C.L.R. James August

The Voice of Africa

(August 1938)

Source: International African Opinion, Vol. 1, No. 2, August 1938.
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg with thanks to Marika Sherwood.

Facing Mount Kenya
by Jomo Kenyatta, with an introduction by B. Malinowski
Secker & Warburg. 12/6.

If ever there was a book that students of Africa needed, this is it. The book describes an African people, the Gikuyu, as they were forty years ago just before British imperialism descended on them. Similar books have been written before? Yes; but by white men chiefly, of varying intelligence and honesty. But even the best, like the late Emil Torday, wrote from the outside. Mr. Jomo Kenyatta is an unusual African. He is an anthropologist trained at London University, and even an unscientific reader can see the scrupulously scientific approach, the order, the method, the objectivity. But Mr. Kenyatta grew up not as a little missionary protégé but as a native African, with African ideas and African social ideals. He remains defiantly the same: his dedication is to the dispossessed youth of Africa “for perpetuation of communion with ancestral spirits...on the firm faith that the dead, the living, and the unborn will unite to rebuild the destroyed shrines.” He is ideologically rooted in the social and religious ideals of the civilisation which is being so ruthlessly destroyed by the united front of settler, official and missionary. Politically, I believe that there are the seeds here of an immense confusion. Anthropologically, it is, in addition to Mr. Kenyatta’s knowledge and method, the main source of his strength. Here, indeed, Africa speaks.

It would be futile to attempt to give any idea of what a book so packed with facts contains. The economic life of the Gikuyu, their system of education, their marriage laws, their religious life, their system of government, all are treated with the same intimate knowledge, sense of proportion, and illuminating detail. But behind the even tones of the exposition can be felt the fierce resentment of one who has been able to compare the old with the new, and who more than most can appreciate the fluent lies with which imperialism has sought to hide the traces of its bloody claws.

Take, for instance, education. The children were carefully given not only vocational training but were taught the history of the country by parents far more sensitive to child psychology than any European teacher up to twenty years ago. Mr. Kenyatta shows the economic necessity for polygamy. The sexual laws and conventions allowed the young people certain intimacies short of sexual intercourse, which was strictly forbidden, though the young people often slept in the same bed. After marriage, however, if men of the same tribal status (the age-group, to which both husband and wife belonged and all the members of which knew each other well), if male members of this group came from afar to visit the husband, custom permitted a wife to entertain one of them. Adultery under other circumstances could result in a divorce, though if there were children, the custom was to try and arrange a reconciliation. It was into this eminently sane and highly intelligent solution of what is always a complex problem that the missionary came, shouting his seventh commandment that he had got from Mount Sinai; foaming at the mouth because young people of different sexes slept in the same bed (for him that could only mean one thing); and calling on the bewildered husbands to abandon a second wife “in the name of Christianity.”

The whole civilisation, however, not only industry, but social organisation and religious practices, rested on land tenure and the description of this is the most valuable part of Mr. Kenyatta’s book. In taking the land away, the Europeans have done more than rob the native of his means of livelihood. They have disorganised his whole conception of life and substituted here and there a smattering of education and Christianity, totally unfitted for the people, and as vicious in its own sphere as the fourpence a day and systematic exploitation of native labour.

What is the remedy? All friends of the African know the first necessity. They must have their land back. But for what? Are they to go back to the old life, merely selecting what they approve of in European civilisation? This seems to be Mr. Kenyatta’s view. That religion and that life, vilely slandered as they have been and admirable as they are, rested on a certain method of industry. When the land is won the African will have to modernise his method of production, and his religion will inevitably follow. It is as well if his leaders recognise this frankly. This by no means implies bewildering the masses of the Gikuyu people with atheistic propaganda. But leaders must know where they stand. To an African listening to the elaborate tomfoolery of the Coronation ceremony, it will look as if the Europeans still carry on ancestor worship. But Mr. Kenyatta knows of the merciless greed of “Christian” imperialism. Does he consider his own the “true” religion? How does he see the future of a free Kenya? He must let us know, so that all of us, Africans and friends of Africa, can thrash the problem out. After so good a book as this what he says will carry enormous weight, not only among his own people but here in Europe as well.

Last updated on 11 September 2015