The Airlift: African Students Overseas in the Era of Decolonization

The story of the movement that led President Obama’s father and thousands of other young Africans to study abroad in the 1950s and 1960s is much more complicated than is usually thought, according to Dan Branch, a historian of Kenya and alumnus of the National History Center’s International Seminar on Decolonization. 

Focusing on students from Kenya in a talk entitled “The Airlift: African Students Overseas in the Era of Decolonization” at the Library of Congress, Professor Branch argued that Kenyans stress that the students returned home to build a new nation, while historians of civil rights point to the program as one of the first times that African Americans were able directly to influence American foreign policy. But he said this misses a crucial element: students were sent not just to the United States and Western Europe, but to Communist states in Eastern Europe and China. Their experiences, both positive and negative, injected the politics of the Cold War into the politics of Kenyan decolonization.

Branch, who participated in the seminar in 2006, is assistant professor of African history at the University of Warwick. His first book, Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonization, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009. He is currently writing a political history of Kenya since independence. His lecture was sponsored by the Center and the Library’s John W. Kluge Center in conjunction with the Center’s Fifth International Seminar on Decolonization.

Listen to his lecture here.