Unsettled: Denial and Belonging Among White Kenyans

Unsettled: Denial and Belonging Among White Kenyans

by Janet McIntosh

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520290495
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/26/2016
Series: Ethnographic Studies in Subjectivity , #10
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Janet McIntosh is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University and author of The Edge of Islam: Power, Personhood, and Ethnoreligious Boundaries on the Kenya Coast.

Read an Excerpt


Denial and Belonging Among White Kenyans

By Janet McIntosh


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96463-1



In late September 2006 prison warders escorted Thomas Cholmondeley (pronounced "CHUM-lee") into a wood-paneled courtroom in Nairobi, where he pled "not guilty" to a charge of murder. He wore a cream-colored linen suit, blue paisley tie, and handcuffs, and his 6-foot-6-inch frame and pale complexion cut quite a figure in this courtroom largely packed with black barristers, spectators, and journalists. Cholmondeley, heir to the colonial-era Delamere family fortune and a vast swathe of coveted land in Kenya's Rift Valley, had been charged for the second time in about a year with shooting an indigent Kenyan dead on his own ranch.

In the first case, in April 2005, Cholmondeley had reportedly believed that he was being robbed, and prosecutors had dropped the charges, accepting his claim of self-defense. But the deceased, a Maasai man, had been an undercover ranger with the Kenya Wildlife Service who was investigating illegal game cropping on Cholmondeley's property. The Kenyan public was appalled at the idea of an Eton-educated scion of a wealthy colonial family killing a Maasai father of eight. When Cholmondeley was released, flashing a double thumbs-up to cameras, the outcry was so intense that the then president of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki, reportedly ordered the chief prosecutor sacked.

In 2006, after Cholmondeley pulled the trigger again and was charged with murdering a man poaching wildlife on the Delamere family ranch, the Kenyan media went into overdrive. He insisted upon his innocence, but a headline of Kenya's Daily Nation deplored, "Oh No, Not Again!" and editorials approvingly invoked Zimbabwe's violent campaign of redistributing white-owned farms. Kenyan bloggers suggested that Cholmondeley killed indigent blacks for sport, and Kenyans and British journalists alike reminded readers of the early twentieth-century "Happy Valley" era of Cholmondeley's great-grandfather, the third Baron Delamere, when prominent colonials in Kenya notoriously indulged in epic gin-soaked parties, wife-swapping, and lavish lifestyles. As Cholmondeley's trial dragged on for nearly four years, public reactions sounded a wake-up call for some whites with family roots in Kenya. They realized that he was not only a symbol of a bygone era but also, fairly or not, a stand-in for the rest of them. And they could not help but detect the subtext to the media outcry: colonials, go home.

But for many aging former settlers and their descendants, Kenya is home. True, the Europeans who came to East Africa a century ago didn't always imagine it that way. However enticing they found the golden savannah and teeming wildlife, however embroiled they were in carving a life out of the bush, Kenya, or as it was pronounced in those days, "Keenya," was a site where Britain would inscribe and magnify itself as an emissary of civilization and enforcer of empire. The microcosmic aspects of European life replicated there — country clubs, polo matches, tea parties, churches, medical clinics, and schools — remind us that Britain, for most, was the touchstone of their identity. Though some settlers had other European roots, English culture suffused their institutions, as did racial exclusion. Settler children sometimes had African playmates when they were little, but they were eventually segregated with other Europeans in elite schools, or sent abroad to boarding school where they could learn to enact the "prestige" that would uphold whites' civilized image. Although here and there one could find a settler with an unusual affinity for "the natives," most considered Africans to be intellectually inferior, vaguely polluting, and potentially dangerous. No wonder that even those settlers who would leave their bones in Kenya still called England "home," many referring to themselves as "British Kenyans" or simply "British."

Many of today's settler descendants have, however, adopted a Kenyan nationalist discourse of shared future aspirations. After political power shifted into African hands in 1963, settler families went from brazen race-based entitlements to sharing power and resources with a growing elite and middle class of African and Asian descent. The transition was so destabilizing that tens of thousands of whites emigrated for fear that their fortunes would fall. Of whites who are citizens of Kenya today, those with family roots in the colonial era number only between about three and five thousand. Eager to differentiate themselves from the image of the vilified colonialist, many I spoke to insist that their families had remained in Kenya because of the emotional impossibility of leaving it. Their very being, they say, is connected to the landscape and people of Kenya, and they consider themselves dedicated to the nation's future. They wish that ethnic divisions and ethnoterritorialism — called "tribalism," in Kenya — would give way fully to liberal nationalism; if that happened, the nation would be at peace, they feel, and perhaps they would stop being reminded that, in the eyes of some, they are always interlopers.

Broadcasting their sincerity, energetic young and middle-aged settler descendants tell me they are devoted to helping "develop" Kenya, working with Kenyans of all backgrounds to move its economy forward. They have valuable know-how, they say, because they understand the place and its people and bring modern managerial expertise to bear on their projects, whether fund-raising, conserving wildlife, managing a hotel, or running a library well. They passionately describe their families' charitable efforts, conservation forums, and businesses, which (sometimes) conspicuously offer employment to some of Kenya's neediest groups — beadwork for single Maasai mothers, for instance, or training for indigent youth in the basics of restaurant service. They call their domestic staff "part of the family," and consider these relationships evidence that their lives are braided together with those of black Kenyans. (I use the phrase "black Kenyans" with hesitation, realizing it may rub some Kenyans the wrong way, since they are accustomed to being called simply "Kenyan"; however, racial categories and perceptions are important to my analysis and I often need to clarify which group I am discussing.) And many younger whites insist that, unlike many of their settler forebears, they speak Kiswahili, Kenya's national lingua franca, with pride and affection, using it as their "language of connection" with their fellow citizens. In light of all this, when the incumbent president Mwai Kibaki rigged the December 2007 elections in his favor and the country exploded into violence, white Kenyans wrung their hands. Their promising nation seemed on the brink of disaster, and their lives had been destabilized, they told me. Most of them felt "Kenyan, through and through."

The public stance of many white Kenyans has shifted from identification with Europe to proud Kenyan nationality. But beneath the surface, this change has been fraught with ambiguity. For one thing, history has left most of them with trappings of privilege, and for all of their efforts to support those in poorer communities, they prize their lifestyle of manicured gardens and cheap domestic help. "I could never live this way in Europe," says a middle-aged Nairobi businessman I call Simon, with a hint of sheepishness in his glance. Like many whites in the Nairobi suburbs, Simon lives in a beautifully kept, airy home behind concrete fences, with Maasai or Samburu security guards at the gates. Some settler descendants in the Rift Valley occupy sweeping ranches replete with zebra, elephants, and wealthy Western tourists; meanwhile, retirees on the coast swim and fish in turquoise, palm-fringed waters. Those with the energy and means enjoy rally driving, polo, and windsurfing. One young man said he adored "driving like a maniac across the country" and the feeling of commanding wide open spaces. "You couldn't get away with that anywhere else," he told me. "It's exhilarating." Although there is some wealth disparity among settler descendants, their vision of an acceptable standard of living still far outstrips the possibilities for millions of black Kenyans. All of those I met, for instance, have at least the means to employ domestic staff to clean their homes, launder their clothes, or prepare their food. Some may say they love Kenya selflessly, but they also know it is possible for them to live "like kings" there, as one put it.

And they realize their privilege has not gone unnoticed. History has marked them for reminders that their claims to belong are tenuous, and they could lose much should grievances be aimed in their direction. To be sure, they haven't seen the nadir of loss faced by white Zimbabweans forcibly removed from their farms over the past decade and a half in Robert Mugabe's violent campaign of land reform. Nor have they faced an economic restructuring like that in South Africa, where racist apartheid-era protections for white employment were replaced by an affirmative action program to empower blacks. Still, the Cholmondeley trial and other recent events have been powerful reminders that, in the eyes of some, white Kenyans risk looking like the archaic residue of a dead world order. They are legal citizens, in other words, but without the more elusive imprimatur of full cultural citizenship.

And so, for instance, when Jason Dunford, great-grandson of the renowned Lithuanian Jewish settler and hotelier Abraham Block, proudly carried Kenya's flag into the Olympic Stadium in 2012 as a member of Kenya's swim team, social media lit up as some Kenyans watching the ceremonies on television expressed shock and dismay. "WTF??" one participant in an on-line sports forum typed. "The Kenyan flag was just carried in by a white swimmer?!" An onlooker interviewed in Nairobi, Sebastian Murunga, summed up a common objection: "He does not really represent Kenyans. Kenyans are black while he is white." While other black Kenyans defended Dunford, deeming him a worthy choice as a committed athlete and a Kenyan citizen, it was clear that for some, his race made him unsuitable as a representative of the nation.

Such issues of belonging have arisen again and again for settler descendants in recent years. Mary, whose British family were influential coffee farmers before they sold their land at Independence, told me of the bad feeling in the air when the Cholmondeley scandal was at its height. A week or so after the second shooting, Mary was shopping in Nairobi when she passed a young man hawking magazines on the street. She called him out, she says, for selling back issues of National Geographic. "That's supposed to be subscription only," she said indignantly. (Like many settler descendants, Mary sees the rule of law as an important contribution from the colonial era, and takes offense at both political corruption and rule-breakers.) As she recalls it, the young man retorted, "You keep your nose out of this. You know, it's like Zimbabwe; you're just a visitor here. We can get rid of you." Her lined face looked exasperated as she remembered her reaction. In her own mind, her life trajectory gave her just as much belonging as his lineage. She had been born in Kenya, and was clearly his generational senior. "I thought to myself, Oooohhh! Well, I've lived here longer than you!"

Nationalist gestures, resented privileges, and acute defensiveness — all are components of what it can mean to be a white Kenyan today. In this ethnography, I explore the subjective lives and stances of white Kenyans descended from colonial families as they navigate their unsettled sense of identity in the nation today. I don't aspire to offer a comprehensive account of this diverse group; rather, my material emerges from participant observation among roughly 150–200 individuals of middle- to upper-class status, about fifty of whom I interviewed. Seeing themselves as seen by their critics has been unsettling for them, and some of my respondents seem to ricochet between an embryonic sense of embarrassment and a frustrated, defensive reaction. They continue to enjoy enormous privileges, but their self-consciousness and uncertainties suggest that in some respects, they are of two minds about their entitlement to belong.

A phrase that captures the unease of some white Kenyans is "moral double consciousness." When W.E.B. Du Bois first defined double consciousness to characterize African American subjectivity in the early twentieth century, he described it as "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." It would be absurd, of course, to draw a direct comparison between Du Bois's subjects and my own; double consciousness among African Americans emerged from their legal, economic, and cultural immiseration, whereas settler descendants in Kenya are still reaping the benefits of white privilege. But scholars such as Linda Martín Alcoff (1998, 2015) in her discussion of white American crises of identity have extended the concept to encompass situations where a privileged social group reckons internally with the judgments of its critics, destabilizing it, even if not critically injuring its members. As Marc Black (2007) notes, white double consciousness may have promise, for unlike the often degrading double consciousness of people of color and colonized populations, it can open the possibility of much-needed self-critique as whites encounter epistemic friction. That said, the first glimmers of double consciousness in elites seem just as likely to result in a defensive reaction that attempts to shut down its associated discomforts and revert to an emotionally safer pole of consciousness — namely, the evaluative stance they started with. (Du Bois describes a similarly protective maneuver of denial and repression in his characterization of the fragile white American ego when challenged by even the slightest recognition of black humanity; see Watson 2013: 31–35.) Among former settlers and their descendants, their nascent double consciousness stems from an unsettling of the colonialist notion that whites are paragons of humanity, and a realization that to some, they and their history represent injustice. True, unlike any subaltern group, most white Kenyans have the luxury of moving toward or away from this discomfiting awareness of their critics. But when they experience the shock of seeing their community being seen, they see themselves "othered," that is, refracted through essentialist stereotypes that portray them as part of an undesirable, alien social mass. This, indeed, speaks to another prong of the "two-ness" Du Bois described, in which African Americans struggled to reconcile "two warring ideals," namely, their identity as American and their identity as "Negros." Though white Kenyans are hardly disenfranchised, they do face an awkward tension between their ethnoracial and national identities in a nation where, in public discourse, entitlement to belong and to own land increasingly hinges on having deep ancestral roots in local soil.

For many of my white Kenyan respondents, then, this embryonic double consciousness is a morally confusing experience. Most of them had been raised to think that their settler family members were good, giving people who lived bravely and sacrificed much, and that the colonial endeavor had been engineered to uplift Africa. Now they are informed that their forebears were oppressors, and that perhaps in some fashion they are too — and while they don't have to internalize this view of themselves, it has made inroads on their awareness. The resultant embarrassment, frustration, and (sometimes) anger have meant they have sometimes had to struggle to compose themselves. Some have had enough close brushes with critics to taste the edges of humiliation about the settler past and their privileges in the present. But shame is not a comfortable dwelling place, and many settle into a defensive stance, reclaiming their comfort zone and mystifying their structural advantages. Some dance around the tension by focusing on their felt bonds to Kenya and black Kenyans and insisting that their personal intentions and feelings take priority over history and structural inequalities. A few, though, a small minority, have come to soul-search, questioning their received truths and seeking new, more empathic ways of understanding the perceptions of their black fellow citizens.


Excerpted from Unsettled by Janet McIntosh. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Unsettled 1

2 Loving the Land 48

3 Guilt 84

4 Conflicted Intimacies 115

5 Linguistic Atonement 151

6 The Occult 179

Conclusion 209

Notes 225

References 262

Index 283

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