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BEING KIKUYU IN MERU: CHALLENGING THE TRIBAL GEOGRAPHY OF COLONIAL KENYA*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 April 2012

TIMOTHY PARSONS*
Affiliation:
Washington University
*
Author's email: tparsons@wustl.edu

Abstract

Faced with a confusing range of fluid ethnicities when they conquered Kenya, colonial officials sought to shift conquered populations into manageable administrative units. In linking physical space to ethnic identity, the Kenyan reserve system assumed that each of these ‘tribes’ had a specific homeland. Yet the reserves in the central Kenyan highlands soon became overcrowded and socially restive because they could not accommodate population growth and private claims to land for commercial agriculture. Although colonial officials proclaimed themselves the guardians of backward tribal peoples, they tried to address this problem by creating mechanisms whereby surplus populations would be ‘adopted’ into tribes living in less crowded reserves. This article provides new insights into the nature of identity in colonial Kenya by telling the stories of two types of Kikuyu migrants who settled in the Meru Reserve. The first much larger group did so legally by agreeing to become Meru. The second openly challenged the colonial state and their Meru hosts by defiantly proclaiming themselves to be Kikuyu. These diverse ways of being Kikuyu in the Meru Reserve fit neither strict primordial nor constructivist conceptions of African identity formation. The peoples of colonial Kenya had options in deciding how to identify themselves and could assume different political and social roles by invoking one or more of them at a time and in specific circumstances.

Type
Politics of Ethnic Identity Formation
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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Footnotes

*

I am grateful to Richard Waller and the members of the International and Area Studies Migration and Identity Worskhop at Washington University for their comments on this article.

References

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39 Maher, Soil Erosion, I, 27.

40 Fadiman, When We Began, 343–5; Lambert, ‘Systems of land tenure’, 23.

41 Maher, Preliminary Notes, 69–73.

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44 Maher, Soil Erosion, I, 137–8.

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46 KNA OPE 1/354/124/1, Order Under Section 12 (1) of the Native Authority Ordinance, 1937.

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61 KNA OPE 1/354/32, Memorandum by H. E. Lambert on Draft Rules Under the Native Lands Trust Ordinance, 10 Jan. 1946; KNA OPE 1/354/47, Secretariat Circular, Interpenetration and Infiltration in Native Land Units, 3 May 1946.

62 KNA OPE 1/354/56, Officer-in-Charge Masai EPD to Chief Secretary, 13 Oct. 1946; KNA OPE 1/354/71, Secretariat Circular, Statement of Government Interim Policy with Regard to Interpenetration and Infiltration in Native Land Units, 13 Aug. 1947; KNA OPE 1/354/107, Secretariat Circular, Interpenetration and Infiltration on Native Land Units, 8 July 1948.

63 See Parsons, T., ‘Local responses to the ethnic geography of colonialism in the Gusii highlands of British-ruled Kenya’, Ethnohistory, 58:3 (2011) 491–523CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64 KNA PC CP 9/21/1/48, DC Embu to PC Central Province, 25 Aug. 1947; KNA PC CP 9/21/1/56, DC Embu to PC Central Province, 5 Dec. 1947; KNA PC CP 9/21/1/68, DC Embu to PC Central Province, 1 Apr. 1948.

65 KNA PC CP 9/21/1/50a , E. W. Mathu to CNC, 29 Sept. 1947.

66 KNA PC CP 9/21/1/36, DC Meru to PC Central Province, 16 May 1947; KNA PC CP 9/21/1/34; PC Central Province to DC Meru, 5 June 1947.

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78 Anthias, ‘Where Do I Belong?’, 494.

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