What you need to know:
- Owuor once talked of how she one day walked into the National Museum and was saddened to overhear a guide informing a visitor how Kenya would not have been free had his community not fought valiantly against the British.
- The guide, in effect, was erasing the narrative and contribution of all other ethnic groups.
I have always been aware of the history of a South African war from 1899 to 1902 commonly known as the Second Anglo-Boer War. What I had known about it from historians — mostly of Afrikaner descent, had been how, many years before the Second World War and Hitler, the British had held many Afrikaner women, children and men in concentration camps, resulting in the loss of many lives. Over 27,000 Afrikaner lives, mostly children, were lost during this war due to bad living conditions and infectious diseases caused by overcrowded conditions.
Until recently, many other South Africans and I believed it to have been what it claimed to be — a war of the English and the Afrikaners on South African soil. Indeed, I was in the middle of doing research for a manuscript I was keen on writing on the Afrikaners coming to Kenya and getting lengthy leases from the British as compensation for their ill-gotten but destroyed lands in the space that is now known as Eldoret until my research led me elsewhere. It turned out that there was more to the Anglo-Boer War than had been commonly known. So much more that now the war is referred to as the Second South African War because there was more participation and more deaths in concentration camps of South African blacks than many people like me had previously known.
I write about this and think of it because I am currently in Mangaung, home of the museum for this particular war. Yesterday I visited the said museum, and being there reminded me of two Kenyan writers who have discussed somewhat similar experiences on the history or discounting of other histories of Kenya — Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Kiprop Kimutai.
Owuor once talked of how she one day walked into the National Museum and was saddened to overhear a guide informing a visitor how Kenya would not have been free had his community not fought valiantly against the British. The guide, in effect, was erasing the narrative and contribution of all other ethnic groups. More recently, Kimutai, in a conversation was speaking of what Achebe (yes. Achebe) called the danger of a single story. I then asked him to refer me to the books that told of his people’s history whether in fiction or non-fiction and he sadly could not point me to them. “Don’t you think you should write about it then, if you feel so strongly about it?” I nudged him.
I have stated before in this column that no-one should purport to tell a writer what or when to write. If a writer, however, feels a story is urgent enough to be told, it is the responsibility of that writer to tell it. There are those who will question just how this can be done in fiction. Those who question are probably the same people who claim not to read fiction because they are serious people, only read non-fiction and find fiction — which they last read in English class in high school — as too frivolous. These same people forget that we know about the miserly lives of children forced to be chimney sweeps and the existence of workhouses in 19th Century England less because of any non-fiction that was written than because of the social realism fiction that Charles Dickens wrote in the same way that Emile Zola gives us insights into the rise of the industrial revolution in France.
Most recently, Moroccan author Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account gave insight into the African slaves’ place in the history of the Spanish’ entrance to the Americas. Had our guide at the National Museum bothered to read Owuor’s Dust, he may not have been so quick to give the credit of the history of a whole nation to one community.
It is with this in mind that while I am still interested in writing a fictionalised manuscript of the Krugers who gave Eldoret the matatu rank commonly known as kapKruger, from a historical fiction perspective, I started wondering about some of those black people who may have experienced the concentration camps of the Second South African War. I have no idea what will happen to Ouma Paulina as I continue writing the manuscript but somehow, her story seemed more urgent and I am so far enjoying feeling her unravel in my mind and hopefully on my laptop in the next few months after I clear my calendar to write.
Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya