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At Princeton’s Mpala Research Center, researchers grapple with a colonial legacy

<h6>Bethany Mariel Suliguin / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Bethany Mariel Suliguin / The Daily Princetonian

For Kennedy Omufwoko, the Mpala Research Center represents opportunity.

“I was raised in a very humble background in the biggest slum in Africa,” Omufwoko said in a documentary produced by the University. “I don’t think I would have pictured myself even just finishing high school.”

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After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Nairobi, Omufwoko got his opportunity to work at Mpala as a research assistant, studying butterflies. Soon afterward, he was admitted to Princeton as a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB).

“The moment I was admitted to Princeton, that was the best moment of my life,” Omufwoko said in the documentary. “It was through Mpala that I was able to narrow down what I actually want to do.”

Deep in central Kenya, the Mpala Research Center is a preservation site and “living laboratory” of ecological and biological research offering 75 square miles of unfettered access to African wildlife. Princeton is Mpala’s managing partner and has exerted significant influence over the institution for the last 30 years. Mpala is a frequent destination for University students and faculty and Princeton’s most important international venture.

Yet there’s a darker side to the center. By interviewing 20 Mpala researchers, visitors, administrators, and staff on multiple occasions over six months, in addition to conducting archival research from University, Kenyan, and historical sources, The Daily Princetonian sought to examine the dynamics of what researchers, professors, and historians, Kenyan and American alike, have called a colonial space. 

One researcher, Fridah Mueni, works in local communities in Kenya with the Zoological Society of London. She visited Mpala in early 2022.

“There was this photo on the wall of the colonial setup with a white man on a horse whipping a Black person,” Mueni recalled in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “I remember I just sat there and cried. How can this be okay in this day and age?”

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Researchers who spent time at Mpala describe unequal housing conditions, a culture of separation between Kenyan staff and largely international visitors, and financial inaccessibility for Kenyan students.

Mpala administrators and supporters point to the research center’s community engagement initiatives and the number of Kenyan administrators. They say that current administrators at both Mpala and the University have taken key steps to ease the divides of the center’s past.

Mark Griffiths, a researcher studying colonialism and development at Newcastle University, also visited Mpala with Mueni. Earlier this year, the two published an academic paper that called Mpala a “distinctly colonial space” and urged Princeton to decolonize the research center.

“[Mpala] feels very much like those films depicting a time 100 years ago,” Griffiths told the ‘Prince.’

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The oldest structure at the research center is the ranch house, an imposing colonial-style building a short drive from campus. Built in the 1930s, the ranch house has borne witness to Mpala from its evolution from a cattle ranch to an internationally renowned wildlife research center. The ranch house offers welcome comfort for important visitors after the hour-long drive from Nanyuki, the closest town, advertising “eight luxurious bedrooms,” electricity, hot showers, and Wi-Fi. Previous visitors include Prince Edward, now the Duke of Edinburgh, who stayed at the ranch house in 2010.

Maintaining this level of accommodations, coupled with specialized scientific research facilities, requires a small army of staff, typically hired from the surrounding towns to fulfill a variety of roles: drivers, security guards, cooks, guides, and others, totaling roughly 250 people. But while staff work to support researchers and visitors at the center, the housing for those that live on the campus is quite different, according to both students and researchers who spent time at Mpala.

Set away just a couple hundred yards away from the campus, roughly 120 staff members live in a small village of one-room huts. The residences have no running water or electricity. The staff village was built in the 1930s when Mpala was a colonial ranch owned by two European aristocrats.

Griffiths spoke about the symbolism of the colonial-era ranch at the historic heart of the research center. “That ranch house is part of the problem. It’s the centerpiece, but it’s not everything,” Griffiths said.

A wood-paneled library with large shelves of multicolored books in the background.
The library of the ranch house.
Courtesy of Mark Griffiths, Newcastle University

The question of the future of Mpala comes as universities across the country grapple with their past ties to racism and colonialism. The conversation around Mpala is unique in that it represents a current Princeton venture located directly in a postcolonial society.

“[Mpala] could be a test case for how an institution like our university can engage with Africa,” said Chika Okeke-Agulu, a Nigerian artist, a professor at the University, and the director of the African studies program, in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ Okeke-Agulu serves on the Mpala Advisory Council, founded in 2021 to engage local communities and promote more equitable research.

But some feel that the center has not done enough to move past its history.

“It definitely feels like, I don’t know, what I imagine Kenya might have felt like in the 1960s,” said Sally Goodman ’14, who spent a year at Mpala as part of the Princeton in Africa program.

While technically separate entities, the University oversees Mpala’s operations, finances, and institutional priorities and has promoted Mpala widely in its public materials.

“As the managing partner of this collaboration, Princeton sees its role as a steward of Mpala’s resources and an enabler of Mpala’s management,” wrote Aly Kassam-Remtulla, the University’s Vice Provost for International Affairs and Operations, in a statement to the ‘Prince.’ Born in Kenya, he manages the University’s relationship with Mpala and is the chair of the research center’s board of directors.

Mpala administrators have pushed back strongly on allegations of colonial dynamics. The current administrative team is entirely Kenyan.

Dr. Winnie Kiiru has been the executive director of Mpala since February 2023 and is the first Black Kenyan to serve in the role. In a November interview with the ‘Prince,’ she recounted the stories her mother told her about British colonial rule. “[She would talk] about how hungry the children were, living in colonial communities,” Kiiru said. “The white man would come around, checking our houses for whether we swept them or cleaned them, and then he would take hardtacks from my mother, who had no way of making an income.”

“That’s what colonialism is. It’s not a picture on the wall,” Kiiru added.

A colonial past

In 1930, Adolph Schwarzenberg of the wealthy German-Czech Schwarzenberg family married Princess Hilda of Luxembourg. Three years later, the two acquired a 999-year lease on 3,500 acres of Central Kenya’s Laikipia Plateau for farming. They called the land “Mpala” after the impalas that populated the area.

The Schwarzenbergs raised pigs and cattle and sold butter to British troops stationed in Kenya. They also had a small electrical power plant constructed to support an irrigation system for crops.

In his 1946 book “A Kenya farmer looks at his colony,” Adolph Schwarzenberg remarked on the growth of the farm to 7,500 acres, including the “many houses and buildings erected during the past few years.” 

“Some of the houses are equipped with bathrooms featuring hot and cold water — rare conveniences in East Africa!” he wrote.

A black-and-white photo of the colonial-style ranch house.
The ranch house in Schwarzenberg’s 1946 book.
Courtesy of “A Kenya farmer looks at his colony" by Adolph Schwarzenberg.

The legacy of the Schwarzenbergs at Mpala remains today in the remnants of a bridge, called Princess Hilda’s Bridge, spanning the Ewaso Ng’iro river on one of the main roads to the research center.

A Princeton alum eyed the land in 195211 years before Kenya would gain its independence — when Samuel Small ’40 obtained the Schwarzenbergs’ holdings. The property in turn passed to his brother, George Small ’43, after Samuel Small’s death in 1969.

George Small eventually expanded these holdings to more than 48,000 acres of land and formed the Mpala Wildlife Foundation (MWF) in 1989 to promote wildlife and ecological conservation. The same year, he approached the University and other partners about establishing a center for scientific research. 

Today, according to Kassam-Remtulla, the land leases are held or controlled by the MWF, a nonprofit organization registered in the United States. While technically a separate entity, the University appoints the board members of the MWF, according to Kassam-Remtulla, and a majority of them have close Princeton ties.

Mpala in its current form opened in 1994 as a collaboration between the National Museums of Kenya, the Kenyan Wildlife Service, the Smithsonian Institution, the MWF, and the University. A Smithsonian spokesperson noted the organization does not have management responsibilities.

Kitili Mbathi is an Mpala trustee and the former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

“Kenya Wildlife Service manages the wildlife,” he said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “They are involved in any veterinary services that need to be undertaken on the wild animals, any permitting, any research permits relating to animals, any capture and coloring of animals.”

The ‘Prince’ was unable to reach representatives of the National Museums of Kenya in time for publication.

In 2017, at the behest of the other partners, the University became Mpala’s first ever managing partner, overseeing its institutional priorities, operations, and finances. In 2020, it also took on similar responsibilities for the land.

Mpala’s colonial past has been under the microscope as the community examines its role today.

“Mpala, given its history and how it came down to the present management by Princeton, is deeply embedded in colonial history,” Okeke-Agulu said. “There’s no denying that fact.”

Some of the remnants of Mpala’s time as a British colony persist. The grounds are still used for annual training exercises for the British Army, a practice started by George Small. Payments from the British government for use of the land — by some reports an annual fee of one million pounds — have formed a significant part of the research center’s budget. The army has also been responsible for building and servicing Mpala’s roads.

In a November interview, Kiiru said the research center has come to rely more on the University and its other partners for fundraising. “We think that very shortly we’ll be able to sunset that relationship with [the] British Army, simply because we will not need the money,” she said.

“I for one, frankly, cannot understand why the British Army should still be carrying out its operations at Mpala. It’s one of the first things that has to go,” Okeke-Agulu said. “You have workers at Mpala whose parents and grandparents were among those that were murdered by the British Army,” he added, referencing the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s.

Yet, more overtly to visitors to Mpala, the colonial legacy is visible in the interactions between researchers and staff, as well as the differences in their accommodations.

A sharp division between scientists and staff

“They call Mpala a resort for scientists,” said Benjamin Muhoya GS, a graduate student in EEB at the University, “because [the staff] do everything for you. They cook for you … laundry is done for you. You just have to wake up and worry about the science.”

Nelly Palmeris is Mpala’s chief operating officer. “We’re in a very remote place, so ensuring that everything is provided for a researcher or a student in that kind of setting means you have to have a lot of support in terms of staff,” she said in an August interview.

Researchers and visitors have a wide range of accommodations at Mpala.

Researchers have the option to stay in the bandas, or huts, dotting the campus, or houses with kitchens and bathrooms. There is also a library, a gym, and a lecture hall that seats 60. 

Undergraduate students have similarly comfortable accommodations. One dormitory is allocated specifically for students from the University. A few miles from the main campus, other student groups stay in tents on Ewaso Ng’iro River, described by the EEB department as looking “out on to the river, much like an up market safari tent in a commercial safari lodge would do.” 

According to Palmeris, 120 staff members also live at the Mpala campus full-time. Much of the staff village was built in the 1930s as Mpala converted from a ranch to a research center and comprises a series of small one-room huts built in the style of rondavels, traditional circular dwellings. The huts do not have electricity or running water.

Mueni, the researcher who published on decolonizing Mpala, called the staff village “in a deplorable condition.”

“It’s housing that would have been comfortable 20, 25 years ago,” said Muhoya. “But compared with living standards right now, it isn’t fit for staff to be living in those kinds of conditions when they are the people who keep Mpala up and running.”  

In a September interview with the ‘Prince,’ Kiiru attributed the current infrastructure of Mpala to the research center’s history as a cattle ranch.

“You just have to make do with what is here, but we recognize that now we’ve moved to another era where we are thinking more. We don’t have to make do with things that don’t serve our purpose,” she said, offering a scenario: “I need a driver. Where can he stay? The ranch has some abandoned housing, maybe we can use that.”

“Everything is very historical,” said Palmeris.

The remoteness of the research center admittedly poses a challenge for construction. The nearest town, Nanyuki, is more than an hour’s drive away, while Nairobi, the nearest major city, is more than four hours away.

“Conditions were habitable. It was not that bad, given the conditions of the remote environment,” said Moses Kioko Musyoka, who worked as a research assistant at Mpala.

Agustín Fuentes is an anthropology professor at the University who is currently helping to conduct a survey of the research center’s 48,000 acres. “The staff village is much better than some of the other villages around there, and much worse than others,” he said.

Three people with knowledge of Mpala said that housing was better in surrounding communities.

“In neighboring villages, some people actually do have comfortable housing with solar,” Muhoya added, although he said running water was more rare.

Il Polei.png
Homes in the town of Il Polei, another town next to a conservancy area.
Taken from Google Street View.

D. Vance Smith, a professor in the English department, grew up in southern Africa as a member of the (ama)Ndebele tribe and attended high school in Kenya. He said that the dynamic between staff and researchers at Mpala was also impacted by class, and not uncommon in Kenya.

“[This] is replicated in many other Kenyan-owned establishments in Kenya, from large ranches to middle-class households,” Smith said, referring to the experiences of staff at the research center. “The domestic help and the staff are cordoned off, they typically live in what most Kenyans refer to as the SQ, the servants’ quarters, which almost invariably are not as well-appointed as the houses.”

Kiiru, citing a facilities assessment report conducted in 2022, told the ‘Prince’ that the Mpala administration is seeking to build a new staff village using University funds. She estimated that construction would begin in January 2024. Mpala administrators declined to provide the ‘Prince’ with the report.

The research center has also received funding from the University to address deferred maintenance, according to Kassam-Remtulla, Palmeris, and Kiiru.

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While there were some opportunities for interaction — visitors recalled soccer games with staff near the village, for example — the division between researchers and staff has extended to the dining area. Researchers, students, and visitors alike have access to three hot meals a day at the campus cafeteria, which also provides coffee and tea. This is also where members of the administration eat.

According to multiple sources who spent time at Mpala, staff members have traditionally been expected to eat in their own cafeteria and are generally not given access to the researchers’ cafeteria unless they are invited. 

Muhoya noted that the policy is not as clear-cut. “There isn’t a clear line of when or which type of person you can invite to the canteen,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s for good intentions, but it creates that visible divide for somebody who hasn’t been in Kenya, or even somebody who is Kenyan.”

Multiple visiting researchers attributed this custom to the fact that visitors received funding for their research projects that covered the requisite fees to stay at Mpala, including their meals. As employees of the research center, staff members were not funded in the same way.

Kennedy Leverett ’20, who majored in EEB, spent her junior spring at Mpala and said that Princeton students did not interact much with staff members. “That was a weird thing that I picked up on,” she said. “We would see them … but they did not eat with us.”

According to Mpala administrators, staff and researchers are now allowed to eat in both cafeterias. 

“We’re trying to build this community between research and staff in a way that is seamless,” said Palmeris.

The inequalities at Mpala are notable given that the research center is considered one of the world’s finest for large-scale ecological and biological experiments. 

“We are part of humanity, we are part of society”

Mpala is home to a remarkably rich array of wildlife, including 550 bird and 100 mammal species. Live cameras maintained by the research center capture glimpses of hippos basking in a pond, two giraffes drinking together, or even a lioness hunting and killing a zebra.

elephants (1).jpeg
Elephants at Mpala.
Courtesy of the Mpala Research Center. Photo by Dino Martins.

The research value of Mpala is enormous as it effectively serves as a scale model of the wildlife environments researchers seek to study, yielding significant results in livestock protection, large mammal extinction, and tracking climate change. For Princeton students, particularly those in EEB, Mpala is also a major site for thesis research.

“For budding scientists from all over, it is a really valuable experience to be living in this place that for most of us is unlike anywhere that we’ve spent time before,” said Goodman, the former Princeton in Africa fellow.

Beyond the research, Mpala representatives say that the center is active in the local community.

Geoffrey Mwachala is the chief scientist of the National Museums of Kenya and a Mpala trustee.

“Right when the Mpala research center was started, an underlying principle was that this is not going to be an isolated laboratory. We are part of humanity, we are part of society. So we have continuously maintained an engagement with the surrounding communities,” said Mwachala in the University documentary.

In response to the severe drought beginning in the Horn of Africa in 2020, Mpala began providing meals to 1,200 students at 16 schools in surrounding communities, administrators said. The research center also funded the drilling of a borehole for clean water in the nearby village of Lekiji, which also supplies the local primary school. The project was completed in October. 

More broadly, there have been initiatives to increase the number of Kenyan scientists at the research center, such as the George Small Foundation scholarship, which began in 2014 to support local students in high school and technical education. According to Mpala administrators, the scholarship has supported 33 high school and 14 college students.

The hope is that some of these educational opportunities also lead to more diversity at Mpala itself. Among researchers, there are divided opinions about the diversity of researcher nationalities.

“[At Mpala], I can talk to somebody doing health, somebody doing social science, somebody doing ecology … it provides a great ground for people like me,” said a Kenyan researcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity with the ‘Prince.’

Yet three Kenyan researchers told the ‘Prince’ that opportunities at Mpala are inaccessible for some Kenyan students due to prices for accommodation.

The cheapest price for an East African student, 30 United States dollars per day (4,450 Kenyan shillings), provides dormitory housing. Rates can reach as high as $55 per day (8,160 Ksh) for lodging in a house, provided that the student is from an affiliate institution of Mpala. These rates are subsidized compared to those for international students, which range from $45 to $70 a day.

“No Kenyan will be able to pay $30 without another external source of funding, and those are rare … not only in Kenya but also in East Africa,” said Muhoya, the Princeton graduate student, estimating that college graduates earn $300–400 (45,000–59,300 Ksh) a month. 

At the University, undergraduates in the EEB department are eligible for up to $2,500 in funding for thesis research for projects like travel to Mpala. More broadly, graduate students and researchers in the United States may apply for institutional or governmental grant funding to offset personal costs.

“It is completely out of reach … the majority of Kenyans cannot afford to finance themselves through Mpala,” said the Kenyan researcher. 

In response to Mpala’s difficulty with recruiting Kenyan researchers and students, Kiiru pointed the ‘Prince’ to informal partnerships with four Kenyan universities: Karatina University, Egerton University, Jomo Kenyatta University, and Dedan Kimathi University. “[These partnerships] assist us in identifying suitable students to participate in the research projects,” she wrote in a September email.

The partnerships are in the process of being formally established by the research center.

Karatina University, Egerton University, and Jomo Kenyatta University did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokesperson for Dedan Kimathi University told the ‘Prince’ in October that their partnership was being officially finalized.

Is Mpala a colonial space?

While opinions on how to address Mpala’s history differed, the researchers, students, professors, and historians the ‘Prince’ spoke to broadly agreed that the research center had colonial dynamics, while Mpala affiliates disputed the characterization. 

“Has the amount of stuff Princeton has extracted from there [Mpala] for their students and their faculty been equivalent to what Princeton has contributed and put back in? That’s the story of the global north-global south,” Fuentes said. “This sort of parachute science, extractive science, is problematic, even though there’s good cases at Mpala.”

Mbathi, the former head of the Kenyan Wildlife Service and Mpala trustee, disputed the description of Mpala as colonial as “very inaccurate,” pointing to the fact that Kenyans comprise the current management, as well as a large portion of the board.

“Although [Mpala] came into being during a colonial period, it is certainly post-colonial in its operations today,” he said. 

“‘Colonial’ basically refers to a place that lacks freedom, that is not sovereign, that is run and managed by external forces that stifle the freedom of that space,” said Kiiru. “That’s not the space that I am in.”

Researchers called for a variety of different investments, including additional funding and training from the University.

Fuentes proposed extending the opportunity for a Princeton education to Kenyan researchers at Mpala.

“We should develop — if not direct Princeton credit — then credits affiliated and established by the Kenyan national education system,” he said. “So, [researchers] get the kind of quality training … that goes on their transcripts that they get the benefits for, because that will get them jobs that will give them more opportunities for research.”

A non-Kenyan researcher went as far as to call for Princeton to largely withdraw from the research center.

“I would want Princeton to feel more like a funding source rather than a decision-maker,” they said.

Others have pushed back against the suggestion that the University should take a step back.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that, no, Americans shouldn’t be doing research at Mpala. I think the experience of learning about other places is really important,” said Goodman, the former Princeton in Africa fellow.

“If you remove Princeton and [the] Smithsonian Museum from Mpala, you’re likely looking at an imminent collapse of an important site of knowledge production,” said Mueni, citing the influx of students and researchers brought by both institutions.

Historical land injustice is also a particular problem in Laikipia County, where Mpala is situated. According to The Elephant, a Kenyan news organization, 40.3 percent of the land in Laikipia is owned by only 48 individuals or entities.

However, acknowledging those historically dispossessed from Mpala’s land is complex, according to Smith, the English professor who grew up in Kenya. “Land statements in the Kikuyu highlands are very difficult because very often, you end up with competing claims,” he said, adding that a land acknowledgement would constitute a legal or political assertion to the land.

The next 30 years

Undoing disparities at Mpala won’t happen overnight. But several prominent University figures spoke favorably about the research center’s trajectory, especially given the administration of Kiiru.

“Kiiru has come in and really is making the decisions and deciding where money gets spent … that’s a radical change,” Fuentes said.

“In the past three years, the University has begun to make good efforts at addressing key problems and issues that have been endemic at Mpala,” said Okeke-Agulu. 

“We’ve now done away with the ranch. We are now a research center … creating a space where people can move, mix, and enjoy a space that doesn’t discriminate [against] anybody,” said Kiiru.

Mpala is also beginning to grapple with its history at a time of Africa’s increasing visibility on the global stage. The first part of a New York Times series, released in October, predicted that the rapidly growing population of many African countries, including Kenya, will “radically reshape their relationship with the rest of the world” in the next 25 years.

“Here’s an opportunity for Princeton to be in front [of], as opposed to behind, every other major institution,” Fuentes said.

In the wake of major improvements and questions about Mpala’s future, the legacy of divisions at the research center persists.

“One thing we can’t run away from is history,” said Mueni.

Miriam Waldvogel is an assistant News editor at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at miriamwaldvogel@princeton.edu.

Please send corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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