Nyeri, 1957: “Mamas”, Milk and Modernisation: The British Red Cross Society and the Kenyan Emergency

In a 1957 article published by the London newspaper The Daily Telegraph, the then vice-chairman of the British Red Cross Society (BRCS) Lady Limerick praised the work of the society’s field officers out in the British colony of Kenya. In her article titled “Thanks to the Red Cross ‘Mamas’”, Lady Limerick celebrated the officers as they moved about “fearlessly in a land where terror reigned”, “bringing help and hope to millions of human beings”. For the previous five years, a State of Emergency had been in place in Kenya. The colonial administration was fighting a bloody war with the movement of Kenyans, mainly from the Gikuyu community, called the Land and Freedom Army (LFA). The British had responded to the LFA, who became popularly known as “Mau Mau”, with widespread detention and heavy population control in the form of restricted movement and forced resettlement in guarded villages. The conflict was mainly located in the central region of Kenya, therefore the town of Nyeri became an important operational site for the BRCS to distribute their aid and services to those incarcerated and forcibly resettled. Although the military aspects of the war had predominantly ceased by 1956, the detention camps and guarded villages remained highly populated up until the early 1960s, with emergency regulations only beginning to be relaxed in late 1959.

The British introduced “villagization” as a quick and extremely disruptive measure during the height of the conflict in 1954, resulting in high levels of malnutrition, disease and poor sanitation. The emergency villages were mainly inhabited by Gikuyu women and children, which framed the gendered work pursued by the BRCS which centred on child health and homecraft. In her celebratory article of the BRCS activity in villages, Limerick reflects on the “sullenness and resentment” of African women toward the European field officers when they were introduced to villages in 1954. By 1957, however, she recalls villagers lining the roads singing to their Red Cross “Mamas” and filling their Land Rovers with gifts. This juxtaposition of African women’s responses was an effective means for Limerick to symbolise the BRCS as restorers of health to dying children and helpful mentors to ill-equipped African mothers. This image projected by Limerick distracted from growing international concern that the BRCS was not performing their duties in Kenya adequately with much of their efforts upholding development and modernisation measures being enforced by the colonial state.

Copyright ICRC Archives (ARR), V-P-HIST-E-01808. Photograph taken June 1959, 'ICRC delegate visiting a Kikuyu village in company of assistants from the Kenya Red Cross'.

As forced resettlement into emergency villages was widely imposed during 1954, the BRCS faced criticism from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for their limited intervention in the care of children impacted by the conflict. The ICRC had been watching the events in Kenya closely since the State of Emergency was declared and were faced with opposition from the BRCS about an ICRC humanitarian intervention of the situation. In light of the specific criticism received regarding the care of children, the BRCS dedicated the following years to forming solutions to this exact issue. The introduction of “Clubs and Clinics” aimed to resolve the growing levels of malnutrition among children, the increase in spreading diseases such as trachoma and scabies, and the general well-being of all villagers. The BRCS believed that by introducing training clubs on homecraft and childcare to African women, standards of cleanliness and the health of children would vastly improve. Humanitarian organisations sought to create and nurture nuclear family units in order to build stability in communities and strengthen core values. Gikuyu women were therefore trained on home cleaning, personal hygiene and nutritional education in order to provide better meals and environments for their families. In addition, health clinics were established and women were encouraged to bring their children in for various treatments. A particular concern of the field officers was the large population of orphaned children whose parents were either detained as supposed insurgent fighters or had been killed during the war. In order to have these children appropriately cared for, the BRCS as well as the colonial administration’s community development department worked to foster a sense of communal responsibility among villagers. This was with the hope that food would be shared more widely and children without parents would be supported by the whole village community.

Criticism from the ICRC did not stop there, however, with concern continuing into 1956 on the vagueness of outcoming BRCS reports. They questioned the nature of BRCS participation in the emergency villages and whether the organisation was performing its proclaimed duties. Writing a public and international thanks and celebration of the work being conducted by the BRCS field officers in Kenya, Limerick worked to counter these criticisms. Not only did she emphasise the efforts of the Clubs and Clinics work introduced in the villages, she placed heavy focus on the successful and regular milk distribution service, purchased and provided through UNICEF, working to tackle malnutrition in the younger children. As Tehila Sasson has argued, it became a popular practice of Western and colonial societies to tackle nutritional problems, prevent diseases and provide a convenient solution to feeding children. On the other hand, milk served as a symbol of colonial control, with Emily Baughan highlighting how aid organisations interacted with the ideology of imperialism and served colonial state’s modernisation projects.

With criticism and concern shrouding their efforts to improve child health in Kenya, the BRCS assumed the role of village “mamas” in order to legitimise their efforts and uphold the organisation as the benefactors of the village communities. Limerick publicly applauded the work of the Red Cross “Mamas” in their efforts to restore the health of young, African villagers. In her article, Limerick speaks of the touching sentiment that African villagers had in fact assigned this name to the Red Cross field officers as a thanks for “raising their spirits” and “ministering to their ills”. Interviews with Gikuyu women who lived in emergency villages has muddied this water however, with many recalling the cũcũ wa iria assigned to their emergency village. Cũcũ wa iria is the Gikuyu translation for “grandmother of milk” with cũcũ meaning “grandmother”. Was this simply a translation issue for the European field officers? Or was this a deliberate decision to assign the title ”mama” to denote the Red Cross field officers as the prime caregivers to those in the emergency villages? It directly impacted the agency of Gikuyu women who, in their role as mothers, were in charge of maintaining family life and health. Ignoring these principles of motherhood and adopting that position as a white, European woman, the BRCS reinforced the symbol of colonial power through the milk distributed. Furthermore, milk distribution facilitated dependency, both economically and socially and, as argued by Sasson, introduced private corporations producing milk formula into the aid industry and into colonial territory.

Finally, Limerick and the BRCS depicted Gikuyu villagers solely as aid recipients which detracted from the longstanding everyday efforts being made by villagers themselves to aid and help one another. In her article, Limerick denotes a spontaneous act of humanitarian effort by villagers as a result of the BRCS’s work and influence. She highlighted her shock to see a number of villages collecting funds to send to Hungarian refugees fleeing the aftermath of the 1956 student demonstration against the regime and Soviet masters. She argued that villagers had been inspired by the help they had received from the BRCS and now hoped to help others in return. In interviews conducted with Gikuyu villagers, however, women recalled the ways in which they had to adapt their lives in order to support one another in this new community to overcome the hardships that came with forced resettled. In many cases, up to ten separate families were forced to live in a single home together. Women recalled feeding other families who did not have enough food, offering shelter in their homes to those classified as village squatters and the important role teenage girls played by caring for the younger children while their mothers were away on communal labour. One woman argued that as a Gikuyu, it was deeply cultural to share and care for those in her community. The notion that villagers were only inspired to help others after the kindness they had received from European humanitarian workers perpetuates an image of idol colonial subjects awaiting aid and guidance in improving and modernising their circumstances. When drawing this to the wider literature on humanitarianism and its relationship to colonial governments, this was likely a conscious image they sought to propagate.

The existing literature on the Kenya Emergency is vast, but only recently has the role of international humanitarian organisations such as the BRCS, UNICEF and the ICRC been explored in more depth. Historians like Emily Baughan and Andrew Thompson have interrogated the fundamental principles of the Red Cross movement as well as UNICEF and Save the Children, analysing the interplay between imperialism and humanitarianism in Britain’s colony of Kenya. In addition to this, Fabian Klose and Yolana Pringle have contributed valuable research in assessing the ICRC’s missions to Kenya during the Emergency and the human rights abuses in the context of colonial violence. There is also a large literature on milk and humanitarianism, the BRCS more generally, and humanitarianism and empire. This entry has served to extend our understanding on the BRCS involvement in Kenya by exploring how African women’s agency and maternal politics were impacted by the humanitarian organisation through their cooperation with the colonial state.

Further Reading

This entry uses archival evidence housed in the British Red Cross Society archive, the International Committee of the Red Cross archive, the UK National Archives and the Kenya National Archives. In addition to this, the entry uses evidence collected from oral history interviews conducted by the author, with assistance from translator Caroline Wanjiru, in Kenya during the period of March – April 2019.

Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Bethany Rebisz is an AHRC-funded PhD Candidate in History at the Universities of Reading and Exeter. Her research focuses on the experiences of African women forcibly resettled due to the 1950s Kenyan Emergency and the international humanitarian involvement during this era. Bethany was a fellow of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2019.