Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 April 2012
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.
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.
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