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Tag: Kenya

A Zionist Night Shelter in Africa

One of the more strange little counterfactual might-have-been’s is if, in 1905, the Zionist Congress had decided to accept the formal offer made by Joseph Chamberlain in 1903 — then British colonial secretary  — to charter a Jewish colony in British East Africa.

It’s an interesting story: the offer was made in 1903 for a colonial charter of a six thousand square mile tract of land in the Uasin Gishu plateau, where present day Eldoret is located (see left). Uasin Gishu was then occupied by the Turkana, Nandi, and Pökoot peoples — in the borderlands between British East Africa and Uganda — but as pastoralists, their claims to the land were completely negligible, judged to be the sort of people who could simply be moved. The British sometimes treated the land-claims of settled, agricultural peoples — like the Gikuyu — with a certain minimal respect — and legislation required any land taken from settled natives had to be paid for (though such laws were often not enforced — but that rule simply didn’t apply to pastoral peoples, whose land was simply declared empty and open for colonization by immigrants from elsewhere.

And so, in 1903, the Foreign office dispatched this letter to the Jewish Colonial Trust, ltd:

It was not a particularly desirable concession, though — which the expedition sent in 1904 to look at it quickly realized — and in 1905, the Zionist Congress voted it down. A few years later, British East Africa would make it the site for settling a group of Afrikaner emigrants from South African (a group the British also regarded as somewhat undesirable), who would found the town of Eldoret in the center of their settlement.

Theodor Herzl was the primary proponent of the scheme. In a collection of documents from the ‘Uganda Controversy,” as it was called, Michael Heymann sets the scene:

When, in the summer of 1902, Herzl realized that his attempts to obtain a “Charter” for Palestine from the Turks had failed, at least for the time being, he directed his efforts towards acquiring a region outside the Sultan’s realm for Jewish settlement. Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Landsdowne, the British Colonial and Foreign Secretary respectively, perhaps not unmindful of their own problem of alien immigration, were sympathetic. The prospect of settlement in an area under British control, the Egyptian Sinai peninsula — not quite, but almost, Palestine, and there acceptable to any true “Lover of Zion” — awoke high hopes, which turned to keen disappointment when the British backed down and pronounced this so-called El-Arish scheme impracticable. By this time, May 1903, the Kishinev pogrom had just taken place. Overcome by a sense of urgency and fearing another wave of unorganized mass migration to the no longer uniformly hospitable Western countries, Herzl did not feel himself able to reject out of hand Chamberlain’s offer for a settlement in East Africa. Thus was born the East Africa — or as it was then commonly called, the Uganda — Project.

For Joseph Chamberlain in 1903, settling Jews in Africa would have seemed like it could solve several problems. One was that — as Heymann delicately suggests — genteel anti-Semites like Chamberlain and Landsdowne shared with Herzl a desire to discourage the mass migration of East European Jews into Western Europe. For Herzl, the fear was assimilation, and though it was the reverse fear for men like Chamberlain — non-assimilable Jews immigrating into Britain! Horrors! — they had in common the desire to find some other place for those migrants than Europe. And as pogroms in East Europe worsened — increasing the number of emigrating Jews even as the prospects of building a Jewish homeland in Palestine looked increasingly dim, Africa suddenly popped up as a possibility.

Of course, why anyone in Britain thought settling Europeans in East Africa was a good idea is an interesting story in itself, and worth a digression. It began with economics: the British had just completed a debt-financed railroad line connecting the East African coast to the Ugandan interior, and discovered, on doing so, that they had nothing to ship on it, and thus no way of making it pay back the massive debt it had built up in the construction. They had originally started building it for geopolitical reasons: in the 1890’s, they thought they needed it to solidify their hold on Uganda and protect it from German expansion — Uganda was the headwaters of the Nile, and thus, considered to be important for holding on to Egypt (and therefore India) — but the German threat diminished and the region would turn out not to have any meaningful mineral deposits (as did Rhodesia and South Africa), leaving the British to wake up one day with a pointless railroad to nowhere. Nothing that was grown or produced by Africans in the region was particularly viable as an export commodity, nor were Africans particularly interested in selling to export markets anyway, so the railroad deserved the name that was given to it, the “Lunatic Line.” As a solution to that problem, then, Britain tried to develop some kind of export-economy in their newly acquired territory in East Africa by sending settlers interested in developing commercial agriculture, and in 1903, it seemed plausible that resettled Eastern-European farmers might be part of that: interested only in making the railroad and the colony pay, any kind of settlers would do for men like Chamberlain. There was talk of settling Indians in East Africa, Afrikaners from South Africa made up much of the first wave, and Jews from Eastern Europe would have done just as nicely.

Charles Eliot, the commissioner who oversaw the beginnings of the settlement project, was of a different opinion, as was the political lobby of the aristocratic white settlers whose settlement he worked to prioritize. For these people, British East Africa was to be a “White Man’s Country,” and neither Indians nor Jews were any part of that vision. As soon as Lord Delamere — the settler leader — discovered that plans were afoot to settle Jews in the colony, they organized against it:

When word of Chamberlain’s offer reached East Africa there was immediate opposition from the settlers. Lord Delamere sent a telegram to The Times and a meeting was convened in Nairobi at which the Revd PA Bennett maintained that missionaries violently opposed the scheme. Some speakers at the meeting objected to the poverty of the Jews and their supposed lack of agricultural knowledge. Delamere wrote a pamphlet, Lord Hindlip joined the protests, and the African Standard waged a virulent anti-Semitic campaign.

Charles Eliot was subtler, though, and it was he who most effectively scuttled the project by choosing a truly undesirable piece of land to offer to the Zionists. While it all might have seemed the same to Chamberlain in London, Eliot would have understood quite well that that the Uasin Gishu was not only isolated and unserviced by the railway (64 miles away, in fact), but the native peoples were also sufficiently “unpacified” in 1903 to make its colonization seem a risky proposition. And so, when the Zionist expedition got a look at what they were being offered, they came to exactly the conclusion that Eliot had hoped they would come to: this was a pretty shitty offer.

In his 1914 book Zionism, Richard Gottheil recalls the deliberations over the offer:

The commission which went out to East Africa in December, 1903, made its report to the Central Committee in May, 1904. The territory examined and delimited by the British Government at Herzl’s request comprised an area covering some six thousand square miles, and was known as the Guas Ngishu Plateau. Although the members of the commission did not agree upon all points, the general view seemed to be that the territory would be insufficient for any large number of Jewish settlers, and that the ground was fit rather for grazing than for agriculture. In addition, a strong opposition to the grant had developed in the East African Protectorate itself. Telegrams from Lord Delamere, the High Commissioner of British East Africa, from Lord Hindlipp, and from Sir H. H. Johnston arrived at the Foreign Office couched in terms that showed the difficulties such a settlement would have had to encounter.” All this was meat for the Palestinian enthusiasts.

It would have taken a lot to sway the members of the Zionist Congress who insisted on Palestine, and this was not very much. And so, after hearing the commission’s report, the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905 voted the proposition down.

In retrospect, it’s unclear how seriously they ever actually took the notion, or if there was ever any chance of it being accepted. Even Herzl might not have been solidly in favor; he died before the issue really came up for debate, and he surely calculated that failing to even consider the offer might jeopardize future negotiations with the British over more desirable territories. And Gottheil suggests that it might also have been a political tactic: since negotiations which [Herzl] had been conducting in Constantinople seemed to have reached a blind alley…[t]he offers made to him by the Sultan at various times were such as he could not accept,” it might be possible to use the offer as a bargaining tool, to “perhaps open the eye of the Sultan to the fact that places other than Palestine were possible for a Jewish ‘home.’” Finally, in his appeal to the Central Committee, (Gottheil writes) Herzl “tried to make it clear that this was not an alternative for Palestine, that East Africa could not be Zion.” His associate Max Nordau even coined the expression Nachtasyl — “night shelter” — to emphasize that the settlement would simply be a way station, a temporary refuge on the way to Zion. And when the Congress rejected the proposition in 1905 — after Herzl’s death the year earlier — leadership passed ever more securely into the branch of the movement which would see the Jewish state only in Palestine.

Reckoning with Blindness: Mau Mau and Guantánamo

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.

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