“The alleged torture”

by zunguzungu

A propos of yesterday’s post on Mau Mau, this from a few years ago:

Hussein Onyango Obama, Mr Obama’s paternal grandfather, became involved in the Kenyan independence movement while working as a cook for a British army officer after the war. He was arrested in 1949 and jailed for two years in a high-security prison where, according to his family, he was subjected to horrific violence to extract information about the growing insurgency.

Mrs Onyango, 87, described how “white soldiers” visited the prison every two or three days to carry out “disciplinary action” on the inmates suspected of subversive activities. “He said they would sometimes squeeze his testicles with parallel metallic rods. They also pierced his nails and buttocks with a sharp pin, with his hands and legs tied together with his head facing down,” she said. The alleged torture was said to have left Mr Onyango permanently scarred, and bitterly antiBritish. “That was the time we realised that the British were actually not friends but, instead, enemies,” Mrs Onyango said. “My husband had worked so diligently for them, only to be arrested and detained.”

I’m also sort of marveling at the following passage, in which the authors sneer at the story Mrs. Onyango tells them:

Mrs Onyango also described an incident of her husband’s “torture”, which was nothing of the sort. “The white soldiers would spray his body with an itching chemical. This, he said, could make him scratch his body till it bled.” Almost certainly, Mr Onyango was being treated for body lice but apparently he was so used to brutality that he assumed the routine chemical delousing treatment was another form of abuse.

Who knows what really happened. But let us just note how blithely her testimony is dismissed, how unreliable it can be made to seem. The fact that she describes a chemical that makes him scratch until his skin bleeds isn’t meaningful to them; their truth is that she’s an elderly African woman who doesn’t understand about modernity and de-lousing, and on that basis, they will cheerfully inform us that what she is describing never happened the way she described.

And this is the point of that passage. If the chemical made him itch — say, because of the way it interacted with other conditions he may have had, if it wasn’t actually designed as a torture — then we still have the figure of a prisoner being forced to be sprayed with something that makes him scratch until his skin bleeds, an enforced and likely very painful physical indignity, not unlike like the other brutalities he endured for years. But because it’s sanitary — because it’s a cleansing de-lousing of a lousy Africans — it’s not “torture” to the writers. And only an ignorant African would think otherwise…