Free food and housing was the pedestal of hustling in colonial Kenya

Lieutenant-Colonel Alistair Monteith Gibb owned this house, 15km from Ol Kalou and hugging the Aberdares. Notice the shingles roof and servants’ quarters attached to main house-a rare design in colonial era. [XN Iraki]

Kenya’s colonial history is biased towards the British settlers, missionaries and liberation war, the Mau Mau. It has ignored the Afrikaans - Boers - who lived among the Britons but left before independence. Some Britons stayed on and became part of Kenya’s melting pot.

The evidence of the British and Afrikaans’ sojourn in Kenya is still there; big lonely houses in the former White Highlands. The distance between the houses shows how big the plantations or ranches were. 

After independence, the big plantations and ranches were chopped into small shambas that are proving hard to sustain families, contradicting the concept of independence.

We now want to chop the remaining plantations and ranches. But before we do that, could we visit the former White Highlands and see what happened after the plantations were subdivided?

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Enough digression. Was there hustling in colonial Kenya? Without exaggeration, colonialism was sustained by hustlers who farmed the land, took care of the children or cattle, sheep and goats. They were paid for that, but not enough to become plantation owners.

Interestingly there were ‘mzungu’ hustlers who worked hard till they got their own farms. They were mostly farm managers.

One of the most interesting facets of hustling in colonial Kenya was giving the labourers free food, called ‘posho’. The workers were also given free housing and small pieces of land to grow their food. They were small enough to ensure no competition from the plantation or farm owners.

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With no schooling, hustling was passed from one generation to another. Remember ‘Kitchen Toto’?

Workers were productive

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Feeding and housing hustlers was a mark of genius, it ensured the workers were productive and had no incentive to leave. Kamwaro Kimani from Shamata village in Nyandarua County told me he left Bill Delap’s farm to work for Arthur Wainwright because Wainwright provided ‘posho’.

Mama Kurumbu and Mama Itegi from the same village worked for Elizabeth Johanna Crous (Warukira) who was a Boer. The exciting part of their story was how Warukira married an old man after her first husband died. Apparently she had been shown a photo of a very young man.

Hustling was interrupted by Mau Mau with hustlers repatriated to their original homes, mostly in Kiambu, Muranga and Nyeri. They were replaced by new employees seen as less likely to collaborate with Mau Mau. That is how the Turkana came to Nyandarua County.

Hustling ensured cheap labour for the settlers and possibly good profits. After independence, the former ‘mzungu’ employees got small pieces of land. Sadly, they continued the cycle of hustling which they may bequeath to the next generation unless industrialisation and innovations reverse the state of affairs.

It would be interesting to hear if the ‘mzungus’ who owned the white highlands visit the place today. What is not debatable is that the vicious cycle of hustling continues. It has persisted from our traditional society to the present.

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Efforts to end hustling have not been very successful. What happened to the Poverty Eradication Commission? Finally, and in good faith, did your parents or grandparents hustle in colonial Kenya? If yes, talk to me. My dad hustled in Tatu city, then called Socfinaf, and in Kasarani. 

[XN Iraki; [email protected]; Twitter: @Hustlenomics7]

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