18 May 2010

Pep Talks

From Elspeth Huxley: A Biography by C.S. Nicholls (2002):
[David Waruhiu] was a padre at the huge Athi River Mau Mau detainee camp, run on Moral Rearmament lines. The MRA was influential in Kenya, Nell Cole and Tuppence Hill-Williams being among its original members, and had created the Torchbearers, an inter-racial society. At the Athi River camp, where Tuppence was in charge of five hundred women, Elspeth found the MRA workers very sincere and devoted, although she doubted whether they cuold really change black hearts. The inmates were rather fat, because they were fed on Geneva Convention rations four times as heavy as the normal Kikuyu diet. At intervals they were given pep talks and called to God.
From Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya by Caroline Elkins (2005):
Former detainees scarcely recall Athi River as a site of spiritual awakening, perhaps because they were cycled through an endless regime of physical and psychological coercion. [Alan] Knight [leader of the MRA in Kenya and camp commandant at Athi River] himself insisted, "Rigid discipine is the keynote of Athi, and hard work the basis of everything....A man whose body is disciplined and subject to control, will be more open to subjecting his mind to control." Detainees were forced to work, and if they refused, their rations were reduced. They might spend days with no food and then, half starved and dehydrated, they could be subjected to hours of preaching and lectures on Christian ethics and the virtues of Britain's civilizing mission. Camp officials also imported scores of Home Guards from the Kikuyu districts, who took to the camp broadcasting system, denouncing the Mau Mau and publicly dividing detainees into "murderers, thugs, leaders, and fellow travelers," according to Father Colleton. Screening teams, led by Mtoto wa [David] Waruhiu, himself an ardent MRA convert, worked the detainees over as well, interrogating them incessantly.
Elkins quotes a man who was held at Athi River for over a year:
Waruhiu would stand outside of a compound and shout, "People who killed my father, you come with me." The person singled out would then be taken for screening. When my turn came, they beat me with kicks, a hose, and anything else they could get their hands on. They jumped on me, while Waruhiu would demand to know what I knew, telling me to confess. The whole time making fun of me and laughing at my suffering. After that I urinated blood for several days. Because I refused to talk, I was again forced out to work, which I did so they would feed me.


  1. Nice. One of my pet theories about Huxley is that she wrote her biography of Delamere so young (it was her first book), and built so much of her career on it, that she could never allow herself to quite incorporate the violence of the Mau Mau period when it finally came, since it would have meant giving up too much. And I suspect, too, that she clung to a rosy picture of happy Africans on happy plantations from her youth because it seemed right to her, and refused to acknowledge anything that contradicted it.

    After all, the complicating factor is that Mau Mau really would have been unthinkable in the teens and early twenties (and she left Kenya in 1925), since it really wasn’t until the thirties and forties that land got chronically scarce for the Gikuyu. Which is, by the way, the major problem with Elkins’ book, not that you asked; the post-Mau Mau Gikuyu narrative has been the original sin story of stolen Gikuyu lands, but most of the land the settlers originally stole was, in fact, taken from the Maasai while comparatively little was taken from the Gikuyu (compounded by the fact that many Gikuyu got access to the land that had been taken from the Maasai). By the thirties and forties, of course, the Gikuyu situation was getting worse and by the fifties Mau Mau was a genuine response to a genuine existential crisis. But it wasn’t caused by what the settlers did when Huxley was there; it was caused by the things they did after she left. Which all makes it much more understandable that she would manage to be both so liberal and also such an egregious apologist for an indefensible regime.

  2. Thanks -- I haven't actually read Elkins's book cover-to-cover, having used it and David Anderson's Histories of the Hanged mostly to look up names and events when reading other books, so my perception is fragmented. Most of the material I've encountered on the settlers, though, focuses primarily on the Gikuyu, so I wouldn't have probably noticed this as a problem in Elkins's book, anyway.

    Reading the Nicholls' bio's chapter on Huxley's visit to Kenya during the early '50s is a surreal experience when read alongside either Elkins or Anderson, because Nicholls seems perfectly willing to take the colonials' writings at the time as the only necessary context. I can understand why, given the people she knew and the experiences she had, Huxley wrote the way she did about Mau Mau, but Nicholls's willingness -- determination, even -- to keep context out is grotesque. (For instance, what I did with the bit about Athi River, I could have done with Histories of the Hanged and the Ruck family's murder, though really in that case you have to read a paragraph in Nicholls and at least a few whole pages in Anderson to see how badly Nicholls does with it.)

  3. And I should add as a footnote that I don't expect Nicholls to have gotten in a time machine, and gone ahead a few years, read Elkins' and Anderson's books. But there's plenty of information she could have gotten if she'd tried, even with Elkins and Anderson not having published their books until 2005.

  4. Well, Nicholls is certainly operating in a Huxley-an frame of reference. But while Huxley was maybe the most important of that lot, there's such a lot of stuff written by white settlers that sort of produces a solid wall of denial such people live behind. It's a whole cottage industry; Tanzanian bookstores in the touristy areas are absolutely clotted with the stuff. By the way, this book still blows my mind.

    Also, if you haven't seen this, the John Lonsdale lecture is a one stop tour-de-force on the important controversies in colonial Kenyan history. Elkins does a lecture in that series too.

  5. Oh yeah, Kenya Cowboy! I haven't read more than a couple pages of it on Google Books, and even that is entirely your fault...

    The Lonsdale lecture is amazing -- I clicked on it this morning as I was just beginning to wake up, thinking I'd listen to just a minute or two and save it for later, but I ended up listening to the whole thing. Great stuff!

  6. His stuff is really, really good. If you liked that, his old crony, Bruce Berman, has a couple of amazing lectures here. The book they wrote together is still the state of the art in a lot of ways.

  7. But there's plenty of information she could have gotten if she'd tried, even with Elkins and Anderson not having published their books until 2005.

    Professional blindness I expect. She was doing a biography of Huxley and from what it sounds like it's supposed to be a celebration of her life. The last thing you then need is to put Huxley's life into its proper colonial context and examine too closely the background against which it took place...

    You see this selective blindness a lot.