Colonialism by Wangari Maathai

To Cristina F. pour nous avoir ouvert les yeux

maathai_unbowed“My parents were peasant farmers, members of the Kikuyu community, one of the forty-two ethnic groups in Kenya”. p. 3

“I am as much a child of my native soil as I am of my father, Muta Njugi, and my mother, Wanjiry Kibicho, who was more familiarly known by her Christian name, Lydia. Following the Kikuyu tradition, my parents named me for my father’s mother, Wangari, an old Kikuyu name”. p.4

“The daughters made the clans matrilineal, but many privileges, such as inheritance and ownership of land, livestock and perennial crops, were gradually transferred to men. It is not explained how women lost their privileges”. p.5

“Sadly these beliefs and traditions have now virtually died away. […] When European missionaries came to the central highlands at the end of the nineteenth century, they taught the local people that God did not dwell on Mount Kenya, but rather in heaven, a place above the clouds. The proper place to worship him was in church on Sundays, a concept that was unknown to the Kikuyus. Nevertheless, many people accepted the missionaries’ worldview, and within two generations they lost respect for their own beliefs and traditions. The missionaries were followed by traders and administrators who introduced new methods of exploiting out rich natural resources: logging, clear-cutting native forests, establishing plantations of imported trees, hunting wildlife, and undertaking expansive commercial agriculture. Hallowed landscapes lost their sacredness and were exploited as the local people became insensitive to the destruction, accepting it as a sign of progress”. p.5-6

“The story goes that the explorers Johan Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann, upon encountering the mountain in 1849, asked their guide, a member of the Kamba community, who was carrying a gourd  “What do you call that?”. Thinking the two Germans were referring to the gourd, he replied,  “It’s called kii-nyaa” pronounced Kenya by the British. This became the name of the mountain and later the country.

Throughout Africa, the Europeans renamed whatever they came across.  This created a schism in many Africans’ minds and we are still wrestling with the realities of this dual world. At home we learned the names of mountains, streams, or regions from our parents but in school we were taught the colonial names, deemed the “proper” names, which we had to use in our exams. The Aberdares [nom d’un parc naturel], for example, known locally as Nyandarua, or “drying hide”, because of their shape, were named by the British in 1884 after Lord Aberdare, then head of the Royal Geographic Society” .p. 6-7

“In 1885, Britain and the the “great powers” of Europe met at the Berlin Conference to formalize what was known as “The Scramble for Africa” – a thirty-year dash to lay claim to the entire continent. With the stroke of a pen they assigned whole regions to the different powers and created completely new nations”. p. 7

When you became a muthomi ( “a person who reads” [lire = lire la Bible]), you no longer braided your hair or shaved your head. Men cut their hair short while women let theirs grow long to resemble that of Europeans. Women also tied scarves around their heads to approximate veils. Dancing and non christian festivities and initiation rites were discouraged or even demonized and banned by missionaries and converts. A nearly complete transformation of the local culture into one akin to that of Europe had taken place in the generation before I was born” p. 11

“But most of us on the farm rarely met other people from other communities, spoke their languages, or participated in their cultural practices. Except for the skin colour we shared we were as “foreign” to one another as the British settlers were to us. I grew up knowing that I was a kikuyu and that the other communities were different from us. I would overhear the adults around me expressing their views about some of our differences. If for example, one of the women was very well dressed, they would ask her with a smile, “Where are you going, smartly dressed like a Luo?” Other people were known to expect things for free. These ethnic biases, many of which were planted early in one’s childhood became amplified and were embraced by national political rhetoric. They are still used today to divide Kenyans from one another”. p.23

“By this this time, English had become the official language of communication and instruction in Kenyan schools. Those of us who aspired to progress in out studies knew that learning English well was essential. Many schools emphasized that students must speak English at all times, even during the holidays.

A common practice to ensure that students kept pressure on one another was to require those students who were found using a language other than English to wear a button known as a “monitor”. It was sometimes inscribed with phrases in English such as “I am a stupid, I was caught up speaking my mother tongue”. At the end of the day whoever ending up with the button received a punishment, such as cutting grass, sweeping or doing work in the garden. But the greater punishment was the embarrassment you felt because you had talked in your mother tongue. In retrospect, I can see that this introduced us to the world of undermining our self-confidence.

Not surprisingly, none of us wanted to be caught with the monitor and as a result we spoke English from the time we left church in the morning untel we said our final prayers at night. This was remarkable given that everyone in St. Cecilia had spoken only Kikuyu until then. But the system worked in promoting English. Even when we went home or met children from school in the village, we tended to speak English. The use of the monitor continues even today in Kenyan schools to ensure that the students use only English. Now as then, this contributed to the trivialization of anything African and lays the foundation for a deeper sens of self-doubt and an inferiority complex.

Years later, when we became part of the Kenyan elite, we preferred to speak in English to one another, our children and those in our social class. While the monitor approach helped us learn English it also instilled in us a sense that our local languages were inferior and insignificant. The reality is that mother tongues are extremely important as vehicles of communication and carriers of culture, knowledge, wisdom and history. When they are maligned, and educated people encourage to look down on them, people are robbed of a vital part of their heritage. I am very glad I did not lose my desire or ability to speak Kikuyu, because this helped ensure that a gap did not open between my parents and me, as it has for some our of children for whom education became synonymous with Westernization”. p.59-60

“I had been sufficiently indoctrinated to believe that the Mau mau were the terror group and that everyone else was trying to restore order. The British propaganda kept us naïve about the political and economic roots of the conflict and was designated to make us believe that the Mau Mau wanted to return us to a primitive, backward, and even satanic past. […]

The extent of the misinformation and brainwashing was such that we prayed that the Mau Mau would be arrested. I did not understand that the Mau Mau were our freedom fighters ! “p. 63- 64

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