Review: Custom, Modernity, and the Search for Kihooto: Kenyatta, Malinowski and the Making of Facing Mount Kenya

Berman, Bruce, and Lonsdale, John. (2007). “Custom, Modernity, and the Search for Kihooto: Kenyatta, Malinowski and the Making of Facing Mount Kenya.” In Helen Tilley and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp. 173-198). New York, New York: Manchester University Press.

How did Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya contribute both to the development of social anthropology and the representation of a subset of African peoples? For Berman and Lonsdale, it is the story of the creation of the text, as rooted in personal motivations – Kenyatta contacting Bronislaw Malinowski to work under his tutelage at the London School of Economics, so as to become a better “advocate” for the Kikuyu people (2007: 178); Kenyatta’s desire to be “his own man” (181); Malinowski’s desire to conduct research in Kenya that would be of the “participatory field research” method, and to promote his functionalist approaches to anthropology (with the belief such an approach would be politically useful to colonial administrators) (182) – that is central to Kenyatta’s search for kihooto, or recognition of his people by the British. While the text itself proved to be a flop, having sold some 500 copies, Berman and Lonsdale note that Facing Mount Kenya “represent[ed] the Kikuyu with more understanding than had any study since the Routledges’ of thirty years before” (193).

Berman and Lonsdale’s chapter suggests, albeit in an implicit manner, that anthropology as a discipline was used to build a nation-state, for in the aftermath of Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya, he eventually became the first president of an independent Kenya. One might then ask: to what extent was (and is) anthropology a part of colonial governance and administration? A tangential question – should anthropology be used in political arenas, such as the formation of a nation-state – revealed two conflicting viewpoints: the first which stated that anthropology should not; the second which claimed anthropology had no choice but to be involved in political arenas, for all worldly things were imbued with politics. Returning to the question of anthropology’s part in colonial governance and administration, and referring Berman and Lonsdale’s chapter to answer it, one might say, first, that anthropology was the means by which colonial governance was justified, for it provided accounts of the people being colonized, which were then used by missionaries to support claims on the latter as “[people] of guile” subject to “forces of evil” (178). Thus, ethnographic accounts referring to Africans as “primitive” contributed to their classification as such – and, ultimately, their self-identification as a “primitive race” (175) –, and placed the colonizers in the position of ‘benevolent guides’ who were ‘showing the primitives the way to civilization.’

Anthropology could also have been said to form a part of colonial administration because the funds available to support fieldwork were distributed by a finite number of financing bodies, like the Rockefeller Foundation, which financed Malinowski’s International African Institute (182). These organizations –organizations with close ties to colonial administrators –, thus dictated what kind of research was to be conducted, and in the process, contributed to the creation of ‘the African/Kenyan’ as a person to be categorized – both quantitatively and qualitatively – and controlled by administrative and colonial bodies. This select research would then have contributed to the creation of certain social policies, and depending on whether or not their implementation had been successful, further research funded by these same limited organizations would have been conducted, with the ultimate goal of ameliorating colonial and administrative control.

Finally, and interestingly, as Berman and Lonsdale also note, anthropology was also very much not a part of colonial governance and administration, for some works aimed to undermine, and even dismantle, the very fabric of colonialism by creating a nation of peoples independent of the said administrators. This is, for instance, exactly what Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya aimed to do. Through anthropology, Kenyatta was able to present, on a global scale, “an authoritative portrayal of [his] society” (174) – authority which allowed him, as a Kenyan, to stand on equal footing with British colonizers. Because of anthropology, then, Kenyatta’s authority was able to subvert, or at least provide a respectable alternative to, that of the British, which therefore allowed new portrayals of the Kikuyu to make it to the fore of scholarly and colloquial discourse. Here, it may be said that while anthropology was an integral part of colonial governance and administration of African colonies, it also was uniquely situated as a discipline to undermine its own colonial influence by giving an authoritative voice – a voice made manifest by the assistance of members of the colonizing nation, it should be noted, like Malinowski – to the colonized, and allowing this voice to serve as a counterweight to dominant discourses on sets and subsets of African peoples.


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