Activism and Defiance in Precolonial Kenya



In pre-colonial Kenya, people had their notion of social justice. Based on that notion of social justice, there was a system that ensured social protection for all, communal responsibility towards members of the community, labour organization and natural resource use controls. A clear logic (cultural logic) defined leadership and conduct of leaders as well as members of a community. The engagement with members of other communities was also informed by a certain logic based on need for co-existence. There were clear boundaries that members of either community did not cross in their dealing with each other. Jomo Kenyatta seeks to describe such like a system in his book “Facing Mt. Kenya”. Is there any indication of defiance against traditional chiefs?

It seems migration; in some cases was a form of defiance. For instance, when undesired chiefs were installed, those out of favor or who did not like the new chief would choose to migrate. Specific examples require more research. Are there any traditional songs, dances, folk stories, legends that signify defiance? Among the Bukusu, a legend is told of Maina Wa Nalukale who defied his father the chief. Consequently, he decided to move away and gained legendary status elsewhere. There are folk stories of young men who fell in love with wrong girls e.g. a girl destined for sacrifice. They would then fight and move earth and heaven to save the girls and change tradition. Because of their heroics, they would be installed king or elder.

Cultural defiance may also be seen in terms of how different tribes adopted certain cultural practices. For long, the Bukusu did not circumcise their men. A story is told of a man who after killing a python with bare hands becomes motivated and decides to face the knife (was this a form of defiance or activism ), he proved to the whole tribe that they can stand as men and face the knife

Pre-colonial defiance can also be traced to the coming of Arab traders (slave trade). There are communities that collaborated with Arabs in Slave trade but there were victims and other that resisted. In my ancestral home area, for instance, Mumia worked with Somali traders but was fought by neighbors like the Bukusu due to slave trade
A key turning point in the pre-colonial period was the building of fort Jesus (Brantley, 1981). Once fort Jesus was built, the Kenyan coast became a key battleground between the Portuguese and the Omans from Saudi Arabia. The activities of the Arabs at the coast and their engagement in trade with people in the mainland created trade routes. It is this trade routes and the guidance of traders that gets European explorers into the interior of Kenya. The reports of the explorers about a land full of untapped potential created interest in Europe and more expedition caravans came in search of treasure and due to competition, the desire to control the territory. The ethnic profiling of Kenyans begins with the explorers who wrote reports to their countries describing the societies they came across. These profiling is taken up by missionaries and later the colonial administration

The groups that were in pre-colonial Kenya included, inter alia, Africans as the original occupants, the Indians due to close ties between the Indian subcontinent and the region, the Arabs as traders, and the missionaries, the vessels of the gospel and explorers. At the time, the Africans lived in their traditional communities and they owned land communally. Land belonged to the community and was held for the benefit of all the people.

Everybody had equal rights to use the land in a manner prescribed by their culture. There was allocation of land according to specific needs of individuals and families. Land law was traditional law thus varied among and between communities guided by culture. The elders, sorcerers and witchdoctors settled disputes arising from the use of land.

The Ionian Islands (1883), then, the Crown was not capable of dealing with land because that would interfere with the rights of the native owners in the region. This is part of the orbiter, “where native owners exist, it is not, of course, desired to interfere with them; but where there are no such owners and the land can be regarded as vacant, the object desired may be obtained by other methods.” The British did not have the power to issue titles to land.

When the colonialists came, leaders from tribes across Kenya either collaborated or resisted colonial rule (Brantley, 1981). The system of indirect rule applied by colonialist perpetuated traditional leadership running parallel with colonial administration. The indirect rule system perpetuated by colonialists enabled them to reduce administrative costs but also allowed African to exercise power and control over their people. Many tribal leaders because of the benefits associated with it accepted colonial administration. For instance, the colonial guns were safe guards against raids from other communities thus restoring peace and tranquility.

The grabbing of land and agitation over land is what led to changes in political system to ensure more colonial administration control over irked locals. Jomo Kenyatta in his book facing Mount Kenya attributes agitation among Africans as having been caused by imposition of a system that was not responsive to local notions and nuances of power. The colonial governments sought to dispose chiefs that were resistant and replaced them with leaders that were submissive or that would collaborate with the colonial administration. The desire to have leaders that would collaborate led to defiance from locals given they did not perceive the appointed leaders as representing the community interests.

According to Siundu (2009) all African leaders were under pressure from the colonial administration to collaborate and advance the administrations interests while on the other hand, the community expected defiance from their leaders against exploitation and suppression by impostors and foreigners. Siundu (2009) and Murunga (2000) call for a reconsideration of forms of resistance and collaborations as not necessarily inimical. For instance, Nabongo Mumias collaborations cannot be seen as submission to colonialists but rather forging an alliance through negotiations that can be seen as a form of passive resistance.

The Giriama, Kisii, Kamba, Kikuyu, Maasai, Bukusu and Kikuyu resisted the coming of colonialists particulary. Forces under Waiyaki wa Hinga attacked and burnt the British station in Dagoretti in 1890. In Kibwezi, the Wakamba people are said to have bewitched or threatened to bewitch missionaries and chased them away from their land. The kamba still refused to sell food to the British mission in Machakos in protest against theft, rape, and destruction of their property. Similarly, the Nandi, the Maasai, the Giriama, and the Somali people formed resistance organizations against British colonialism. In western, the Bukusu and Gusii communities were hostile against the British and waged a war against them. The war of resistance to imperialism lasted over 25 years. Some notable pre-colonial resistance by Africans included

a.       Giriama Resistance led by Mekatilili wa Menza[1]
Mekatilili led the Giriama at the coast in opposing the exploitation of colonialists between 1913 and 1914. Some of the concerns the Giriama had was discretion of their sacred places, the grabbing of land and imposition of ordinances by the colonialists

b.      Nandi resistance led by Samoei Koitalel of the Nandi,
He led an eleven-year resistance against the colonialists who were building the railway, which was to pass in Nandi land. His son continued his legacy after his death and was imprisoned by the colonialists for many years, from 1922 to 1964

c.       Kikuyu Resistance Led by Waiyaki wa Hinga
Waiyaki wa Hinga rejected a pact with the British and led an uprising which led to his being buried alive

d.      Gusii Resistance led by Warrior Otenyo
The Kisii warriors attacked and British in 1905, a few years after the railway line reached Lake Victoria. The fight was over land and imposition of British rule on the gusii people

e.       The Destruction of building fortifications at Kiawariua
Waiyaki was not ready to sell out his people or land, therefore, opted for a much looser arrangement with Luggard i.e. one acceptable to his people: if only to safeguard their sovereignty. He went only as far as binding them to no more than peaceful coexistence with the stranger. This was achieved by literally sucking blood from a cut made at the back of the hand of each party.” Waiyaki made it clear that land sharing was not part of the deal.”George Wilson violated this and commenced building fortifications at Kiawariua.

The betrayer among his men was Njama Kinyanjui (Nugu/Monkey), was betraying his moves; and collaborated with the white men. As both sides stepped up military counteraction strategy, Waiyaki himself became the first to fall by the gun, to the amazement and chagrin of the Agikuyu. Waiyaki’s execution forced the Agikuyu to retreat into the Maasai hinterland, a move that allowed the Agikuyu to claim maximum territory there. However, by 1904, five years after Lugard’s visit, British settlers had taken full control of Kenya.

f.       The Chetambe War
The bukusu warriors fought the British flanked by Wangas at a place called Chetambe and Lumboka.

g.      1902-The Kihumbuini Area Destruction
In September 1902, “the Kihumbuini area was destroyed on the orders of Meinertzhagen, where every living thing was mercilessly exterminated. His men burnt all the huts and razed the banana plantations and food crops to the ground. Women and children were killed.
Every organized traditional defense was similarly destroyed, disarming warrior groups. All these moves aimed at attaining supremacy by the white to control the African Land.


[1] The resistance by Mekatilili is well documented by Brantley, 1981

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