The Deep Scars of Colonialism   1 comment

Early in my time in Kenya, it was apparent that at many levels, the country is dysfunctional.  Two months is certainly insufficient time to become an expert on the topic, but I feel it’s important to record my impressions as I continue to process them.  Like much of Africa, Kenya was once part of the vast British Empire.  England and other colonial powers sought to bring order and civilization to what they deemed chaotic savagery.  Tribal lands were fragmented by geographical and political lines.  Indigenous leaders were supplanted by British diplomats who retained those willing to serve as puppets of the empire.  Western culture, commerce, and politics were introduced in place of tribal rule.  It was all seen as progress.  That was until the empire failed.  The economic and political will of England faltered and member countries seized the opportunity to expel the foreign invaders.  During my time in Kenya, the country celebrated it’s 46th year of independence.  Celebrated, however, is the wrong word; they acknowledged the occasion.  There is little to celebrate.

Politics – When the empire was expelled from the colonies, an inevitable power grab ensued.  The new Kenyan democracy was cobbled together from Kenyans who had held titles under British rule.  Cabinet positions, the court system, the senate, even the corporate world was populated by Kenyans replacing their English counterparts.  The new leaders lacked the knowledge and training to function in their new roles.  This was by design.  Empires maintain control by denying citizens of their colonies access to the inner workings of their government and businesses.  46 years is not nearly enough time to establish the knowledgebase and experience necessary to maintain a functional Western society.  The result is political corruption, a crumbling infrastructure and a collapsing economy.  Without appropriate leadership, the police force is more interested in shaking down citizens for bribes than enforcing law and order.  Even the public hospital administration turns a blind eye to faculty who accept a staff salary and spend their days in private hospitals never entering the public facilities. 

Tribalism – I have a sense that Kenya is a country torn between the Western promises of economic prosperity and a deeply rooted instinct to return to a pre-colonial tribalism.  America is idolized in Kenya.  Popular culture is almost entirely imported from the US.  Clothing styles have shifted from tribal garments and beaded jewelry to jeans and branded shirts.  While local music from various cultures can be found, most people blast R&B radio stations from their car stereos.  Barack Obama is more of a celebrity in Kenya that he is in the states.  Many Kenyans I spoke with expressed a desire to one day live in America.  Kenyans seem unified in a goal to become as much like us as possible.  The other face of Kenya was exposed during the clashes a year and a half ago.  Tribal gangs roamed the streets murdering those who did not speak their dialect with the appropriate accent.  Families were forced from their land as tribal homogeneity was re-established.  This went largely uncorrected by the government.  Intertribal marriage is still poorly accepted by many.  The artificial unification of these tribes under imperial rule continues to cause strife to this day.

Racism – The creation of a colony presumes the superiority of the colonizing power.  The British Empire considered people of darker skin color to be inferior to themselves as did most European cultures.  This flawed logic was employed to justify colonization and slavery.  In my time in Kenya, I witnessed first hand the lasting effects of social status being determined by race.  One of my first experiences was going to a local golf course with an American and a Kenyan friend.  We didn’t have the appropriate clothing or even clubs, but the business was welcomed.  As we were being checked in, the attendant assumed there were two of us playing and our Kenyan friend was our caddy.  As I left Kenya, I visited a businessman in Nairobi I had met at a wedding in Eldoret.  He was dressed in a suit and polished shoes.  I was in a t-shirt and jeans.  As we passed people he knew, they asked if I was his new boss!  We stopped for lunch and the waiters approached me before asking him what he wanted.  I understand that this treatment was more based on economics than race, but it is unacceptable that in a country of well over 90% dark skinned people, they should be made to feel inferior.   

Religion – A final theme I wish to address is that of missionary work and religious conversion.  One of the changes brought by colonization was the introduction of Christianity.  In the name of evangelism, African colonials were taught to abandon their tribal beliefs and accept Christian theology.  Those who were ‘saved’ and proclaimed their acceptance of church doctrine could advance in society.  Failure to accept the teachings would mark one as a heathen unfit for the benefits of Western culture.  Today, the churches remain, but appear to also be subject to the power struggle gripping the rest of the country.  I attended a Catholic church service and noticed an interesting practice during the collection.  Rather than sending baskets down the pews for anonymous donations, the entire congregation was ushered forward to rows of children holding large padlocked crates.  Money is collected with the eyes of the entire church on you.  I am also bothered when I witness Kenyans stating that “God will provide” and failing to take any initiative to improve their own lot in life.  The promises of a foreign religion are too often being used in the place of personal responsibility and ambition.

Final Thought – I realize that the tone of this post is relatively negative, but the content is based on my experience of the darker side of Kenya.  There are many fantastic and positive experiences chronicled in my previous posts.  My thoughts here seem to temper that a bit and are an attempt to help add more depth to the description of the trip.  I welcome any thoughts or debate on the subject.


Posted June 1, 2009 by chrislux in Travel

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One response to “The Deep Scars of Colonialism

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  1. You got it right!Look some American lady here told me that many Kenyans ask her to take them to America.She tells them that God has a better place for us than the US.I got lots of people asking me to take them to America all the time just because I\’ve lived there.It sucks.Obama is an American and doesn\’t give much hoot about Kenya as he does about Luxenmbourg.

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