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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 15. Never be silent (1)

Shiraz Durrani

Important political developments were taking place among African communities towards the end of the period we are considering. The people who had suffered the most from colonial grabbing of land began to organise politically. The participation of Africans in the First World War increased their awareness that colonialism could be defeated through organised activities. Thus 1919 saw the formation of the Kikuyu Association by a group of people who saw no other way to fight colonialism. The Association opposed the land alienation as well as forced labour, tax increases, and the proposed wage cuts.

In 1921 Harry Thuku formed a more militant organisation - East African Association - which rejected the "fundamental premises of white rule". Thuku protested against the proposed reduction in African wages, land alienation, compulsory labour recruitment, increases in hut and poll taxes, and kipande (2) laws which were introduced for "controlling movements of African labourers and for locating and identifying them" (Makhan Singh, 1969).

The process of formation of political organisations - such as Kikuyu Central Association - continued in the following period as we will examine in the next chapter. But as Pugliese says, "from the early twenties onward, the Gikuyu increasingly began to question missionary motives and objectives...The authority of the missions was no longer taken for granted by the mission-educated Gikuyu... Among the group of mission-educated young men were most, if not all, the future Gikuyu politicians and intellectuals of the 'first generation'."

The colonial laws prevented local African population from owning printing presses or newspapers. But this did not mean that they lacked effective means of communication. We shall examine later an important aspect of their communication practice - oral communication systems which were further developed during the period of Mau Mau. As far as print medium and newspapers were concerned, many innovative methods were evolved to bypass the embargo placed by colonial administration on African ownership of presses. Alliances were made with progressive Indian workers in the press field to carry news and views that reflected the African point of view in Asian-owned newspapers. Special features carried news of significant developments affecting the majority African population. This was the case, for instance, when Harry Thuku formed the Young Kikuyu Association in 1921. The announcement about the formation of the Association was made by Harry Thuku in a local newspaper on June 11, 1921 (3)

Developments on the broader social and political level during this period influenced the developments in the communication field as well. The contradictions between European settlers and Kenyans were sharpening. During the First World War, one hundred thousand Africans working as carriers lost their lives - a fact that is given little importance in many history books or in theories of (non)development. After the War, the colonial Government took no steps to compensate Kenyan workers. Indeed, it increased repression by increasing taxes, reducing wages and introduced the hated kipande (similar to the pass in South Africa) so as to consolidate the forced labour system. The government also sought to divide the African population from the Indian community by various policies so as to divide African and Asian workers who were beginning to form a working class alliance.

In July 1920, the British Government declared Kenya a "Colony". Makhan Singh (1969) explains the reasons for this: This was aimed at ensuring that the British could deal with the land and labour of African people as they thought fit. It was to guarantee that the land taken away from the African people and given to settlers would remain settlers' land and that the forced labour system prevailing in Kenya could be further tightened. Secondly a conspiracy began to be organised to make Kenya a "White Man's Country" and to establish a white settlers' government. Thus the African people were being turned from a "protected people" into a slave people.

The Kenyan people resisted these moves of the British to consolidate their control over Kenya. They started organising themselves into various organisations which could lead the struggle against the British rule. These included the Kikuyu Association (1919); the Young Kikuyu Association which later changed its name to the East African Association in order to allow all Kenyan and East African nationalities to come together in one organisation; the Piny Owacho - Young Kavirondo Association - which was founded in December 1921 at a meeting at Lunda, Gem attended by about 8,000 people.

The settlers used the press they controlled to fight the growth of such African organisations. For example, the settlers' daily, the Leader (July 7, 1921) commented thus on the growth of powerful organisations among the African and Indian peoples and the unity among them: According to all evidence, the natives of the country ...have been moved to make up an attempt towards political and industrial organisation. This is... further excited by the unmeasured agitation of the Indian community for equal political rights... A new situation has arisen and it would be foolish to ignore it... Those who play with the principles of political equality when no racial equality exists are playing with fire with risk of grave disaster.

The Leader again reflected the settlers' alarm in January, 1922 in connection with the activities of the Kavirondo Association: The petition (sent by the Kavirondo Association) to the Chief Native Commissioner, is therefore the more significant coming as it does on the heels of similar memoranda from other native bodies...the native races not only in Kenya Colony but in other parts of Africa are aspiring to high things...

The year 1922 was an important one in the history of Kenyan people's struggle against colonial rule. A new unity among various nationalities, large and small, was being forged together with the consolidation of powerful anti-colonial organisation which gave a direction to the aspiration for freedom of the people. Makhan Singh (1969) shows the situation in the country by early 1922: The African people in Kenya were struggling unitedly for their rights under the leadership of the East African Association. The militancy, enthusiasm and unity of Africans of all [nationalities] were being built from the Coast to Nyanza. Co-operation between Africans, Indians and progressive Europeans was also moving forward from strength to strength.

The colonial government regarded this militant situation with much concern. It clearly saw the leaders as well as the organisations they led as their chief enemies. The East African Association was considered its main enemy. It therefore arrested its leader, Harry Thuku on March 14, 1922 hoping that the organisation will thereby collapse. But instead, the working class saw this as a direct attack against their economic and political interests and organised a general strike. Thousands of people took part in a demonstration in Nairobi, demanding the release of Harry Thuku. Unable to control the situation, the colonial police, helped by armed settlers, began firing on unarmed demonstrators. About a hundred and fifty people were massacred on that day although the settler paper, The Leader, tried to minimise the seriousness of the situation by reporting that 27 were killed.

This massacre was to prove a turning point in the history of Kenya in that it showed clearly the fact that colonial rule was maintained by armed force and the only way to dislodge it was through an armed resistance. The events leading to the arrest of Harry Thuku, and the stand taken by various publications demonstrated the role of press and the side it supported. An examination of the two newspapers, The East African Chronicle - a paper run by progressive Asian Kenyans, and the White settler paper, the Leader of British East Africa is instructive in exposing the different class stand they took over the major issues of the time.

The East African Chronicle was founded in 1919 by Manilal A. Desai and spoke for the interests of the workers - both Indian and African. Its stand came under attack from a settler contemporary, the Leader of British East Africa, for it realised that the unity of African and Indian nationalist forces could do much damage to the economic and political monopoly of the settlers and indeed to the colonial rule as a whole.

The events of the year 1922 indicated the clear lines along which the Kenyan society was divided. An examination of various newspaper reports on the events of the year shows that in line with the actual opposing forces in the society as a whole, the press itself was also similarly divided between these forces, some supporting the African and Indian side and others supporting the settler and colonial administration side.

Thus by 1922, the contradictions between the settlers and the colonial administration, on the one hand, and the African peasants and workers as well as Indian workers and progressive Asian intellectuals, on the other, were becoming sharper. Each side had mustered its forces for the intensification of the struggle in the next period. The publishing industry became a major force in the armoury of each side.

We will never be silent (4)

 On January 7th we were surrounded at Bahati
 by the colonial army.

 We will never be silent
 until we get land to cultivate
 and freedom in this country of ours, Kenya.

 Home Guards were the first to go and close the gates
 and Johnnies entered while the police surrounded the location.

 You, traitors! You dislike your children,
 caring only for your stomachs;
 You are the enemies of our people.

 We will never be silent
 until we get land to cultivate
 and freedom in this country of ours, Kenya.


(1) From a forthcoming publication by Shiraz Durrani: Never Be Silent: Publishing and Imperialism in Kenya. 1886 - 1963. London. Vita Books & New York, Mau Mau Research Centre.

(2) Kipande - "registration certificate recording work periods, wages, comments by employers, and other employment-related matters; from 1920, all adult males were required to carry the kipande under penalty of heavy fines" - Sicherman (1990).

(3) Makhan Singh (1969): History of Kenya's Trade Union Movement to 1952. Nairobi. East African Publishing House. pp. 10-11 (where a part of the announcement is reproduced).

(4) A Mau Mau liberation song.


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