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January 21, 2019

The danger of stigmatising minority groups

A KWS ranger drives out cattle from a ranch in Laikipia on March 10, 2016. / Jack Owuor
A KWS ranger drives out cattle from a ranch in Laikipia on March 10, 2016. / Jack Owuor

The long wait for the naming of the opposition NASA presidential candidate is finally over. So, surely, we can now turn from the obsessive focus on the horse race aspect of the August election, and pay our attention to other significant developments.

I have in mind the casual disregard for the property rights of Kenya’s White minority community. This was most recently revealed in the mass invasions of their ranches in Laikipia county, and the surrounding areas, mostly — but not entirely — by desperate herdsmen seeking pasture for their starving livestock.

And a discussion on whether the stigmatisation of racial minorities is now being normalised in this country is particularly important in light of a recently published book, which has thus far received surprisingly favourable reviews. This is The Big Conservation Lie by journalist John Mbaria and ecologist Dr Mordecai Ogada.

In regard to this book, this must be said from the outset: Racism does not get any plainer than this.

Although I have thus far mostly read the reviews of this book, and only halfway through my personal copy, I am already sufficiently horrified to feel obliged to get an early start on criticising it.

In doing so, I would start by speculating that the two authors have obviously not heard of Hassan Ngeze, a Rwandan journalist now in the 18th year of his 35-year sentence in Mali.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found him guilty, not so much of murdering anyone with his own hands, but rather of helping create the toxic political and psychological environment within which murder was normalised.

Through his anti-Tutsi propaganda spread in the preceding years in his ‘Kangura’ newspaper, he effectively helped to lay the foundation for the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.

Since 2008, I have found it useful to remember Ngeze. Such recollection is an effective immunisation against writing anything that might — even in the remotest way — be interpreted as justifying the malicious stereotyping and subsequent stigmatisation of any Kenyan community.

And I would say that Ngeze is an example that all African journalists and writers must consistently bear in mind when writing about politically powerless minority communities, be they racial or tribal minorities.

For any writing that serves to normalise the stigmatisation of such communities may subsequently be found to have paved the way for some form of violent dispossession directed at those minorities.

In the period prior to the 2007 General Election, reference was routinely made by politicians in the North Rift to the Kikuyu regional minority settled in that neighbourhood as “madoadoa” (unwanted spots) in their midst. These remarks carried the implicit suggestion that some form of “cleansing” to restore the Rift Valley to a more pristine form, was long overdue. And we all know what followed.

If you think it is in any way an exaggeration to compare Mbaria and Ogada’s book with the toxic propaganda that preceded Kenya’s infamous post-election violence, consider this paragraph from one of the reviews of this book published in a local daily: “The greatest strength of the book is its energetic polemic against mainstream conservationists. They are portrayed as a club of dishonest White people with a racist agenda against the interests of the local communities. Their driving motivation, according to the book, is nothing but greed for donor funding. They come through as villains with no redeeming qualities.”

Who will deny that a similar characterisation of “a certain Kenyan community” as “villains with no redeeming qualities” is more or less what we heard repeatedly in 2007?

And that is not all. As the book reviewer also mentions, “The authors run the risk of appearing to create ecologically noble savages in pre-colonial Africa, people who lived in perfect harmony with nature.”

Next week, I will go into why this perspective places the two authors firmly inside what the historian Ben Kiernan, in his book, Blood and Soil, defined as “Cults of antiquity that encourage a sense of victimisation at perceived historical loss, and even justify restitution by conquest of those perceived to be misusing lands to which they have inadequate claim”.

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