In an effort to generate labor, protect European settler interests, and rationalize administration, the Kenyan imperial regime sought to impose a new ethnic geography on the African majority that confined communities to specific “native reserves” based on their supposed ethnicity. Theoretically, each “tribe” had a “homeland” that the state set aside for their exclusive use. Problems developed when more populous ethnic groups outgrew their assigned reserves and coveted the territory of European settler farmers in the “white highlands” and that of less populous tribes. The resulting “infiltration,” or illegal movement between the reserves, threatened the rationalizing ethnic geography of colonialism. This covert migration put British authorities in a difficult position. They wanted to encourage cross-border settlement to relieve population (and thus political) pressure in the overcrowded reserves, but the unchecked movement of people threatened to break down tribal divisions, thereby undermining a vital cornerstone of indirect rule. In an attempt to balance these conflicting commitments, colonial officials developed a policy of interpenetration in the late 1940s that allowed migrants to settle in sparsely populated reserves if they were legally “adopted” into the tribe of their hosts. This article shows how interpenetration proved unworkable in the Gusii reserve as illegal Kikuyu settlers and their Gusii hosts invented, adapted, and blurred distinctions of identity to circumvent and exploit the imperial regime's official ethnic geography. This ethnic creativity in a specific community in western Kenya shows that colonial efforts to determine the physical and imagined tribal boundaries merely set the scene for African identity creation in the twentieth century. In practice, Kenyan identities in the late-colonial era were more flexible, adaptable, and informal than either tribally focused colonial ethnographies or the scholarly literature on identity formation would suggest.

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