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The 'Historian' Panel

The ‘Historian’ Panel

As I’ll be presenting on a topic relating to Kenyan history at the 2013 meeting of the African Studies Association in November, I thought it prudent to pop in on the ‘Kenya at 50‘ conference taking place at SAIS today and tomorrow.

I just caught the majority of the first panel – ‘Historian’s Perspective’ (my MA is in history) and hope to make it back to at least one more conference event (hence the part I in the title of this post).

I walked in while Derek Peterson of the University of Michigan was speaking about the various narratives surrounding the genesis of the Kikuyu ethnic group (Kenya’s largest) in a presentation on ‘Cultural Innovation in Mau Mau Detention Camps’.  I can’t say that anything he noted particularly caught my interest (although I was surprised to note that any literature at all was produced in the camps), though his overarching thesis was quite profound – namely that literary efforts in detention camps during the Mau Mau unrest in the 1950s formed the basis for Kenya’s post-colonial literature.

He was followed by Emma Hunter of the University of Cambridge, an extremely fast speaker, who gave a comparative analysis of the governing styles of early post-colonial Tanzania and Kenya.  I’m not really sure what her main argument was – between the British accent and rapid fire delivery, my attention shifted elsewhere, such as to the former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, who was ingloriously seated in a back corner.

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Carson, below and to right of microphone in center of image

Timothy Parsons of Washington University, St. Louis, delivered the most entertaining remarks.  He relayed how with funding from USAID, Syracuse University became involved in training Kenya civil servants just before (and beyond) independence.  It’s remarkable to think that given the perceptions on foreign aid today, that the US once spent taxpayer dollars training subjects of the British empire.

Mozella Brown, a State Department analyst, delivered remarks that sought to explain why the Kenyan military had never overthrown the country’s civilian government.  Most intriguingly, although she spoke in her personal capacity, she noted that it seemed likely that Kenya’s 2011 invasion of Somalia may have been a unilateral decision by the military without the support of the civilian government.

She did not discuss the fact that Kenya was for long a one party state in her analysis.  A questioner did ask about that and her response was that the authoritarian rule of Presidents Kenyatta (elder) and Moi had little to no bearing on their ability to weather challenges from the military.

I hope to return to the conference soon.