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A tongue in cheek view of racism and Kenya’s bid to fight ICC cases

KENYA @ 50


KENYA: The persistence of ‘whites’ in Kenya is perhaps best demonstrated by the Portuguese, who first arrived in Mombasa in the early 16th century. They were hurriedly evicted, but recently returned in the guise of their awful cuisine, Nando’s excruciating ‘Peri-peri Chicken’.

The first Englishman to impose his country upon Kenya was a naval officer, Captain Owen, who in 1823 unilaterally declared the coastline a British Protectorate to eradicate the Arab Slave trade he so abhorred.  He failed, but nastier Brits returned decades later with their brutal and unequal economic and colonial rule.  Although they were eventually evicted like the Portuguese, they still returned during every northern winter, as sun-seeking tourists.

The Germans, too.  The first German to enter in Kenya was Johann Krapf, a pastor in the employ of British Church Missionary Society in 1840s during a planned string of missions from East to West Africa. Today, we have Germans all over the South Coast. And it is best we don’t mention the Italians.

Our 1963 Independence from British subjection brought only subtle and superficial shifts in ‘white’/black’ race relations in Kenya, I suggest.  True, certain of the more rabidly racist of Kenya’s drossy settlers – those who couldn’t brook the idea of a ‘black’ President, Kenyatta, and who foolishly feared they would be cannibalised in their coffee farms – decamped to Rhodesia or elsewhere.

Others – no less racist, perhaps, but rich and powerful enough to ensure their ill-gotten land wasn’t affected in post-Independence – stayed behind and truly settled following President Jomo Kenyatta’s neo-colonial policy of ‘forgive and forget’.  Today, they have Kenyan passports. They thrive in rural areas, on larger or smaller tracts of land.

In urban areas they have entered numerous ‘high-end’ businesses, while the more educated work in international schools, for global NGOs or the UN.

It is easy to stereotype the Kenyan mzungu in this way. It is not only understandable to do so, but it is also possibly fair, especially where memories of British atrocities remain. However, there are dangers that might farcically repeat the history of black African oppression in Kenya, and which might perpetuate racism and internal Kenyan ethnic conflict in future.

By the time of Kenya’s brave fight for Independence from the UK, race relations had not substantially changed, and indeed during the so-called ‘Emergency’ latent settler stereotypes of black Africans as ‘savages’ reemerged in the form of racist hysteria regarding oathing and blood-quaffing natives, despite the fact that most 1950s’ atrocities were committed by settlers themselves or their Home Guard proxies, as the recently-concluded ‘Mau Mau Trial’ in London evidenced.

This brings us to the here and now, when Britain and other Western (read, ‘white’) powers are being criticised by the Kenyan Government for their perceived neo-colonial support for ICC trials and other issues.  I am one of those who feel suspicion of our former colonial ruler is always healthy and advisable; eternal vigilance ensures freedoms.  At the very least, it is understandable: Colonialism was a crime that saw Africans dispossessed, castrated, raped and murdered, and it justified itself in great part by employing a vile discourse of racism. 

However, I question the motives of the present anti-West rhetoric, and worry about what it might lead to, aware as a student of history that response-hatreds which repeat initiating-hatreds are farcical and ridiculous, yes, yet still capable of occasioning racial genocides; we saw as much with South Asians in Idi Amin’s Uganda. 

Equally, much of our so-called ‘ethnic hatred’ stems from our (often unwitting) acceptance of old colonial taxonomic fixities, which saw ‘Tribe A’ defined like this against ‘Tribe B’, which was like that.  In short, we need to rid ourselves of the mindset, the very discourse, of racism, which is not easily done at all, because although I earlier suggested that as a concept ‘race’ has no real ‘natural’ existence, no-one can deny that the manner in which ‘race’ is performed in the world creates a sense of its reality.

If we are to get rid of negative racism, it would be unfair to ask those who suffered and suffer that racism, the (black African’ population)  to be the  only group to make an effort in fighting it.  After all, even liberal and left-leaning whites in Kenya such as myself to this day experience benefits of what some have called ‘white privilege’ or what I might call ‘beneficial chromatism’ such as better access to jobs through networking and wrong-headed perception that ‘whites are cleverer, better and more professional experts’.  Whiteys like me who are aware of our privilege must work with those whom whites once subordinated, to overcome such vestiges of injustice.

The writer is a teacher and poet, author of How to Euthanise a Cactus.

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