Use Context to Fill in Family History

Esther Mathoka, Guest Writer

Esther Mathoka, Guest Writer

I was born and raised in Kitui, Kenya. I teach 4th and 5th grade Newcomers at Place Bridge Academy in Denver Public Schools. I have been teaching for the last eight years. I am a master’s student in Educational Equity and Cultural Diversity with an endorsement in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

As an assignment in a multicultural education class, I researched my family’s history. I was especially interested in learning more about my grandfather, whom I did not know very well since he died when I was two years old. History is learned in context; so, I wanted to learn the political, historical and economic context at that time. What made him who he was and why? I will describe how I use context to find out.

In 1940, Kenya was a colony under British rule. Africans were not represented in the government. When Kenya was brought into the world capitalist system, their economy was based on the export of agricultural products. The white settlers owned big fertile blocks of farmland. Most Africans relied on farming for food and sold the extra to the markets. At the same time missionaries had established hospitals, churches and schools in Muthale, Kitui district. Most Africans practiced their traditions despite the presence of missionaries.

Once I had learned the historical, political and economic context of my grandfather’s time period, I was ready to continue my research about my grandfather. I went online to ancestry.com to check whether there was any information about him, but found nothing recorded there. I anticipated that because most records in Kenya are not digitized. So, I called my grandmother who is still back home in Kenya. She is around 80 years old and her memory is intact. She told me that my grandfather went to war in Burma around 1940 with other people from the Ukambani village. She did not know the name of the war, nor the exact people they were fighting. One thing she remembers is that they were under British command.

She also told me my grandfather did not rise to a high rank of command because he did not have a formal education, so that’s why he vowed to educate his kids. He persevered with this goal despite encountering a lot of resistance from locals. They did not agree with him sending his kids to a Roman Catholic missionary school because they felt that it eroded their traditions and culture. However, later he converted to Christianity and all his children and grandchildren became Roman Catholics.

I went back online to find out in what war Kenya may have been involved in the 1940s.To my surprise, I learned that at the time, Italian-controlled East Africa bordered Kenya to the north. At the start of World War II, the British feared that the much larger Italian army would advance into Kenya as it had into British Somaliland. So maybe he was recruited at this time to help the British.

After additional research, I found that a drought in 1939-40, and the accompanying crop failure known at the time as the “Italian famine,” also caused many Kenyans to enlist. They came from the agricultural kamba in eastern Kenya, where men had not traditionally joined the army in large numbers. My grandmother had said that he joined the army because of the drought, so this concurred with what I had learned in my research.

In 1940s in Kenya, only the missionaries had cars. Africans had no cars at the time, but if they had driving skills, they could be hired as a driver by the missionaries. After my grandfather joined the army, he was trained as a tank driver. His time in the army explains how my father had acquired his driving skills. That’s why upon returning home, he was able to land a job as a missionary driver, which was a prestigious job in the 1940s.

Also, I now comprehended why my father was one of the first teachers at Kambaland. When my grandfather returned, he had a stable job that enabled him to send his son to a missionary boarding school where he acquired his education and later became an educator.

My family still owns a lot of farmland in Ukambani. It’s in eastern Kitui. The Kitui district is mostly populated by the Kamba-speaking tribe, which relied on farming for stable food. I realized that my grandfather had purchased the land after the war because he had the money to buy the land.

From my research, I learned that I was born into an elite family, which influenced me to be who I am today: a teacher.

After looking at the patterns of my grandfather’s social, cultural, and historical contexts, I understand myself better than ever. I relate this to the reading by C. Sleeter, which stated that in critical family history, individuals’ lives are shaped by local culture and relationship among social groups. I also learned a lot of my family history, or as Sleeter calls it “unearthed memories we lost.” 

As a teacher I learned that I should critique the teaching materials I’m using with my students because they might contain biased information depending on who wrote the book, and when and why the book was written. It also made me look at the world critically, particularly to look for cultural, historical and political biases, before forming any decision or opinion.

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