Aidan Hartley’s Africa
Netta Kornberg | November 18th, 2013


In journalist Aidan Hartley’s Africa, the progress of the continent is measured by its hospitability to white people and animals. Hartley was a war correspondent turned Wild Life columnist for The (British) Spectator magazine. A white Kenyan, he was born in 1965 and raised in East Africa for a time before moving to England for about a decade. He returned to Kenya as a Reuters war journalist, apparently hoping that by finding “a war that I could call my own,” he would find a place he belonged.

It at first seems an odd jump from war to wildlife writing, but the same fundamental view of Africa informs both types of commentary. For Hartley, they are both ways to focus on the corruption, greed, mismanagement and savagery of post-colonial states and their failure to take care of their most vulnerable citizens: white people and animals, bound together by their contemporary struggle to survive in the place they belong and are needed.

Take, for example, Hartley’s contribution to the hordes of articles about South Africa prompted by the 2010 World Cup, “South Africa World Cup 2010… and the shooting’s already started,” which he wrote for the Daily Mail. In it he describes the danger white farmers face in post-apartheid SA and the measures to which they must go to protect themselves. The article’s terse tone is not matched by the numbers Hartley himself provides: 2500 white farmers killed since 1994; 61% of farm attacks target whites. But the article insists that these deaths are of the utmost importance:

Most victims are poor blacks in South Africa’s cities: reported deaths last year totalled more than 18,000.

But among the casualties of the violence are white farmers, whose counterparts in Zimbabwe are singled out for international press coverage; here in the ‘rainbow nation’ their murders, remarkable for their particular savagery, go largely unreported.

The deaths of white farmers merits reporting and analysis, but there is no sense of proportion in Hartley’s writing. He explains that white farmers are symbols of past oppression, but whitewashes failures of post-apartheid land reform and how land is still the site of struggle. His articles are overwhelmed by the need to show that, actually, white people are the victims of Africa’s history.

South Africa is not Hartley’s usual stomping ground. Kenya gets that honour, including its own version of the same narrative Hartley put forward about white SA farmers. In What future for Kenya’s white tribe?, he uses the trial of Tom Cholmondeley, a man convicted of killing a poacher on his property, to start outlining the various attacks on Hartley’s own farm and describe how Kenya’s 100 white-owned farms are the strength of Kenya’s economy. Reading it, you can vaguely wonder at the relationship between racial and national identities; the limits of historical responsibilities; the structure of rural farm life. These are all valid questions peripherally evoked by Hartley, and all silenced by the same persistent stance: white victimhood.

The timing of this is of course no coincidence. Hartley’s version of Africa, and Kenya specifically, is highly appealing at a time when the UK government has just had to pay out compensation to thousands of elderly Kenyans for brutalizing them in the 1950s. Chauvinist publications like The Spectator and the Daily Mail, as well as the Daily Telegraph, are the main organs of empire nostalgia, though basic assumptions about the virtues of Britain’s imperial history remain ingrained across the mainstream political spectrum, still defining the core of any “common sense” understanding of British history and identity and continually expressed by means of endless jingoistic celebrations of the British army. The atrocities committed by the British in Kenya in the 1950s have been utterly laid bare — little wonder that Hartley’s consoling myths are now so welcome as a soothing distraction.

No victimhood is greatest in Hartley’s work, however, than that of animals. In the last decade, Africa’s (most often Kenya’s) wildlife has been Hartley’s main concern. He describes an elephant’s experience of being poached, various conservation efforts and his own experience with poachers while living on his farm in Kenya.

In wildlife he finds the convergence of corrupt officials, unfeeling natives and greedy foreigners, namely the Chinese. Hartley’s articles demonstrate the revived red scare: what will happen if China supplants the West as Africa’s patron? One article, titled Will China kill all Africa’s elephants? accuses the Chinese of “…eating Africa.” It’s dogs, tortoises, and donkeys. “China is ripping out Africa’s timber, the sandalwood, rhino horn, the fish, the seahorses, the sea slugs. Now Asia’s tigers are almost gone, Africa’s big cats are next: their claws and their vital organs being turned into medicines.”

Underlying Hartley’s compassion for wildlife, his fear of China and his concern for white farmers is a crisis of belonging. Hartley rarely disguises that he is seeking to carve a place for himself in the land of his birth. Conservation is why he is needed there; China (if it does, indeed, kill all Africa’s elephants) would make him redundant (and makes him even more necessary now); and white farmers are his brethren, locked in the same battles as he for all things good in Africa.

A sense of “morbid nostalgia” informs Hartley’s commitment to Africa as he understands it, paired with his martyr-journalist persona in which he constantly faces the limitations that Africa puts to him as a forward-thinking reporter and farmer. All things good in Africa rarely includes black Africans in Hartley’s articles, as they figure into his work most often as killers: war-mongers, poachers, politicians. This is what wild life writing and war journalism on Africa has in common: the savage native and its noble targets, be they elephants or white people.

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Netta Kornberg

Netta Kornberg is an editor, researcher, writer and programs coordinator, currently based in Toronto. She recently completed an MPhil in African Studies at the University of Cambridge, focusing on literature.

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7 thoughts on “Aidan Hartley’s Africa

  1. Whites need to come to understand that their time is up. I don’t care if they were born in Africa colonization brought them to the continent. Africa is not their home and it does not belong to them. They honestly need to move on and worry about Europe.

    • I’m not going to argue with the perspective on Hartley, but I do want to say that not all whites are necessarily like him. You are saying “Africa is not their (the whites) home.” We are in a global world, and people are moving everywhere. That’s like a white person saying that all blacks, asians, latinos etc should all go back to their home countries.. If a white person said that, it would be considered racist. As it should. Which is why I I think that comment is very racist.

      I do also think it’s sad that a lot of whites live in a parallel Africa. Unfortunately, a lot of people who don’t have much in their home countries, come here to live large, because they find they have a certain prestige, or financial ability that they did not have at home. Or they are raised in it. One of the most startling and sad statements I’ve heard was when a friend of mine told me “You know, I’ve lived next to a hostel for years, and most people don’t like black people like you do.” That being said, I also know plenty of wealthy black Africans that also take part in this parallel Africa, where they seem to be living the good life, while fellow Africans suffer. Just as I shouldn’t be able to group all Africans, or all blacks into a group, all white people shouldn’t be grouped together either. Colonization happened. It was horrible, but we can’t change the past. But I think that there are a lot of blacks that continue to perpetuate some of the problems that came with colonization – not just whites. The Europeans may have created a lot of the problems, but if white people were to vanish from the continent entirely, I’m willing to bet that a lot of the problems would not disappear. And quite frankly, I don’t think China is as interested in African development as they are in the exploitation of its resources. When you lump all whites together, it prohibits you from being able to work with people that might get it better than you think. Or that might want to bring change as much as you do. And when you assume that all blacks are tired of the status quo, are tired of corruption, and are working towards the improvement of the continent, it’s another dangerous assumption.

      Europe still loves to meddle in Africa given the opportunity. I won’t deny that. And it’s annoying, and the policies that they make are nearly always detrimental to the continent. But hate to one skin colour on your part isn’t any more constructive than Hartley’s ignorance and stupid supremacist mindset. If you want racism to stop, speak out. I fully support that. But being racist in return is not in any way conducive to change.

    • This is interesting, but I wonder where it ends. If you are correct, then shouldn’t all Americans move back to the countries they immigrated from? (This would be quite difficult for me. I would have to choose from more than 10 countries on three continents.)

      Of course, one could suggest logically, that no American is native to the continent, so that even the first Americans will have return to what is now Mongolia, but then no human is native to Mongolia, either, so that the Mongolians will have to return to India, etc. If we continue this process, then everyone will eventually have to move back to Africa, where we will have a giant, densely populated megacity on the shores of Lake Victoria.

      Of course, this is absurd, but no more absurd than the designations of race themselves, which ironicaly, were created by Europeans. Where do my half European, half African Kenyan friends go? Where does half of Cape Town, South Africa go? Do we send them on the basis of some sort of “blood quantum” like that which we use to divide native Americans in the United States?

      In Kenya, how does this play out? SInce race is so easily defined, could we not ask the same questions about tribal identity? Does each tribe get it’s own country so that there become 42 independent states within the borders of what is now known as Kenya? How about Nigeria? That would be a pretty complicated place, particularly when tribes cross one another geographically. I’m curious.

  2. Aidan Hartley wrote “The Zanzibar Chest”, a book about how he slept with African prostitutes, how his friends slept with African prostitutes, how they all got high on drugs, how African prostitutes have such “hopeless lives”, and how African prostitutes are so comfortable to be around. Throw in a Zanzibar Chest (about 10 pages of the book), his great “love” for Africa – overwhelmed by his cynicism for Africans (Black ones)… It’s sad that so many of these ‘white Africans’ live in an Africa parallel to the one we Blacks were born into and exist in. Theirs has no resemblance to ours whatsoever. Anyway, I’m not surprised that he’s still at it. I wonder how much he pays his farmworkers.

  3. Yeh I agree wholeheartedly, all white people should go back where they came from. Perhaps the Chinese can help us get rid of them, together with the elefants? Who needs them, anyway?

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