Wednesday, November 10, 2010
The year is 1954. World War II has been over for a decade. The world has reeled from the footage and photographs taken from the concentration camps - the crematoria, the mass graves, the stacks of emaciated bodies, the horrific accounts from the camp survivors. The United Nations was formed nine years earlier, in response to the genocide of the Holocaust and to replace the League of Nations that had prevented another world war. The UN member states had already launched their rallying cry of "never again!"
And yet. And yet.
In 1945 Kenya was only a few years away from gaining independence from Britain. But in 1945, Britain's colonial administration was presiding over a vast network of detention camps and "reserves" that oversaw the systematic torture, brutalization, enslavement, and murder of an estimated three hundred thousand Kikuyu, using methods that will literally make you gag when you read about them.
In 1954. The British government engaged in a very successful and strategic cover-up, alternately stonewalling, dissembling, and outright lying to its constituency and members of its own House, and succeeding in its efforts to avoid holding anyone acountable.
Caroline Elkin's Imperial Reckoning starts with a brief recap of Britain's early history with Kenya. Like Belgium and Germany, Britain popped over to Kenya, swiped most of the arable land from the agrarian tribes there, mostly the Kikuyu, and cheerfully shoved the natives into 'reserves' that were neither large nor fertile enough to sustain them.
Fast forward to 1952 (Elkin's book covers a relatively short period of time), and the Kikuyu have formed an insurgent group, the Mau Mau, in the hopes of reclaiming their land. Facing a larger and better equipped force, the Mau Mau use insurgent tactics and begin attacking settlers before returning to the forest. Mau Mau insurgents also attacked loyalist Africans, including the assassination of Chief Waruhiu in 1952.
After a few highly publicized killings, complete with the printing of grisly photographs in the local papers, the British settlers demand a reaction and protection from the British colonial administration.
And react they did. Britain dispatched the military, together with the African loyalist Home Guard, and began descending on Kikuyu reserves to ferret out the Mau Mau. Britain's administration began building a vast network of camps, and using tactics borrowed from the conflict in Malaya, instituted a "hearts and minds" program aimed at dissuading Kikuyu from joining Mau Mau and wresting loyalty from those who had. British troops and Home Guards conducted sweeps throughout the cities and reserves, sending thousands of Kikuyu through a brutal "screening" process where British and African troops alike tortured suspects to get them to confess to having taken the Mau Mau oath. Based on the screenings, the detainees were classified based on their suspected level of loyalty to Mau Mau and sent to various prisons and detention camps.
The camps continued to proliferate, and camp guards invented new and more horrific forms of torture. Starvation, death from disease and mistreatment, and outright murder were common. Those released from the camps were incarcerated in "villages," surrounding by barbed wire and guarded by more troops. Inhabitants of these villages were forced to work and received no medical care or sanitation infrastructure, and were subject to brutalization by the village guards.
Britain continued its effort to break Mau Mau for several years, building more than fifty-five camps and prisons and killing over three hundred thousand Kikuyu and displacing thousands more. Those who died as an indirect result of Britain's policy are unestimable, due in part to Britain's deliberate cover-up of the number of those killed. The methods used by the Home Guards and British troops rivaled those of Nazi concentration camps in terror and inhumanity, and letters written by inmates and smuggled out of the camps made direct comparisons between the actions of the British administration and the Nazis.
Meanwhile, what was the rest of the world doing? It was not until 1954-55 that any serious opposition to Britain's activities got underway, headed by members of the Labor Party, and even their inquiries and demands for an investigation were obstructed by British leadership in Kenya, with the full collaboration of the British government.
Elkin began her research in 1995, and her book was published ten years later. For a decade, she traveled around Kenya, interviewing survivors, former Home Guards, members of the British colonial administration, and pored over the sadly incomplete records left behind in Kenya and Britain. Some of those involved in the extermination of the Kikuyu expressed regret to Elkin, others seem untroubled by their involvement.
Elkin's books is scrupulously researched and broad enough to give even a reader with little knowledge of Britain's involvement in Kenya a good foundation. Because many of the decisions that affected thousands of human lives were made by one or two men, she devotes a considerable amount of time to dissecting the various personalities involved, and includes a tremendous amount of interview material from Kikuyu survivors, Home Guards, detainment camp guards (including some from the women-only detainment camps, a detail which is usually left out from historical research into this time period) and activists.
Elkin's book is simply extraordinary in its scope and detail. It's also horrifying and enraging, but its necessary for anyone wanting a more complete picture of the waste and terror of European colonialism in Africa, and a better understanding of Kenya's development since the 1950s.