Contentious historical events: How and whether to alter history

samfloy~20 April 2019 /East Africa/East Africa Culture

Last weekend my girlfriend and I stayed in rather quaint Airbnb on the north side of Nairobi.

Sat on the veranda reading our books (sheme) we got discussing the heritage of the place and whether others might find it uncomfortable.

The Constant Gardener

We were staying in the house where the film The Constant Gardener was shot. 

It was built ~100 years ago as a farmhouse and has been in the current “White Kenyan” family since the 1960s. It’s up for sale, and the owner was saying most interested parties would like to knock it all down and use the space to build several modern developments for a big profit.

The prospect of the place being grounded and fairly anonymous buildings taking its place is what sparked the sofa discussion.

Preserving heritage

My instinctive reaction was that the place should be saved, and sold only to someone who would see the “intrinsic value” in a historical place like this, and as such, keep it (more or less) as is.

We explored this reaction and noted how we both have a very romantic view of preserving old buildings.

For others though, the retention of a property like this from the colonial era could signify a part of Kenya’s history that shouldn’t be celebrated. Maintaining the building today could be seen as endorsing the actions of the past.

One thing that emerged was that as a white, privileged male, I may not be the most impartial to comment on the matter.

Guilt for “our” actions

But why is that?

One thing neither of us could put our finger on was the conundrum that is often felt by ex-pats in the region about the comparatively privileged position they step off the plane into.

Both of us know we’ve been incredibly lucky to have been born where we were and recognise the injustice that exists with the upbringing we’ve have compared with the majority of people in the country we live.

But we were both unsure of how repentant we should feel for the actions taken by people who share our place of birth from previous generations.

We don’t endorse any of the actions that were taken, but is simply ignoring it an unacceptable thing to do?

This one feels like a rabbit hole, and so we’ll it leave unresolved for now.

What’s the purpose of the preservation?

Back to the building.

Whilst we saw that there could be a chain of logic which says keeping the building in its current form is endorsing past wrongdoings, it’s a somewhat tenuous argument.

Its primary purpose is (I believe) a plot of land to be lived on, and different people could interpret other meanings as they wish. Some die-hard gardeners may claim that any infringement on plot geraniums should be resisted at all costs, giving no thought to the historical context of the place.

One aspect where the beliefs and actions of the past have a stronger connection to the present though is statues.

In the US (and around the world) over the past few years this has been a big debate: should statues of people whose values would not be acceptable today still stand in their current form?

Commemorating a dark past

The main function of a public statue is (I believe) to celebrate the actions of a person/ what they represent. 

In the US, there was contention over taking down a statue of the former Confederate leader (and pro-slavery advocate) Robert Lee. 

Those in favour of its removal said it promotes activity that has no place in the modern world, those against saying we shouldn’t eradicate the past, and where is the line in taking downs monuments that are offensive to some people.

The points of compromise seem to be:

  1. Move it somewhere less public
  2. Include a plaque stating objectively the bad actions the person did
  3. Include a plaque stating subjectively the bad actions the person did and why these are at odds with what society believes today

This article seems to do a fairly reasoned job of explaining the situation.

Camilla and I were of the belief that it’s important for people to learn from history, and so weren’t in favour of it being taken down. 

That said, she was in favour of 3., and me for 2., though mine is mostly for practical reasons of how to reach consensus on what the wording would be. 

Anyway, a bit of a heavy one this week. If the above spark any thoughts or opinions, as ever, would love to speak with you about them.

In other news…

I’m back in the UK for a month. Weekends will be taken up predominantly with trips/ weddings though if you’re around in London during a weekday, then do let me know if you’d like to meet for a coffee.

Also, I felt that the best response last week for “puzzling look from two checkout items” was wine and dog food.

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