In my column last week, I made a preliminary assessment of a recently published book, The Big Conservation Lie, written by journalist John Mbaria and ecologist Dr Mordecai Ogada.
My conclusion was that this book revealed the authors’ devotion to a “cult of antiquity” in its references to pre-colonial Kenya, and to the lives that our ancestors lived before the coming of the British.
This phrase is taken from the book Blood and Soil by Ben Kiernan, a historian who explains that these cults of antiquity involve “outlooks and obsessions, often harmless in themselves yet, invidiously related, that have long supplied lethal ideological ammunition to projects of violent militarism and territorial expansion. They include…idealist cults of ancient glory or pristine purity… and varied historical forms of agrarian romanticism and other obsessions with land use…it usually implies arresting a perceived decline, restoring a lost utopia, or inscribing a purportedly ancient model on someone else’s land.”
As if to deliberately confirm the truth of Prof Kiernan’s analysis, the authors of ‘The Big Conservation Lie’ dedicated their book “To our Ancestors, who lived with, used, and conserved our biodiversity without being paid crumbs to do so. To those of us who struggle today to wrest this most precious resource from the grip of an avaricious elite.”
And why, you may wonder, is it necessary that anyone should have to “struggle today to wrest this most precious resource from the grip of an avaricious elite”? Why not present wildlife and environmental policy in Kenya as simply a clash between divergent views on what would be the best approach?
The explanation is deeply grounded in the unapologetic racism directed towards the White Kenyan minority community that permeates almost every paragraph of the book. Such as, for example: “The wildlife conservation narrative in Kenya, as well as much of Africa, is thoroughly intertwined with colonialism, virulent racism, deliberate exclusion of the natives, veiled bribery, unsurpassed deceit...”
Now it’s true enough that colonisation, wherever it has occurred, has involved a violent grabbing of land and other resources. And such grabbing has generally been launched by those who had superior technology, especially modern guns and artillery, against those who were still living what we might call “a pre-modern existence”, without the benefits of modern medicine, education or technology.
And yet, it is an observable fact that it is precisely those Kenyan communities that moved swiftly to learn from the colonisers (most notably the Kikuyu) who have fared well in the post-Independence decades. This is despite the fact that they were often the most brutally suppressed by the colonial system.
And it is likewise obvious that three of the recognised pillars of the modern Kenyan economy — tea, coffee and horticultural cash crops grown for profit — did not exist before we were colonised. The modern agriculture-based economy was a gift (however unintended) of the colonial era.
On the other hand, it is those who have clung to their old ways (in particular the nomadic communities of Northern Kenya) who live in comparative hardship; are the most marginalised economically; and are the most prone to violence in pursuit of their communal interests, real or imagined.
None of this prevents the writers from painting pre-colonial Kenya as a veritable Garden of Eden, which was destroyed through its contact with European colonialism.
In their view, we are even now being crushed by “the most far-reaching and noticeable legacies of colonialism and neo-colonialism in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa…the deliberate, systematic, multipronged, and malicious destruction of the African soul, its culture, way of life, and resources.”
Reading through this book, the man who most clearly comes to mind is the current American President, Donald Trump. Dr Ogada and Mbaria may not refer to the white Kenyan racial minority as “illegal immigrants” but they certainly paint that community in precisely those colours — as “foreigners” who have conspired to rob “real Kenyans” of their birthright.
Their book was not written, primarily, to explain the ins and outs of Kenyan wildlife and environmental conservation policy. Its real objective is to normalise potentially violent racial resentments, in much the same way that the o Trump presidency has done in the US.