Crossing historical paths with Tom Askwith in Kenya

As a historian, you hope for that moment when your path through the archives will intersect with your subject in some meaningful way. You want to find a place, an experience, a sense of understanding that helps bring the past more fully to life. When those connections to the past catch us off guard, when they are less expected, less sought after, however, they should give us pause. Questions regarding how a particular place came into being and what circumstances allowed it to take that form have drawn me back to our time in Africa last summer. 

 After our stay in Nairobi, we went on safari in Masai Mara. Here are a few pictures taken by  Stephen DeVries .

After our stay in Nairobi, we went on safari in Masai Mara. Here are a few pictures taken by Stephen DeVries.

I recently read Caroline Elkins' Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Britain's Empire in Kenyawhich relates the extremely violent behavior of the British in Kenya, particularly the white settlers, as their position of dominance in the country declined following World War II. I traveled to Kenya for the first time last August. It is my husband's favorite destination, and we made a point of going there together soon after we were married. When we arrived in Nairobi, Stephen's friends arranged for us to stay in the United Kenya Club — and here is where my path intersected with the events that Elkins describes. 

The United Kenya Club was founded by Tom Askwith, who established the social club complete with a library, hotel, restaurant, and bar in hopes of creating Anglo-Kenyan partnerships that crossed racial boundaries. Askwith established the club in 1948 and served as its first president. His vision for interracial partnership, however, failed to abate the violence perpetrated against the Kikuyu of Kenya's Central Province. Worse still, his belief that detention camps might be used for the re-education of the imprisoned and tortured Kikuyu was deployed by the government as a public relations front for their brutal tactics. Why were these supposed rebels being detained in prison camps without any formal charge? Well, because they had to be trained in how to be properly civilized, and freed of their "savage" ways — or so the logic went. While Askwith did not have a direct hand in the violence, the camps remained sites of ongoing persecution while the government paid lip service to Askwith's hopes a more peaceful, socially cohesive future. 

When I read Askwith's name in Britain's Gulag something came full circle for me. The United Kenya Club remains a reserve for today's political elite in Kenya. While it was a hospitable and comfortable place to stay, something about it also felt dated or perhaps out place to me. When I first saw Askwith's name at the top of its list of presidents last August, I knew it had colonial roots, but I didn't understand what they might be. Even after learning more about Askwith's career in Kenya, the tension didn't exactly resolve. Here was a man who did not directly participate in the torture of the Kikuyu, yet he knew about it and didn't mount any significant opposition. Perhaps he hoped that it was a means to an end in achieving his vision for interracial harmony. Now his club remains, but is that because of or in spite of him? 

Retrospectively, the United Kenya Club gained the kind of meaning I might have searched for in the archives, yet on different terms. I was a tourist in Kenya, privileged to get to stay in this club because of my husband's friendships. What does it mean that I could access this place in 2013, as an American tourist married to someone who has done extensive nonprofit work in the country? What does it mean that the club remains the reserve of an elite, although now one predominantly African? And what of that founding message of interracial harmony, which lost its urgency as most of the white settlers in Kenya left the country decades ago, often making homes in South Africa? I don't have ready answers to these questions. Perhaps the most significant point is the ongoing existence and use of this building in profoundly altered circumstances. Does it memorialize Askwith as an awkward testimony to his own incomplete vision for breaking down social barriers? Did in succeed in spite of the paternalism of his vision? 

It is not necessarily profound that my feet crossed paths with Askwith some 50 or 60 years removed. Everyday in Birmingham I walk the same sidewalks as the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. I do not pretend to access the experiences of the past through these common paths. Yet those former footprints shaped the places we inhabit today in uneven, complex, and sometimes confusing ways. Can we really understand the places we inhabit today if we don’t know how they came into being?