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Town Life in Colonial Kenya1 John Lonsdale If you want to learn about life in Nairobi in the 1950s, go off and talk to old men in Nyanza.2 This paper raises more questions than it answers. While, as my references will make clear, much excellent work has been done, there is as yet no mature urban historiography of Kenya whose theoretical debates one can epitomise. The most I can do is try to pull together some ideas from the secondary literature, supplemented by research of my own, to suggest elements of a connected research agenda, informed by a few organising themes. This can,      *     sense of what is important for us to study and argue about, and is by no means exhaustive. Other themes will suggest themselves to other scholars, and that will be all to the good. Colonial Kenya’s historians have hitherto paid more attention to its rural political economies than its urban social histories. As the British Institute            history is still at an early stage. For the moment we remain rather ignorant of ordinary urban lives, and how they changed. Our comparative ignorance           '*    for towns, and the fact that – as Professor Oucho warned – oral memories, especially male memories, of colonial town life, are as likely to be scattered ?    +        and political problems rather than as productive or cultural opportunities; so too did most African men. Few Kenyans had seen a town before the twentieth century. In colonial times, while many Kenyans worked for shorter or longer periods in town, not many, other than those who had immigrated from South Asia or Europe, spent all their lives as townspeople. This situation has changed only recently, with the rapid urbanisation of the last half century or less, since independence. Kenyans’ relative ignorance about towns in colonial times did not, however, prevent them, or the men among them, from having strong views on the wickedness of urban life. Historians have only recently begun to shake themselves clear of this conventional, pejorative, wisdom. 1 Andrew Burton (ed.), The Urban Experience in Eastern Africa c. 1750 - 2000 (Nairobi: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 2002) pp. 207 - 222. 2. Professor John Oucho’s methodological advice, given to Mr Godwin Murunga during an urban experience conference held in Nairobi in July 2001, organised by the British Institute in Eastern Africa and IFRA. 4 NAIROBI TODAY At independence only eight percent of Kenya’s population lived in towns, and of these the great majority were in Nairobi, with 267,000 inhabitants, and Mombasa, with 180,000. In these two cities there were many true townspeople. Often these were not Africans but Arabs, Indians and Europeans. Both towns were in any case exceptional. Administrative map of Kenya in 1957 with places mentioned in the text Nakuru, Kenya’s third largest town, was less than one quarter the size of Mombasa. The census listed thirty other settlements as ‘towns’. Few deserved the name. While the largest of them had twenty thousand enumerated TOWN LIFE IN COLONIAL KENYA 5 inhabitants, a place had only to have two thousand residents to be counted as a ‘town’. Most of these so-called towns must have been little more than villages – a double row of dukas lining the road, a market place, a hoteli or two, perhaps a maize mill and a hide-drying banda. The fact that Kenyans were, in 1963, for the most part still country people           half of the twentieth century lived in towns. How far were they townspeople         =@      must always study the ways in which towns relate to their rural hinterlands as markets, industrial or political centres, they also try to understand the lives of their citizens as a distinct, urban, experience. But colonial Kenya’s tiny urban population means that we cannot understand its members’ lives unless we ask how they related, not only to other people, their rural kin and neighbours, but also to earlier and later stages in their own lives, their rural origins and probable rural ambitions. Most African townsmen – as distinct from often more permanently settled townswomen – were probably ‘straddlers’, hoping to invest their urban income in improving, or at least saving, their farmland ‘back home’.3             urban historians who wish to write social histories that enter into their actors’   ?   &   '  will have had experience of town life at some point in their lives. Many of         * Our second problem is that, although they were small in size and few in number, Kenya’s towns were also very different from each other. How can historians...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9789987081325
Related ISBN
9789987080939
MARC Record
OCLC
715160597
Pages
404
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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