Like many other countries in Africa, Kenya is not a ‘natural’ country. It was constructed not on a common ethnic or historical background, but by a complex series of events. This is why most ethnic groups leaving along the borders – from the Pokot and Luo in the West and the Somali in the east, to the Maasai in the South and the Oromo groups in the North– have been artificially split between different countries. Yet, Kenya has grown to become one nation where many do feel part of a single country, to share a commonality. At the same time, the tremors of ethnic violence and division often shake Kenya.
This reality is well described by Daniel Branch in Kenya, between hope and despair, 1963-2011. Branch is assistant professor of African history at the University of Warwick. He is the author of many works on Kenya, among them Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonization. Branch succeeded in writing a modern history of Kenya which is never dull. From the dreams of independence, Branch follows the journey of this East African country until the aftermath of the 2007 general elections. In doing so, he clearly underscores the leitmotivs of the nation’s history: the unequal distribution of land, the chasm between the haves and have nots, the violent face of Kenyan politics. If the past fifty years are an indication – with all its fare share of political killings, riots, coup attempts, ethnic violence, and corruption – the Kenya is certainly not looking forwards a great future.
As Branch points out, especially in the last chapter, Kenya’s history is not only that of sad events. Kenyans has been able to produce fine people, people who accepted the challenge to fight for their country, comes what may. For each the well known name like Wangari Muthai, there are scores of unidentified citizens who worked hard to overcome political motivated violence, divisions and lack of democracy.
It is perhaps at this level that Branch could have expanded more his study. While underlining the role of the Churches and civil society, it seems that the author is lacking depth in analyzing and evaluating their role. There is no enough mention of the work done by the Churches at grassroots level to counter the violent incitement of politicians. There is no mention of the Administrative Police special unit for peace and reconciliation based in Nakuru and its work in the Rift Valley (a project that shows how the Churches are also ready to work with the government, and how many of the people in the system are ready to work for change). The likes of Father John Kaiser are worth more than a passing quotation.
All in all, this book is remarkably good. It succeeds to give a fair account of Kenya’s post independence history and development. It is certainly a worthy reading to have a deeper understanding of the country, especially now that a new general election is looming ahead.
Daniel Branch, Kenya, between hope and despair, 1963 – 2011, Yale University Press, London 2011