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W.O. Maloba is the author of two new volumes about the history of Kenya during the Cold War era and its founding president, Jomo Kenyatta.
With Kenya in the
midst of political turmoil and facing a likely constitutional crisis
because of its recently overturned presidential elections, a University
of Delaware historian says there’s no better time to learn lessons from
Wunyabari (W.O.) Maloba, professor and chair of Africana studies and
professor of history at UD, is the author of two new books on the
history of Kenya and its founding president, Jomo Kenyatta.
Today’s president of the East African nation is Jomo Kenyatta’s son,
Uhuru Kenyatta — who won re-election earlier this year in a contest that
has now been ruled invalid by the Kenyan Supreme Court. The candidate
who successfully challenged the fairness and validity of the election,
opposition leader Raila Odinga, is the son of Jomo Kenyatta’s longtime
opponent, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
Maloba’s book Kenyatta and Britain: An Account of Political Transformation, 1929-1963,
has been hailed as the first serious political biography of Jomo
Kenyatta in 40 years. It explores Kenyatta’s life as an anti-colonial
activist through 1963, when he became prime minister of Kenya.
The examination of Kenyatta’s legacy is completed in Maloba’s second volume, Anatomy of Neo-Colonialism in Kenya: British Imperialism and Kenyatta, 1963-1978, which follows Kenyatta’s years in power until his death. Both books were published this fall by Palgrave Macmillan.
Maloba, a native of Kenya who earned his doctorate in history at
Stanford University, joined the UD faculty in 1988 and was the founder
and first director of the University’s African Studies Program. He also
served as assistant vice president for affirmative action and
multicultural programs and Chair of the President’s Commission on Racial
and Cultural Diversity at UD.
Maloba reflected on some of Kenya’s history and its current political upheaval.
Question: When you follow the news from Kenya today, with
questions about how the discredited presidential election will be
resolved and the sometimes-violent protests that are occurring, do you
think about the history covered in your books?
Answer: I didn’t write these books to coincide with the
elections; that’s just the way it happened. But I do think that the
history I examine in my books can answer the question that many Kenyans,
and others throughout Africa and the world, are asking: How did we get
here? I think we’re all realizing that we can’t move forward until we
understand what the problems are and how they came to be. So the books
are very topical and relevant.
Q: Have you found that the issues that led to the current political problems stem from Kenya’s history?
A: They don’t just stem from the period of colonialism and
independence, they’re really a continuation of the same issues. It’s a
terrible mistake to look at Africa today and not understand the
Q: How did these issues develop? And how do they relate to independence?
A: I look at the background of Kenya, and other African
countries, and the kinds of ideological struggles that occurred after
independence and the choices the leaders of these countries and other
countries made. It was the Cold War, and the newly independent nations
had to choose sides, by working with the West or with communist
countries. The consequences of those choices continued long after that
period ended. There were people in Kenya who accumulated wealth and
power by cooperating with the West, and they weren’t going to give that
up just because the Cold War was over.
Q: Can you still see those consequences in today’s situation?
A: Absolutely. The group of people who benefited in the past
from the West’s support, the elites in Kenya, are still fighting to hold
onto what they have. The problems of today—inequality, communities
being shut out of power, land rights, access to resources, education,
health care—these are not new problems. And they continue to haunt
Kenya, and all of Africa, today.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on Jomo Kenyatta?
A: I spent 10 years on these books, doing research and finding
primary sources and sources that hadn’t been used before. My goal was
to really understand Kenyatta the man. He has a compelling story that
includes studying in the Soviet Union in the 1920s—the same university
where Ho Chi Minh studied—but rejecting communism. He was an
anti-colonial activist, but as president he forged political compromises
between Kenya and Britain.
The British did everything they could in the 1950s to keep him from
coming to power, including jailing him, but they changed their policy
completely and saw him as a legendary leader that the West could depend
on to suppress radicals. Questions arising from this choice continue to
haunt Kenya today.
He went from being the most hated black man in Africa [by the
British] to the most beloved. So that’s a fascinating story to tell.
Article by Ann Manser; photo by Lane McLaughlin
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