From May through July 2022, Kellogg PhD Fellow Debora Rogo (history & peace studies) traveled to Kenya, on a Kellogg Institute Graduate Research Grant to conduct research for her project, “In Search of Mboya: Understanding Ethnicity and Democracy through Oral Histories of the East African Airlift, 1959-1963.” Upon her return, she sent the following summary of her work. She will present this research at the 2022 African Studies Association Annual Meeting (which is sponsored in part by the Kellogg Institute).

Research purpose and goals
My summer research project focused on the East African Airlift, an education scheme that operated in Kenya between 1959 and 1963 and which supported the tertiary education of over 1000 African students in North America. As Kenya’s independence loomed in 1963, Kenyan nationalist, Tom Mboya, would establish the Airlift to support the Africanization of the civil service. Scholarship has hailed Mboya as non-tribalist and a progressive proponent of democracy in post-colonial Kenya until his assassination in 1969, which further stoked ethnic conflict. Historically, ethnic clientelism has characterized Kenyan society, resulting in the marginalization of ethnic groups and stoking tensions within the Kenyan polity. Using the lens of the Airlift, I proposed to analyze whether this innovative bursary was an indicator of Mboya’s “non-ethnic” ideology. In addition, and touching on Kellogg’s core theme of democracy, I plan to use the Airlift as an indicator of whether its demographic make-up was an antithesis to the burgeoning rise of negative ethnicity that would affect democratic ideals in Kenya.

I proposed a mixed methods approach as the research design. First, I aimed to interview and collect oral histories of surviving participants of the Airlift and their families. I planned to focus on the wave of students who traveled in 1959. There has been no systematic, rigorous effort to interview Airlift participants or their relatives. There is an urgent need to conduct these oral histories immediately; airlift participants are elderly, and some have passed away in recent years. Drawing on my personal connections and previous research, I had constructed an initial database of 84 potential interviewees. In addition, I had already interviewed 2 former Airlift participants prior to joining Notre Dame, which I planned to build upon in conducting oral histories over the summer. Second, I planned to examine archival files at the Kenya National Archives and to get more information on the Airlift, including the files of the Department of Education as well as any correspondence between the United States and British colonial officials about the program. I also planned to locate any lists, manifestos, or personnel files that the colonial and postcolonial governments may have on record that would allow me to identify future interviewees. This would support the construction of a more accurate dataset of the Airlift participants. 

My research adopted a two-pronged approach: first, conducting oral histories of members of the East African Airlift to North America, the Soviet Union/East and other relevant interviewees with knowledge of the Airlifts; and second, I plan to conduct archival research at the Kenyan National Archives in Nairobi, Kenya. In preparation for the summer, I submitted and received IRB approval from Notre Dame, finalized the interview script with my advisor as well as consent forms to be provided to the interviewees.

Oral Interviews
Initially, the scope of oral interviews was limited to participants from the East African Airlift that studied in North America but expanded to include another education scheme that occurred at the same time but to the Soviet Union (this was done upon consultation with my advisor and other faculty at Kroc and the History department that reviewed my proposal). As such, I held 26 in-person interviews; 15 participated in the East African Airlift to North America, 4 studied in the Soviet Union/East; and 7 other interviewees either knew Tom Mboya, other relevant politicians active during the pre-independence and post-colonial era, or were familiar with the Airlifters themselves (these included 2 historians, 1 politician, 1 relative, 1 journalist, 1 political strategist and 1 former student/youth leader). In terms of demographics, I interviewed 20 men and 6 women with 4 ethnicities represented (Kamba, Kikuyu, Luo and Luhya). The Airlift students I found and interviewed were not just those that departed in 1959 but also others that participated in other years up until 1963.

The manifest lists which provided names the Airlift participants had no contact information on the manifest lists. As such, I relied on two research assistants, supported by another grant, to track down the Airlifters; the endeavor required reliance on kinship bonds and social networks. Each interview took between 4 hours to 8 hours, depending on content provided. Interviews were conducted in Nairobi, Machakos, Kisumu, Siaya and Homa Bay Counties in Kenya. Key findings from the interviews were as follows:

  • All respondents described Mboya as atribilist or noted that ethnicity was not a criteria to join the Airlift. They further noted that from their memory, the actual plane rides/airlifts, consisted of students of various ethnicities and races.
  • The female interviewees noted that they felt there was an effort to include women. 
  • Those that went to the US experienced more racism than those in Soviet Union (they either failed to mention it or was minimal).
  • All agreed that Mboya’s death worsened ethnic tensions in Kenya and marginalized individuals and communities within the polity.
  • They all gave varied reasons that motivated their participation in the Airlift including networks, kinship, social ties, seeing adverts or hearing about the Airlift by word of mouth or visiting the offices of the AASF or its leaders
  • There were a few students that struggled in the US (financially or culture shock) and returned home early.
  • In general, students to the Soviet Union received more robust financial support than those to the US.
  • The East African Airlift also sent students outside of North America to Liberia and Ethiopia. I was able to interview participants of the Airlift that studies in these countries. This has not been captured by the literature on the Airlift.
  • Colonial mindsets, Cold War politics and internal rivalries between key politicians affected the students upon their return and their ability to exploit career opportunities in Kenya.
  • All noted the deteriorating democratic space in Kenya upon their return due to a number of factors including rising ethnic division, sexist attitudes and corruption.
  • Some of the participants provided copies of key documentation including passports, university correspondences and transcripts, correspondences with Tom Mboya and photographs.

Archival Research
As part of my work at the Kenya archives, I was able to uncover part of the AASF manifest and interview lists for the 1961 Airlift group and further information on education in Kenya during the pre-independence and immediate post-colonial periods.

Lastly, I was able to host some of my interviewees for a lunch meeting towards the end of my trip. This was the highlight of my trip as some had not seen each other in decades. It was an opportunity to also bring airlifters to the Soviet Union and North America together in the same venue, which the attendees noted had not been done before.

Next Steps
As a result of the support from the Kellogg Institute, findings for my research trip will be core to several goals I plan to achieve in the coming months. They are as follows:

  • I have successfully submitted an abstract to present on a panel on the post-colonial era in Kenya under the regime of former President Daniel Moi at the upcoming African Studies Association (ASA) Annual Meeting in Philadelphia in mid-November 2022. My presentation will focus on the experiences of the Airlift participants upon their return to Kenya and will rely on the oral histories captured over the summer.
  • Finding from this summer is supporting completion of a draft of the conference paper, which I plan to then submit to the Journal of African History this year.
  • My oral interviews and archival findings have further contributed towards construction of a database of participants of the East African Airlift. The participants interviewed were able to provide contact information for other Airlift members and family members both in Kenya and the United States that will facilitate future opportunities to conduct further oral histories.

    Completion of this summer research was possible due to support and guidance from the following:

  • Prof. Paul Ocobock (Advisor, History Department and Kellogg Institute Faculty Fellow) for continued guidance and formation of my research project;
  • Prof. Ernesto Verdeja (Kroc Institute and Political Science Department and Kellogg Institute Faculty Fellow) and who taught my Peace Research Methods class (SP22) and contributed to my research questions;
  • Contributions and comments from faculty and students after presentation of a paper on this research at the annual First Year Research Conference held at the History Department during the Spring of 2022; and
  • Funding from Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Pamoja Africa Initiative at the University of Notre Dame.