By the end of the nineteenth century, the Kikuyu had become a wealthy and land-conscious people, with an ethos that linked wealth (but not the coveting of it) to virtue, and virtue to a sense of history that regarded land and livestock ownership as a trust for future generations.But what appeared to be the unstoppable rise of the Kikuyu came to an abrupt end with the arrival of colonialism. After a few early contacts with explorers and missionaries, the “protectorate” was proclaimed in 1895. The wazungu (white men) arrived in earnest a few years later, and by 1904 the new government was already actively advertising land for settlers in both Britain and South Africa.Still controversial is the history of the early land appropriations by the British, which had followed shortly after the devastating famine, rinderpest and smallpox epidemics of the 1890s, which had decimated not only Maasai herds and the human population, but those of many other peoples also. With their livestock and human population severely reduced, the Kikuyu withdrew from certain areas, particularly around Nairobi, Kiambu, Thika and Ruiru, vacating much of the land in what is now Kiambu district.
When the European land surveyors arrived, they found an apparently empty land. Unwilling to accept that the ‘primitive’ people of Kenya were capable of conceiving the notion of land ownership, the British thought it within their rights to take the land and do of it what they wanted. Of course they were wrong. The Kikuyu had a complicated and effective concept of land ownership, which – by the system of Gethaka – meant that certain areas belonged to certain families, and could be used in times of hardship.The Kikuyu and the neighbouring Kamba, of course, simply opposed what appeared to them to be an unwarranted invasion of their territory, and in 1896 and 1897 small military expeditions were sent against them by the new administration.Soon enough, the British began fencing the good uplands and forbade Kikuyu entry, cultivation, or grazing rights. The elders reported this trespass to the European administrator, John Ainsworth, who sided however with his kinsmen. His attitude was that the Kikuyu should understand that conditions had changed.
Young Kikuyu Association -KCA
Among the Kikuyu, who supplied a considerable proportion of the labour force on the European farms and whose proximity to Nairobi brought many of them into regular contact with Europeans, the Kikuyu quickly learned the new political system. The first mass Kikuyu protests and demonstrations against the growing injustice and inequality of their lot occurred in 1921, when European employers attempted to cut the already paltry wages of their indigenous employees.
A workers’ meeting held in a Nairobi suburb condemned the wage cuts and the refusal on the part of European estate and factory owners to provide housing, food and medical services. This meeting gave rise to the Young Kikuyu Association (also called the East Africa Association), Kenya’s first all-African political organization.This association soon formed branches in many parts of the country to protest against the allocation of most of the colony’s fertile land to Europeans.
The Association drew up a list of grievances and delivered it to the Chief Native Commissioner. The list changed little during the colonial period with forced labour, land expropriation, and the lack of public services and educational opportunities being the major issues.
Of course, changing this was the last thing that the Europeans had on their mind, and in March 1922 they responded by arresting the Association’s leader, Harry Thuku, who was subsequently deported for several years.Undeterred, over the following years the Association intensified its campaign against land alienation, and against tax and labour laws. In 1923 the British government announced that “the interests of the African natives” would forthwith be under their control, and two years later local councils were organized to assist the colonial power in governing Africans; but these councils operated through government-appointed chiefs who, among the Kikuyu, had little or no traditional standing (the long-trusted colonial policy of divide-and-rule was simple and effective: by giving people a limited sense of power, they would be too preoccupied with their own power struggles to see the real enemy – the British).In 1925, the East Africa Association was disbanded by the government, but quickly reformed as the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA).
Its original programme was a combination of radical demands such as the return of expropriated lands and the elimination of the passbook scheme (part of the racist colour-bar system), with a striving to return to the traditional pre-colonial past.In also demanding African representation in the legislature, the association was in advance not only of the government but also of most of the members of the tribe. It won support among the Kikuyu, however, when it complained about low wages, the prohibition of coffee growing by Africans, and the condemnation by Christian missionaries of such tribal practices as clitoridectomy.
The association never represented the tribe as a whole, though, because its members were mainly young men whom the chiefs did not trust. For this reason, too, the European administration tended to look with disfavour upon its activities.
Attempts to win the support of other tribes failed owing to their unwillingness to accept Kikuyu leadership.