I spent a year interviewing 75 of them about their subsequent lives.

My former students had vivid memories of their childhood during the Emergency. For some, their clearest recollection was being awakened during the night to the cries of family members being beaten by the Home Guard and then being hustled off to years in detention camps. For others, it was witnessing similar beatings administered by the Mau Mau to those who did not give generously enough to the rebels.

But it was the colonial government’s counterinsurgency strategy of interning nearly all Gikuyu in prison-camp-like Emergency Villages to cut them off from possibly supplying the rebels with food and information that left them with the deepest scars. Incarcerated mothers and their children languished for several years without adequate food, shelter, or sanitation. Memories of constant hunger and frequent violence disturbed these children well into adulthood.

The camps did damage in other ways as well. The interruption to the children’s education left many of them unable to pass the mandatory national exams required for admission to upper primary schools and high schools. For some, a second attempt the following year resulted in a passing grade, but for most, this failure marked the end of their education, which heralded a return to peasant farming and the poverty of their parents. Very few girls advanced to high school; in addition to the difficulty of the entrance exams, girls were still seen as not needing an education. On the eve of independence in 1963, only a few of Kenya’s 82 high schools were for girls.


My former students at Giakanja were among the lucky ones. Some of them reported that they were the only ones from their entire village to make it to high school, a fact borne out by other statistics. According to the government’s 1964 Ominde Commission Report, only one to two percent of the cohort that started first grade in the 1950s made it to high school. And, once there, the students faced more challenges ahead, namely, a daunting curriculum.

High school students had to tackle ten subjects each term, all taught in English. After four years, they would have to sit for a two-week long set of exams that would lead to a Cambridge School Certificate (CSC). Of these, the most important was English; even if students earned excellent scores in all the other subjects, failing the English exam would be the end of their academic career and worse. The CSC was the only pathway to their goal of white-collar employment. As one of my students lamented at the time, “doing poorly in English will be economic suicide.”

As their teacher of English and history, I found them to be exceptional students, but the sheer volume of what they had to master in high school was enormous. Although they had been learning English since their early school years, they did not yet have full fluency and their academic vocabularies were limited.

To be sure, Gikuyu students had several advantages over other ethnic groups. First, most of them lived in Central Province, the Kenyan region with the longest exposure to western education. It was here that Christian missions established the first schools, and it was here that, several decades later, the Gikuyu created their own school system, seeking to improve upon what the missions offered. Second, this long tradition of education had produced a large cadre of teachers, even attracting some native English speakers like myself. Given the importance of English in the CSC exams, this was a distinct advantage to the students of this province.

The first three batches of students at Giakanja took their CSC exams in 1965, 1966, and 1967, respectively, in the early years of Kenya’s independence. Although seven children failed during those years, Giakanja students exceeded the national pass rate each year by a wide margin. This enabled them to compete very well against similar schools and even rival some of the older and more established ones among the Gikuyu in Central Province and further afield in Western Kenya among the Luo and Luhya ethnic groups. These remarkable CSC results can perhaps be explained, at least in part, by the students’ realization that having survived Mau Mau, their future was now more under their own control that ever before. As a result, they matured quickly and applied themselves completely to their studies, as a way of compensating for earlier years that were filled with poverty, fear, and the harsh control of their lives by others.


With exams behind them and their CSCs in hand, most of my former students and their cohort made plans for the future. About 20 percent qualified for higher education and proceeded to advanced high schools and then university. The majority, however, sought employment. And it was a great time for them. On the heels of Kenya’s independence, exiting colonials left scores of vacancies for Kenyans to fill. Further, the new Kenyan government was adding jobs as it expanded the public sector to provide more services.

Rapid growth in the public and private sectors was sufficient to absorb most every job seeker and university graduate for the next ten years. Although some Gikuyu remained in hinterland towns such as Nyeri or returned to their roots in the Rift Valley, most of them settled into desk jobs in Nairobi, already very much a Gikuyu city, which helped the young adults establish quick support networks. There was virtually no unemployment among this aspiring middle-class cohort throughout the 1960s.

Although they often had little knowledge of what jobs were actually like (that is true of most graduates), they were very savvy when it came to salaries and negotiation. Most of them changed several jobs in the first few years of employment. All my former students had stories about the joy associated with receiving their first paychecks. Even those with the most modest salaries usually earned more in one month than their peasant families earned in a year. And so they showered their parents and siblings with all of life’s essentials -- blankets, clothing, and food -- and started to pay back their families’ debts. Over time, their salaries doubled many times over; this cohort was able to settle into a comfortable lifestyle and make productive investments. Within a decade or two of beginning their careers, they had become solidly middle class.  

Although building professional lives absorbed most of my students and their middle-class cohort in the years after they graduated, they also generally married and started families within five-to-six years of finishing their education. This generation had been raised in large and frequently polygynous families. But, in their adulthood, monogamy turned out to be the norm -- only one former student had married a second wife and his classmates denounced him as not being modern. Among my students, four children was considered the ideal number, two boys and two girls, one namesake for each grandparent as encouraged by Gikuyu tradition. But many of my former students had only two or three children, for financial reasons.

These aspiring middle class men tended to marry spouses of the same age, with similar levels of education. Since Kenyan high schools, including Giakanja, were not co-educational, future spouses were found elsewhere. Marrying someone from your home village was a favored strategy, since it guaranteed familiarity with the family. But, since many in the early stages of their careers were posted far from home, a future spouse might have been a work mate, a member of one’s church, or a neighbor. All but two of my former students married other Gikuyu, seeking a partner with the same language and cultural heritage; this practice was typical of the entire cohort. Former students overwhelmingly reported that such strategies produced successful marriages; I found only two divorces in my pool of 75 former students.

All wives worked, some in professional careers such as nursing and teaching, but all left employment once they had their first child. Then, with the last child in school, they returned to their previous employment. Others started their own businesses or managed family businesses, including family investments, especially land holdings. For a significant minority, the growing affluence of the family did not require a second income.

Most of my former students thought that their marriages had been successful, although quite a few were less confident about raising children. They sheepishly confided that they thought their children were spoilt, lacked maturity, and were unable or unwilling to identify and work toward goals. A few believed that such behavior could be attributed to the comfortable lifestyles that the children had enjoyed due to their parent’s success. Some admitted that they indulged their children, not wanting them to experience any of the hardships of their own adolescent years. Others spoke of not having their own fathers around during their childhoods, initially because the fathers were migrant laborers and then because they were detained or killed during the Emergency. The lack of male role models made it hard for them to know how to act toward their own children.


Those born into this generation, now retiring, view themselves as life-long strivers, first working hard to survive and then to achieve. They identify the causes of their success as hard work, self-discipline, and perseverance. Their children received the best education, including university degrees, and lived in comfort. Further, although their parents had lived at least the first two decades of their lives in the Gikuyu heartland, surrounded by their native language, culture, and traditional small-holder farming, their children attended multi-ethnic urban schools, learned fluent English, and considered themselves to be Kenyan, not just Gikuyu. Their sons assume that they will have a bright future -- a good job, a healthy marriage, and a happy family. Their daughters forecast a more nuanced future and show relatively less interest in marriage and family than in attending to their careers. Overall though, grown children of Kenya’s first middle-class generation are shielded from the most worrisome issue facing other young Kenyans -- unemployment. Although the economic opening that greeted their parents at the time of independence has long since closed, their economic future will remain secure. They have the parental contacts and family businesses needed to ensure their futures.

My former students and the cohort of elites to which they belonged came to the workforce during the first decade after Kenya’s independence in 1963 as young people seeking white-collar employment, “a desk job in Nairobi,” and they overwhelmingly succeeded in this task. But, taken together, as the first postcolonial elite generation, what might be said about their role in Kenya’s half century since then? Certainly one can claim that this cohort provided the manpower for Kenya’s economic expansion that followed independence. The country needed expertise, and they had just completed top-notch education. They also brought stability to the long and rocky transition from a British colony to a modern state. All throughout, the Gikuyu of this generation continued to do their jobs, bringing direction and leadership to the public and private sectors, nurtured and educated their children, and eventually set in place able successors.

There may well be echoes of this Kenyan narrative elsewhere, too. Just as my students’ childhood was tempered by poverty and war, so too is that of many other children in North Africa and the Middle East. For those who survive it, they may come to realize, as did my former students and their cohort, that the very skills they developed for survival -- early maturity, self-discipline, hard work, and patience --could be applied to achieve success in school, career, and family life. One can only hope that Kenya’s success will be replicated elsewhere.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • DAVID P. SANDGREN is Professor of History at Concordia College–Moorhead in Minnesota. He is the author of Mau Mau's Children.
  • More By David P. Sandgren