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The Republic Of Kenya is a relatively young geopolitical entity, having gained independence from British rule in 1963. Yet, the area that comprises present-day Kenya and its East African neighbors has been called the cradle of humankind, due to fossil evidence that suggests the region has been a hub of hominine activity for over 4 million years. While Kenya’s landscapes are renown for their wildlife, nature reserves, and national parks, continuous human and prehuman presence means they are entirely anthropogenic.
Kenya is bordered by the Indian Ocean and Somalia to the east, Ethiopia to the north, Sudan to the northwest, Uganda and Lake Victoria to the west, and Tanzania to the south. The country is bisected by the equator. With an area of approximately 225,000 square miles (about twice the size of Arizona), Kenya has great geographic diversity. It includes wide, sandy beaches and coral reefs along the coastal belt; the Eastern African plateau with its semiarid plains; the Rift Valley, its series of lakes, and its surrounding fertile uplands; northern deserts; and Mt. Kenya’s snow-capped peaks at 5,199 meters above sea level, making it Africa’s second tallest mountain, the tallest being neighboring Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro.
The few millennia prior to colonization saw population increases and subsistence practice shifts due to in-migrations of Cushitic, Nilotic, and Bantu speakers. Although Arab traders had settled the East African coast a millennium beforehand and established a string of thriving Swahili city-states, the Berlin Conference (1884-85) marked the beginning of colonial demarcation of African land, through which Britain claimed an area including today’s Kenya. The Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) received a royal charter in 1888 to “prepare” the colony and promote its commercial interests, and to some degree it did. However, the IBEAC went bankrupt by 1895, after which the British government assumed direct control over Kenya.
By the mid-1890s, the British had relocated, recruited, and imported enough people to begin work on the Kenya-Uganda railway. With its railhead in Nairobi, the railway stretched from coastal Mombasa to Lake Victoria by 1901, thus further opening the interior of Kenya to British and Asian settlers, farmers, and traders. British colonists restricted access to land and animals, relocated Africans (Maasai and Gikuyu) into reserves, and established means by which they could act upon the Dual Mandate: the notion that the colonial enterprise was not only meant to benefit resource-challenged, industrial and expansionist Britain, but also to enable the “development” of Africans. A British crown colony by 1920, Kenya Colony attracted increasing numbers of white settlers, whose social and economic investments in Kenya severely disrupted the ideals of indirect rule established by the British crown. Settlers and colonial administrators relied on the labor of colonized peoples to build the infrastructure for transporting cash crops and other raw materials to Europe. Colonial rule imposed systems of taxation, compulsory labor, cash-based markets, and limited, skills-based education on Africans.
Kenya’s expansive game reserves were meant to serve colonists and elites from abroad. The game reserves of the late 1890s and early 1900s were eventually replaced by national parks and reserves (1946 onward), as well as a conservationism that led to a thriving tourist industry and a post-colonial ban on sport hunting in the 1970s.
Kenya’s independence from British colonialism in 1963 followed a period of bloody conflict called the Mau Mau, or the Emergency, which lasted from 1952-60. The Gikuyu-dominated Land and Freedom Army (LFA) rose against the British colonial government to fight for fair representation and access to the lands from which they had been alienated.
Post-independence Kenya has been described as simultaneously stable and corrupt. Jomo Kenyatta, president from 1963-78 and known as Baba wa nchi (Father of the State), established a patrimonial, patronage system of government. Kenyatta and his successors, including current president Mwai Kibaki, have embraced pro-capitalist, modernization theory and its attendant emphases on large-scale, export-oriented agriculture and industrialization.
Although only an estimated 8 percent of Kenya’s land is arable, nearly three-fourths of Kenya’s labor force engages in agriculture. Chief cash crop exports include cut flowers, tea, coffee, and horticultural products. Much of the expanding industrial sector of Nairobi take advantage of Kenya’s export processing zone and the country’s status as the regional center for trade and finance. Tourism and ecotourism remains among the most significant foreign revenue earners in Kenya.
Today’s Kenya has a population of nearly 35 million, half of whom are listed as living at or below the international poverty line; the median age is 18 years. Unemployment estimates range between 2540 percent in Nairobi.
Although Kenya is renown for its biodiversity, it is also beset by multiple environmental issues that have coevolved with the rapidly growing population-which has more than doubled since independence-as well as through the diffusion of people, technologies, ideologies, and introduced species. Current environmental problems include deforestation; soil erosion; desertification; water pollution from urban, suburban, and industrial wastes; diminished water quality from increased use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers; water hyacinth infestation in Lake Victoria; wildlife poaching; recurring drought; and flooding in some regions during rainy seasons. Other significant large-scale concerns include malaria and HIV/AIDS.
The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kenya’s Mama Miti – mother of the trees – Wangari Maathai. Maathai has been a prominent figure in Kenya for decades because of her commitment to environmental issues, democracy, and human rights. The first Kenyan woman to earn a Ph.D., she founded the world-renowned Greenbelt Movement in 1977, served as a leader of Kenyan Debt Relief Network and its partnership with Jubilee 2000, and has received numerous international awards for her work. In 1989, Maathai received international attention for her historic opposition to then-President Moi’s attempt to erect a skyscraper in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Maathai charged Moi’s government with grabbing public land and intensifying Kenya’s debt crisis when Kenyan citizens faced starvation, land insecurity, and diminished access to health care and education. Maathai’s arguments convinced foreign investors to pull out of the project. Elected in December 2002 as a member of parliament (MP), Maathai now serves as Kenya’s Assistant Minister for the Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. Maathai’s receipt of the Nobel Prize is significant for the link it makes between environmental issues and peaceful governance.
- David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005);
- John MacKenzie, The Empire of Nature: Hunting, Conservation, and British Imperialism (Manchester University Press, 1988);
- Norman Miller and Rodger Yeager, Kenya: The Quest for Prosperity (Westview Press, 1994).