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A Short History of Kenya: Background information when reading A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

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A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

A Novel

by Nicholas Drayson
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  • Sep 18, 2008
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  • Sep 2009
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A Short History of Kenya

This article relates to A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

Print Review

The Republic of Kenya is located on the eastern coast of the African continent (map). It is approximately 225,000 square miles (580,000 square kilometers), with a population of 38 million people (2008). The official languages are English & Swahili, and Nairobi is its capital city. Primary exports include coffee and tea.

The area was inhabited from at least 2000 BCE, with its first residents being tribal groups. Arab traders settled in the coastal areas around the 8th century. They developed trade during this time between the Arab world and India, primarily in ivory and slaves.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the region, "discovering" it in 1498 while seeking new trade routes. They occupied Mombasa, one of the coastal cities, in 1505. The next 200 years were marked by fighting between the Arabs and Portuguese, with the Arabs eventually prevailing, only to cede control to the militarily superior British in the late 19th century. In 1895 the area, now called British East Africa, was officially named a protectorate.

The British initially devoted most of their attention to neighboring protectorate Uganda, which was rich in natural resources. They built a railway from Mombasa on the coast to Kisumu in the Ugandan interior, using primarily Indian laborers. Many of these workers remained in the country after the completion of the railway, developing into the country's merchant class.

At the turn of the 20th century, British attention shifted to the arable lands of Kenya. White farmers set up coffee and tea plantations, and native populations were forced off the most productive lands. Racial segregation effectively excluded Africans and Asians from owning property. This pressure over land ownership led to the formation of several nationalist organizations in the 1920s, the most prominent of which was the Kenyan African Union (KAU).

Tensions increased during World War II. Africans were conscripted, and with their involvement in the war came an expansion of political consciousness. The Mau Mau were formed – guerrilla troops who took an oath committing themselves to the expulsion of all white settlers in East Africa. Open revolt erupted in 1956. The British crushed the rebellion and executed the Mau Mau leaders, but the white settlers remained shaken, and the restrictions against African land ownership were lifted.

The British decided to prepare for East African independence beginning in 1960. The KAU reformed into the Kenyan African National Union (KANU), with Jomo Kenyatta as its leader. KANU won the open elections that took place the following year, and voted in favor of the creation of a parliamentary system. Full independence was granted in 1963, with Kenyatta becoming the country's first president.

Kenyatta was in office for 15 years, followed by Daniel Arap Moi, who led the country for another 24 years. During the decades the two governed Kenya, the political environment became increasingly unstable, autocratic and repressive. Opposition parties were banned, their leaders imprisoned, and assassination became a common technique to quell dissent. Elections were fraudulent, and government corruption rampant.

In 2002, Kenya swore in its third president, Mwai Kibaki, in what international monitors deemed to be fair elections. Kibaki began a series of popular reforms, but the country nevertheless began to splinter along ethnic lines. Kibaki, from the Kikuya ethnic group, ran against Raila Odinga, a Luo, in 2007. Kibaki won re-election, but observers called the process "seriously flawed." This led to protests which developed into riots. Over 1000 people were killed, and over 350,000 displaced. A group of Africans led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan brokered a coalition government, but the situation remains unstable.

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. It originally ran in October 2008 and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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