Kenya: a tarnished jewel.

Author:Hempstone, Smith
 
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From the beginning, Kenya was the jewel in Britain's African crown, an idyllic, wife-swapping, polo-playing, lion-shooting place in the sun for the restless, titled, but often impecunious younger sons of empire. The viscounts and the baronets were followed by men whose blood was not so blue but whose hearts were stout, chance-takers to whom neckties and offices were anathema, who wanted nothing so much as to turn a comer of "bloody Africa" into a little slice of Devon or Sussex. Some brought their women with them, intending to stay. And of course there were among them miscreants whose previous lives could not bear close scrutiny, adventurers looking for a fresh start in a country where there were no police records. Nineteenth-century Africa held small appeal for plump and comfortable men.

In the 1890s, British strategic thinkers wanted Kenya not for itself, but to guard the backdoor to Uganda and the source of the Nile, the key, so it was thought, to the control of Egypt, which secured the Suez Canal (completed in 1869) and the route to the treasures of India. To provide the capability of moving troops quickly from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria, a railway -- dubbed the "Lunatic Line" because of the difficulties in building it (lions insisted on eating the Indian construction workers) -- was completed in 1901. Both to guard the tracks and to provide the freight and passengers to pay for the railroad, London wanted white settlers along the right-of-way. So land was free, or nearly so.

But land was worthless if you couldn't survive on it. Everyone knew that West Africa was the white man's grave ("Beware and take heed of the Bight of Benin, for few come out although many go in", went the ditty). The third Baron Delamere, father of white settlement in Kenya, might claim that, while he farmed on the Equator, he did not live in an equatorial country. But what did that mean? It meant that a mile-high altitude in the highlands moderated the heat of the tropical sun, producing green forests of conifers and cold trout streams in the shadow of snow-capped Mount Kenya. Kenya, Delamere said, would prove to be "a white man's country." And indeed it did draw nearly one hundred thousand white settlers in its pre-independence salad days. Today, only about four thousand remain.

In addition to dirt-cheap land and an equitable climate, Kenya boasted then (and now) the largest congeries of wildlife in the world. There was money to be made from ivory, rhino horn, hides, and skins. You could (they said) shoot a lion before your breakfast of antelope chops. Some sportsmen called it Eden, and it was very nearly that.

Americans too came to know and love Kenya, this ravishingly beautiful land of white mischief and black magic. Teddy Roosevelt went there on safari in 1909, Hemingway wrote about it in the 1930s, Clark Gable, Stewart Granger, Humphrey Bogart, Grace Kelly, and Ava Gardner made movies there in the 1950s and 1960s. Americans who didn't know Bamako from Bangui could tell you that Nairobi was the capital of Kenya. A few even settled there.

I first came to Kenya in 1957, lived there during 1960-4 as a foreign correspondent, and visited there many times subsequently. In the early years I found it a quiet, pleasant place. If Africans had few political rights, at least they had enough to cat, education was good by continental standards, medical services were adequate, and the three races -- whites, Africans, and people of the Indian subcontinent -- lived together in relative amity. The country, with an economy based on coffee, tea, and tourism, was doing rather well.

Today, all that has changed. Foreign investment is flat, foreign aid -- the United States put almost one billion dollars, more than half of it in outright grants, into Kenya between 1953 and the present -- is falling, tourism is off, and the country is riven with tribal animosity that has cost the lives of more than one thousand Kenyans since 1991. Eden has become a hungry land where ragged urchins beg for pennies, the police beat grandmothers with truncheons, magazines are padlocked, dissent is equated with treason, and where bishops, ambassadors, publishers, foreign correspondents, and lawyers are vilified by the government of President Daniel arap Moi. What went wrong? What, if anything, can be done about it?

A Thin Veneer

Kenya, like most African countries, came half-baked from history's oven. It had slept through the Renaissance and the Reformation, missed the American, French, and industrial revolutions, was still fixated on bride-price and circumcision rites (male and female) when the nuclear age dawned. Somehow, it had occurred to nobody to invent the wheel.

Its institutions were few and weak, its people had virtually no experience with democracy -- tribal or colonial -- and its leaders tended to be demagogues rather than men who understood governance. Largely absent was any sense of nationhood or commonweal. Kenya inherited from Britain the facade of parliamentary democracy -- wigs, woolsacks, and maces -- but not the substance. Well-documented atrocities in the former Belgian Congo (now Zaire) in 1961 showed just how thin and fragile the Western veneer was. throughout the continent.

Small wonder: democracy, while it clearly has global applicability from Costa Rica to Japan, evolved over generations in Northern Europe to meet the needs of that society at a specific point in time. It rested on certain facts and assumptions largely absent in Africa, a large proportion of whose peoples still lived in Bronze Age tribal cultures. Conformity and obedience, not innovation and initiative, were prized by both tribal chiefs and colonial governors. Literacy, industrialization, and decent per capita incomes, the glue of democracy, were low. The notions of constitutional checks and balances and respect for the rule of law were alien concepts. While some would argue that it was a...

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