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17 December, 2013

Farmer, soldier and peace campaigner

Alan Knight was one of the white settlers who led the move for racial reconciliation and partnership in Kenya in the aftermath of Mau Mau.

Lt-Col Alan Knight
Lt-Col Alan Knight
Born in Dublin in 1916, he arrived in Kenya with his parents in 1920 where they established the first Anglican Church in Eldoret, western Kenya. He grew up in Kitale, was educated at Monkton Combe School, in Somerset, and studied agriculture at Wye College, in Kent.

While there he was introduced to the moral and spiritual work of the Evangelical Christian group the Oxford Group (later known as Moral Rearmament), and found vision and direction for the rest of his life. He returned to Kenya in 1937 to develop the family farm, and joined the Kenya Regiment. While posted to Nakuru, he met and in 1942 married Maude Langridge. During the Second World War he was seconded to the King’s African Rifles and as a lieutenant-colonel commanded a battalion in the Ethiopian campaign. He was acting brigadier when demobilised in 1946.

He returned to farming in Kitale and served as chairman of the district council responsible for agricultural development. In a gesture unheard of in colonial Kenya he gave each of his long-term workers five acres of the farm, and became part of a showcase co-operative enterprise.

However, discontent among some of Kenya’s disaffected and landless tribes led to the Mau Mau movement which was committed to driving white settlers from Kenya. The colonial government declared a state of emergency and interned large numbers of suspected terrorists.

Knight was asked by the government to serve as commandant and select a staff to run a detention camp at Athi River where some 2,000 of the most dedicated Mau Mau were held. Deeply concerned by the intense hatred in the camp, Knight at a critical stage, and as a commandant in uniform, addressed the paraded prisoners.

Speaking to them in Swahili he apologised for the way he and other whites had behaved in Kenya. He expressed the hope that they would help him and other like-minded friends to rebuild Kenya on a basis of trust. After a long period of silence, the men broke ranks and came to stand beside him. Some shook his hands and said, ‘If you really mean what you have said, then it is the way of unity, and on this basis we can stand with you.’

Predictably this bold step raised opposition from senior white officials. The Commissioner of Prisons, however, recognised the significance of Athi River compared with other detention camps, and in 1957 recommended that Knight be appointed MBE for his work of reconciliation.

After retiring from farming in 1975, Alan and Maude Knight moved to Nairobi where they developed a beautiful botanical garden which they opened to all interested in building a new Kenya. Knight had a conviction that Kenya could play a wider role in the context of strife-torn neighbours, and refugees and exiles from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Rwanda could often be found in his garden talking and drawing inspiration. University students, street children and orphans of Nairobi also met under the magnificent trees.

Following Maude’s death in 1990, Alan devoted his time, energy and home to making a difference in Kenya. He initiated and implemented the Clean Election Campaign that carried to the far reaches of the country in the 1998 election. In the last year he and a group of Kenyans helped to launch the Clean Kenya Campaign to tackle corruption in Kenya and beyond.

H P Elliott and J Baynard-Smith

Alan Knight, farmer, soldier and peace campaigner: born Dublin 5 November 1916; MBE 1957; married 1942 Maude Langridge (died 1990; one son, one daughter); died Nairobi 1 April 1999.

First published in The Independent 12 June 1999

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