The Kikuyu cradle

‘Look, there is a beacon!’ says Eliud, Nancy’s gregarious and affable eldest brother.

My eye scans the hundreds of hectares of Del Monte-owned pineapple plantation, each fruit barely one foot above the ground. Can Eliud really be referring to pineapple? Or, even more improbably, to the transnational corporation itself?

‘Over there!’

Then I see it – one of the four mountains that traditionally marks the land of the Kikuyu people. Eliud’s car revs up, leaving behind the fruit-, flower- and coffee-growing areas as we begin the ascent to the cooler tea region. We are nearing Muranga, Nancy’s childhood home. The landscape is lush, with sudden explosions of purple or scarlet bourgainvillea, and a rich variety of acacias, cedars and other trees.

It is easy to see why British colonial settlers took to this beautiful land – though that does not begin to excuse the way in which they stole it from its African inhabitants. During the 1890s the region suffered a tremendous famine that wiped out half the Kikuyu people. Weakened by hunger and disease, the remaining population put up little resistance to the Europeans who came to survey the fertile, seemingly unoccupied lands.

According to Eliud, his grandfather, Njagi Githambo, did put up a fight but was defeated and finally accepted British rule.

‘He was a local chief,’ says Eliud. ‘The Europeans could see that he was a good leader and so he was left in charge of a large area.’

The British divided the land into three parts – Crown land owned by the British Government, land ‘leased’ to European farmers for periods of up to 99 years, and land set aside for what they called ‘native reserve’.

By the time the Africans realized what had happened it was too late. In his 1938 diaries US anthropologist Ralph Bunch Jnr quotes a Kenyan who recalls:

‘The Europeans came with good words, saying that they would come into the land, make it prosperous and because we were few in number, we did not at the time object, as we were thinking that all would be well, and trusting in government. We soon found that the Europeans who came to us as temporary occupiers turned themselves into owners, and us, the real owners, into tenants.’1

White mischief

One eviction survivor of the time gives a vivid sense of the sudden unreality and dislocation felt by Africans:

‘A European came to our place one day with Chief Kinyanjui. He had been told that he was free to settle on our land... We were given seven days to leave. Seven days later the European returned on a horse and told us to remove all our belongings from our huts. He then burned our houses to the ground.’1

Nancy’s grandfather, Chief Njagi Githambo, appears to have had an ambivalent attitude towards the Europeans and the religion they brought. On the one hand he allowed a priest to build a Christian church in the area under his control. ‘But he made sure it was a good distance away from where he lived,’ says Eliud.

It was one of his sons, Nancy and Eliud’s father, Itotia Njagi, who was to be the family’s first convert to Christianity. He took the Biblical name Ayub (or Job).

‘My father was a man who could not eat alone,’ says Eliud. ‘He always had to share his meal with someone. He educated his brother rather than go to school himself and then learned from him.’

Ayub Itotia’s concern for education extended to his fiancée, Muthoni.

‘He told his future father-in-law that he could not marry this girl unless she could read and write and make clothes,’ relates Eliud. ‘That’s why she was sent to school, although at that time going to school was generally despised as something foreign.’

Nancy’s mother, Muthoni, was taught in Kikuyu by a Mrs Wickram, ‘a British missionary lady, the wife of a reverend’, and was the first girl in the area to become literate. On becoming a Christian, she took the name Marion. In 1933 Nancy’s parents got married. A Rolls Royce was hired to take them home.

After the Second World War political resistance to British rule grew. The Mau Mau emerged – a clandestine insurgency movement which required its members to take blood oaths of loyalty and secrecy. It was largely the struggle of the Kikuyu people who constituted almost a third of the country’s then five-million-strong population.

In 1952 the British declared the Kenya Emergency, during which thousands were detained. British newspapers of the time carried bloodcurdling reports of Mau Mau atrocities committed against European civilians. But Mau Mau supporters actually killed many more of their own people – at least 2,000 African civilians. Thirty-two white settlers died in the rebellion and army and police sustained some 200 casualties.2

The British, for their part, hanged over 1,000 Kenyans, detained at least 150,000 and, according to official figures, killed around 12,000. Historian David Anderson reckons the real figure is closer to 20,000.3 Another historian, Caroline Elkins, claims that, in addition, up to 100,000 died in detention camps and ‘emergency villages’ enclosed in barbed wire.4

When the British finally left Kenya, they made bonfires of the most incriminating material about the detention camps. Even after independence the record was not set straight. On the contrary, according to historian Bernard Porter: ‘Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, connived in this, anxious in the interests of national unity to “erase” the past, and not to encourage the “hooligans” of Mau Mau. It was a bit like South Africa’s “truth and reconciliation” but without the truth.’2

Nancy remembers the liberation songs she would sing as a girl. But their father was not a Mau Mau supporter, says Eliud. ‘He was neither with them or against them. In fact the Mau Mau gave him a bit of trouble.’

Nancy’s father finally died – or was ‘promoted’ as Eliud puts it – in 2001, aged 100. His widow, Nancy’s mother, Marion Muthoni, is still alive today, aged 90, and I am looking forward to meeting her.

The matriarch

We arrive at Muranga. James, another of Nancy’s brothers, shows me around his shamba or garden. In fact, it is more like a small farm and plantation. He lives mainly by growing tea and is unhappy with the price he gets from the state. Evelyn, his wife, a pastor, teaches at a local school.

Bright green tea shrubs blanket a steep slope leading down to the river from which, as a child, Nancy would draw water every morning before school. Nancy leads me through an adjoining compound where another brother, Evans, lives. Then we climb through a low gap in the hedge into another small compound and garden. This is where Nancy’s mother lives.

Marion Muthoni, a small sprightly figure, smiling broadly, invites us in. She produces a papaya, then some bananas – insisting, eat, eat – while she perches on a stool. Her agility belies her years. Later I see her scrambling with ease through the hole in the hedge where Nancy and I had struggled.

‘She still grows her own food,’ says Nancy.

We have brought with us gifts – sugar, cornmeal, dried food, vegetable fat, a new mattress – for which she thanks us, in her few words of English.

Her house is a simple wooden one with a corrugated roof – a wood fire for cooking, no electricity, water from a standpipe a little way off. Looking around her, Nancy explains: ‘This is the way my mother wants to live and you cannot change it. She does not want it any other way. It’s her home.’

In Kenya, the idea of old people entering nursing or residential homes is still largely anathema

I think back to a conversation I had with Nancy in England. Nancy had noticed how elderly residents in the nursing home would go into a rapid decline once their homes were sold. Often this was done to pay for their care, but the old people could not understand this.

In Kenya, the idea of old people entering nursing or residential homes is still largely anathema. Nancy knows of a Christian missionary home for destitute men and women without families, but this is an exception. ‘In my country we live with our sons when we get old,’ she said.

‘Or daughters?’ I ventured.

‘Oh no! You have to live with your son.’

This helps explain the importance Nancy places on ensuring that her sons are well set up for life. In part it’s natural maternal concern, but Nancy is also thinking about her own future. She fully expects her sons – and their wives – to look after her in old age.

In terms of custom, the arrangement here in Muranga is entirely as it ought to be. Nancy’s mother is living in her own home next door to two of her sons and their wives. ‘She will go and eat there sometimes,’ Nancy explains.

But Nancy’s mother is also very independent and her needs are few. This is partly because she lives as she has always done, working her land and living close to the basic things she needs for survival. For chores that might now be too arduous, there is help at hand.

She is fortunate. Unlike many of the elderly people Nancy cares for in England, her mother does not have any serious health problems. And when we go back to the big house where James and his family live, she is very much part of the scene. Eliud starts to tell some of the fables that he grew up with – stories he heard from his mother. Marion Muthoni sits opposite him, listening and smiling contentedly.

Where Marion is lucky, her daughter Joyce – who lives next door – is not. Afflicted by Parkinson’s disease, Joyce asks me if I know of a hospital where she can be cured. I am unable to help. Her shaking is extreme. Nancy tries to find out what medication her sister is taking, makes a note of it and gives her some money for pills. ‘She has got a lot worse since I last saw her,’ Nancy tells me.

Talking politics

When we get back to the big house we find a political discussion in full flow. The two brothers, Eliud and James are taking opposing positions. One is defending the record of the current government, saying it takes time to put right 24 years of misrule. The other is arguing that two years have passed and there are few signs of improvement. In some ways things have got worse. Pay inequality has increased – and politicians have been among those who have benefited. Kibaki has a policy of paying his ministers well to reduce the incentive to steal. Poverty has deepened because food prices have increased. In some cases farmers are getting better prices for their products – but in others they are not. And ultimately those who bear the brunt of high food prices are the urban, landless poor. Nancy has noticed how expensive basic foodstuffs have become.

Other guests join in the discussion. This government department is useless, says one. But this other has done well. The one area of agreement is education. Introducing free primary education, the Kibaki Government has got an extra 1.6 million pupils into school. And not all of them are children either. Kenya now boasts the world’s oldest primary school pupil – an 84-year-old who, detained during the Emergency, missed out on education the first time round.

The argument about whether you can judge a government after two years in office is one that is being conducted all over Kenya. Opinions are split in many other families, I imagine.

But the difference between today and the Moi era is that now politics can be openly discussed. About this James and Eliud heartily agree: ‘Under Moi we could not have had this discussion – even in our own home. Even in front of your mother you would not have it. You never knew who was listening or what might be said, however inadvertently.’

But it’s getting late, says James, and it’s time to stop talking politics, interesting though it is. Instead he invites us consider what brings us together here. There is a genuine warmth among these 20 or more relatives and it makes me realize how much Nancy is missing in England. She appreciates this chance to see her family – but the visit is too short, she says. Nancy is quiet as we leave. But she is content. ‘Seeing my mother always makes me feel good.’ And a powerful sense of Marion Muthoni accompanies us on the way back down through the hills of tea, down to the plains and the road to Nairobi. It is as though the old mother has quietly reinforced a sense of what matters.

  1. 1 Ralph Bunch Jnr 1938 Diaries, University of California, Los Angeles Archives, quoted in Jeff Koinange, Koinange-Wa-Mbiyu: Mau Mau’s Misunderstood Leader, The Book Guild, Lewes, UK, 2000.
  2. 2 Bernard Porter, ‘How did they get away with it?’ London Review of Books, 3 March 2005.
  3. 3 David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, Weidenfeld, 2005.
  4. 4 Caroline Elkins, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, Cape, 2005.

Marion Muthoni, Nancy's 90-year-old mother, still cultivates her land.

Vanessa Baird

Brothers Eliud (left) and James at home in the teafields of Muranga.

Vanessa Baird

Vanessa Baird

New Internationalist issue 379 magazine cover This article is from the June 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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