Sketches from Colonial Kenya

Sam Kahiga

* is a leading Kenyan writer

Sam Kahiga and WifeAs we grew up, my father, James Kibera, despite his mere standard 3 education, could read classics like The Atomic Bomb, Scenes of Clerical Life, and Count Fathom. We kids couldn’t crack these, so he was always ready to buy us easier stuff, like simplified versions of Lorna Doone, Treasure Island and Montezuma’s Daughter. Many kids of the time had them too.

We had grown up under the awful Emergency of the 1950s, reading colonial pamphlets printed in red ink, showing rows of Mau Mau fighters being publicly hanged on high posts. The Lari massacre and the subsequent government reprisals took place within walking distance from our village.

Settler government discouraged education of Africans, leaving it to Christian missionaries. Settlers were afraid that education would produce what they called native agitators. Primary schools went only up to Standard 4, where a stumbling block called the Common Entrance Examination was set up.

Only students who passed and passed well could proceed. Only to encounter another stumbling block four years later in Standard Eight, called Kenya African Preliminary Examination. This was meant to block African students from any further progress in the education ladder. Directing a few to technical schools to become masons and sending most of the rest packing. High school was as rare as snow on a Nairobi street.

As we grew up, my father, James Kibera, despite his low education, could read classics and other advanced stuff. And he enjoyed doing so immensely. I supposed in those bleak emergency years when death was so common, it offered him relief and it offered him a view of the outside world, far removed from the oppression and squalor of British colonialism.

The generation before my father had made use of its little formal education. Jomo Kenyatta had studied at Thogoto Presbyterian Mission School, after which he edited a Kikuyu language newspaper called Muiguithania, in 1926. Later on, from the heart of imperial Britain, he wrote the formidable Facing Mount Kenya and even married an English girl. This as a daring thing to do. But then Kenyatta was Kenyatta.

We grew up under the clarion cry that the pen was mightier than the arrow. Schools were organized and run like military barracks, with strict discipline enforced, with many drills, with the cane, and plenty of manual work. School was punishment but we had our moments of fun.

For the select independence brought more bread on the table. It brought more budding writers. The story of colonial pain had to be told. Mugo Gatheru (born 1925) whose parents lived as squaters on settler farms, studied at a night-school, went to the US (1950 -1957) and wrote Child of Two Worlds. He may have inspired Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a young man from Limuru, near our village, who went to Makerere and wrote Weep Not Child and The River Between, in quick succession.

We younger ones sharpened pencils, too, and from Thika High School, three of us, Chege Mbitiru, Mbui Wagacha and I, had several of our stories published by an old settler magazine, Kenya Weekly News. Times were changing. Settler magazine publishing “kaffirs!”

My brother, Leonard Kibera, was writing, too, at Kangaru High School. He once won a prize from BBC for a radio play. Leonard soon became a familiar figure at the East African Publishing House, along with Leonard Okola, as an editor under John Nottingham. Many new novels by post-independence writers like Grace Ogot and David Rubadiri passed through their hands. Five years older than I, Leonard had always been a very thoughtful coach, holding a bicycle for me when our uncle, who owned it, wasn’t looking so I could learn to peddle from the side.