Reconstruction by Way of the Soil

by G.T. Wrench

Chapter 11

Primitive Farmers

The word primitive is defined by Annandale's Concise Dictionary as 'characterized by the simplicity of the old times'. The lexicographer, with this definition, hits off with happy ease an exact description of the primitive peoples of this chapter and of the two that follow it. 'The simplicity of old times' just fits, for the lexicographer informs us under the word 'simple' that it derives 'from a root meaning one or unity'. We can now paraphrase our heading of Primitive Farmers, as Farmers characterized by unity. We must do this quickly before going on to read other definitions of 'simple', for we shall find that one of them is 'easily intelligible', and farmers characterized by unity are not a bit easily understood by modern peoples. It is because they have so rarely been understood that so many troubles have come to them from the moderns.

The primitive people here to be considered are the Kikuyu of East Africa, for about these same Kikuyu a very rare kind of book has been written. Its authoress, in the beautiful phrase of Robert Louis Stevenson, eavesdrops at the door of the hearts of the people she describes. She is Mrs. Elspeth Huxley; her book, The Red Strangers. She tells her story from the mind and heart of the Kikuyu, to whom the British were the Red Strangers.

Before the coming of the British, the Kikuyu were a family of people, who cultivated the land by family ownership. The land was cleared from forest and cultivated. When its fertility was exhausted, a new clearing was made, and the old one allowed a long rest and return to jungly conditions for its recovery. This farming is known as that of shifting cultivation.

The Kikuyu grew fruits, beans, peas, millets, sweet potatoes and other food crops. They kept goats and cattle. The fields were worked by the women; the men protected the fields against the inroads of wild animals, tended and protected their domestic animals, acted as warriors when young and as councillors when old. They fitted their life-cycle into conditions, which they modified to their own advantage, but to which they did no permanent destructive harm.

An important feature of the tribe in regard to its eventual meeting with Western civilization, was that it had no metal money. Nor did it have any other form of durable money. Its currency was formed by domestic animals; the smaller currency being provided by goats, the larger by cows. In this matter of currency, therefore, they reached back to that of the early ancestors of Western civilization, whose word for money, pecunia, was derived from pecu, cattle. This character is very useful to our contrast picture. In looking at the rather hearty and cheerful Kikuyu, as they first showed themselves, Westerners saw a people who still possessed characteristics of the original Latins, from whom their own civilization itself had derived. They thus looked over a Great Rift Valley of time.

Goats, then, were the pecuniary units of the Kikuyu. A poor man had a few goats, a little land and one wife; a rich man many goats and fields, together with more than one wife to work the larger possession and more sons to tend the more numerous animals. Cows also were symbols of wealth. A cow was valued at about a dozen goats. If a man procured the consent of a maid to marriage, he had to pay some such sum as thirty-five goats, or two cows and ten goats to her father, and sometimes rams and brews of beer made a part of the payment. A field was valued at so many goats. A crime was expiated in a payment of goats to the injured party, or, in the case of murder, a fine of over one hundred goats paid by the clan of the slayer to the clan of the slain.

Goats possessed a second quality of money, over and above their general distribution; they helped a family at times of hardship. Goats are distinguished amongst domestic animals as those most able to feed themselves under adverse circumstances. In a drought, when other animals perish, goats manage to survive. They tend, it is true, to survive at the expense of the reduced herbage. They are, amongst animals, those most calculated to strip the vegetative cover and promote erosion and desert-making, for not only do they bite close, but they are nimble climbers; they can denude a hillside and find sustenance in its coarse, weedy vegetation. So they increase and perpetuate the disaster of drought, as does money when, as debt, it adds to and perpetuates seasonal disasters of Western farmers.

In, 1898 the Kikuyu of Mrs. Huxley's story were first visited by the Red Strangers, as they called the Britons, and in 1902, their elders or councillors at Nyeri surrendered their freedom to the Red Strangers. They were forced to this by magic. The magic of the strangers was beyond all that they had imagined. Under it a mere noise could kill a man many fields away. The Kikuyu magicians strove to oppose it, but they were as feeble against it as were the prophets of Baal against Elijah. The story itself is, indeed, not a little magical, in that an established wisdom, that which had fitted the people so well into a cycle of life, should be at once dispersed because of a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal. Neither Kikuyu nor Britain can answer the question why wisdom gets no immediate support from nature, so that these magics at times do struggle for the survival of the most powerful. What is sure is that nature in her own time does write her verdict and she writes it upon the soil. Then she makes herself the measure of wisdom and gives her verdict in its favour.

The Kikuyu cultivated the southern slopes of Mount Kenya at an elevation of 4,000 feet, with a climate in which the northern peoples could make their homes. So, with scarcely any preliminaries beyond the display of magic, the Red Strangers announced that the land which the Kikuyu regarded as theirs, really belonged to a distant king.

The Kikuyu, upon the ridges of the hills, had their enemies, the Masai of the plains. They and the Masai had fought mainly so that the victors could seize the cattle of the defeated. The first thing that the strangers brought about was peace between the Kikuyu and Masai. But it was not a peace that was the counterpart of war, that is to say, a peace between plumed warriors. Like most that was happening, it was so odd as to be inexplicable. The men of Kikuyu were commanded by the strangers to go amongst the Masai peacefully and to carry the possessions of the Masai, while the Masai themselves, men, women, children and beasts were ejected from the land of their fathers and sent to a new land. Under the aegis of the peace, the two peoples met and mingled in humiliation.

As the younger men were deprived of the pride and privilege as warriors, so also their elders found their dignity stripped from them. It was their right as councillors to dispense justice and compel the guilty to pay fines to the injured. But now it was a Red Stranger who took over the dispensation of justice and imposed fines. These fines now had to be paid not in goats, but in round metal coins and when paid by the guilty to the Red Stranger, he did not give them to the injured, but kept them himself. This clearly was not justice but theft. There was no effecting of a balance by means of compensation. The Red Stranger alone benefited, not only by keeping the coins, but by forcing the guilty to do paid work, which the Red Stranger required, so that they might get the coins for paying the fine.

Later came new and terrible demands. The men of Kikuyu were taken from their homes and brought down to the sea, which they saw for the first time. They were put into a wagon that rested on the sea and locked into a room with iron walls, the floor of which, when the wagon moved, rocked under their feet. They were overwhelmed with fear; it was like being in the belly of an animal. They were brought to a strange land, where again they carried loads as porters and served the Red Strangers, whose king was engaged in a very big war. They endured hardships so severe, that those who eventually returned to their home could not speak of them for many years. Such grim memories were the ghosts of great fear.

On their return, some of them did not go back to their original homes, but went to take up new land at some distance from the old, where the Red Strangers were installed. Now they were free and happy to be free upon farms of their own making. But, after a while, quite unexpectedly, a Red Stranger arrived and told them he had given coins to the Serkali or Government, and because of this all the land and even their farms were his. But he did not, he said, intend to take away their farms or their animals. These they could continue to cultivate, but the men must also work for him. They would work one month for him and get six coins or rupees for the work, and then one month for themselves, and so on, through the year. By this arrangement large fields of maize were grown and many beasts were pastured for the stranger, and the Kikuyu kept their farms in cultivation and received coins.

The early result was surprisingly good. They got their silver coins every second month and what was more, the Red Stranger knew of markets where they could, for more coins, sell the surplus products which the virgin land produced abundantly. So coins began to accumulate. One odd thing, however, happened. It was the Serkali who gave out the coins. Nevertheless, the Serkali would not let them keep all the coins they got, but asked for some of them back. As the Serkali themselves made the coins, this was another insoluble puzzle. But, though some were given back, there was still a goodly number left, either to be buried in the floor of the hut, or to be put in the post office to be spent, when opportunity occurred, on taking up more land and a second wife to work upon it, and more goats for pasture. So, under the leadership of the Red Stranger, who now became in some sort a friend, riches, that is to say land, wives, and goat,s became more plentiful and the future held out hands of promise as never before.

Then something happened that neither the old nor the new magic with its new coins could avert. There were two years of drought, terminating with locusts and famine. The Serkali sent food from outside to the people, whereby they were saved from actual starvation. There followed a season which seemed to concentrate its own rain with that which should have fallen in the two previous years. The crops were now not burnt up but drowned. Further, in spite of the great shortage brought about by the drought, when any surplus product was now taken to the market, instead of many coins being given for it, for some reason inexplicable, so few were given that they did not balance the cost of cultivation.

The Red Stranger, who had taken their freedom from them, nevertheless had helped them and become their friend. He was now filled with sorrow, and in sorrow he dismissed some of those who worked upon his big fields and paid fewer coins to those that remained. There followed a further season of drought, when the unclouded sun beat day after day upon the land. The lake in the valley shrank to a lowness unrecorded in living memory. The pastures, stripped by locusts, turned to powdered earth, and dust-devils whirled across the valley like wild dancers. Erosion had begun. It was as if the new treatment of the old earth made the soil become something ghoulish and caused it to tear itself from its home and flee in towering columns with the wind. So it escaped from the Red Strangers, which the Kikuyu could not do.

As has been said, something had gone wrong with the coins of the new currency and it was now found necessary to contract or cut down the currency of the Kikuyu. The Red Stranger, whom the Kikuyu had had to obey and had come to trust, issued an order to them to limit the goats, first to ten goats for each married woman, and then five. But this too failed, and the stranger, having no coins left, gathered his family together, bid a sad farewell to his sorrowing Kikuyu friends and was no more there.

In his place came another and with him an officer of the Serkali. Then fell the final blow. All the goats, which in their hunger were eating down to the very roots, were expelled from the stranger's pastures. The Kikuyu, who worked on the large fields, were allowed to continue their work, but they must have no goats. If they wished to keep goats, they and their animals must go elsewhere.

In this way the traditional currency of the Kikuyu peasants, that which had been to them what the coins had been to the kindly Red Stranger, was as effectively destroyed, as was that of the peasants of India by Act No. 8 of 1893. It was replaced by a currency which had no relation to the local returns of the soil, as had the goats, but was something quite outside the humble fortune or misfortune, which work and the seasons brought to the Kikuyu. The new currency, it is true, brought with it certain advantages. In times of actual famine, it was able to relate the Kikuyu to better conditions far distant from their locality. With it came trade, education and the creation and improvement of towns as means of livelihood. But it took away something that was an essential part of the life-cycle, an automatic animal factor upon the farms, which rose and fell according to the creative capacity of the soil. When severe adversity came, the animal life was diminished; it was only extreme and rare disaster that had a like effect upon human life. Being a part of the life-cycle itself, the currency moved up and down with the favourable or unfavourable condition of the soil. The new coins, on the other hand, had no relation whatever to the soil, local or otherwise. They were completely dissevered from it. They had, indeed, the agricultural impossibility of having nothing at all local about them and of having an existence entirely apart from the life-cycle. They were related not to the soil, but to world finance, the first modern attempt by a group of men to be masters of the world.

Without their goats the Kikuyu were like the friendly stranger without his coins, and they, too, in their despair, followed his example. They packed up and left the land of their adventure to return to the land of their forefathers.

In the further narration of the fortunes of this family, Mrs. Huxley skilfully contrives to give an epitome of the Kikuyu people, as a whole, in their transition from a subsistence to a capitalistic farming basis, which with its ancillaries occupied in years as many decades, as it took centuries in England, so swift was the tempo. Nevertheless, all the main features reappear in the Kikuyu story. The large estate and the extrinsic money system have already been described.

The family returned back to their homeland, confident that, according to tribal custom, they would have a right to the land, which the father, when young, had cleared at the side of a forest glade. But, on their arrival, they found changes even more varied than those they had experienced in the land of their adventure. A cousin had taken over both the land and the glade. The glade had been turned into a pasture, and it had something unknown in the past, in a fence which enclosed it. Previously all pasture had been open and the common ground of the villagers. Fields in the past had had temporary fences to protect crops from wild pigs and other animals, but the fencing they now saw was substantially made and not the temporary fence of custom. The cultivation of the fenced-in fields was also different to that which they had expected. The native method of hoeing by hand had been supplanted by a plough with oxen to draw it, and they soon discovered that there were other new ways of cultivation, such as a rotation of crops. Still more surprising was a square house built of stone, with windows, a veranda and a shining iron roof, and about the house was a garden with flowers and with fruit trees planted in rows.

The family looked about for goats, but saw none at all. That animal, once the currency and also the victim of religious sacrifice and so in two aspects closely interwoven with men, they later found had, under British advice, been entirely discarded. There were some other measures of wealth, and then they realized that what they had seen of the home of the Red Stranger in the land they had left, was here repeated. They were looking, not at communal or tribal land any longer, but at something more like to the estate of the Red Stranger. So they saw and, asking many questions, they learnt that the cousin himself had become as the Red Stranger, one who, by the right of the Serkali, claimed that the land was his. They were looking on private property.

Certainly this cousin had benefited greatly by means of the Serkali and by listening obediently and intelligently to its agricultural officers. As a progressive man, the Serkali had made him something new to the Kikuyu, though not, had they known it, strange to the English Red Strangers, something derived from the lord of the manor. They had made him the local land-chief and he had become so rich that he had no less than twenty-two wives to serve him. Even the form of the wives' service was strange, for it was they and not the cousin's men who tended the cattle. There were sons enough for the work, but they had all of them been to the schools of the Serkali and this placed them above tending cattle. Education was something which turned the young men from the land to the town, where they became clerks or teachers or policemen or took other forms of subordinate service to the Serkali. In these services there lay a greater safety, a prior claim it seemed upon the Serkali, for in Nairobi, the capital town, during the long drought and famine, these younger people had still had enough to eat, still travelled comfortably in omnibuses to their work, still dressed in European clothes and danced in European fashion. The great affliction of the countryside was fended from the town.

The returning family saw and heard all this. Particularly, of course, did they note what concerned them most, the stone house, the rows of fruit trees, the cattle, the fencing and other changes upon the land that according to custom was theirs. On the one hand, then, was their traditional right, on the other the robust facts of private ownership. The father, now an old man nearing his end, wished to bow before the power of the new, the son was unwilling and prevailed. And so a claim for the land was lodged by the family.

The case aroused the keen interest of the whole locality. It staged the conflict that was everywhere diffused between the old and the new. The elders stood firmly for the tribal laws of inheritance and the safe living upon the land which they gave to each family, and opposed the new rights, which made men dependent upon the will or whim of so-called owners of the land. The younger generation stood as firmly for the cousin, because of the improvements he had made under the guidance of the Serkali's experts. This, they said, made the land his. As to the family, if dispossessed, there were other ways of getting a living open to them, such as by becoming labourers upon the roads or railway or in house-building, or porterage, or even in Nairobi, by acquiring dignity as taxi or bus drivers. They could even stay on the land in the humble form of hired labourers, receiving wages from the new owners.

As the claimants could not afford to pay compensation for the improvements, the land was finally awarded to the cousin. But the claim of the family was also acknowledged and land, belonging to the clan, was awarded of equal size and excellence to the original clearing by the forest glade.

So, after many experiences of sudden and quite unpredictable changes of fortune, the family attained once more to the traditional security of the homeland. But even here they had to submit to the fringes of what was to become by far the most dangerous change of all.

The old father died and he left behind him one legacy. It was a prophetic pronouncement of his not long deceased friend, Irumu, who had been the seer of the tribe: 'When women walk all day to seek firewood and when cultivation lies naked under the sun, then shall evil come. On the days when trees again darken the ridges and bring shelter to the weary, then shall good fortune return.'

From the deep, inward oneness with the local life-cycle,, which such tribal wise men have, had arisen a vision of the coming of the Great Erosion. Where the new greed for land as property caused too many trees to be felled along the ridges of the hills upon which the Kikuyu had their homes, there the torrential rains would be unchecked by these umbrageous ramparts. The watery bullets would pound some of the top-soil into mud, which escaped in turbid runnels down the slopes of the hills. This was the beginning of water-erosion, which as it spreads causes women to walk all day in search of firewood. And when the fields were broken open by the plough in place of being lightly stirred by the native digging-knives, and when they were made to grow one crop in place of several plants of different heights, foliage and roots, then the cultivation lay naked under the sun. A dry season made the surface of the soil dusty and some was blown away by strong winds. This was the beginning of wind erosion.

These two erosions form the last phase of the present story of the entry of the Kikuyu peasantry into modern civilization. Due to this civilization, there was a greater call upon the fertility of the soil and in some strange way a similar call on the fertility of its partners, for a native proletarian population increases under the early rule of the Westerners. Many new ways of earning the new coins were opened up. The colonial governments called for more coffee, more sugar, more cotton, more hides, more maize, more sisal and so on for export. More land was exposed for cultivation, its fertility taken up by the crops and the rule of return neglected.

Here is an account of the last phase of this process as it is affecting the Kikuyu, written by Messrs. Jacks and Whyte in The Rape of the Earth, 1939. This account completes the story so brilliantly told by Mrs. Huxley.

Erosion, they write in their world review, has attacked the lands of the Kikuyu, and it is due to agriculture being forced to too speedy a pace in 'the increased desire to obtain cash through the sale of crops' and in the need for more food crops by the increasing population, much of which migrated to the growing towns.

The original mixed farming for sustenance succumbs to the new commercial farming, it does not everywhere form the basis for the new. One farmer will concentrate on the growing of maize, another will stock or overstock the land as pasture; both practise thereby a rape of the earth. They farm for cash, and, not heeding the rule of return, they take more fertility than the soil can recurrently yield. They treat the soil as conquerors and not as partners.

In the general demand for more crops, the peasants cultivate not only the ridges upon which they had their homes, but also the easier slopes of the hills. There comes a loss in the quality of the soil, a loss of that wonderful air-containing, loose adhesiveness of the soil due to good humus, and with this degeneration the great natural elements of rain, wind and sun, once friends and partners, now, at the times of their especial strength, become enemies. The Serkali has taken no proper measures to prevent this. There is a 'lack of conservation measures in general', say Messrs. Jacks and Whyte.

The European owners mostly exhaust their estates by the same disregard of the precepts of nature. They override nature before the fall. 'In the European areas erosion is caused by exhaustion of the soil through long continuous cropping without the adoption of methods to prevent erosion and maintain the humus content of the soil. The results of land misuse are only now becoming apparent in a grave form, as much of the land in the settled areas has only been cultivated for fifteen to twenty-five years. Some areas of Kenya have already reached such a state of devastation that nothing short of the expenditure of enormous and quite impossible sums of money could restore the land for human use above a bare and precarious subsistence standard ... Generally speaking, erosion has become serious only during the past five years. In addition to the causes enumerated above, the invasions of locusts of 1929-31 and the drought of 1931-5 greatly accelerated the process and were largely responsible for making it so apparent in the space of a few years.'

The Red Strangers came to the land of the Kikuyu in Kenya, because, though situated upon the Equator, it is highland and has a climate in which they can live and farm. They make their homes there, but to maintain their accustomed standard of living and to save money, they concentrate on farming for profit and in this they do but follow the common lines of modern farming. The facts that the fertility of soil is exhaustible and that methods, under which in the cool, wet climate of Britain the soil is slowly depleted will, in Kenya, deplete it with rapid momentum; that sun, wind, rain, goats and cattle, all fitting into the old life-cycle, will thereby be turned from partners into enemies -- these are foreign to their experience and knowledge. In their own land the rule of return and the conservation of humus are not axiomatic.

So they farm and so, wishing the Kikuyu to share in the wealth from the new methods, they induce them to adopt the new values.

The intention is good. Both white men and black shall profit by progress and science. Though the Red Strangers, with their greater magic, claim the land as belonging to the distant king, any further exploitation of the Kikuyu is not the king's wish. In July 1923, His Majesty's Government itself decreed that the interest of the natives must be paramount over those of all immigrants, including the British, and that on no account were the black men to be sacrificed to the white. The Red Stranger, who announced to our Kikuyu family that the land had become his by the payment of coins, nevertheless, as befitted this good intent, soon became their beneficial friend. 'They understood then that they, the black, were not to be sacrificed to the white.' But both black and white depended upon the soil and it was the soil that was sacrificed. It was stripped of its sheltering cover with eager haste and a tragic lack of understanding. The final result is not yet known, but what is known is sufficient. In some parts, in very truth, the words of Irumu are no longer words but facts: the women walk all day to seek firewood and the cultivation lies naked under the sun. Can the days, of which he spoke, cease to be words and too become facts: 'On the days when trees again darken the ridges and bring shelter to the weary, then shall good fortune return.'

Money, that has been the root of this evil, is unable to save. The authorities quoted say that only enormous and quite impossible sums of money could restore the land. And before money, representing effort, there must be again the change of values, a change of outlook and a change of faith.

Nature is very careful, but men are careless. In some of the species of acacia trees in Australia, the leaves are suppressed, and the leaf-stalks or petioles are vertically flattened to take upon themselves the function of leaves. It seems that the vertical. position of these petioles prevent injury from excessive sunlight, as, with their edges to the sky and earth, the petioles are not so exposed to the light as are the horizontal leaves. Scientific theorists explain how this comes about, but to the thinker, it is an exquisite example of nature's care, and should impress farmers, telling them: 'Do likewise. Exquisite care is necessary in the preservation and adjustment of the details of life-cycles, and that is what farming should be.'

Next chapter

Table of Contents
1. Introductory
2. Rome
3. The Roman Foods
4. The Roman Family
5. Roman Soil Erosion
6. Farmers and Nomads
I. The Land
II. The Nomads
III. The Farmers
IV. Nomadic Migrations and Farmers
7. Contrasting Pictures
8. Banks for the Soil
9. Economics of the Soil
10. The English Peasant and Agricultural Labourer
11. Primitive Farmers
12. Nyasa
13. Tanganyika
14. 'Earth Thou Art'
15. Sind and Egypt
16. Fragmentation
17. East and West Indies
18. German Colonies: The Mandates
19. Russia, South Africa, Australia
South Africa
20. The United States of America
21. A Kingdom of Agricultural Art in Europe
22. An Historical Reconstruction
The Initiation
The Institution
The Achievement
23. Recapitulation
24. Action

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