The White Man's Guilty Burden

By Wrong, Michela | New Statesman (1996), June 12, 2006 | Go to article overview
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The White Man's Guilty Burden

Wrong, Michela, New Statesman (1996)

I recently attended an event that reminded me of a puzzling African conundrum. An academic who has researched how the British colonial authorities bamboozled the Maasai tribespeople into surrendering most of their ancestral land was presenting her book to a packed hall in Nairobi. Outlining the manoeuvres which ensured that the Maasai were first penned into two reserves and then had even that modest allotment whittled away, Lotte Hughes was both witty and sarcastic. She seemed braced for a challenge from the white people present, who accounted for about a third of the audience, but they just looked glum.


What intrigued me was not the number who had turned out to hear this retroactive denunciation of their forefathers. It was that, yet again, the person launching the broadside was as white as the officials being criticised.

Despite Gordon Brown's defiant declaration on the topic of colonialism ("it's time to stop apologising"), the trend is running against him. Accessible, readable and carefully researched works portraying Africa's colonial administrations in the most appalling light are rolling off the presses, breathing life into subjects hitherto confined to the academic sector. And, bizarrely, it is we whites who are giving dead whites the hardest time.

In the past couple of years there have been two shocking books about Britain's crushing of the Mau Mau movement: Histories of the Hanged by David Anderson and Britain's Gulag by Caroline Elkins. Belgium's terrible record in the Congo was exposed in Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost and Neal Ascherson's reissued The King Incorporated. My own work forms part of the syndrome: in my book on Eritrea, published last year, both the Italians and the British get a well-deserved hammering.

What all these writers have in common is their skin colour. We are white westerners, which means that however we may empathise, however vicariously angry we may grow as we pore over old documents, ours remains an essentially intellectual interest. It wasn't our ancestors who found their paths barred by prejudice, their lives shaped by laws and taxes devised by Africa's uninvited guests. We weren't the ones who grew up hearing stories of injustice at our grandparents' knees. We didn't run our fingers over scars left by the chicotte and the rungu. So why aren't young Africans writers, who did hear those stories, whose families experienced those privations at first hand, playing a more prominent role in penning these fresh histories?

It is not, I am convinced, because the western academic or publishing establishment is weighted against them. If any thing, the opposite is true. Nowadays, the heads of foundations, institutes and publishing houses are in frantic search of the talented African of humble origins and strong opinions who has the potential to become the bright young thing of tomorrow.

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