Moskowitz on Saeteurn, 'Cultivating Their Own: Agriculture in Western Kenya during the "Development" Era'

Muey C. Saeteurn
Kara A. Moskowitz

Muey C. Saeteurn. Cultivating Their Own: Agriculture in Western Kenya during the "Development" Era. Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora Series. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2020. 222 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-58046-979-1

Reviewed by Kara A. Moskowitz (University of Missouri-St. Louis) Published on H-Africa (February, 2021) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)

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In Cultivating Their Own, Muey C. Saeteurn provides a locally grounded history of agricultural development in mid-century Kenya. Focusing on the Maragoli of western Kenya, Saeteurn argues that, largely due to land scarcity, many rural people there “did not share the Kenyan government’s unyielding faith in agriculture as the key to economic prosperity” (p. 2). Not only were the development programs of the Kenyan government, Christian missionaries, and foreign development actors impractical for the western Kenyan setting, but they were also out of touch with the desires of local people, who conceptualized development differently. Even so, the Maragoli still engaged with development agents, though they did so “on their own terms when it suited their personal agendas” (p. 17).

This book joins an emerging scholarship that questions some of the conventional wisdom about development by examining local histories. Saeteurn critiques both the scholarly literature and the development organizations that have made simplistic assumptions about the “failures” of sub-Saharan Africa through ahistorical analyses and that have paid little attention to local actors or structural constraints. In some ways, the author’s findings prove a familiar story: development programs created unintended consequences; ordinary people often experienced little substantive change; the agendas of political elites and international development actors conflicted with those of local people; and though state schemes were interventionist, rural women and men reinterpreted and reworked these programs on the ground.

In other ways, though, the book contains important new lessons. First, much of the Kenyanist scholarship has long assumed that rural Kenyans, especially rural, non-elite Kenyans, desired land above all else at independence. Cultivating Their Own shows that some Maragoli “did not accept that their upward mobility rested solely on getting their hands dirty in the soil,” and, in fact, there were negative stereotypes associated with agriculture (p. 2). Second, this book focuses on understudied rural agricultural development programs, providing new insights into the locally specific dynamics surrounding these schemes. Lastly, in attending to the role Quaker evangelists played in development, Saeteurn shows that missions remained important development agents during decolonization. At independence, Quakers sought to transform their missions into self-sufficient churches and to keep foreign missionaries on the ground. This missionary agenda deeply shaped the trajectory of development in the region.

Saeteurn is able to make these original interventions by drawing on extensive evidence, some conventional, some wholly innovative. State and institutional depositories—such as the Kenya National Archives, the Western Provincial Record Centre, the National Archives of the United Kingdom, the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States, the Friends Collection at Earlham College, and the Rockefeller Foundation Archive Center—provided information on the genesis and logic of Kenya’s agricultural development programs, though they offered little insight into local opinions and experiences of these programs. On the other hand, the author conducted more than fifty oral histories and was also able to gain access to the personal papers of Rodney Morris, a Quaker agricultural missionary who worked in western Kenya from 1955 to 1968. These two sets of sources provide much compelling evidence for the book. The oral histories illustrate the range of Maragoli aspirations and expectations at uhuru (independence), as well as the ways ordinary people responded to, and engaged with, development in local settings. The Morris papers demonstrate how a single actor could deeply shape local development interventions, while also exposing the infighting that commonly occurred within organizations. These voices are often absent from development plans and reports.

The book’s six chapters focus primarily on the 1950s and 1960s. The first two chapters provide background on agriculture in modern Kenya and on the region of western Kenya. Each of the following four chapters focus on specific development programs. These chapters demonstrate how the particularities of demography, the environment, and politics shaped development outcomes and how local people made these programs into their own. Chapter 3 addresses the Chavakali secondary school. Government actors and foreign developmentalists saw the school as an ideal venue for agricultural vocational education. Chavakali students, though, rejected these aims, seeking academic training and careers outside of agriculture. Chapter 4 turns to 4-K clubs—Kenya’s version of the 4-H clubs that might be familiar to US readers. Here, again, the aims of the government and local people conflicted. Though state actors hoped 4-K would teach better farming practices, rural Kenyans participated in 4-K for various reasons. Some used the club to access farming resources and training. Others had no intention of ever becoming farmers but enjoyed meeting new people, taking excursions, and earning pocket money. The Lord’s Acre Project—which encouraged local farmers to set aside land for crops to be donated to the church—is the subject of chapter 5. Most Maragoli farmers did not have “an inch of productive soil to give,” and the project foundered from its start (p. 101). Aside from demonstrating that developmentalists refused to take seriously the land shortages in western Kenya, this chapter also exposes emerging tensions, as foreign Quaker missionaries sought to dominate church leadership positions, just as Kenya promised widespread Africanization. The final chapter focuses on the Lugari settlement, part of Kenya’s Million Acre Scheme. This chapter upends some of the scholarship on Kenya’s decolonizing land resettlement, showing that, though the Maragoli lived in a densely populated area, they did not unquestioningly accept plots of land. Many were critical of the fact that the land was expensive, it was far away from their homes, and it was strictly regulated by the government.

Cultivating Their Own expands on recent scholarship, which examines decolonizing development programs from a local perspective. Saeteurn’s bottom-up investigation reveals the many conflicting visions for development at independence, though, at times, I wanted the author to disaggregate the Maragoli a little more and explore how gender, class, and other factors might shape contestations within the ethnic community as well. Most important, this book’s emphasis on rural aspirations beyond land and on the continuing role of missionaries at decolonization offers new insights into the range of local development histories that have yet to be explored. This is an important, well-researched study, which will be of interest to scholars and students of African history, development history, agrarian history, and decolonization.

Citation: Kara A. Moskowitz. Review of Saeteurn, Muey C., Cultivating Their Own: Agriculture in Western Kenya during the "Development" Era. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL:

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