Having ignominiously failed in our attempt to cross from West to East Africa overland, we arrived with our tails between our legs, early on a Wednesday morning, to the empty cavernous modern arrivals hall of Jonah Kenyatta airport in Nairobi. Coming from Central Africa, this felt like stepping into a completely different, and much more familiar world. People wore Western clothes, including woolen jumpers and hats. The climate was distinctly cooler and less humid. Everything about the city and its layout was closer to the Anglo-Saxon model of a city that we were used to. This familiarity only went so far: the city includes large shanty towns and is home to a wide range of different ethnic groups. Our arrival coincided with a drought in the region, and destitute Masaai herders seeking to save their last few desiccated cows fringed the roads between the airport and the city.

British East Africa – From the Cape to Cairo

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the Scramble for Africa saw intense competition between the European powers to gain strategic control of Africa. The ambitious goal of Britain’s imperialists was to gain control over the entirety of East Africa and to link it all together with continuous railroad, steamship and telegraph lines running all the way from the Cape to Cairo, thus patching Africa fully into their global empire.

They were successful – in the first part at least – by the end of the 19th century, almost everything between Cairo and Cape Town was coloured pink on the map. Present day Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa were all controlled by the British by 1900. With the German defeat in World War One, the British gained control over Tanzania and filled in the last jigsaw piece.

The Rapid Colonization of Africa after 1880

This uniformity of colonial legacy in the region is reflected in modern countries which have much in common when it comes to their administration and urban centres. The integrated transport and communications infrastructure, however, never really materialised. Significant railways were constructed in the pre-war years – from Cairo to Khartoum and from Cape Town to “Rhodesia”. Military logistics and geo-politics were the major factors driving these investments – supplying a mechanised army in the terra incognita of the late 19th century African interior was non-trivial. Securing Khartoum prevented the French from linking up their West African holdings to the Indian Ocean via their East African outpost Djibouti. Securing Rhodesia prevented the Germans and the Portuguese from linking their East and West coast holdings. Once the British had established military control via these strategic bridgeheads, there was far less political will for investing in their African colonies and the promised infrastructure never materialised. Nevertheless, there have been some historical efforts to enable traffic across the region and viable overland routes for traveling reasonably safely from Cairo to Cape Town were in operation for most of the 20th century.

One thing was clear from our efforts to cross Central Africa overland – there really is no safe overland route and there almost never has been. Imperial considerations have focused investment effectively to prevent the development of the necessary infrastructure. Between French West Africa and British East Africa there lies a wasteland completely devoid of modern infrastructure which is crossed by almost nobody and largely unknown to the outside world. By contrast the route from Cairo to Cape Town is well known and has been a favourite of adventurous travelers since the early years of the 20th century. While we were in the region, the civil war in Sudan was ongoing and this certainly reduced the traffic on the route, but we nevertheless came across several people who had made the trip recently.

Settler Colonialism

Probably the most important difference between British East Africa and West Africa, however, is the presence of settler colonialism. The European powers made limited efforts to settle their West African colonies. A small group of administrators sent from Europe coordinated a local workforce and in many cases left local forms of organisation intact. The climate was considered too harsh, the death rate from malaria too high, the natives too numerous and hostile, to make settlement a viable prospect. The African societies in closest and longest contact with the European colonisers adapted quickly to the introduction of new military technology by the European powers. The great kingdoms of pre-colonial West Africa such as Ashanti and Dahomey arose as new powers in response to the instability that large scale slave and arms trading introduced. Until the late 19th century, European powers were confined to a few heavily fortified coastal trading posts in West Africa, by force of arms – losses in battles were not unusual. Even after colonisation, there tended to be less structural change as the colonial powers stepped into a role as paramount hegemon and left the existing social structures intact.

The situation of East and Southern Africa, however, was very different. The landscape is flatter, it generally rises from the East towards the centre of the continent producing cooler temperatures and less humidity and disease. Much of this land is highly fertile and productive. The effects of being plundered by slave raiders for centuries were devastating on the agrarian societies of the interior and the slave trade on the East African coast continued into the early years of the 20th century. Once the Nile and the Great Lakes were patrolled by British Gunships, supplied by rail with artillery and maxim guns from British factories, the natives really had no say in things.

Settler colonialism played an important part in the British Victorian world view which justified imperialism. The settlers were agents of civilization – sent out to help educate the helpless natives in the virtues of British civilization and morality and by doing so uplift them into the ranks of the civilized races. Undoubtedly some of the explorers, adventurers and administrators who pacified the interior and opened it up for settlement were genuinely motivated by a desire to help develop the region, but nakedly racist imperialist chauvinism also played a large part – the noble British race on top where it belongs. From the early years of the 20th century until the onset of decolonisation in the 1950s, the British state actively encouraged and subsidised settlement in their African territories. Wherever land was discovered with high potential for settlement by Europeans, the native population was simply dispossessed. Even in the aftermath of the second world war, a small surge of immigrants travelled from the UK to Cairo then south to Kenya and Rhodesia to take up subsidised farms and homes.

The consequences of settlement for the local population was severe – with lands seized for ranches, shanty-towns on the edges of cities filled up. The settler plantations were commercial farms, targeting export markets with commodities such as tea, coffee, corn and wheat, as against the traditional agriculture which was largely subsistence based. Dispossessing the natives was also important in creating the wage economy for agricultural labour needed by the commercial plantations and a modern economy. Traditional farmers were transformed into a landless rural proletariat with devastating effects on local cultures and traditions. Throughout the region settlements have a distinctly proletarian aspect, people are clad in t-shirts, jeans, jumpers and woolly hats, living in concrete and corrugated-iron homes. A vague sense of recent collective cultural trauma hangs over everything.


With the great cultural trauma came the consequences of atomisation and inequality in big melting pot cities – crime and insecurity. The streets of Nairobi grew increasingly seedy after dark – our cheap hotel was located behind the bus station and great care was required to successfully navigate the route home without getting cornered by a predator of one sort or another.

Nairobi is one of the centres of the Safari industry and downtown is full of shiny glass and steel hotels which cater to upmarket safari tours. Hostels which catered specifically for Western backpackers advertised themselves on posters. Familiar looking museums, cinemas, chippers and pubs advertise their services on the city streets. West and Central Africa were distinguished by the absence of any significant international tourist industry. With the exception of a small number of self-contained sites and resorts, significant numbers of people from outside the region do not travel there for purposes of tourism and never have. While tourism in East and Southern Africa remains heavily concentrated on a small number of hubs and does not extend deep into the economy, it has relatively deep historical roots and extends throughout the region. East African Safaris have been popular for over a century. There were, for example, a variety of outlets in Nairobi advertising Trans-Africa buses and camping tour operators which brought groups of enterprising tourists on overland camping trips through wildlife-laden territory.

Along with the presence of tourists comes the presence of a tourist industry to mediate between the tourist and the local culture. A significant number of touts, guides, hustlers and fraudsters worked the streets around tourist parts of the city. Due to the ongoing conflicts, refugees from Somalia and Sudan were also common among the hustlers. Adding to the atmosphere of insecurity in Nairobi was the prospect of an upcoming election and the potential for ethnic and political violence. President Moi had a reputation for stirring up conflict between ethnic groups as a means of solidifying his support base. Posters on lamp-posts advertised an opposition rally in the city. As we walked around visiting museums – we encountered a traumatised looking group of women in a café who told us that the rally had been attacked and one person had been killed.

To get a panoramic view of the city, we took a tour of the Kenyatta Conference Centre, a modern landmark with a high-rise tower at its centre named after Kenya’s first president Jonah Kenyatta. Our guide showed us the well-known buildings and sites of notable events that were visible from the centre’s viewing platform – the National bank, the parliament, the presidential palace in which president Moi performs black magic and sacrifices babies along with his masonic, devil-worshipping cult. The description of the practices of this cult, and the series of pacts that Moi had made with the devil over the years to remain in power were far more enthusiastically described than the panorama or the landmarks.

Downtown Nairobi from Kenyatta Centre

Modern Kenya

Kenya has suffered more than most from the difficulty of transforming an arbitrary shape on the map of Africa drawn by colonising monarchs into a viable modern state. The borders do not correspond to any ethnic or geographic or social boundaries. The Southern border with Tanzania cuts the Serengeti and the great wildlife migrations that it hosts in two. The Northern half of the country is essentially all desert, occupied by Somalis in the East and Sahelian pastoralists in the West. The coastal area is part of the Indian Ocean trading network and has a hybrid Arab-Bantu culture. Almost all of the cultivable land and the bulk of the population is in the South West of the country. In the rift-valley area close to Lake Victoria, a large number of different Bantu groups intermingle. The largest ethnic group – the Kikuyu – have traditionally controlled political power, but they make up only 20% of the population. Without anything in the way of common culture, norms history or economics to bind the different groups together, the institutions of the liberal democratic nation state just don’t work. Naked force and repression come to the fore simply to stave off the risk of collapse and civil war. The fact that a tiny minority of white settlers – perhaps 30,000 – control a large part of the economy and best farming land, while the natives are piled up in shanty towns around the capital city certainly can’t help either.

Towards The Great Lakes

We spent a few days enjoying the relative luxury of the city with its hamburgers, museums and beers and restocking our supplies. I acquired a new shortwave radio to replace the one that had died in the rains of Cameroon – the BBC world service was an even more important source of news in East Africa than it had been in West. We then turned back towards the East, into the rift valley and beyond into Uganda and the Eastern border of DRC. For the first time in some months, the bus that carried us was an actual bus – a reasonably modern coach – and the roads were mostly sealed.

Tea Pickers

The road passes through the highland region and the great coffee and tea growing plantations – vivid green leaves stretching on for ever, speckled with workers picking, pruning and packing. The highlands eventually give way to the rift valley region, with steep precipices dropping away into a vast, rolling, fertile valley system. The African tectonic plate is gradually breaking apart – in ten million years East Africa will split off to form several large islands. The rift valley is the area where the earth’s crust is stretched between the breaking sides of the plate. The African great lakes trace the valley’s edges as it stretches from the Red Sea to Mozambique. It is highly fertile and has long served as an ecological corridor for harbouring human and animal diversity. Many of the earliest evidence for hominids – including the famous Lucy – come from the rift valley. Approaching the valley from the East I was surprised by the extent to which the landscape suddenly changed and the sharpness of the descent into the valley.

The journey through the valley to the border was punctuated by a couple of military checkpoints and passed through a village which bore the scars of recent destruction and burning. Nevertheless, progress was considerable: having left the bus-station in Nairobi at 7.30am, by 2.30pm we had successfully crossed the Ugandan border and navigated the border formalities and were in Uganda speeding our way towards the capital Kampala.

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