How Scientific Racism Shaped Kenya

Inside the decades of dubious research and ideas that shaped Kenya.

Maureen was in labor when it happened. The stern nurse needed an answer, but she was in too much pain to think. Her body and mind were fighting each other by that point. 22 years old and lying on a stretcher outside the theatre at Kakamega Hospital, she had never felt more alone. And the nurse wouldn’t let her be wheeled in until she signed the bloody forms.

“I can see in your file that you are HIV positive,” the nurse said again, unmoved, “You must have tubal ligation since HIV positive women are not supposed to give birth.” So she took the pen and signed, and then zoned out. When she came to, she was a mother. A few hours later, the child was dead. In her pain, she had signed away her right to ever have another baby.

That was in 2005.

Forced sterilizations of HIV-positive pregnant women first came to light in 2012, although it had been happening for decades. The report, Robbed of Choice [PDF] has multiple reports like Maureen’s. Almost all the cases documented were of poor women in public hospitals and non-governmental clinics. It was our modern form of eugenics, an attempt to clean up the gene pool by getting rid of those we deem unfit, or at least their right to reproduce.

Eugenics, derived from Darwin’s theories by his cousin in the 19th century, is more about class than race. In its origins it was about getting rid of the undesirables, not just based on skin color, but also on their socioeconomic status. Among its pioneers was Frederick Osborn’s view of eugenics as a social philosophy deserving of some form of proactive action. To actively do this in politically sensitive times required tact, such as deliberately under developing certain areas, refusing to invest in education and healthcare, and sometimes outright sterilization.

In the utopia the colonial project envisioned, Kenyans would always be at the bottom of the social pyramid, with whites at the very top, and Asians in the middle as a buffer. But because Kenya attracted the British aristocracy, the class element was important to immigration policy of poor whites who were seen as undesirable. With hordes of eugenicists driving the colonial project, its ideas on class and social control infused themselves into the colonies in such core ways that it never left.


In July of 1933, 60 white men and women gathered in a boardroom in Nairobi. Among them were medical doctors, executives, journalists, scientists and other prominent white people. There were also a few Indians in the room. Their common goal was to formalize a group, ending up with the lengthy name Kenya Society for the Study of Race Improvement (KSSRI). It was a eugenics organization where scientific racism would thrive, all designed to prove that blacks were inferior.

Of the 60 people in that room, two of them emerged as the mouthpieces of the group. Henry Gordon and F. Vint were both medical doctors who would try to use science to prove that whites are superior by nature. This was the core of the eugenics movement, but in Kenya it was only one part of it. Gordon and his compatriots also had an argument for tightening immigration to limit the social pedigree of white settlers. At the time, Gordon was in charge of the only mental health institution in the country at the time, Mathare Mental Hospital.

In  Race and Empire: Eugenics in Colonial Kenya Chloe Campbell explores how Gordon and Vint used science to prove that Kenyans did not possess a sufficient innate mental capacity. Gordon’s first study included a sample size of 219 Kenyan boys. He concluded that 86 percent had mental conditions, but even the rest couldn’t be considered okay without creating several grades of “European ideas of normality.”

Even within Mathari, established in 1910 as the Lunatic Asylum, was a racial approach to facilities. Kenyans occupied the worst facilities in the 675-bed hospital, and Europeans the best. All members of the medical staff were European until the 1960s.

In another study of 278 Kenyans, 112 of whom had already been diagnosed with mental illness, he tested them for syphilis. While he found that more than half the group with mental conditions suffered the venereal disease, he concluded that it was racial differences, and not social and economic ones in the new colony, that caused the disparity. This argument wasn’t new; in a 1905 book, a settler blamed Indians and Swahilis for the rise of venereal diseases in Kenya. He offered that “the healthiness of a place is greatly increased by not allowing any native habitations within a given distance of the white settlement.” This was part of the thought process for segregation of urban centers based on race, with whites occupying the best areas, Asians the middle class areas, and Kenyans the poorest.

Vint, a government pathologist, focused his studies on correlating skull size with intelligence. He studied 100 skulls and arrived at the conclusion that Kenyans had lighter skulls and smaller pyramidal cells. In 1934, he concluded that Kenyan brains couldn’t even grow past 18, and that they started decreasing in size after that. That was the same year primary education became mandatory for white kids. Vint’s work was meant to prove that there was no need of educating Kenyans because they couldn’t even grasp complex concepts. It was at the core of the KSSRI’s mission.

One of the main motivations for the formation of the KSSRI was the growing clamor for better education for Kenyans. From the onset the colonial system had set to churn out technical workers, not intellectuals. That was the basis of the first school strike in Kenya, at Maseno School in 1908, after students found themselves doing menial work instead of reading.

By the 1930s, there was at least one secondary school, Alliance, and a spirited effort at expanding independent schools to serve Kenyans. This was threatening the colonial order that had survived for three decades by piecemeal investment in the base of the pyramid.

There was another context, crime.

With the economic depression of the 1920s and the increasing education of Kenyans, crime rates among Kenyans had shot up in urban areas. Juvenile delinquency was of particular interest, and Gordon would go on to claim that majority among his subjects had some education. The point was that they were suffering mental illnesses because they had been overwhelmed by British education. This was the “feeble-minded” argument which also drove investment in mental healthcare and other facets of life, including the justice system. Using their warped scientific knowledge, Vint and Gordon were providing a pseudo-scientific basis for continued underdevelopment and incarceration of Kenyans in the new state.

Interestingly, eugenicists also considered urbanisation as one of the reasons for increased crime and psychiatric cases. In their thinking, urbanisation ‘detribalised the African and made him unmanageable.’ It was part of the thinking that the African mind simply couldn’t handle too much change because it was not genetically wired to do so. It destabilised their feeble minds and led them to crazy thoughts that they could ever change the social pyramid. This thinking preceded the official eugenics movement in Kenya which only lasted from 1930 to 1937. 

The only concise book on the eugenics movement in colonial Kenya.

On Christmas Eve of 1911, for example, the DC of Machakos wrote a lengthy report on ‘the mania of 1911.’ It was the story of Siotune Kathuke and Kiamba Mutuaovio, who had led several acts of rebellion. Their sermons had supposedly inspired a widespread mania, as more people began to question to ordained order of things. Another good example is the commitment of Elijah Masinde, the founder of Dini ya Msambwa, in 1945. He was committed at Mathari for pretty much the same reasons as Siotune and Kiamba were exiled to the coast. When he left in 1947, Masinde promptly went back to preaching the end of white rule again. This idea of opposing ideas as madness survives to this day somewhat, and must have been what informed President Moi’s derision of Wangari Maathai as ‘that crazy woman.’

Another example is ‘Black Peril’, the racist belief that African men had unbridled sexual desire and would rape white women. The parliamentary discussion on the law that made sexual assault a capital offense labored on whether it should be applied to non-Kenyans as well. Since London would never accept such an explicitly racist law by then, the solution was to exclude that part on the understanding that rape against a white woman was worse than against a black woman. This law was used to disproportionately punish Kenyan men for perceived sexual crimes against white women, in the same way Ewart Grogan had gotten away with beating his servants in front of a courtroom decades before.

Campbell notes that although the government didn’t fund the eugenicists’ work, it showed its support in other ways. One was the continued underdevelopment of Kenyans, and the other was subtle, like giving Gordon a three-month leave from his work to go and try win support from other eugenicists in London. The movement could not have chosen a worse decade to try push for white supremacy, as Hitler’s Nazi Germany put similar ideas in its genocide. The prominence of eugenicists in Britain and countries like Kenya fell for political reasons, but the ideas survived. In fact, most historians view Nazi’s ideas of racial purity as only an extreme of what was common thinking among European aristocracy at the time. Winston Churchill was, for example, an avowed eugenicist who viewed any other race as inferior and deserving of whatever troubles came its way.

Another prominent scientist in the pseudo-science of ‘African intelligence’ was a retired doctor called JC Carothers. Carothers had once headed Mathari Hospital. He had submitted a paper on African intelligence at the World Health Organization when the colonial government turned to him to write what became The Psychology of the Mau Mau. Published in 1954, the report shows a slight change in the racist perspective of African intelligence. Where Gordon, who had preceded Carothers at Mathare, had focused on biology alone, Carothers expanded it to add environmental issues. He viewed the war as a cultural war to revert back to the pre-colonial model.

The psy-ops that defined the counter-insurgency were brilliant at demonising the Mau Mau. There were different posters for different audiences, as well as a number of movies, and many news stories.

Turning his focus to the Kikuyu, who provided the majority of Mau Mau ranks, Carothers thought that since the Kikuyu had had more contact with their colonizers “Kikuyu men have envied this power, not unnaturally, and have tried to capture it by learning.” Kikuyu women were not part of this because Carothers thought that “Her life…has suffered little change.” That her focus was still on agriculture and child-bearing, meaning she had lost her men who “have found themselves with money and powers which have virtually turned their heads. Power has come quickly to folk who are not…familiar with it.” It was Gordon’s ideas, with a dash of flair and some added flavor.

Louis Leakey was another instrumental scientist in that decade, helping counter-insurgency efforts in many ways. His best known effort was on oathing, arguing that the Mau Mau was led by brilliant psychopaths who had changed the oath’s meaning and even particulars. His counter-insurgency research and work may have actually escalated the war in 1952, which was one of his goals. He thought that if he made the problem big enough, then it could quickly be addressed. He used his personal and anthropological knowledge of the Kikuyu culture to devise a counter-oath that would free oath-takers from the Mau Mau one, and was core to the psychological counter-insurgency.


Eugenics concepts informed many laws of the colonial era, a good number which survive to date. They were notoriously anti-poor and anti-Kenyan, offering tokenism and hiding behind legalese. The Witchcraft Act, for example, banned many cultural practices by purporting to regulate them. It even made it an offence to pretend to be a witchdoctor.

In their resistance of a common electoral roll, settlers argued that it was unfair to be forced to wait for Kenyans to catch up on the civilisation scale. The compromise they ended up agreeing with disenfranchised the majority of the population even more, until some slow change began after World War 2.

After independence, eugenics switched back to its class roots, this time driven by a black, Western-educated elite. White Highlands went to a new class of supremacists, who quickly passed the Vagrancy Act in 1968. It had survived as the Vagrancy Regulations in the colonial system, only to be formalized when Kenyan elites started replacing settlers in former European areas like Muthaiga and Karen.The law made it illegal to be broke, and was used to harass poor people until it was repealed in 1997. In that time you could be arrested and placed in a rehabilitation home if you were found walking in posh estates with no money in your pocket and no known source of employment.

A screengrab of the Vagrancy Act of 1968.

Using the lessons learned during the decade of the Mau Mau war, the new government launched a similar counter-insurgency against a secessionist movement in Northern Kenya. The model of brutality, concentration camps and spirited propaganda fit in the ’60s as it had in the ’50s, with added efficiency.

Combined with other laws and institutions such as the police, the colonial view of the base of the pyramid survives. It is why the introduction of free primary education and maternity healthcare as public goods were such a big deal. Pro-poor policies have surprisingly been few in independent Kenya as an African elite only sought to replace, not displace, the colonial order. The paternalistic relationship between the individual and the state is still intact, as becomes clear whenever there is an internal threat to social order. 

Another legacy of colonial eugenics is the idea of Kikuyu dominance. Carothers notes in his report that Europeans thought Kikuyus were “more intelligent than other Kenyan Africans.” At Alliance, started in 1926, Kikuyus provided the bulk of the prefecture for decades even after the entry of Luo students displaced them from the top academic scores. A case of unfair punishment (against Luo students who had been in a fight with Kikuyu students) was the reason for the school’s first strike where tens of students staged a walkout.  

Within Kikuyu society itself, the different villagization of Mau Mau families and collaborator ones extended class disparity. Families of known Mau Mau soldiers were made to provide forced labour to collaborator families. And men such as Peter Magana Kenyatta were involved in the actual interrogation process in concentration camps. By independence, the thriving Kikuyu elite was from the latter group, and it has worked to sustain that system to date. 

It is this elite that has sold the concept of Kikuyu superiority over other communities. Since the early ’60s, it has driven the idea that the Kikuyu presidency is God-given, and thinking about taking it away is just crazy. In the one time in the last fifty years since independence that a non-Kikuyu was president, there was a widespread fear in Central Kenya of forced sterilization to curb population numbers. A prominent one involved lax alcohol control, and another the Nyayo milk. There have been other claims over the years, most around investment in development, government positions, birth control, and vaccines. Other communities have had the same concerns in the entirety of the three decades of Kikuyu rule. In the years after independence, for example, legislators like JM Seroney noted a huge disparity in government investment in Central Kenya compared to other areas.

The forced HIV sterilizations report points to how institutionalised eugenics survives. They were happening with tacit government approval, and targeted a class of undesirables. It probably thrived in the first decade of HIV/AIDS in Kenya when there was official and social denial of the extent of the problem. We might never know its true extent, although a few institutional names in it shouldn’t have been a surprise. One, for example, is Marie Stopes International, named for British author Marie Stopes. While today regarded a feminist pioneer, the major driving aspect of her birth-control advocacy was eugenics and not women rights. Her ideas on the poor are especially worrying, as that is whom her clinics targeted from the onset. There was also the small matter of disinheriting her son Harry because he married a short-sighted woman. The other institutions like government hospitals are still wallowing in under-investment, with constant labor strikes and neglect. You can see it in investments in schools and specific geographical areas too, as well as school quotas.

Infused in post-colonial Kenya was not eugenics as a concept, but as a form of social control. It is many other things now by many other names, but it seems focused on impoverishing the already poor while enriching those already endowed. A few might cross that socioeconomic divide, but many never will.

Owaahh, 2017

One story is good,

till Another is told.