Academics for human rights

If we are unwilling to face our past, confront what is wrong in the present, the future will not be kind to any of us

Muhammad Hamid Zaman July 16, 2019
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of biomedical engineering, international health and medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

At a bookshop in central Nairobi, not far from where I was staying, I was browsing books about Africa. A title caught my eye Britain’s Gulag. I had read Anne Applebaum’s remarkable book on the Soviet Gulag, but did not know what was the link with Kenya? I bought the book, and came back to my hotel.

The author, Caroline Elkins, was a graduate student in history at Harvard when she started working on Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya. Post the second World War, the Mau Mau uprising among the Kikuyu, to demand a right to their ancestral land, had briefly captured the attention of the world. The uprising was met with fierce force by the British, in the form of active guerilla war in the forests and a series of detention camps for the Kikuyu people. These were concentration camps under the British watch, but disguised as a benevolent mission to civilise the Kikuyu — to make them better citizens. As Dr Elkins writes, “Behind the barbed wire, colonial officials were reportedly giving detainees civics courses and home-craft classes; they were teaching the insurgents how to become good citizens.” Unfortunately, this rhetoric is all too familiar — even in 2019 — when people are put in “re-education” camps to make them model citizens.

During the course of her research, Dr Elkins found that on its way out in 1963, the British government in Kenya intentionally destroyed the archives and documents about these concentration camps in massive bonfires. Carefully sifting through pieces of documents, oral history records, and her own interviews, Dr Elkins systematically showed that the British concentration camps had nearly 1.5 million Kikuyu people, many of whom died due to exhaustion, disease, famine or were outright killed. Dr Elkins’ work got her a Pulitzer prize, but more importantly in 2009 she helped the survivors of the Mau Mau detention camp successfully sue the British colonial government. Her book served as the basis for the lawsuit and she served as the expert witness. The British government issued an official apology and a cash payment (of twenty million pounds — though one wonders if that is really a fine or just a token).

Not far from the bookstore where I got the book, at Uhuru Park, stands a monument, unveiled in 2015 to remind the visitors of how in the dying days of the British empire, unimaginable horrors were unleashed.

It would be wrong to assume that those were the problems of the past. We continue to live in a world where governments, in the name of creating better citizens, have created modern concentration camps. The words of Dr Elkins about the government policy that “only by detaining nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million people and physically and psychologically atomising its men, women and children could colonial authority be restored and the civilizing mission reinstated” should give us chills. This is not about 1950s — this is happening in 2019.

The book is both remarkably brilliant and utterly tragic. But it is a reminder that our collective human development requires coming to terms with our past. Academics have a role to play here, to uncover truths, especially when they are uncomfortable. In particular, the book is a reminder of how important humanities and social sciences are to create a society where historic injustices could be corrected — or at least steps could be taken in that direction.

But academics who are thrown under the bus by weak institutions are unlikely to make much headway. Institutional leadership has a responsibility to empower and protect academics, particularly when they ask questions whose answers we may not like. This requires real commitment to truth, no matter how inconvenient it may be.

If we are unwilling to face our past, and confront what is wrong in the present, the future will not be kind to any of us.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2019.

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