The Messy Legacy of Colonialism

Reading reviews of Peter Godwin’s new – and excellent – book, A Crocodile Eats the Sun, I come across a description of colonialism as a ‘messy legacy’.

I think that’s perfect; it is precisely that.

Colonialism confused African identities and interfered with their beliefs and with systems which had worked for generations. But it didn’t only muddy the waters for Africans.

My grandfather emigrated from Scotland to Kenya at the beginning of the last century. He was neither Officer nor landed gentry. He was the son of a blacksmith who – like in all the best stories – ran away from home because he hated his (she must have been wicked?) stepmother.

At the time Britain was busily trying to encourage farmers to relocate to their new colony to grow crops for export home, to utilize the railway they’d spent vast quantities of taxpayers’ money building: the ‘lunatic line’ stretched from Mombasa across Kenya to Uganda and its expense badly needed justifying.

So they came – the farmers or – like my grandfather – those prepared to try their hand at farming, to experiment with what would grow (tea, coffee, wheat, pyrethrum?) and which livestock would survive (cattle, sheep, pigs?). They settled land and raised families.

Soon afterwards, less than a generation, colonization became less fashionable (for it had been exactly that for hundreds of years: a trend of exploration and stake-claiming: consider the Americas, Australia …) and the Brits – in the wake of two coffer-draining world wars – got tired of supporting a colony thousands of miles away. In 1963 Uhuru was declared.

That was three years before I was born, to a father of Scottish descent (who never visited Scotland in his life) and a mother, born in India, brought up in Africa, whose passport suggested she was Irish.

My own inheritance is bound to be confused: a bit Scottish, a bit Irish, married to an Englishman who, like me, was also born and raised in Africa.

My children’s certainly is: Hattie asks me woefully, because she is doing a school project about ‘home’, ‘where do I belong, people laugh when I say Africa because I am white’.

I don’t know what to say.

Where do you belong, I ask Ben, hoping he can help.

Here, he says, looking at me as if I’ve gone mad.

Why? I persist.

Because I’ve been here for 15 years.

Actually, his family has been here for 103.


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