Kenya’s Colonial Hangover

Lying in my bed at 11:30 this morning, I began a conversation on Skype with a friend of mine who is studying for her second year exams at Cambridge and whom I have known for about ten years. After we had exhausted our normal conversational topics, we got onto the subject of Kenya, the country where she lives and which neighbours my native Tanzania. She began recounting the somewhat bizarre and introverted behaviour of the white Kenyan community living there, describing this phenomenon as Kenya’s “Colonial Hangover”.

Although I was aware of the reputation of a certain segment of Kenya’s white population, particularly the young men whom we in the rest of East Africa have mockingly named the Kenya Cowboys, I wasn’t going to pretend that I knew very much about the subject, and so I asked her to list some examples of their funny traditions. As it turns out, the Kenya Cowboys do more than just run around in their 4x4s playing pranks on each other, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, getting horribly sunburnt and attempting to converse in a broken stutter which is apparently an interpretation of Swahili; we call it Swanglish in Tanzania. I must say I find it rather strange that the vast majority of them have not made an effort to learn with any fluency the language of the country that they call home. Although more openly boisterous and taunting towards other white communities than other ethnicities for political reasons, these individuals constitute a segment of a neo-colonial demography which runs riot in Kenya’s already rather broken society.

George Hutton, c. 1938. An image of bygone colonialism or a precursor to “Kenya Cowboys”?

Most Kenya Cowboys (KCs) hold Kenyan passports, not European ones (although many are entitled to both), and are very proud to be Kenyan. The main problem is that they express it in what may be construed as a very elitist manner, due in large part to their insistence on maintaining their KC cliques. I would like to mention at this point that I know many people who fall into this group and I like most of them very much indeed. Although many of them may seem racist, a lot of the time this is not at all intentional or indeed accurate. Rather it is a misunderstanding on the part of many outsiders of the social and political aspects at play in East Africa – a good natured ignorance, if you will. That said, as with all populations there are those with racist tendencies as well.

The first point that my friend mentioned was actually one which seems to have penetrated all of the East African community, namely the use of the terms house-girl and house-boy to refer to individuals working in one’s household. Apparently, according to my friend, this is a continuation of the colonial tradition of infantilising native African people. I must confess that I was not aware of this, and until very recently used the term myself as it was one which I had been brought up using. However, as I dislike the word “maid” as well, I am never quite sure how to describe to people, particularly in England, the ladies who help to carry out household tasks for us and so many other families (be they white, Indian or African) in this part of the world. Indeed, the term has become so acceptable that even indigenous East Africans refer to their workers using these terms, as will house-workers when referring to their own job descriptions.

Admittedly, the above point is more of an unfortunate learned trait than of strange behaviour. But here’s where it starts to get bizarre. In Kenya and, worryingly, increasingly so in parts of northern Tanzania, some white communities like to pretend that the rift valley is a grassy country estate in Hampshire. By this I am referring to their odd preoccupation with retreating to their vast farms outside the cities with an almost exclusively white accompaniment (apart from the servants), where they drink wine, play polo and embrace everything good about the 1920s. Whom one knows and how long your family has been in the area are both very important to KCs.

One particular school in Nairobi which my friend attended was apparently almost completely white, with the exception of about five indigenous Kenyan children. She likened it to a traditional English boarding school in the 1950s. This is at odds with many schools in East Africa which are incredibly multinational and multicultural, offering many highly successful scholarship programmes to local children. My own school had a student body made up of pupils from over 40 countries.

The skyline of the Nairobi metropole, one of many growing cosmopolitan cities in Africa

I am not for one second suggesting that most white Kenyans, or indeed East Africans, are like this – this is a minority for which the rest of the white population has little patience or tolerance. Indeed, most of the time they are the subject of ridicule. Unfortunately, this minority is fairly influential and very outspoken, and with white communities in other parts of East Africa becoming increasingly isolationist, it is definitely a cause for concern. Racism is rife in Kenya, on both sides of the fence, and communities cutting themselves off from the general populace and refusing to accept a political and social framework which has changed dramatically in the last fifty years is only fanning its embers.

Racial tensions are already on the rise in Tanzania, a country which, until very recently, was quite at peace with itself. In many areas a person’s skin colour is simply a feature, like their hair or eye colour. Indeed, poking fun at a person’s skin colour is not considered racist here but merely as good-natured teasing; this is starting to change in a negative direction. Whites, blacks and Indians are increasingly isolated and stereotyped by other groups. Africans are accusing

the whites of being elitist and of indirectly excluding black people from their social activities. How, though, can this change when white and black people in East Africa have inherited customs and traditions from very different communities and the average white person’s income is still many times that of the average Kenyan? That question still remains to be answered.

The Great Outdoors: retreat to the bush still a lifestyle sought today.

I do not want the Kenya Cowboys to disappear; after all, everyone needs someone to harmlessly poke fun at. A small minority of them are our hillbillies, albeit rather privileged ones. And, as I mentioned earlier, many of them are my friends and are good people. Moreover, as with any culture, which is what the KCs have created, there is what my friend termed “a certain beauty” to their traditions. They provide many jobs, promote conservation in the Kenyan countryside and, when they are not throwing lavish retreats, live quite a simple, hardy lifestyle in the African bush. With that in mind, I do hope that they can become a more valuable and inclusive part of a modern Kenyan society; one which focuses more on helping to build a new country than it does on clinging to an old one. Most of all, I wish that they would stop driving around at break-neck speed in their checked shirts and tiny shorts with tanned, peroxide-blonde and jewellery-laden girls in the back pretending they still own the place.

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