The Mijikenda Union: Ethnic Politics on the Kenya Coast, c. 1940-1980

Seminar date: 
13 May 2011
15.30 - 17.00u
Pieter de la Courtgebouw / Faculty of Social Sciences, Wassenaarseweg 52, 2333 AK Leiden
Seminar room: 
3A06 (third floor)

In many respects, the Mijikenda Union had an inglorious history. Created in 1944 by a small group of urban workers, it had a fitful and contested institutional existence, punctuated by financial scandal and lengthy periods of inactivity. The eventual banning of the Union in 1980 was something of a non-event and was achieved without protest or resistance. But the Mijikenda Union was successful in the most basic of ways. When it was founded, the term 'Mijikenda' was a novelty, an ethnonym created in pursuit of the Union's core aim, namely to promote unity among the 'nine tribes' of the southern Kenya coast. By the 1960s, both the ethnonym and the notion that this was a clear political constituency had become commonplace in the 'high politics' of the independent Kenyan state and in the 'deep politics' through which aspiring leaders were mobilizing support at a very local level.
Recent scholarship on ethnicity in twentieth-century Africa has challenged the 'constructivist' hypothesis, arguing that culture set limits to colonial projects of ethnic invention initiated by officials, missionaries and African 'culture brokers'. This reflects a wider trend in Africanist scholarship, questioning previous arguments on the overwhelming impact of colonial rule, and emphasizing instead that there has been a profound continuity from pre-colonial to post-colonial African societies. This seminar uses the story of the Mijikenda Union to argue that, while culture clearly did set limits to invention, colonial rule established a powerful set of imaginary contrasts which had a profound impact on the way people on Kenya's coast talked about ethnicity and governance, particularly in the febrile political atmosphere of the final years before independence

Additional speaker information: 

Justin Willis is Professor of History and Head of Department at Durham University. He has worked for long periods in Kenya, as Assistant Director and then Director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, and has published widely on the history of the region. This seminar paper is an extension of work first undertaken in the 1980s as part of his PhD and is supplemented by recent research supported by the British Academy.