Racism in Kenya

My story concerns Christmas on the Kenyan coast in 1963. Despite the atrocities committed by the Mau Mau during their uprising and equal atrocities that have recently come to light associated with its suppression, race relations in Kenya have been surprisingly good when compared to other parts of the world where black and white live side by side.

I believe there are several reasons for this. First, at the height of the administration of the Kenya colony, impartial liberal observers accused the white settlers of treating their black servants like they treated their horses. The criticism floundered when it was agreed by all that the whites treated their horses extremely well. The black-white relationships in the Southern United States and South Africa seemed to have hate as the chief factor (Ku Klux Klan and lynching for example), but the paternal despotism of the white settler in Kenya was based on a feeling of superiority, more than on hatred.

Second, there was never any legislation against race in Kenya. The separation of the races was based on income and education. African children in the colonial period did not join the Langata Pony Club because their families didn’t have the income to own horses. When an affluent educated class of African emerged, the handful of Africans who joined the masses of mzungus at the private schools and clubs were invariably amongst the most popular of the members.

The first generation after independence of black and white children in Kenya should be held up for world to admire for the amount of racial harmony that did exist.

However, racism did rear its ugly head on numerous occasions. My story starts when the newly born Republic of Kenya was one week old. Hope and optimism were in the air. My wife and I had only been in Kenya for five or six years and we still had in our possession our much-loved old army ambulance which had brought us here overland. We drove in it down to Mombasa, the road being murram from the Machakos turn!

When we had originally passed through Uganda on our way South we called in at Makerere University and had been introduced to a lovely young lady, a granddaughter of Uganda’s Kabaka. (He had about ten wives and many grandchildren.) She was an extremely attractive and well-educated young lady, having recently returned from a four-year course at the London School of Economics. She later came to Nairobi for its Independence Celebrations and met up with us, so the three of us (my wife and I and the Kabaka’s granddaughter) decided to go to the coast for Christmas.

My wife and the Kabaka’s granddaughter unloaded the suitcases at the Mombasa South coast hotel. I almost said I could think of no male between the age of seventeen and seventy who would not have given their left hand for the opportunity of dating either of the two ladies –  my young wife and the Kabaka’s granddaughter  – who were unloading the suitcases at the South Coast hotel. However, I realised such an analogy would be in extremely bad taste because some years before in the Belgian Congo both right and left hands of Congo natives had been harvested on the King of Belgium’s express instructions to his Congo managers. The crime for which the native Congolese had their hands cut off by the thousands, was for failing to fulfil their rubber quota. King Leopold of the Belgians who personally owned the whole of the vast area of Africa then called the Belgium Congo, might well be called the world’s first corporate capitalist. I will just say therefore that both the ladies who stood at the hotel reception were amongst the most attractive that were likely to be found on the Coast that day. The date was December 20th. The nation of Kenya was one week old.

The European hotel manager looked up smiling from his reception desk and nodding towards the Kabaka’s daughter, he said, “She will stay in the ayah’s quarters.”

My wife and I looked on in horror as the manager continued, “I am afraid we don’t take Africans – particularly at Christmas.”

After we had exploded and explained, the manager instantly climbed down and said he hoped the Kabaka’s daughter would be their guest and in his defense, his disapproval now seemed to turn to the would-be ‘whites.’ We had a leaking oil gauge on our beloved ambulance and the vehicle had five hours of Mombasa Road dust and the manager highly disapproved of the dirty, oil dripping ambulance in his parking area. It was the Kabaka’s daughter herself who settled our Christmas festivities. With a beautiful smile she declined the manager’s offer. We retraced our steps to the Mombasa Beach Hotel, where a good Christmas was had by all.