Do Africans Have a Monopoly on Their Continent’s History?

I am an avid collector of books – a budding bibliophile if you may. My goal is build a collection of books – rare and current – on as broad a range of genres and subjects as possible. However, my focus will be, in order of import, books on Kenyan, African, African-American history and historical figures. And ideally, a fair share of these books will be by Kenyan, African, and African-American writers and historians.

During a recent exchange on a Facebook page dedicated to the socio-political and cultural history of East Africa, someone posed an interesting but common question. In response to a comment I made citing two books on Idi Amin – The Most Evil Men and Women in History by Miranda Twiss and The World’s Most Evil People: The Epitome of Evil by Rodney Castleden, someone asked me whether I had “investigated the authors of the 2 books and their sources….(and if) they ever live in Uganda?” My response?

Great point. Both authors are British and thus far, I cannot tell whether they’ve lived in Uganda.

As a follow-up to the question and to my inability to respond affirmatively to the question, I researched the two authors and aside from the following information, sought to expand the question beyond the two western writers and their books on Idi Amin.

As far as I can tell, Ms. Twiss, a self-described “Londoner” has degrees from the University of London and Goldsmiths’ College and an MA in Historical Research from Birkbeck. She has also written for Evening Standard, the Sunday Times, and Vogue. Her section on Idi Amin cites four books including Phares Mutibwa’s Uganda Since Independence. The other three authors she cites are Martin, Jamison (Idi Amin: an annotated bibliography, Greenwood, London, 1992); J. H. Listowed (Amin, IUP Books, Dublin, 1973); and David Martin (General Amin, Faber, London, 1974).

The website goodreads.com lists Rodney Castleden as a member since 2008 who specializes in History, Geography, and Archeology. The site indicates that he has “68 distinct works” of which “The World’s Most Evil” is one. Castleden does not provide any references on any of the men and women he refers to a the “world’s most evil.” However, one can scroll through the internet and find material from within and outside Uganda written by Ugandans and non-Ugandans alike that dovetail with his “evil” characterization of Idi Amin. One tidbit he reveals that I would like to see corroborated is the claim that while British Foreign Secretary between 1977-70, David Owen “proposed that General Amin should be assassinated in order to bring the bloodshed to an end” – a proposal that was turned down. I would be curious to read up on Who proposed the assassination of a foreign leader; Who turned down” the proposal, and Why they turned it down given that some proposals actually materialized.

The preceding preamble is to credentialize the two authors on a public African personality who is caricatured as the prototypical African “Big Man” – mostly by the western media/press. The preamble also seeks to contextualize if not answer the question about the sources of the two authors and whether they have traveled to Uganda – presumably “genchi genbutsu,” i.e., “go and see” their subject Idi Amin – in his natural element.

The set-up also seeks to answer the following questions: Do Africans have a monopoly on their continent’s history do non-African writers of Africa’s history lack the credibility writing about the continent’s past?

My take:

Given the ease and frequency with which historians and writers, particularly western ones, have papered over or lied about the continent’s past and about the atrocities committed by their respective countries (Belgium, France, UK, Portugal, Germany, etc.), Africans SHOULD play a more prominent role in writing about her past. This is not to say that these African historians and authors are innately more credible and trustworthy than their non-African counterparts when opining about the continent’s past. However, the implicit bias, romanticization, and outright bigoted and racist depiction of the continent and its people (by the latter) is not only too tempting, it is very real.

Also real is the sycophancy and fawning over the continent’s many “presidents-for-life” by certified historians as illustrated by Peter Kagwanja’s vacuous “Uhuru Kenyatta: A Legacy of Democracy and Development“. Fortunately, the 2018 release of the book by the Africa Policy Institute, effectively a collection of speeches by Kenya’s fourth president, coincided with a cavalcade of negative incidents and scandals that run counter to the title’s glowing characterization of its main subject.

On the other hand, a list of non-African historians and writers have put out an impressive list of well-researched and impartial historical books on the continent that only the most jaded Afro-centrist can disregard. Charles Hornsby (“Kenya: A History Since Independence“), Daniel Branch (“Kenya: Between Hope and Despair 1963-2011“), Nic Cheeseman (“The Oxford Handbook on Kenyan Politics“) and Caroline Elkins (“Imperial Reckoning” and “Britain’s Gulag“) are some titles on Kenya by non-Africans. These titles rank up there in balance and accuracy with the works of Gideon Were (“East Africa through a Thousand Years“), B.A. Ogot & W.R. Ochieng (“Decolonization & Independence in Kenya: 1940-93“).

Leave a comment

Filed under Kenya

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s