Courtesy Reuters

The Rise of Kenya's New Elite

Letter From Nyeri

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

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