Morbid nostalgia

What's wrong with the 'Africa' journalism of Aidan Hartley, a staple in rightwing UK media like 'The Spectator' and 'The Daily Mail."

A still from the Hollywood film, 'Out of Africa,' a colonial fantasy set mostly on a Kenyan farm.

In journalist Aidan Hartley’s Africa, the progress of the continent is measured by how hospitable it is 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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