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Pulitzer adds heft to her story of `gulag' in Africa

April 21, 2006|Lauren Sandler | Special to The Times

When the Pulitzer Prizes were awarded in New York this week, a Swahili expression joined the messages of congratulations filling the inbox of Caroline Elkins, the winner for general nonfiction for "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya." Furaha kabisa, meaning "completely happy," people wrote Elkins from Kenya's villages and its halls of government.

"For someone who works on the part of the world people tend to ignore, it's a moment of triumph," Elkins said from her office in Harvard's history department, where books on Africa line a wall from floor to ceiling and Kenyan baskets cluster on the floor. But for Elkins and the people whose story she tells in her book, the Pulitzer is a vindication as well as an honor. Though the book was released in Kenya, booksellers were terrified to stock it. Elkins traveled to Nairobi on her own dime to plead with them to carry it, and it was months before Kenyans could buy the book on the open market.

Today, a year later, the tension around the book has hardly lessened. On talk radio and in newspapers people continue to lambaste "Imperial Reckoning" for revealing a history many people still contend never happened.

Elkins' book jumps into the controversial terrain of Kenya in the 1950s. Britain had just lost India to its nationalist movement, and Kenya was the remaining jewel in the imperial crown. White settlers appropriated the country's fertile land from prosperous Kikuyu farmers, forcing them onto tiny reserves or reducing them to squatters on their own land.

What ensued quickly became synonymous with savagery: the Mau Mau rebellion. The story of the "Kenya Emergency," as the British call it, had long been understood as a civilizing mission against brutal natives. Yet Elkins, now 36, found a very different story when she began to research what she thought would be Britain's success story. She discovered what she calls a gulag that was as remarkable for its viciousness as for its subsequent cover-up.

When Elkins was a senior at Princeton, writing her thesis on women in Kenya's detention camps, she was stunned to find the lack of scholarship on the topic. After graduation, she became an investment banker for several years to fund her graduate studies; she still prefers crisp white shirts and navy blue blazers, even in the heat of Kenya. In 1994 she enrolled at Harvard's graduate school, then traveled to London archives, where documents told what she calls a "seductive story" about Britain's mission in Kenya. But many files were missing from the archives. The book asserts that the British burned them in bonfires before retreating from Kenya. Puzzled by these gaps, Elkins went to Kenya, where she spent the better part of a decade in mud huts and on gritty streets, listening to survivors' stories of the camps she set out to understand.

While the Mau Mau insurgency was alarming for its gruesome violence, native hands killed only 32 colonialists, according to the book. Meanwhile, in the camps where the Brits sent the Kikuyu who banded together to win back their freedom, up to 100,000 died, Elkins claims. Elkins heard stories of rape by gangs of men using every imaginable object, children's body parts paraded around the camps on spears, and regular castration.

One chapter begins with the relentless beating of a man with blood oozing from his mouth and nose whose head had been crammed for hours into a bucket of his own urine and feces, a practice the camp authorities called "bucket fatigue." One settler remembers his own interrogation practices in these words: "By the time I cut his [testicles] off he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket. Too bad, he died before we got much out of him." The British, however, had portrayed these camps as schools for home economics and infrastructure-building -- the culmination of Britain's centuries of humane colonialism.

When Elkins' book launched in Kenya under the title "Britain's Gulag" last year, she expected it to validate the survivors who had shared their traumatic history with her. But instead, booksellers pulled the book from their shelves in fear. An obscure British colonial law remains in place in Kenya that finds sellers themselves responsible for libel in the books they sell. Libel in Kenya, Elkins said, is determined by the will of high-ranking Kenyans, some of whom were British collaborators.

"It's like the wild West there," Elkins said. "People still disappear in the night." One significant player in Kenya stoked a particular fear in the heart of merchants, Elkins said: a man known by the nickname "Three Sacks," for all the bags he could fill with the testicles he cut off during the Insurgency; it's this man who was beating the man with "bucket fatigue." He appears in only a few sentences in the book, but people in Kenya have been sued for less.

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