Recently, columnist XN Iraki wrote an interesting article on the genesis of the so-called ‘Kikuyu capitalism’. In it, he demonstrated how a relatively un-African tree, the black wattle of Australia, became literally the green gold for a group of people from Murang’a County also referred to by the older generation as ‘Fort Hall District’.
That the tree made a few millionaires and helped to educate a lot of us older folks is incontestable if you ask anyone from the hilly landslide-prone county. He also creatively speculated on why the people from the county have dominated the property market in Nairobi. His final conclusion that the real reason is the superior entrepreneurial spirit of the people from there is spot on. It is, however, a subject that many Kenyans simply do not want to accept in spite of the glaring evidence.
While the analysis is academically correct, it also raises some serious questions for anyone with an anthropological bent of mind. And the main reason is something I have learnt lately from a young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; she is wise beyond her 39 years. In a classic presentation to a group of well-educated Americans with the cryptic title “TED SPEAKS”, she told listeners about “the danger of the single story”.
If the reader is interested, her rendition is available from Youtube. Her point is actually quite simple: if you only listen to one side of any story, you may miss a lot of valuable information and, much more so, if you allow yourself to be a victim of falsehoods no matter how craftily they are peddled. Like Aristotle once said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. Aristotle died in 322 BC while Chimamanda was born in 1977 some 2,300 years later. She might as well have been his daughter.
Which brings me back to the wattle tree story. It is true that the introduction of that plant in Murang’a made two major differences. One, it stopped the natives of the area from further cutting down of the indigenous trees for making their houses; it was simply an unsustainable way to progress even under Mzungu rule.
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The same is still true to-day as we watch people in certain mountain areas destroying indigenous forests for firewood or for charcoal thereby almost guaranteeing their own destruction. If in doubt about this subject, just read a book by Jared Diamond by the title “Collapse”.
The second reason – totally unintended – was that it provided an unusual source of major income – wattle bark and charcoal. An interesting observation that Iraki made was how, in contrast, their Kiambu counterparts followed the railway line to the Rift Valley and, in the process, unintentionally created the graveyards of their grandchildren – why, for instance, was there that infamous church in the Rift Valley called “Kiambaa Church”?
Coincidentally, last weekend, I had the good fortune to visit a part of Nyandarua County called Dundori or, more curiously, “Gwakiongo” (named after the nickname of a mzungu who owned a vast ranch in that area between Ol Kalou and Nakuru). The land, even today, is fabulously fertile, potatoes and peas literally grow on their own and the cows are a wonder to behold. And yet, Nyandarua is the poorest among the Kikuyu counties – it had a 2009 population of 596,000 in an area of 3,245 sq km and has a poverty rate of 46.3 per cent, the highest in the region. Its largest city is Ol Kalou with a population of 66,000.
Compare these statistics with its eastern neighbour Nyeri with an almost equal land mass of 3,337 sq km and population of 694,000. The poverty rate is 32.7 per cent while the largest city, Nyeri, has a population of 120,000. Nyandarua is currently struggling to build a county headquarters at Ol Kalou 53 years after independence while Nyeri was a prosperous provincial capital where the founder of the Boy Scout movement Lord Baden-Powell is immortalised in a decent memorial in the hotel grounds of the Outspan Hotel called Paxtu House where he died. The County also recently played host to the beatified Sister Irene Nyaatha.
In contrast, the people of Nyandarua have been busy destroying every available evidence of colonial occupation, especially the grand homes constructed by the notorious colonialists of the so-called ‘Happy Valley’, instead of making them tourist attractions as Dr Iraki has suggested. They have even recently rejected artefacts of modern development – wind power generation – when most homes in the district have no electricity. Those interested about this county can read Juliet Barnes 2013 book, “The Ghosts of Happy Valley”.
So where does all this lead us, you may ask? First, the fallacy that having a good climate and plenty of fertile land will automatically lead to prosperity simply does not hold. Secondly, the idea that prosperity can only be brought to you by the Government again is similarly untrue. The people of Murang’a and Nyeri did not have the privileges of good land like Nyandarua had or of proximity to Nairobi that Kiambu had.
And yet, they were able to turn their adversities into advantage by sheer hard work, tenacity, risk-taking and a willingness to challenge the colonialists at every opportunity, including engaging them in a brutal humiliating war. They also realised that to prosper, you must literally get out of the box and fight for your rights. To a certain extent, it is those other properties that have led to the so-called dominance by the “Murang’a tycoons”.
-JH Kimura, Ph.D.