My scanning of old negatives from Kenya and Zambia days in the 1990s is an on-going task – both tedious and oddly compulsive. Sometimes I hit the batch scan button so I can hoover or iron at the same time. Once in a blue moon I look up from such a task to find that a particularly striking image has materialized on the screen – something I had forgotten entirely. To see it again is almost shocking. This was such a photograph. In some ways I wish I had not taken it.
The location is the Outspan Hotel in Nyeri, Kenya, and the subject, a performer, dressed in the manner of a Kikuyu medicine man or mundu mugo circa 1900 when European ethnographers and missionaries began to take photographs of Kenya’s peoples. The Outspan itself is also a colonial construct, built by Major Eric Sherbrooke Walker in 1928. He later built Treetops, a small game-viewing lodge a few kilometres away in what is now the Aberdares National Park. In the beginning this truly was a tree house, complete with a platform overlooking a waterhole. It was here, in 1952, that a safari-ing Elizabeth Windsor learned that her father, George VI, was dead and she was now Queen Elizabeth II. Not long after this, freedom fighters in the predominantly Kikuyu-led Land and Freedom Army (generally referred to as Mau Mau) burned Treetops down. Today its successor is an imposing affair, several storeys high, but still looking out on the waterhole where game comes to drink at dawn and dusk.
The two hotels are on the standard tour bus itinerary. Visitors are bussed up from Nairobi to the Outspan for lunch, and in the afternoon they transfer to Treetops. For their entertainment in between there are performances at the traditional Kikuyu village in the Outspan’s garden. The intention is that the visitors will learn something about the human locals before they spend a sleepless night watching out for elephant and leopard at Treetops’ floodlit waterhole.
For most of the day, then, the village is shut, hidden behind a bamboo screen. It comprises a couple of thatched round houses, a granary and a blacksmith’s workshop. The place only bursts into life after lunch when a troupe of young dancers, wearing the polite and thus fully clothed version of traditional undress, put on a brief but lively song and dance show. As one of YouTube’s videos of this show indicates, some of the audience completely misunderstand what they are seeing and think the performers are real villagers who actually live in the thatched round houses. In consequence, they marvel at the dancers’ good English, despite the fact that English is Kenya’s official language.
Context, as they say, is everything, and it is perhaps not surprising that such confusions arise. What is real and what is not? What is authentic and what is concocted from cherry-picked elements of a little remembered past? Even born and bred Kenyans may ask this question of the bizarre circumstances that often arise in a country where multi-cultural idioms too often collide.
After the singing and dancing, visitors may look around the village houses while the young performers try various ways to part them from their cash. The inevitable curios appear. I say, No thank you. I live in Nairobi. A young man grins and suggests that I might like to give them money for beer. A girl hushes him. I begin to suspect that some of them are already a little high. I say kwa heri and move away.
And it’s then that I see the old man, perched on his elders’ stool. At his feet, on a goatskin, are the trappings that suggest the medicine man’s profession. I greet him in the customary way: Hello mzee, how are you? But he does not respond, either to my words or to my presence. This is quite extraordinary behaviour for a Kenyan. The exchange of common courtesies at every meeting – whether with friends or strangers – is de rigeur. At first I conclude that he doesn’t speak Ki-Swahili, but only Kikuyu. Then I wonder if this is all part of his role play. Medicine men and women were august individuals who once wielded great sacred and psychic authority; they would be above casual chitchat with the likes of me. Finally it occurs to me that he might once have been a real medicine man, but can no longer practise his trade.
Then I do the tourist thing and take that photograph.
So why does it still worry me all these years on? Why do I find the Kikuyu Village experience, beyond its light entertainment value, so distasteful?
In some ways the whole thing is well meant, and whatever tourist resort you go to in Kenya there is likely to be ‘the traditional dancing slot’ at some point, usually between the hot buffet lunch and the game drive. Nationally too, much store is set by remembering the old songs and dances, and every afternoon on Kenyan television there would be performances by school children around the country. After all, songs and dances are, like the story-telling tradition, a strong part of any culture’s identity. But then do they work outside the context that gave rise to them? Do they still have intrinsic meaning beyond the exotic outward show for tourists’ delectation?
Perhaps I am only offended by my impulse to want to photograph everything – look, snap, move on; another form of plunder? Perhaps that old man’s withdrawn, sad look more than pricks my conscience. But then perhaps he also feels ashamed of what he does to earn a few bob every day? Might not pretending to be medicine man bring its own form of psychic retribution?
I suppose it comes down to respect. This man looks old enough to remember the last vestiges of his people’s ‘elder days’ before colonial rule finally changed everything. He probably grew up in a house like the ones in the Outspan village. Most likely he would have been born on a Native Reserve, euphemistically referred to as African Land Units. These were demarcated in the early 1900s by the British colonial administration, ostensibly to protect native territories from encroachment by future European settlement. This was especially necessary for the Kikuyu of Central Province. They occupied prime land in the cool highlands that were thought the ideal place to settle by the white pioneers who lived in mortal fear of the sun’s actinic rays and thus had to wear flannel layered spine pads and solar helmets to protect themselves.
Even so, the Kikuyu lost out. When the reserves were being surveyed, the population had been decimated from small pox and famine, and the survivors had fled to relatives in the north. The unoccupied lands quickly returned to bush, and so were deemed virgin territory by the land surveyors. When southern Kikuyu families at last returned to their homesteads they found their land taken by British would-be coffee farmers. This was one of the issues that fuelled the 1952 uprising, this after King George had failed to deliver the justice that Kikuyu elders thought their heartfelt letters to him would surely yield.
Now I suppose this piece is timely for two important events. The first is that the sixty year reign of the British sovereign who became queen while she was in Kenya is now being celebrated. The other, and to me, more important news is that the British Government has just apologised to the Kikuyu victims of the 1950s colonial detention camps, with each of the 5,000 complainants receiving around £2,000 in compensation for torture and mutilation. Most were imprisoned without trial.
And so perhaps finally what this portrait of the old medicine man is telling me is, that all too often we rich, technologized northerners are too ready to judge by appearances, the outward trappings of costume and regalia, and thus come to all the wrong conclusions. We have done this since we arrived on the African continent. I do not know this mzee’s true story, and in a way that seems typical of much of the industrial world’s relationship with the people of the Africa. We tell our own stories in which they feature, but we rarely want to know what really happened. Perhaps it’s time we asked. We might learn something to our advantage.
copyright 2013 Tish Farrell