Whites lost and found: Immigration and imagination in Savanna Africa

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Sympathetic authors frequently describe African whites as a "lost tribe."1 The phrase suggests a population marooned, wandering, or scattered (from Israel) or otherwise out of step with its surroundings. Indeed, in this metaphorical sense, Europeans partly failed as settlers and immigrants to Africa in the twentieth century. Of course, at various times and places they nearly monopolized power, wealth, and/or land. But in the realm of ideas, few could convince themselves and others that they belonged. Barronness Blixen, under the pen name Isak Dinesen, wrote with unmatched certainty when she declared, "Here I am, where I ought to be." (If everyone knew it be true, of course, she would not have needed to say it, and bankruptcy sent her back to Denmark anyway.) At almost the same time and about the same Kenyan landscape, Beryl Markham gave voice to a deeper ambivalence and fear: beyond the veranda of colonial control lay a strange, uncontrolled vastness. To understand and depict that world, whites engaged in what I call the "imaginative project of colonialism."2 Particularly the writers among them imagined European immigrants living, working, and becoming one with African savanna. From roughly 1930 onward, this uncoordinated, unplanned literary effort gave shape to an ethic and sensibility of landscape. As Anthony Vital and Byron Caminero-Santangelo both suggest in this volume, such artistic work runs tangent to explicit politics. Yes, a sense of belonging encouraged white settlers to stay in Africa and to dominate Africans. "Literature," as Edward Said argues, "participat[es] in Europe's overseas expansion and . . . creates . . . 'structures of feeling' that support, elaborate, and consolidate the practice of empire."3 But literature and the imagination are not reducible to a struggle for or against power. Settler fiction, memoir, and travelogue ran on a separate track, sometimes dangerously inattentive to nationalism and other political currents. Writers undertook an endeavor that, to their white readers, was more emotive and profound: to find whites in Africa. In ways that were partial, fleeting, and only semiconscious, white Africans convinced themselves and others that they belonged on this savanna. Nowhere was this process of literary integration more necessary than in British East Africa and southern Africa. The settler colonies of Kenya and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) suffered from a mismatch of power and population, what Dane Kennedy calls a "demographic conjuncture."4 Having pacified native polities by 1900, whites sought to monopolize politics and the economy as settlers had done in the United States and Australia. Yet they immigrated in numbers far smaller than on those frontiers. White enclaves never topped 1 percent of the national population in Kenya, 5 percent in Zimbabwe, and 20 percent in modern South Africa.5 Minority status led to fear and restraint in cultural expression. Whereas Americans of the eastern seaboard began to romanticize Indians in the nineteenth century, when most Indians were safely exterminated or expelled, white Africans preferred not to dwell on the native masses surrounding them.6 And they chose not to dwell with them either. In contrast to French, Portuguese, or Dutch administrators, British colonial officers sought to prohibit rather than shape social and sexual intercourse.7 Such regulations kept intermarriage and even the learning of African languages to a minimum.8 In this context of self-imposed isolation, writers from the late 1930s onward implicitly took responsibility for adapting Euro-Africans to Africa.9 And these authors did so on broadly environmental terms. Female writers frequently romanticized the savanna and its wildlife, expressing love, yearning, and rejection. With many exceptions, a smaller number of male authors conveyed a similar man-land bond through narratives of exploration and adventure on vivid African topographies. By writing landscape in these and other ways, writers and their readers overcame the feeling of territorial exile. Also, by fixating on the land, settlers put out of their minds the social exile in which they lived. Colonial literature, then, promoted a selective assimilation to Africa. African nationalism could easily have scrambled the neat distinctions underpinning this sense of comfort but, in fact, did the opposite. Whites continued to write and read as if land forms mattered more than social forms. Undoubtedly, independence movements in the 1950s thrust black majorities into political prominence and, very quickly, into power. Settler populations ceded from north to south: Kenya in 1963, Zambia in 1965, Zimbabwe in 1980, and South Africa in 1994. The new black governments confronted whites and their privileges as contradictions to be resolved with varying degrees of tolerance and force. Little compulsion was required vis-à-vis the gentleman farmers of Kenya's "white highlands." Derided by Kenya's leading (black) writer as "parasites in a paradise," these wealthy settlers repatriated themselves in the 1960s and 1970s with comparative ease.10 The less endowed, harder working, and more invested Euro-Zimbabwean farmers mounted stiffer resistance. Whites clung to their parcels through the incomplete land reform of the 1980s. In 2000, a paramilitary program of farm occupations sent most of them off the land to the main cities or abroad. Meanwhile, since the advent of black rule in 1994, South African whites have also been slowly emigrating. In short, power and population have come into line, and whites can hardly ignore their own minority status. Yet to a surprising degree, the writers among them have continued to marginalize blacks in their texts. As before, authors and their characters find solace in nature, but now nature represents something more: a force of greater moral good and historical transcendence than states, land reform, and the like. In more practical terms, whites still lead most regional conservation nongovernmental organization, dominate the burgeoning ecotourism business, and publish texts and photos related to these activities. By writing and in writing, then, postcolonial whites have mastered the ways in which "race and nature work as a terrain of power."11 For them, nature naturalizes better than empire ever did.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEnvironment at the Margins
Subtitle of host publicationLiterary and Environmental Studies in Africa
PublisherOhio University Press
Number of pages26
ISBN (Print)9780821419786
StatePublished - 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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