78. Promised Land
Written & performed by The Nairobi Sisters
7’’ single (Gay Feet, Jamaica 1975)



What a day
When we reach that land

What a day
When we reach that land

What a glorious day my friend
What a Judgement this will be

All who never pray
Will pray
On that day

There will be weeping and mourning
On that day

All who never kneel
Will kneel
On that day

What a glorious day my friend
What a Judgement this will be

Moon and stars won’t shine
On that day


We don’t know an awful lot about the Nairobi Sisters: they are more than likely from Jamaica, where Promised Land was recorded. But for the duration of their song, in the course of them being, for the song, for the ear of the listener and the ear of history, as well as for themselves, they clearly are sisters from Nairobi and sisters of Nairobi, voices of a symbolic sisterhood bound by blood, perhaps, but also from historical memory as well as Biblical narrative and the lines of their song. They are daughters of Nairobi, its people, its land and its memory of resistance, having struck an affinity with something of the history of that well known East African capital by the simple but difficult to sustain act of (re)inventing oneself, if only for the space of a few minutes, in the space of a song.

On the subject of the role of women in Kenya’s historical development, Terisa Turner, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Guelph, in Canada, makes mention in her essay Introduction: ‘Rastafari, Old and New’, of a leader and healer by the name of Muhumusa and describes her role in the insurrections against the British colonialists beginning in the late nineteenth century and extending into mid twentieth century:

Europe and North America at the turn of the century were marked by competition among national capitals, expressed in part through the scramble for Africa and its formal parcelling out to European powers in 1885. This competition and globalisation of industry spurred infrastructural investments in the third world, notably ports and railroads. The capitalist crisis of the late 19th century generated serious pressures from the European working class which could only be solved by massive emigration. In East Africa, the construction of a railroad, beginning in the 1890s from Mombasa on the Indian Ocean to Kampala inland on the shore of Lake Victoria was designed to hold the territories for British settlement. Africans responded to European contact and overrule by attacking British officials and their indigenous allies. Nyabingi was a women-centred popular movement in Uganda which led this resistance at the turn of the century (Hopkins 1970:258-336).

The Nyabingi movement, influential in southwestern Uganda from 1850 to 1950, was centred around a woman healer, Muhumusa, who was possessed by the spirit of Nyabingi, a legendary ‘Amazon Queen’. Muhumusa organised armed resistance against German colonialists and was subsequently detained by the British in Kampala, Uganda from 1913 to her death in 1945. The spirit of Nyabingi possessed mostly women, but also men, who led uprisings against the British in 1916, 1919 and 1928 among the Kiga in Kigezi, along Uganda’s borders with Congo and Ruanda. British occupation involved imposing foreign African Ganda intermediaries on the egalitarian, patrilocal Kiga agriculturalists. The Ganda’s exactions of land, labour, food and money for poll tax galvanised the Nyabingi movement to rebel both against European and Ganda men and win major concessions. Nyabingi was a woman-led movement against oppression of all the community but specifically of women who did the farming and food preparation and hence were directly affected by colonial demands.

British efforts to crush Nyabingi involved criminalising it as witchcraft through the Witchcraft Ordinance of 1912, promoting Christianity and encouraging other indigenous anti-Nyabingi cults. In labelling Nyabingi ‘witchcraft’ the British were resuscitating the witch burnings of 1500-1650 that were central in the move from pre-capitalist to capitalist relations in Europe. In this move, the power of women, especially over reproductive sciences, had to be crushed [Federici 1988]. Christianity produced Kiga men who replaced Ganda Agents as British intermediaries by the 1930s and who enforced colonial exactions from Kiga women and men. A capitalist male deal was struck between Christianised Kiga men and British colonialists for their mutual aggrandisement.

This rise of the male deal was effective in forcing the woman-centred Nyabingi movement underground and depriving Kiga and other African peoples of their autonomy and wealth. With the emergence of colonial class relations, women suffered disempowerment to a much greater degree than men. Land loss reduced women’s food self-sufficiency and trading capacities while the anti witchcraft campaign delegitimised Nyabingi women’s work as healers and seers.

Ironically, out of the colonial schools and churches rose male African nationalists who through a campaign against racism, challenged not the system of capitalist exploitation but the European men’s exclusive privileges within it. In the Kigezi area of Uganda, church schools produced the ‘Twice Born,’ who like Nyabingi were proscribed as seditious by the British and led two revolts in the 1940s. Ultimately the nationalist men formalised a class arrangement with the departing British which included a capitalist male deal giving land ownership to men, not women and which centralised political power in the hands of men. Nyabingi remained powerful in Kigezi, Uganda throughout the 1930s, where resistance involved arson. In Jamaica in 1937 it was reported that the Nyabingi spirit moved on to Ethiopia and possessed Haile Selassie who fought Mussolini’s Fascist invasion.’ [1]

And on the question of Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army, which the Nyabingi preceded, Stephen Miles informs us that ‘as with the French in Algeria, it was the armed struggle in Kenya that compelled the British imperialists to grant independence to their African colonies. At last, two new scholarly books expose the atrocities the colonial regime committed in suppressing this freedom struggle: ‘Imperial Reckoning’ by Caroline Elkins and ‘Histories of the Hanged’ by David Anderson.

Queen Victoria’s British Empire declared a ‘protectorate’ over Kenya and Uganda in 1895. What was being protected was the theft of the best farmland by a few British settlers. Among them was Lord Delamere, who stole 160,000 acres.

Machine guns and bayonets forced African people into ‘native reserves’ modelled on Indian reservations in the United States. They weren’t allowed to grow coffee or other commercial crops. As in South Africa under apartheid, Africans were forced to carry passes. Kenya’s Kikuyu people, who farmed some of the most fertile land in the country’s central section, were particularly affected.

‘We have stolen his land,’ confessed Col. Ewart Grogan, a white settler. ‘Now it is time to steal his limbs.’ (Walter Rodney, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’) Compulsory labour was required of African women and men. Building a 582-mile railroad from the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa to Lake Victoria was key to the exploitation. Some 30,000 workers from British-occupied India were used. Some 10,000 died or were maimed in the process.

Occupation sparked resistance. On March 14, 1922, police gunfire crushed a rally of 8,000 Africans in Nairobi, called to protest the exiling of Kikuyu leader Harry Thuku.

White settlers standing on the Norfolk Hotel’s porch joined in the shooting. Fifty-eight Africans were murdered. Supporters of this movement formed the Kikuyu Central Association in the mid-1920s. Jomo Kenyatta, later to be independent Kenya’s first prime minister and president, became editor of the KCA’s monthly newspaper, Muigwathania, in 1928.

Schools became a battleground. ‘Illiterates with the right attitude to manual employment are preferable to products of the schools,’ declared the official Beecher Report on Kenyan education in 1949. At the time, three high schools admitted a total of 100 African students annually. An independent school movement blossomed in the late 1920s. By 1952, some 50,000 students attended 300 African-controlled schools. The KCA founded the Githunguri Teachers’ Training College.

Kenyatta went abroad in 1929 to represent the KCA in London and didn’t return to Kenya until 1946. Pan African leader George Padmore, then an organiser for the Communist International, influenced him. Kenyatta also studied briefly in Moscow. ‘When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible,’ observed Kenyatta.

Catholic and Protestant missionaries were as indispensable as Maxim guns to British colonialism. An Anglican bishop wrote the racist Beecher Report. However, Kenya’s freedom fighters included Christians. Muslims also joined the liberation struggle. But the official churches lined up British-appointed ‘chiefs’ and their followers to be informers against the Mau Mau.

Many Kikuyu people became sharecroppers or laborers on white farms, often on the same soil that had been stolen from their families. Others were forced off the land altogether.

The population of the capital city, Nairobi, doubled between 1938 and 1948. As early as 1930 police shot down strikers at the Uplands Bacon factory and jailed their leaders. A Kenyan working class was being formed. By 1948 there were 385,000 African wage workers; their average annual income was $73. British imperialism press-ganged 75,000 Kenyans to fight in World War II. Among them was Waruhiu Itote, who was to become known as the Mau Mau’s ‘General China’. Like Vietnam veteran Geronimo ji Jaga, who defended the Los Angeles Black Panther Party office against police attack, or American Indian Movement leaders who liberated Wounded Knee, these Kenyan vets put their military skills to good use.

While stationed in India, Itote learned from an African American GI about how Haitians had risen in a slave insurrection and defeated Napoleon’s armies. He could see for himself that Britain was forced to depart India and Pakistan in 1947. After the war, the future ‘General China’ worked as a locomotive fireman in Nairobi’s railroad yards.

Kenyatta became president of the Kenyan African Union on June 1, 1947. Trade unionists were some of the KAU’s most militant leaders. Fred Kubai organised Nairobi’s taxi drivers and became secretary of the Transport and Allied Workers’ Union. Bildad Kaggia was a leader of the Clerks and Commercial Workers Union. The British would jail both Kubai and Kaggia together with Kenyatta.

Along with Makhan Singh, Kubai and Kaggia founded the East African Trade Union Congress on May Day, 1949. The next May Day the EATUC issued a call for independence and majority rule. The British imperialist government, administered by the social-democratic Labour Party, immediately arrested these union leaders. In response 100,000 Kenyan workers joined a general strike.

Nairobi was paralysed for nine days. Only a mobilisation of the army and police broke this strike. EATUC president Fred Kubai was jailed for eight months. General Secretary Makhan Singh was detained without trial for 11 years. Their jailing symbolised the unity of Kenyan workers of Asian and African origin against colonialism.’ [2]

Returning to Terisa Turner we find a wealth of information on the role of women in the Mau Mau. Turner tells us that ‘women fought for land in many capacities within Mau Mau. Freedom fighters in the forests included women. Invariably a woman ‘Seer’ of the future worked directly with platoon commanders. Kimathi, the forest fighters’ general, recommended the admission of literate women into the forest fighting force. Other women joined Mau Mau fighters to avoid being sold off by their fathers as wives to pro-British ‘homeguards’ or ‘loyalists.’ Women in squatter villages on European estates provided intelligence, runners, food, refuge, medical supplies and care, and at crucial seasons, refused to pick tea and coffee.

Similarly women on the ‘native reserves’ were an integral part of the Mau Mau military wing. In the cities prostitutes used their establishments as safe houses, and provided the Mau Mau Land and Freedom Army with money, intelligence and arms. Women traders used the railroad and markets as networks of communication. The British, recognising that success in counterinsurgency depended on cutting the link between villages and forest fighters, razed hundreds of communities and imprisoned women with their children in concentration camps. In Githunguri, the most repressive prison, women were divided into four categories depending on their degree of defiance. Most militant were the ‘hardcore’ women who were detailed to bury the bodies of freedom fighters hung by the British. Women in concentration camps were pressed into forced labour gangs. The British introduced a women’s organisation to counter the influence of the Mau Mau: women who joined could be excused from forced labour. This women’s organisation was run by middle and upper class European women committed to enforcing Christian nuclear family values and practices on Kikuyu and other African women. Called Mandeleo ya Wanawake (Progress Among Women) it was a vital agency in the British counterrevolution, and was fostered after independence in 1963 as the state party’s official woman’s organ.’ [3]

But what became of the Mau Mau? Turner continues her narrative:

The Mau Mau phase of Kenyans’ struggle for land and freedom was crushed by massive military repression in the late 1950s. While Kimathi and other men in the Mau Mau worked for egalitarian gender relations, the force was weakened by sexism. Then decolonisation was organised so as to entrench capitalist production relations and British allies to enforce them. The male deal which accompanied this neocolonial class arrangement focused on the domestication of women. Mandeleo promoted dependence of women on husbands whom they were pressured to marry in church. It established a network of women’s groups ostensibly for education in home economics and money-making craft work. But in practice Mandeleo extolled Christian virtues pertaining to the nuclear family and the subordination of wives to their husbands. Only through marriage could women get access to land which was registered in the names of men.’ [4]

Perhaps the history – or just the name – of Nyabingi, and the activities and aspirations of the Land and Freedom Party informed the kinship suggested by the name of the Nairobi Sisters. Maybe they were singing, looking forward, for the end of history, the end of everything; the moon, the stars…

Today the most famous Kenyan on the planet is American presidential candidate Barack Obama. No doubt he is aware that Nairobi has for some time been the sister of the city of Denver in Colorado. Here is a report from Samuel Siringi from September 2008;

The American city of Denver captured the attention of the world two weeks ago when it hosted Democratic party presidential candidate Barack Obama as he formally accepted his nomination for the race to the White House. But unknown to many Kenyans, Nairobi city featured prominently during the hugely successful party national convention. The City of Nairobi Park in Denver was the ideal resting place for the thousands of delegates.

Many of the visitors were happy to link Nairobi with the presidential nominee as his father, Barack Obama Senior, spent quite a chunk of his adult life here. The park was named after the Kenyan capital following a relationship pact signed between the two cities in 1975. According to Denver city authorities, the park reminds Denverites of our sister city in Africa, where people speak both English and Swahili.

The two cities consider each other ‘sisters’ working together to foster cultural and educational relations. The park, with playing equipment for children and seats, is popular with the residents who frequent it on weekends. With its well tended grass and trees, it is an ideal place for picnics.

Mr Gregory Jackson, a 57 year-old retired black lithographer, found the park the best place to while away time as he listened to the radio broadcast of the convention proceedings. ‘This park is so beautiful that I visit it three to four times a week,’ he said during the convention. ‘I know that it is named after a beautiful city in Kenya, which is the country where Mr Obama’s father came from.’

Mr Jackson believes Kenya is a great country, arguing that it has produced a person who is shaping politics in the powerful democracy. ‘I have no doubt that Mr Obama will win the November elections and start evening out racial disparities here,’ he added. At another corner of the park Ms Jacky Taylor, 44, was having a drink as she sat under a tree. To her, however, the park’s name does not mean much.

She has not heard of any mention of Mr Obama, whom she supports for the presidency, having roots in Kenya. ‘I know Kenya is in Africa, but I have never heard of Mr Obama’s links to that country,’ she said.’ [5]



[1] ‘Introduction: Rastafari, old and new’, by Terisa Turner www.uoguelph.ca/~terisatu/Counterplanning/c2.htm

[2] ‘Mau Mau against the British Empire’, by Stephen Miles, Mar 9, 2005
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Source: http://www.workers.org/2005/world/mau-mau-0317/

[3] Turner

[4] Ibid

[5] ‘Nairobi park in US takes pride of place at Obama convention’, by Samuel Siringi, the Daily Nation, September 12 2008



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