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How would it be had Israelis become Nandis’ neighbours?

A Palestinian man gestures as he speaks to members of the media in front of a house which police said was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip July 16, 2014. (GAZA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

The world breathed a collective sigh of relief after the Egyptian-brokered truce between Hamas and Israel took effect.

The Middle East is a perennial tinderbox where past conflagrations have often escalated and sucked in partisan players who generally comprise the pro-Israel on the one hand and pan-Arab nations with their ideological brethren on the other.

Wading into this sensitive dispute is running counter to deeply entrenched and embellished narratives. One risks either being howled at by human rights groups sympathetic to the marginalisation of the Palestinians -this time round broadcast worldwide in real-time, thanks to the proliferation of social media- or being plastered with the standard ‘anti-Semitic’ label for criticising Israel.  

This week, we indulge in some speculative journalism and a timely historical fantasy. Since the Israeli-Arab conflict is primarily about real estate, especially the area where both the Al Aqsa Mosque and the ruins of an ancient Jewish temple stand, we ponder what would have happened to Kenya had the Jews been settled in Uasin Gishu as was outlined in the infamous Uganda Proposal of 1903. 

Rinderpest epidemic

Unlike the Maasai, the Nandi of Uasin Gishu had not been affected by the late 19th century rinderpest epidemic and, their combat superiority had grown spectacularly. Having subdued most of their neighbours, they had gained sufficient courage and confidence to wage intermittent guerilla attacks against the British, Arab caravans and indeed anyone who trespassed their turf.

When in 1900 the railway-line made its way through the Nandi escarpment towards Port Florence (Kisumu), the Nandi tampered with its progress by stealing telegraph wires and poles to use in making weapons and ornaments. The British held the Nandi in dread, terming them proud and war-like. How would this ‘unpredictable’ ethnic group receive the settlement of the Jews in Uasin Gishu? Could Kimnyole’s famous prophecy that foreigners would one day dominate the Nandi have motivated them to fight the incoming Jews?

Between 1900 and 1930s, anti-Semitism was festering around the world, becoming unbearably vehement, genocidal and intractable in Europe. Zionism envisaged a homeland for the Jews. It was the British Prime Minister Joseph Chamberlain - who once in December 1902 had dropped by Kenya to inspect the progress made by the British settlers - who came up with a peculiar suggestion about bringing in the Jews. 

On August 26, 1903 amid dramatic uproar and ideological stampede, a meeting by the delegates of the 6th Zionist Congress took place in the Swiss city of Basel. Theodor Herzl - the founding father of Zionism - had agreed with Chamberlain that the Jews could be settled in Kenya. This charged meeting was the beginning of months-long turbulent disputes and accruing liturgical crystallisation within the Zionist movement. Other possible Jewish havens such as the Sinai, the Congo, Mozambique and South Africa, had been proposed, but Kenya was earmarked as the most promising. The offer was a free land lease of 3,200,000 acres in Uasin Gishu. (The current area of Israel is 5,472,100 acres.)

The Zionist movement sent spies to inspect the land. These gave three reasons why they would not take it up. One was that the area was inhabited by wild animals and the thick forests were impenetrable. Two, the local inhabitants were ‘unfriendly and war-like’. Three, the area did not have any religious significance for the Jews. 

At the same time, Lord Delamere whose anti-Semitism was uncamouflaged, teamed with settler associates and vowed to fight see to it that no Jews were ever settled in Kenya. Others who fiercely chafed against this proposal and worked overtime to neuter it included Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen - the man who had personally killed Koitalel Arap Samoei.

Jewish invasion

Notably, the caucus of settlers who had been opposed to the Jewish settlement in Kenya even used The East African Standard newspaper as a platform for airing their disagreement to what they had referred to as the “Jewish invasion”. Between the years 1903 and 1905, the newspaper devoted much space to what historian Prof Mwangi wa Githumo called ‘vituperative and vicious’ attacks against the Jews.

What would have been the demographic permutations of today’s Rift Valley had the Jews been settled there? Would Eldoret have become a theatre of recurrent Israeli-Nandi conflicts similar to the just-ended one with Gaza? 

Who knows? The Jews may by today have integrated locally as one of Kenya’s communities as have done the Arab, European and Asian ‘tribes’. Only that they would be among Kenya’s largest ethnicities.

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