Friday, February 8, 2019

Arabs and Brits in Colonial Kenya

Arabs and Brits in Early Colonial Kenya

reviews of Sir Ali bin Salim  and the Making of Mombasa and Northrup - the Life of William Northrup McMillan, both by Judy Aldrick, Old Africa Books, Nairobi, 2017 and 2012 respectively.
These two books by the same author cover different aspects of Kenya in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Both are definitive biographies of important personages in the history of Kenya, both of whom - prior to these studies - were largely neglected in histories of the era. Ms. Aldrick corrects that oversight. Through her astonishingly well researched works, readers gain insight into Kenya’s complicated origins.

First chronologically is the biography of Sir Ali bin Salim, which does not begin with him but with a history of the East African coast. Independent city states of a thousand years ago contested among themselves, came under Portuguese suzerainty in 1498 for over a hundred years, achieved self governing status again before succumbing to the Sultan of Zanzibar in the early 19th century and then the British.   In the latter era, there was much intrigue.  Arab families sought favor from the monarch in Zanzibar and maneuvered against him and each other.  The height of power was to be appointed Liwali, i.e. the embodiment of the Sultan’s authority over a mainland district.   In turn leaders of the twelve Swahili tribes of the coastal towns endeavored to manipulate and constrain their rulers.  Adding to the complications were the arrivals of Europeans - missionaries, explorers, businessmen, soldiers, railway builders and imperial bureaucrats.  Additionally, England and Germany competed for territory.

The book begins to jell with the introduction of Salim bin Khalfan, an Arab civil servant from the prominent Al Busaidi clan who rose to become the Liwali of Mombasa in 1884. He subsequently employed his son Ali bin Salim as his deputy. Ali bin Salim then succeeded him as Liwali in 1904 and served until 1931. The two of them presided over the fortunes of the Kenya coast for over fifty years.  It was a turbulent time because the power of the Sultan waned and was replaced in erratic fashion by the British.  Issues of slavery, land ownership, public works, justice, legal framework, taxes, etc. troubled the region. The Liwali’s authorities changed as well i.e. diminished, but the two Liwalis, seeing that change was inevitable - especially the abolition of slavery - did their best to ensure peaceful evolution.  They were always caught between whimsical overlords, either the Sultan or British authorities, and the needs and expectations of the Arab and Swahili communities of the coast.

Sir Ali, who was a gracious, courtly gentleman was well placed to serve as the interface.  Although he earned the approbation of those who saw their prosperity being curtailed, for example Swahili families who lost slaves and could no longer farm, Sir Ali gained confidence of new British rulers and the expanding merchant class of Mombasa.  Under his tutelage Mombasa expanded from a cluster of houses jammed into Old Town to a real city with roads, a modern port, a railway terminus and potable water.  Both Sir Ali and his father became wealthy and both became generous patrons of schools, hospitals and other community oriented institutions.

Author Aldrick’s book does justice to the two men, but it is more than a biography. It is a detailed history of the era - of the issues, of the politics, of the intrigue, of the economics and the social issues that transpired during the transition from Zanzibari rule to the Kenya Colony. 

Ms. Aldrick’s second book set in the first twenty five years of the last century focuses on the life story of William Northrup McMillan.  Northrup - he went by his middle name - was an American of imposing stature - 6 feet five and 300 pounds - and grandiose fortune.   Scion of a box car builder from St. Louis, Missouri, Northrup never took to the family business, but he lavishly spent the funds that flowed to his coffers.  He arrived in Mombasa at the turn of the century as a big game hunter.  He found the Kenyan plains to be the paradise he longed for, where one could bag a lion from one’s doorstep. He purchased land just outside Nairobi for a hunting camp, then expanded it to include Ol Donyo Sabuk, the nearest mountain to Nairobi.  Additionally he built a substantial house dubbed Chiromo in town around which the University of Nairobi would ultimately grow. Northrup was a generous donor to worthwhile causes and could always be counted on to write a check.  After his death his wife Lucie built and named the public library in Nairobi in his honor.

Northup and his wife Lucie were great entertainers hosting Theodore Roosevelt among others. Their various residences were often sites for lavish parties and safaris.  Even though Northup tried to make his farms and ventures profitable, they never were.  Yet he soldiered on including some real soldiering when he enlisted in the war effort, for which he was recognized.  Inevitably Northrup became involved in politics. He joined with Ewart Grogan and Lord Delamere as an advocate for settlers’ rights. He sat on the Legislative Council for many terms, where he was more a follower than an outspoken leader.  Although early politics are tracked in the book, it is more a social history than a political one.    

With Northrup as the centerpiece, Ms. Aldrick has produced a marvelous inside look at the settler community in the early years, before it was tainted by the Happy Valley set.  She located and quotes from many diaries, letters and other documentation to shed light on what the settlers did and what they thought about each other.  

Each of Ms. Aldrich’s two books stands on its own, but read sequentially they provide keen insight into two sides of the history of early Kenya. 
(Disclaimer: I knew Judy and her family in Mombasa in the mid-eighties. I am pleased, but not surprised, that she went on to become a scholar and superb writer of Kenyan history. )

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Peace Making Fails!

Following is a review of Prelude to Genocide - Arusha, Rwanda, and the Failure of Diplomacy by David Rawson, Ohio University Press, Athens, 2018.
 Prelude to Genocide is the most detailed and best documented account of a diplomatic negotiation that I know of.  Its authoritativeness and accuracy cannot be questioned.  The effort that went into culling through the files and then affixing the proper citations is astounding.  The story unfolds in a chronological fashion although it jumps backward at times to repeat some common background for a new thread.  The book flows fairly well. Its best features are the comprehensiveness of the study and its worst the fact that it is an academic treatise that is not likely to entertain folks who are not deeply interested in either the Rwandan crisis or the process of negotiations.

This is the definitive work on the 1992 Arusha talks designed to end conflict in Rwanda, essentially through power-sharing arrangements. Nowhere else has the topic been covered so thoroughly and with so much insight as to the motives of the participants. At best the talks themselves and the posturing around them have been treated in articles or as short chapters in other books.  Without doubt this book is an addition to the professional literature, especially important is the discussion of what happened after the accords were signed in August 1993, i.e. the jockeying that took place in Kigali that delayed the implementation of the agreements.  No one else has studied those events with such care.

This book is not going to reach a popular audience, but for those focused on Rwanda or on what constitutes a negotiation and how that occurs, the book is illustrative.  In that regard, anyone who wonders what diplomats actually do will not help but be impressed with the enormous amount of to and fro and give and take that ensues as foreign policy is pushed along. The book has definite text possibilities for classes on diplomacy, negotiation or conflict resolution.  The latter because the author notes throughout what was not working and what the ultimate result of such failures would be.

Rawson puts the bottom line up front. Arusha failed because the parties to the talks were seeking power, not peace.  The Tanzanian/OAU conveners wanted an agreement, any agreement.  The western powers pursued their individual national approaches - the U.S. for example wanted the OAU in the forefront of peacekeeping despite the reality that it was incapable of performing. Collectively the troika of US/France/Belgium pushed western ideas of democracy, inclusiveness and accountability.  They did not recognize until late in the game that it was all a house of cards. and by then it was to late to deviate. The book shows in ways never before detailed how this all came about.

Some readers are going to try to mine this book for smoking guns, i.e. proof that the U.S. knew genocide was coming, or complicity in that regard by the failure to act. Rawson is up front on what the U.S. knew about deteriorating security and when, as well as Rwanda’s historical predilection towards ethnic violence.  He is similarly candid when talking about the policy frameworks that governed U.S. actions.  Certainly diplomats were hamstrung from not having all possible options available, but given the parameters within which they had to work, this book provides an accurate record of what transpired.

Since none of the Rwandans involved in the talks has or will write about their motives and expectations, this book must stand as definitive.  Kigali side players are dead and RPF players that remain are too cautious to be frank and too blinded by hindsight to be accurate. Internal records on the part of participants - whatever might have existed - are probably long gone. 

In sum this is an excellent book that belongs in every university library.

Monday, November 12, 2018

An African Odessey

A review of Chasing the Devil - A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Greene by Tim Butcher, Atlas and Company, NY, 2010.

The sub-title says it all. This is a travelogue of an expedition across Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea accomplished in 2009 but tracing a similar journey by Graham Greene and his cousin Barbara Greene in 1935.  It says much about rural Africa that during the seventy year time span between the two adventures  not  much has changed, especially if you walk! 

The book has three themes that combine nicely. First is the fact that famous novelist Graham Greene made the trek.  His motives were money with an overlay of politics. Greene got a book out of it and faithfully reported back to an anti-slavery society that sponsored him - as well as to the Foreign Office.  Additionally Greene needed to do something new to refurbish his literary credentials and sate his thirst for adventure.  Author Butcher delved through all of Greene’s journals (and his cousin’s as well), writings and papers to sort out references to the walk. He then juxtaposes the Greenes’ views to his own when in this or that village.   

Secondly the book permits the author to recapitulate the histories of the three nations involved - Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.  This provides wonderful context to the journey. Butcher recalls early British rule in Freetown and segues forward to the terrible blood diamond financed civil war.  In Liberia he traces the ineffective arrogant rule of the Americo-Liberians and their disdain for the “country” people of the interior, a shortcoming that led to their violent overthrow in 1980 only to usher in decades of misrule and conflict.  Against the historical backdrop, Butcher and his companions confront the residue of war in the fragile nations in the form of suspicion, tribalism and corruption, which are somewhat offset by generous hospitality as citizens strive to get on with life.

The third theme is Butcher’s walk itself. Accompanied by David, a fellow Englishman, Johnson and Mr. Omaru, Sierra Leoneans enlisted as guides, the group covered up to thirty miles daily in the sweltering heat and humidity.  They tried to stick to the jungle paths used by Greene and encountered trials, tribulations and joys as they trekked along. Ever observant, Butcher was fascinated by bush societies - mystery riven secret organizations that initiate youths into tribal adulthood - and their control over contemporary rural life. 

This book has great appeal to adventure travelers, but  even more it is a unique nonacademic guide to contemporary life in West Africa’s back country.  It is essential reading for persons interested in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  The walk took place in 2009, five years before Ebola wreaked havoc on the regions traversed.  One can only imagine the additional devastation that disease inflicted upon the people Butcher and his companions met along the way.   

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A refugee plead for understanding

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil, Penguin Random House, NY, 2018

This is the story of Clemantine, who fled genocide in Rwanda as a six year old, spent the next six years as a refugee in various eastern and southern African countries, and ultimately found safety in America.  It is a troubling recitation of the horrors of helpless folks buffeted by ignominy of statelessness subjected to the whims and rules of uncaring superiors as well as their own bad decisions.  As a child and thus by definition not capable of controlling her own destiny, Clemantine was especially vulnerable.  She was formed and damaged by her experiences, which are so well articulated in this book.  Yet those experiences ultimately gave her the strength of character not just to persevere but to reflect and to advocate for similar victims. 

The book is structured as a series of chronological reflections - one set beginning in Rwanda and moving forward through flight to Burundi, then various refugee camps and displacements throughout Africa. The second set interspersed among the first begins in America.  Taken together the structure of the book gives a back and forth view of what Clemantine experienced and how as a teenager and adult she came to terms with it.

As a six year old Clemantine was led by Claire, her nine-years elder sister, to a refugee camp. There she  had to stay alive, trade her childhood for one of scrapping for food, firewood or water.  Subsequently she became the care taker for an infant niece.  Seeking stability Claire then led the family to Zaire, Malawi, South Africa, Congo again and Zambia. Yet everywhere they went, they were poverty stricken refugees, powerless unwanted outsiders who hovered on the fringes of the law.     By a stroke of luck Claire obtained permission to immigrate to America.

The opulence of Illinois coupled with the generous, but uncomprehending support of sponsors was stunning.  Twelve year old Clemantine retreated into a shell of defensive solitude and only began to emerge from that as she adjusted and grew.  Ultimately Clemantine is a great success story. She became a spokesperson for African victims of conflict and graduated from Yale.  Yet she was angry (and still is) that no one could understand her pain.  Undoubtedly that is the reason for this book - let the world know the consequences of genocide, the reality of refugee life, and the aching need for those without voices to be heard.     

What is Rwanda like today?

A review of Rwanda - From Genocide to Precarious Peace, by Susan Thomson. Yale University Press, New haven, 2018.

This book updates the situation in Rwanda today - some 24 years after the genocide.  Author Thomson details the changes and continuities since that terrible time. She describes how the current rulers of Rwanda have crafted a society of rules and regulations enforced by societal norms, peer pressures engineered by the regime and outright authoritarian control.  She sees much precedent for the strict codes and enforcement thereof arising in Rwanda’s pre-colonial history and carried forward to modern times.  Rwandans are used to being ordered about and coerced into conformity by whomever the ruling elites are.   Thomson delves into the self centered state and society now in place where although ethnic identity is squashed, Hutu citizens remain implicated and collectively guilty of genocide against Tutsi.  The charge of genocide denial or participation is an effective deterrent to political activism. Consequently, the state is firmly controlled by a small ruling Tutsi elite, who intend for the nation to evolve into a progressive entity dispensing economic and social progress for all.  For now however, it is only the ruling elites and a growing middle class that reap such benefits.  The poverty stricken masses see few paths out of their circumstances. But that is where Rwanda is - trying to move ahead, but enacting counterproductive policies - with greater social and political openness stymied by the impact of genocide. 

Thomson’s critique is pretty harsh and probably justified in looking at Rwanda through western eyes.  Her judgment of “precarious peace” is an accurate depiction of Rwanda today.  Western criticisms aside, Rwandans are inextricably bound together in their society and polity and they are going to have to work this out by themselves. Class rather than ethnicity will probably shape political divisions in years to come and the authoritarian state is unlikely to disappear.  Whether or not this might lead to violence is speculative, but another genocide as properly defined is unlikely.
Readers interested in Rwanda and/or the recovery of societies traumatized by violence will find this an interesting read.