“Africa at its Best”

by zunguzungu

Peter suggested in comments to that last post that the Euro-settler vision of what Africans wanted from independence — basically, indolence and bodily pleasure — was not dissimilar to what those very settlers wanted when they were busily displacing Africans and forcing them to work on their coffee plantations and so forth: indolence and bodily pleasure. A propos of that, this, from an interview with Izak Dineson in 1956:

INTERVIEWER: You must have known Africa at its best. What made you decide to go?

DINESEN: When I was a young girl, it was very far from my thoughts to go to Africa, nor did I dream then that an African farm should be the place in which I should be perfectly happy. That goes to prove that God has a greater and finer power of imagination than we have. But at the time when I was engaged to be married to my cousin Bror Blixen, an uncle of ours went out to Africa big-game hunting and came back all filled with praise of the country. Theodore Roosevelt had been hunting there then, too; East Africa was in the news. So Bror and I made up our minds to try our luck there, and our relations on both sides financed us in buying the farm, which was in the highlands of Kenya, not far from Nairobi. The first day I arrived there, I loved the country and felt at home, even among unfamiliar flowers, trees, and animals, and changing clouds over the Ngong hills, unlike any clouds I had ever known. East Africa then was really a paradise, what the Red Indians called “happy hunting grounds.” I was very keen on shooting in my young days, but my great interest all through my many years in Africa was the African natives of all tribes, in particular the Somali and the Masai. They were beautiful, noble, fearless, and wise people. Life was not easy running a coffee plantation. Ten thousand acres of farmland, and locusts and drought . . . and too late we realized that the table land where we were located was really too high for raising coffee successfully. Life out there was, I believe, rather like eighteenth-century England: one might often be hard up for cash, but life was still rich in many ways, with the lovely landscape, dozens of horses and dogs, and a multitude of servants.

The fact that she’s giving that interview during the Mau Mau emergency is what’s behind that “Africa at its best” nonsense; in the early summer of 1956, Dedan Kimathi was still at large, but the scorched earth / concentration camp tactics the British used had defeated Mau Mau militarily only at unthinkable human costs to the African populations, so there was very little that was “happy” about these particular hunting grounds at that particular time. But clearly, Africa “at its best” is a place with a lovely landscape and lots of animals to ride, shoot, and exploit for their labor on your coffee plantation: indolence and bodily pleasure.

One of the most telling passages in that interview is when she singles out the Maasai and Somali as her favorite natives; not, for example, the Gikuyu who she had most contact with (because they did all the labor on her farm), but the natives who could be described using “noble savage” tropes and analogies to “Red Indians.” The laboring natives she prefers not to think too much about; the ones that exercise her imagination with their beautiful nobility are the ones. Here, my thinking is completely dependent on work done by people like Patrick Wolfe in thinking through how specific forms of colonial practice get replicated at the level of ideological fantasy. In short, the argument would be that while one kind of racial fantasy is necessary to describe a native whose labor you seek to exploit, settler colonialists — who only want the native’s land — will produce a totally different sort. Here’s a nice bit of Wolfe’s argument from “Land, Labor, and Difference: Elementary Structures of Race”:

In Australia, although Aboriginal people are called black, they are not ideologically credited with a natural sense of rhythm. Conversely, unlike Aborigines, black Americans have not figured as a dying race. Rather, this latter condition has been the ideological preserve of red Americans. In this, as in many other respects, popular representations of black Australians and red Americans have distinctly resembled each other, while both have contrasted sharply with popular representations of black Americans. Thus more is involved than discourses of color or nationality.

In Australia and in the United States, white authorities have generally accepted—even targeted—indigenous people’s physical substance (synecdochically represented as blood) for assimilation into their own stock. In both countries, indigenous people have asserted criteria other than blood quanta as bases for group membership and identity. When it has come to black people’s physical substance, on the other hand, it has only been in the last few decades that U.S. authorities have dispensed with the most rigorous procedures for insulating the dominant stock. Moreover, with some exceptions, black groups in the United States have themselves affirmed the “one-drop rule,” maintaining an inclusive membership policy that, apart from anything else, has kept up group numbers…

There are no grounds for assuming that such striking disparities can be reconciled under a single master category called “race.” …American Indians and Aboriginal people in Australia share much more than the quality of attracting assimilation policies. Above all, they are both sets of peoples whose territorial expropriation was foundational to the colonial formations into which Europeans incorporated them. Thus their relationship with their colonizers—as both parties to the relationship would presumably agree—centered on land. In contrast, blacks’ relationship with their colonizers—from the colonizers’ point of view at least—centered on labor. In this light, the varying miscegenation policies make immediate sense, since assimilation reduces an indigenous population with rival claims to the land, while an exclusive strategy enlarges an enslaved labor force.

Someone like Dinesen, in other words, is likely to regard the natives on whose labor she’s dependent differently than how she regards the people on whose land she’s dependent. One of the things that’s complicated about colonial Kenya was that while the Maasai were categorically displaced from their land and romanticized as “the Cherokee of East Africa” — precisely because they could be imagined as being utterly unwilling to be assimilated (and therefore safely and happily doomed to tragic extinction) — the Gikuyu were a laboring population on which the white settlers were parasitically dependent. To analogize to the American context — as the founders of the Kenyan settler state explicitly did — the Maasai were like the Plains Indians (who were imagined to sort of magically disappear as soon white people rolled up), while the Gikuyu were more like the way African-Americans looked to post-civil war white Americans: good to have around for working on plantations, but kind of creepy when they started wearing suits, getting educated, and getting anywhere near “our women.” People like Dinesen loved the Masai; if you imagine them as a doomed pastoralist people who are intrinsically unable to adapt to modernity, then you don’t need to feel bad about taking their land. It’s just Darwin and stuff, right? They’re just too different than you and I. Pity they’ll have to go, but that’s the Law Of Nature. But while the Maasai supposedly had no desire to modernize, the Gikuyu were quite keen to take up education, progress, modernity, and all that stuff, which bugged the shit out of people like Dinesen and had to be suppressed and forgotten.

Instead of romanticizing the Gikuyu, Dinesen writes this sort of thing in Out of Africa:

Part of the farm was native forest, and about one thousand acres were squatters’ land, what they called their shambas. The squatters are Natives, who with their families hold a few acres on a white man’s farm, and in return have to work for him a certain number of days in the year. My squatters, I think, saw the relationship in a different light, for many of them were born on the farm and their fathers before them, and they very likely regarded me as a sort of superior squatter on their estates.”

Other than the “superior” part of it, um, you think? What does one say about this sort of thing, I wonder. Susan Hardy Aiken’s book Izak Dinesen and the Engendering of Narrative suggests that:

by persistently inviting us not only to see Africans through the narrators eyes, but to try to imagine seeing Europeans through Africans’ eyes, Dinesen attempts to expose that Eurocentric “error of vision,” repudiating the power of the all-consuming imperial gaze that would reduce Africans indiscriminately to the status of inert Other or appropriate them as mere signs within an occidental discourse.

To which I say, EARLY NINETIES POSTCOLONIALISM FAIL. A lot of the lady-settlers (Elspeth Huxley, too) get this kind of treatment, where not being quite as bad as the stereotypical Evil Colonialist Man means you’re somehow exposing Eurocentrism or something (and being a woman means you‘re the good kind of white settler). But it all depends on a highly unrealistic notion of what Evil Bad Colonialists were like; an awful lot of them were like Dinesen: human beings who worked hard to make a good life on top of the bad lives they forced people of different skin colors to live. Gillian Whitlock, in The Intimate Empire, puts it much better:

The notion that possession might be forfeited or renegotiated with indigenous peoples is not on the horizon, although Blixen is aware of herself as an interloper. Much has been made of the fact that Blixen individualizes black Africans; for example, they are named as characters in Out of Africa. Yet the operation of racism in Kenyan settler polemics is not to deny the presence of African people but to deny them integrity, authority and agency. The Africa peoples are ’available’ and ’to hand’ for the settler project, and in need of white leadership.

Anyway, time to wrap this post up. I’ll just leave you with this last little amazing tidbit about Dinesen’s past, which I didn’t know:

INTERVIEWER: Tell me about your father.

DINESEN: He was in the French army, as was my grandfather. After the Franco-Prussian War, he went to America and lived with the Plains Indians in the great middle part of your country. He built himself a little hut and named it after a place in Denmark where he had been very happy as a young man—Frydenlund (“Happy Grove”). He hunted animals for their skins and became a fur trader. He sold his skins mostly to the Indians, then used his profits to buy them gifts. A little community grew up around him, and now Frydenlund is, I believe, the name of a locality in the state of Wisconsin. When he returned to Denmark, he wrote his books. So you see, it was natural for me, his daughter, to go off to Africa and live with the natives and after return home to write about it.