This essay examines the roles of African chiefs under British colonialism in Kenya, and their influence and impact on the broader system of colonial governance. It specifically examines the role of Chief Nindo of Seme Location and addresses how this ties into the colonial system in Kenya and Africa in general.
It is well known that all across Africa, as well as the world, European powers installed chiefs acting in the interests of the imperial nations. The British were no exception. They also appointed chiefs to help with their plans in Africa. The British created this chief-system because, according to political scientist David K. Leonard, they “needed a manageable number of ‘leaders’ whom they could hold responsible for the behavior of ‘their people.’” Although the British, among other European powers, invaded Africa equipped with large, intercontinental armies, advanced weaponry, and vast wealth, they realized that any efforts to rule directly in Kenya would fail for economic, political, and social reasons.
The British were therefore forced to appoint local Africans to “puppet” positions of power as chiefs in order to smoothly take control of Africans using a system known as “indirect rule.” One such chief was Melkizedek Nindo Nyangaga Melkizedek. The British appointed Nindo Kanyangaga as chief of the Seme Location in Luoland, western Kenya, and he went on to serve as chief very effectively for many years. Many people from Seme remember Chief Nindo with nostalgia as a very firm, forceful, and efficient chief.
Melkizedek Nindo Nyangaga of Seme was born in 1911 in Seme, Luoland, western Kenya. He seems to have had an impressive level of education for a man born during his time. After attending elementary school in his village, he joined an apprenticeship school in Lower Kabete (Nairobi County) from 1926 to 1931. He was directly apprenticed under the General Manager of the Kenya-Uganda Railway from 1926 to 1931.
He was appointed as a colonial chief by the British and served from 1931 to 1968, before retiring due to old age. He was then succeeded by Chief Akuku Duku, who upon failing to manage his people, was sacked, and in his place, Chief Nindo was appointed again as chief. During his second stint in office, Chief Nindo served until 1972. With seven wives and forty-two children, Chief Nindo had many responsibilities as a father and husband, as well as Chief of Seme Location.
Many observers have argued that Chief Nindo was a firm and effective administrator who was greatly concerned with the welfare of his people. He was highly respected by those he governed. This was due in large part to his efforts to advance his people and eradicate crime. Through his initiatives, there was a remarkable decrease in cattle raiding. He is regarded with high honor among the Luo and lauded for unifying and bringing peace in his area of jurisdiction. In 1947, for example, there was a crisis of rural food production, which had left many women necessitous without men to support them. The men were missing due to wage labor migration which made the social and economic conditions in Seme unbearable. Huts were falling without men to repair them. This forced chief Nindo to call men from their work places to come back home and attend to their work. One such man was Jordan Obuny. It is said that Chief Nindo summoned Jordan Obuny to come from Mombasa and build a house for his neglected wife.
Chief Nindo also had other various achievements, like building several schools. He built the Ngere Secondary School in Seme, an achievement that earned him more respect from his people and also from his colonial masters. For these reasons, Chief Nindo Nyangaga Melkizedek is regarded as a particularly good chief by the Luo people.
Although well liked by his people, it should not be forgotten that Chief Nindo was an agent of the British colonial government and therefore had to implement colonial policies in Seme. Nindo had to collect the hut and poll taxes—which were hated by all colonial subjects—with the help of a village headman. He was responsible for keeping law and order and supplied labour, both for communal and public work. He was extremely feared. This was in large part because he was strict and firm when it came to matters of land disputes. He did not tolerate nonsense or challenges to British hegemony or stability. He was expected to rule with an iron fist. He fulfilled this expectation when deemed necessary. As a colonial chief, Nindo was awarded a certificate of deed for his role in supplying men to work as railway workers. The railway was the major cause for economic and social change in Seme.
Through Chief Nindo’s experience as chief of Seme Location among the Luo people, one can also gather important insight on the experiences of many African chiefs and their people. We can compare Chief Nindo to other Kenyan chiefs, as well as other African chiefs under British rule. When we do this, we begin to see many similarities, as well as a few differences, between Nindo and the bulk of colonial chiefs in Kenya.
All Kenyan colonial chiefs were appointed by the British, not based on who was most qualified, but by who seemed most able and willing to carry out colonial interests. Furthermore, chiefs felt they owed their authority and loyalty to the colonial masters because “ultimate authority now lay with the white man.” Chiefs were expected to recruit labor for the British (especially for the railway and other public infrastructure), collect hut taxes, maintain law and order, control agricultural activity, and mediate disputes—all things Chief Nindo did with much gusto. Timothy Parsons has argued that, because many African colonial subjects felt that the primary concerns of Chiefs were of colonial interests, not the interests of the people, chiefs were often resented. In response, there were several forms of resistance to colonial chiefs, from subversive activities to outright resistance and revolt. Yet, Nindo’s time as chief seemed to be relatively stable.
In the British hierarchal structure of colonial governance, a colonial chief was in charge of village headmen, who collected taxes that moved up the hierarchy, as seen with Chief Nindo. Colonial chiefs were in “control” of their locale. The more one was able to carry out British interests, the more likely they were to be promoted as paramount chief. Colonial chiefs who aided and abetted the British colonial system enjoyed special privileges such as the admission of their children to mission schools and the presentation of gifts from the whites. For example, the British government gave Chief Nindo a car as a gift for his work and achievements for the colonial state. The message was clear: obey the British and have success and riches; defy them and suffer dire consequences.
As stated, Chief Nindo’s rule is generally representative of that of most colonial chiefs, but, in some ways, it differed from that of other chiefs. His respect and fear mirrors that of other Kenyan and African colonial chiefs. Chief Nindo is a good representation of colonial chiefs by his relationship to the British colonial government. Like all chiefs, he was appointed by the British and was expected to be loyal to them while having to maintain a stable relationship with his people, two tasks that many chiefs had a hard time balancing, as seen with Senior Chief Waruhiu wa Kung’u, who was killed for being too cozy with the British.
All chiefs were in a tough position: they had to obey British demands while maintaining some degree of respect among their people. While colonial chiefs were the most powerful members in African society, their power was really limited. They could not challenge British hegemony or dominance. They could be at risk of being fired, or worse. They were to obey all orders from their colonial superiors. Chief Nindo, as a colonial chief, was no exception to this rule. However, it appears that Chief Nindo is admired more than many other colonial African chiefs among the Seme people in Luoland. It also appears he was able to unite his people more than some other chiefs in the area.
Nindo’s role and tenure as chief among the Seme people has received admiration from even some of the fiercest critics of the colonial system. One such critic is Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o, a historian, political scientist, politician, and currently the Senator for Semen in Kenya’s parliament. Writing about Chief Nindo in an article published in the East African Standard of November 17, 2013, Prof. Anyang’ Nyong’o observes that, “when I was a child law and order was something that chiefs walked with, ate with and slept with. We had a chief called Melkazedek Nindo who was law and order in person: everybody in Seme Location walked the straight and narrow path for fear of rubbing Nindo the wrong way. When we subsequently abolished the Chief’s Act in 1997 because we disliked its authoritarian tendencies we did not mean to abolish law and order itself in our society. But it looks as if somewhere in the labyrinth of the current state some gurus who are upset with devolution want to propagate insecurity so as to discredit county governance. That is my fear. That is my concern.” Clearly, Chief Nindo was a very effective and successful administrator.
In conclusion, Chief Nindo was in many aspects, very similar to other colonial chiefs in Kenya and other British colonies, yet his success and admiration among the people make him rather unique. In the end, it appears that the aspirations and character of a chief varied case by case, but one thing remains clear: colonial chiefs were certainly complex, controversial figures caught between a rock and a hard place.
Chief’s Wife’s house: A view of the home of chief Nindo’s fifth wife. ~ Bouris Watson, October 10, 2016
Luo Chief Ogada: The famous Luo leader Chief Ogada is pictured here seated in front of the colonial administration building in Kisumu. This photo was taken by Charles William Hobley, an anthropologist who was curious about Ogada’s ornamental dress. Ogada’s beads, bracelets, and totems were commemorative heirlooms or served medical purposes. ~ Photo by Charles William Hobley, 1902 | Pitt Rivers Museum–Luo Visual History
Chief Nindo’s homestead: View of Chief Nindo’s homestead. Nindo was made chief in 1931 and continued until 1968, and then again briefly until 1972. ~ Bouris Watson, Enzo Zaccardelli, October 10, 2016
Entrance to Homestead: The gate to the entrance of Chief Nindo’s homestead. ~ Bouris Watson, October 10, 2016
Chief Nindo’s 6th wife’s home: This picture shows a view of the house of Chief Nindos 6th wife. ~ Bouris Watson, October 10, 2016
Chief’s Wife’s house: A view of the house of chief Nindo’s fourth wife. ~ Bouris Watson, Enzo Zaccardelli, October 10, 2016
Chief Nindo’s Deed of Apprenticeship with the Kenya Uganda Railway: Effy Maji, April 1, 2016
Chief Nindo with Members of His Family: Effy Maji, April 1, 2016
Chief Nindo’s car: Car given to Chief Nindo as a gift from the British in the colonial era. The car is on the property of chief Nindo. ~ Bouris Watson, October 10, 2016
Chief’s wife’s home: A view of the home of Chief Nindo's 3rd wife. ~ Bouris Watson, October 10, 2016
Chief’s wife’s Home: A view of Chief Nindo’s 7th and final wife’s home. ~ Bouris Watson, October 10, 2016
Chief Ismail Owuor Molo: “A portrait of Chief Ismail Owuor Molo in the uniform of a colonial chief, although without his helmet (known in Luo as ogut simba). Owuor (1901-1968) was chief of Asembo from 1931, and is here photographed with four of the apparently eight wives he had married by 1936, all wearing expensive European dresses. Since he was a colonial chief and thereby relatively wealthy, he could afford to marry a number of wives, and in fact he married more than 10 before his death.” ~ Photo by Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, 1936 | Pitt Rivers Museum--Luo Visual History
Kisumu-Busia Highway or Kisumu-Bondo Highway ~ Once you arrive in Maseno town on the Kisumu-Busia highway, you make a turn on the Maseno-Rata-Kombewa road to reach Chief Nindo’s home. Alternatively, you can also take the Kisumu-Bondo-Usenge Highway, and make a turn on Kombewa-Rata-Maseno road to reach Chief Nindo’s home.