Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Unbowed

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Unbowed

A Memoir

by Wangari Maathai

Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2006, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2007, 352 pages

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A Short History of Kenya
Kenya is located on the East Coast of Africa, bordered by the Indian Ocean, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia (map). The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was the first European on record to visit the area in 1498. Portuguese rule officially began in 1505, bringing the Portuguese a useful revenue source from tribute payments, but also strategic control of the Indian Ocean allowing them to extract high tariffs on items transported by sea.

By the 17th century, Portuguese influence in the area was on the wane due to British, Dutch and Arab incursions. Omani Arabs colonized the coastal areas in the 19th century, even moving their capital to Zanzibar (an island off the coast of Tanzania) in 1839. Their control of the East African coast continued until British interests took over. By the late 19th century the slave trade on the open seas had been completely outlawed by the British and the Omani's had little ability to resist the British navy's enforcement of the directive.

In 1885 a German protectorate was established over the Sultan of Zanzibar's coastal possessions. In 1890 Germany handed over its holdings to the Imperial British East Africa Company. During the early 20th century the interior areas of Kenya were European farmers, mainly from Britain, who grew coffee and tea.

By the 1930s there were about 30,000 settlers living in an area formerly occupied by the Kikuyu tribe*, who had no claims to land under European law and were reduced to squatting; beset by punitive taxes and laws intended to protect the settlers many moved to the cities.

In 1952 Mau Mau freedom fighters rebelled against British rule, the rebellion was crushed in 1956 but the country stayed in a state of emergency until 1959. In 1957 the first Africans were elected to Kenya's Legislative Council. When Kenya gained independence in 1963 it was under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta (a Kikuyu and long time politician who, in 1924, had joined the Kikuyu Central Association which advocated to the British on Kikuyu affairs. Kenyatta had also spent time at various universities in Britain including the London School of Economics, and had studied briefly in Moscow).

Kenyatta died in 1978 and Daniel arap Moi became President, running the country as a de facto dictatorship for much of the next 24 years. In 2002 Moi was constitutionally barred from running again, and the multi-ethnic National Rainbow Coalition won election.

The lucrative tourist industry has bounced back following the slump that followed bomb attacks in Nairobi in 1998 and Mombasa in 2002; and in 2006 tourism was the country's best hard currency earner, ahead of horticulture and tea.

Key facts about Kenya (from the CIA Factbook)

  • Population: 35 million. Growing at about 2.5%/year.
  • Infant mortality: 59/1,000
  • AIDS: 6.7% (2003)
  • Life Expectancy: 49 years
  • Ethnicity: Kikuyu 22%, Luhya 14%, Luo 13%, Kalenjin 12%, Kamba 11%, etc.
  • Languages: Numerous; official languages: English, Kiswahili (Swahili)
  • Literacy: 85% (as defined by those aged 15+ who can read and write)
  • Unemployment: 40% (2001); Below the poverty line: 50% (2000) - but maybe a little better now due to the change of government in 2003.
  • GDP per capita: $1,100 (2005). GDP grew 5% in 2005.
  • Public Debt: 50% of GDP

*The Kikuyu?, more accurately pronounced Gikuyu are the largest ethnic group in Kenya accounting for about 7 million (22%) of the population. Arguably they suffered most under British rule and were the most active group fighting for independence. Kenya's first and third presidents have both been Gikuyu; other famous Gikuyu include Wangari Maathai and the author Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

This article was originally published in November 2006, and has been updated for the September 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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