Why Aren’t We Doing More to Hold to Account White Decisions That Harm Black African Lives?
From UK aid to Fairtrade, there are decisions being made right now that continue colonial legacies.
Zoe Kelland is Global Citizen’s Director of Digital Campaigns. She also co-founded Nakuru Children’s Project — an NGO that works to improve education and relieve poverty for children in Kenya, in partnership with local educators.
She first visited Kenya as an 18-year-old, spending an initial six months living in a community in Nakuru and travelling the country.
The first time I travelled to Kericho, Kenya, I was 18 years old. I was with a group of white British friends, on our way to spend a long weekend touring a rainforest, eating at nice restaurants by sunset, and drinking in the clubs of Kisumu. I was young, naive, and knew very little about the history of Kenya — or to be quite frank, the world.
Kericho was a small town we passed through. The road through it is flagged by tea plantations — gorgeous rolling hills, dotted with people picking the leaves. To a passing traveller, the view was idyllic; to local citizens, the conditions often far from it. A few years later, I got to know a girl named Esther* who was working the plantations in order to earn money for food after her parents passed away. The work paid an average of $2 per day. She was 10 years old.
The contrast is stark. Yet you might be forgiven for asking: what’s the connection between these parallel experiences? A white British teenager travels happily off on her holidays while a Black Kenyan girl is working in the fields. It’s not a good picture — but it aligns with a global inequality we are accustomed to witnessing and putting quietly to the back of our minds. Yet there’s a complex and crucial history here that is being forgotten.
In the 1930s — the decade my grandmother was born — Britain was the colonial oppressor of Kenya, forcing Black native people from their land, and stamping down on any efforts for Black citizens to be democratically heard. This includes in the fertile region of Kericho, where in 1934 more than 100 families were evicted from their ancestral land and moved to more hostile, less profitable areas. Kibore Cheruiyot was 10 years old at the time and, as he describes to the BBC, was among those displaced.
“Life was really bad. There were tsetse flies that bit the animals and people, and many people died,” he says. “Many others died from snake bites too. A lot of women contracted malaria and had miscarriages. So many children died from malaria too. There were no medical facilities.”
Cheruiyot lost seven family members, including his brother, who was bitten by a snake.
In the decades to come, Kenya would gain independence from Britain, but not before a bloody struggle that saw at least 13,800 Black citizens lose their lives, and 150,000 people placed in concentration camps under the orders of Winston Churchill. This is a history that I wasn’t taught in school, nor is it often mentioned in British public discourse. But it continues to shape the world around us.
Today, much of the land in Kericho is owned by big multinational corporations, that profit from cheap Kenyan labour like that of Esther* in order to make riches for Western shareholders. The Governor of Kericho County, Paul Chepkwony, describes the produce as “blood tea.”
Meanwhile, the families who were originally displaced have never received their land back. Torongei was also a young boy when his home was burnt down, their cattle stolen, and the family forced to walk for 11 days to their alternative land. In 1962, he was allowed to return — but only to resettle in a “holding area”. Now 85 years old, he today lives in that same plot of land, barely 50ft by 100ft, with his children and grandchildren. They are unable to grow crops, or earn a living.
“I feel very sad that my land is still held by foreigners,” Torongei told the Guardian. “All these years after independence — and I lived through that — other people benefit from my land.”
A complaint has been filed to the UN with firsthand testimonies of people who were raped, tortured, and evicted from their land at the hands of the British authorities, demonstrating the inter-generational poverty and suffering caused by these actions, and requesting reparations and an apology. As of yet, nothing has changed.
I count myself a Black Lives Matter supporter — and this is one fight I believe urgently deserves our attention. But there are many more. In June, for example, it was announced that Nestlé will stop sourcing Fairtrade cocoa and sugar to manufacture KitKats.
It represents a retreat from even the most minimal of ways for white British people to support the livelihoods of Black African communities — by ensuring at least that the snacks we eat are not built on unjust labour.
Finally, in June, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a shock decision to abolish the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) — responsible for spending the majority of our international aid budget.
DfID’s activities will instead be folded into the Foreign Office, which is proven to be less transparent, effective, and poverty-focused in its aid spending. Johnson’s announcement speech made it clear: the intention is to shift our aid budget to better address British foreign policy interests, rather than to end extreme poverty overseas.
The prime minister questioned why we spend equal aid in Zambia as Ukraine, “though the latter is vital for European security” — despite the facts showing that 56% of Zambian people live in extreme poverty, compared to 0.1% in Ukraine. This rhetoric sends a clear message: Britain will prioritise its own needs above that of the world’s poorest people, even within the one tiny portion of our national budget dedicated to the latter.
Once you have the facts, the story becomes clear: throughout history, white British power has stolen the lives, land, and wealth of Black Africans. In 2020, we are staying quiet as white British power actively fortifies its strength over Black citizens worldwide.
I grew up in Bristol, UK — the city that recently gave us the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston, the now infamous slave trader after whom numerous landmarks are named. As a child, I sang in the Colston Hall as part of our choir. As a teenager, I stood in front of his statue as I waited for the bus home from a school in part funded by Colston’s philanthropy. It is hard to deny that I likely benefited from his, and other slavers, contributions to the city’s legacy.
My life has been shaped by our colonial history — just as we can presume Esther’s* life was shaped by the same.
There are over 700 million people still living in extreme poverty today, the vast majority Black and living in sub-Saharan Africa. This number is expected to rise significantly as the impact of coronavirus is fully felt. If we untangle our colonial histories, it does not take long to reveal a relationship between white British wealth and Black African poverty.
In a time when there is unprecedented momentum behind the consensus that Black Lives Matter — why are we not doing more to hold those in power to account for decisions that are harming Black African lives?
*Esther’s name has been changed for privacy.