The idea for Our Turn to Eat came about while walking back from the National Archives in Nairobi, Kenya, after Daniel Branch quipped that there were enough young researchers in Kenya to write a book. Dan’s observation led us to organize a conference in Oxford designed to bring together a new generation of doctoral students working on Kenya. After that meeting the book evolved into a more comprehensive attempt to tell the story of politics in Kenya from 1950 by providing a ‘deep history’ that draws upon cultural, historical, and political perspectives. That meant bringing in a range of new authors. Leigh Gardner also came on board as a third editor. The project was further delayed by the ‘Kenya crisis’ of 2007/8, when the breakdown of political order following the most controversial of elections forced all of us to rethink our assumptions about and understanding of Kenyan political and social life.
In the end, we felt that we had no choice other than to integrate the different chapters into a broader understanding of how the failure of successive governments to build a compelling national identity had laid the foundations for widespread civil strife. Consequently, although this was never our conscious intention, the book that resulted turned out to be an overview of the troubled process of nation-building in post-colonial Kenya. We found that despite the distinctive features of the Moi and Kenyatta regimes, most contributors made the case that since the late colonial period continuity, and not change, has been the dominant theme in Kenyan political life. Through a range of methodological lenses and empirical material, the chapters highlight different aspects of this continuity: the strength of the provincial administration; the weakness of formal party structures; the central role of ethnicity in shaping political competition; the understanding of the state as a resource in itself; and the ultimately incompatible beliefs held by different communities regarding how power can be legitimately exercised. While writing the conclusion we realised that, taken together, the persistence of these factors over time helps to explain the failure of the nation-building project in Kenya, and the context within which disputed elections in late-2007 could lead to the collapse of political order and to the deaths of over 1,000 Kenyans.