This project examines the development of forced labor in colonial Kenya from 1912 to 1930 and the parallel normalization of communal forced labor during this time period. The colonial reinvention of traditional unpaid labor was, as the noted historian of Kenya, Robert Maxon, has stated, 'based upon a completely fallacious view of the traditional history of Kenya's people.' Even among certain ethnic groups with a nebulous tradition of communal or collective labor, the labor requirements under communal labor were frequently distorted to the point were coerced labor no longer resembled its community based origins. State manipulation of these communal obligations was, in fact, part of a more general phenomenon in Africa. Europeans in Africa made use of invented tradition to both co-opt and ideologically solidify certain Africans into positions of leadership, like chiefs, and to also redefine relationships between Europeans and Africans. Seen by the state as merely an extension of tribal duties and resurrected as another phantom of customary law, communal labor was not actually exploitation but a form of relearning.
In the case of communal labor, the British in Kenya used the Native Authority Ordinance to 'invent' traditional powers that galvanized the authority of chiefs to call out the labor. Conversely, chiefs also took advantage of these 'traditional' mandates to enhance their own status.