Reckoning with Blindness: Mau Mau and Guantánamo

by zunguzungu

When I was in Tanzania, I would sometimes rest my head on my hand while I was sitting at the dinner table. It was just a thing I sometimes did, one of those things you do without thinking about it: put the palm of your hand under your chin and lean forward on it. It’s comfortable. But almost every time I did that, Aurelia — one of my students, and also the daughter of the family I was living with — would ask me if I was tired. One time she just brought a cup of water and handed it to me without a word. Eventually someone told me that putting your hands like that meant you were tired, or sleepy, and that it made people wonder if I was okay. And so, in the way that you do when you’re trying to fit in, I internalized the lesson in its simplest, most easily enacted form. From that point on, I was scrupulously careful not to make that gesture. Resting my head on my hands would give an impression of my mental state that would compel sympathy, I thought, and I didn’t want to. I wanted to appear like I was okay.

Now, this may be a generalizable unit of “East African body language” and it may not be. When you’re learning a new language, you learn the simplest translation of each new word first: before you can start to master the subtle shades of meanings and emphasis and implication, you have to get a handle on the most basic “this means X in English” version of it, so you can put it to use. The same is true when you’re trying to find a way to live in a society that lives by different gestures and body language than the kind you learned when you grew up: you have to be just a bit too quick to convert the hypercomplex grammar of everyday life into something much simpler and more bit-sized than it really is, out of the sheer and undeniable need to live in the world. And I realize now, in retrospect, that my thought process was much more telling about me than any socio-cultural insight I might have thought I was getting into Tanzanian society. Since I was an often confused mzungu struggling to be a half-decent teacher of 11 year old children — one of the hardest things in the world to do, in any context — the performance of “I’m okay” was directed at myself, first and foremost. And when my own student brought me a cup of water because I was tired out from a day of teaching, I wasn’t sure how to receive it, wasn’t sure exactly what social role I as inhabiting. That’s why I remember it. It made me uncomfortable in ways I’m still unpeeling, but pushed me to think about myself in ways that still benefit me.

Only some of this has anything at all to do with the image above, but, I think, an important part. Quite a lot is excluded from this picture, which lacks the important frame: who put these men there? Who is looking on? Who is standing beside the cameraman, doubtless holding a gun? And what kind of eyes do we use when we look at them?

The first few questions are easier. These men were rounded up by the British security forces in colonial Kenya during the “state of emergency” that was declared to combat what they called the “Mau Mau” uprising. Many were tortured, and all endured terrific and pointless hardships in the hands of a small group of white settlers who insisted that Kenya was a “white man’s country.” Caroline Elkins wrote a book describing this period and its atrocities by using the phrase “Britain’s Gulag” and the term is appropriate: the lengths the colonial forces went to in Kenya in the 1950’s is one of the more horribly direct applications of industrialized human suffering in recent memory. Between 11,000 and 70,000 Gikuyu were killed — the historiographic controversy rages — but an entire society, an entire ethnicity, was targeted by a small and threatened white minority which had long been accustomed to using force as the basis of their reason for being in Africa. To be Gikuyu was to be suspect, and to be suspect was to be subject to practically unlimited violence.

Tom Mboya, a Luo, was a labor leader in Nairobi during “Operation Anvil,” and he described being rounded up this way:

“Leaving several colleagues in my office on the first floor of the Kundi building, I went down to the street. Within a few seconds I was challenged by a soldier pointing a gun at me. I raised my hands above my head as ordered and walked to him. He gave me a shove with the butt of his gun and ordered me to walk on. I was taken to a street island where other Africans were already sitting, and ordered to squat down…For hours we waited until we were ordered into a lorry and driven to a reception camp which was cordoned by barbed wire. Here we again squatted for hours. Then we were lined up and European police officers asked each of us his tribe and separated us accordingly. Those of us who were non-Kikuyu…were free to go home…”

That’s one meaning of those “orderly” rows of squatting men above; they’re somewhere in the “pipeline” by which the “hard-core” Mau Mau were to be separated from the merely African, thence to be taken to camps and “rehabilitated.” In one sense or another, the entire Gikuyu people passed through that pipeline, because that’s the level at which they were interpellated. Colonialists didn’t have much of an idea about what was going on, so they grabbed onto the kind of simplification they could use and ran with it: all Gikuyu were, as such, suspect. In the mind of the imperial machine that sought to process and pacify a rebellious people, the only thing to do with what it saw as a dark heart of Africa that it couldn’t understand or control was violence, constant and consistent violence, until it seemed comprehensible and safe again. Figure out who “they” are and put them in lines. Put them in camps. Put them in prisons. Put them in the ground.

When Caroline Elkins wrote her 2005 book, putting a frame around those men, it occasioned a fiery controversy; along with David Anderson’s superb Histories of the Hanged, a new scholarly focus on the “Mau Mau” emergency period revealed stories a thousand times more horrible than most non-Africans ever knew. During the course of the entire “emergency,” 32 settlers were killed. 32. And while the British officially estimated that “only” about 11,000 Africans were killed, even this number is virtually meaningless. When Kenya became independent in 1963, the retreating colonial power took all of its “sensitive” records with it, doing all that it could to obscure what had been done  and make their “official” account the only available truth. No one thinks the actual total is lower than that; Caroline Elkins argued that it was higher by a magnitude of ten.

She came up with this estimate by looking at demographic data and census figures, calculating the total who died (directly or indirectly through starvation, disease, and deprivation) in the hundreds of thousands by looking at how much the population could have reasonably been expected to grow. By charting the difference between where the population should have been and what it actually was recorded to have been, she calculated that the “missing” population represented the total number of Kenyans who were killed or died as an indirect result of oppression.

This method has been contested by all sorts of scholars, who find reasons to trust the absent archives on paper over the kinds of human archives which can be made out of survivors’ stories. For many of these scholars, the contempt for what Kenyans have to say about their experience drips off the page; in a letter to the LRB’s review of Elkins’ and Anderson’s books, David Elstein triumphantly declared that “The numbers make no sense: Elkins is forced back on anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors’.”

I disagree with his argument, but that’s not even the important point: Elstein discounts “anecdotal testimony by ‘survivors'” and puts that word in quotations, as if the fact that a human being said it means it is not true. He prefers documents, official records, trustworthy evidence. But Elkins’ real argument is not that there is, or ever could be, a true number of African people who were killed by colonial policing and counter-terrorism, that an official figure is either available or possible. Her conclusion is simply that the orderly statistics produced by the British are the same kind of imposed “order” as those lines of suspected Mau Mau above. The reality on the ground didn’t “make sense” to them, so they transformed it, using as much violence in doing so as they had to.

These numbers become more and more meaningless the higher they climb. One can come up with reliable and verifiable figures only by excluding events and factors that were felt but went unrecorded, which went unrecorded for that very reason. The fact that Tom Mboya — Kenya’s future minister of labour — was punched with a rifle butt and made to squat in the sand for hours while it was determined which part of the country he came from… this fact is not recorded in any books. Yet it is this kind of “fact” that was recorded all across the bodies of the African people of Kenya for a decade, recorded where non-Africans would never have no know about or respect it. And when the British finally fled Kenya, they took their books and papers with them.

I’m writing about Mau Mau in this way, right now, for two reasons. One, a group of Kenyans who survived torture at the hands of the British are suing the British government. Here’s the story of one of the plaintiffs:

In 1956 Mr Mutua was a 24-year-old herdsman working for Mr Louvaine Dunman, a white settler in Kenya’s Eastern Province. Mr Dunman, a police officer in the district force, was known as “Luvai” among the Kamba people who couldn’t pronounce the name Louvaine properly. While working on Mr Dunman’s farm, Mr Mutua began supplying food to the Mau Mau rebels hiding out in the nearby forest. On or before September 17, 1957, he was arrested by Mr Dunman and five other African police officers.

According to a court document, he was repeatedly beaten by European and African officers alike and then taken, blindfolded, to a tent. Inside, he was allegedly handcuffed and pinned to the ground, with his legs pulled apart and tied or strapped down. “Having been rendered completely powerless and vulnerable,” according to the document, Mr Mutua claims that he was “castrated by one or more of the officers present”. For two days he was allegedly left without medical attention and then liberated from the camp by Mau Mau rebels. He remained in the forest for three-and-a-half years before the rebellion ended and he returned home.

Mr Mutua claims that he suffered depression, anguish, mental stress, and “intense flashbacks to the episodes of assault, including castration (and) mourned the fact that he will never have children of his own and never be with a woman”.

As this suit has proceeded, a massive trove of old records have been unearthed and admitted, records that were thought to have been “lost” but which were discovered in some moldy basement. Elkins and Anderson are working with the plaintiffs’ lawyers to process and render meaningful that new evidence (you can read Anderson’s 24 page witness statement here, if you like), which turns out to be the records which the British government didn’t want the independent government of Kenya to have, and took with them. They were covering up crimes against humanity, and this was the paper trail that they’ve been hiding. This fact makes it all the more absurd that the British government’s official defense is that the current Kenyan government is responsible. Their argument is actually that atrocities committed by a colonial government in the 1950’s are actually the responsibility of a post-independence government which not only didn’t exist when the acts were committed, but which was actually, at the time, being subjected to those atrocities.

This is the kind of absurdity to which this kind of event will reduce these people. It doesn’t “make sense” that these things were done, therefore it cannot be true. And anything that says otherwise will be suppressed, or unthought; the fact that nothing is less reliable than the official records of an officially non-existent program of torture and mass immiseration is the sort of fairly obvious fact that just happens to escape the various people who seek to downplay the claims made by Elkins or “mere survivors.”

The other reason is, of course, the release by WikiLeaks of the files which the authorities in Guantánamo Bay kept on the people they were torturing for the crime of having been imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay. These events shed light on each other. They have in common the dangerous temptation to take the truths written on paper more seriously than the mere “testimony” from “survivors” whose authority you strip away as you imprison them in quotation marks. Why is it that Mohammed Nassim’s testimony wasn’t enough when he claimed that he was only detained for years because a bunch of clueless buffoons thought his name sounded similar to some other person (with the actually kind of different name of “Mullah Nassim”)? The only thing that’s new is what the authorities at Guantánamo wrote about him; the US government released Nassim’s statement years ago, because they knew that mere “anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors’” is nothing any American needed to respect. And they were right, weren’t they? Until a government source admitted the truth, was it really and authoritatively true?

To come back to the point where I started, the stories we tell about “others” are so often about us. And sometimes that’s a bad thing. When David Elstein talks about how the numbers “don’t make sense” because they say something he can’t allow to be true, the story he is telling about himself is a way of covering up the atrocities committed by the people he identifies with against the people with whom he does not. Elkins’ numbers might be fuzzy, but the way “the facts” were constructed in the first place should make us look beyond the trap they represent. When “facts” are written as part of a program of unthinking the unthinkable, you need to find new methods.

But when I look at that photograph of Mau Mau detainees squatting in the dust — waiting to be tortured, killed, or released — I can’t help but, in part, see it through the experience I had as a 27 year old visitor, houseguest, teacher, scholar, tourist, and mzungu. I notice that those men are all holding their heads in their hands. And because I once struggled with what that meant, I find myself struggling, again, with what it might mean.

Part of me wonders whether those men are holding their heads in their hands with the kind of fatigue I know myself, because I, too, have known fatigue, and because they, too, are human like me. Part of me wonders whether they, like I did, thought of that gesture as a performative one, as a piece of body language that called out for human kindness by broadcasting fatigue. But it doesn’t matter, does it? They’re not the ones talking. They were put there. They were placed in that position.

Mostly, I wonder how much what I can read in pictures like that is simply the truth which men with guns are trying to inscribe on human bodies. And I wonder how much dark matter there still is in my brain, how much of what I see and know is a function of my own insularity, isolation, inexperience, and ignorance. Some of it is. I grew up in one of the whitest counties in the United States, and though “racism” isn’t quite the word for what I learned in my upbringing, I discovered in Tanzania that I had to overcome a powerful blindness that I was inadvertently raised to possess. I had to work to learn to see the humanity of people unlike me — in ways I had never anticipated — that forced me to better understand my own humanity, precisely by understanding it differently, and by understanding the limits of what I knew.

This is not knowledge, and I am not speaking about authority. The experience of living in Tanzania changed who I thought I was, by making me aware of some limitations on who I could know myself to be. We need to let Guantánamo change us in the same way. It is precisely this humility that starts to open these pictures up, because it makes us  aware that no document, no archive, no authority’s account of the “truth,” can truly tell us more about the meaning of those men squatting in the dust than about the intentions of the men with guns who put there. And it’s also about us, and the filters we inherit that prevent us from seeing “truly.” We need to learn the lesson better that we know more by thinking about precisely how little we actually know. Without “anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors,’” all we can ever understand are the things the men with guns are trying to write, and we can read only the words which have been inscribed on their bodies, in the neat, orderly lines and barbed wire cages that security forces work to make true. Without “anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors,’” we can know very little, and we can become something — are made something — as a result. But if we lack that testimony, we can at least truthfully know that, and work to become something else.