President Obama’s recent trip to Kenya inevitably reminded us of that nation’s history. It is intimately wound-up in the European colonial apportionment of the African continent: Germany (1885) and then Britain (1888) claimed the region, calling it East Africa. The name Kenya, after the second highest mountain on the continent, became official in 1920; independence from British colonial rule came in late 1963.
The process of de-colonialism was more than a transfer of political power, writes Timothy H. Parsons: it was a turbulent social transformation, one contested by local and international interests. His case study is the Kenyan Boy Scout movement: would it stay British in inspiration or become Africanized? The context was the struggle to “master and adapt the political and social institutions” inherited from Britain.
Parsons begins with a revealing review of the scholarship around the international scout movement. Scouting may seem innocuous, but as debates in the US on the place of openly gay scoutmasters shows, it is far from removed from the cultures it is embedded within.
Once they realized their time was over, British colonialists hoped scouting would “make useful citizens in the Kenya of the future,” meaning they be pro-Western if not pro-British, Christian, middle-class, and of course adhere to the core values of scouting. But these core values presented a problem.
As with many European ideals, scouting was writ large with the contradictions and hypocrisies of colonialism. Scouting’s fourth law stated that all scouts were brothers, yet in Africa this was manifestly not the case, and Africans well knew it. In British-run Kenya, scout troops were segregated and the senior leadership was all white. “Democracy only works in Britain. How could it work here?” declared the Kenyan Chief Scout Commissioner, a white Brigadier General.
Kenya’s transformation from colony, writes Parsons, “exposed the inherent tensions arising from high expectations for postcolonial prosperity and competing conceptions of the new Kenyan nation.” Post-colonial scouting promoted loyalty to the nationalist state instead of the imperialist mission and reinvented itself as a force for national and economic development.