What could Bristol have to tell me about Kenya?

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

By Dr Lydia Muthuma, Technical University of Kenya, Nairobi

Lydia Muthuma is one of the Building Shared Futures project team, funded by the University of Bristol to bring together British and Kenyan colleagues with an interest in material relating to the built heritage of Kenya.

She recently visited Bristol Archives as part of a workshop group looking at Kenyan items from the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection. In the space of two days, she went from not knowing where Bristol could be found on a map to unexpectedly finding the name of a family member in the records of a Mau Mau detention camp.

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‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’ is a quest to reveal the ‘fairest of them all’; but mirror, mirror in Bristol Archives? This was not really a quest for anything. I had settled for a perfunctory look-through of clichéd images: what could Bristol have to tell me about Kenya anyway? This, as I later discovered, was a huge underestimation.

A Kikuyu woman dressed in white pouring milk into a jug

Kikuyu woman photographed by Elspeth Huxley, 1937

I found part of myself in the captions scratched and scribbled in these photographs, and in the letters (some written in my native Kikuyu) lining batches of the photographic collection.

They took me right back to the last century – the 20th. I am Kenyan, born and bred. I have been trying to piece together the history of my parents,my grandparents and my forebears. I have wanted to have a fuller view of myself, my family and our collective identity. And what an elusive quest this has been!

My community, like others, has had a variety of experiences, among them the (in)famous Mau Mau, where loyalists fought against rebels. This makes for neither easy nor flawless passing on of family stories. Narratives come down clothed in terms like contested, unspeakable, highly emotive…they are more shrouded than revealing.

The Bristol Archives collection provided a neutral medium. I found myself looking, with emotions held in check, at varied photographs; looking at images that reignited my quest for a deeper and broader context of my family history, my community’s story. Distance – both historical and physical- provided the much needed perspective.

Confession from Athi River Rehabilitation Camp describing Gathiru Muthuma as a Mau Mau oath assistant

Confession from Athi River Rehabilitation Camp describing Gathiru Muthuma as a Mau Mau oath assistant

It was difficult to convert the visual experience of appreciating photographs into words. However, once back in Kenya, I attempted discussing this collection with my older brother.

After all the identity is collective, belonging to the community and not exclusively mine. That the never-ending conversation about a Kenyan family’s identity is to be continued through the Bristol Archives, seems incredible! It may give us (me and my family) an outsider’s perspective of our roots.

We can have the opportunity to compare, sift and measure
up this disinterested view against our own insider – and perhaps overly involved- perspective. The collection, ‘mirror, mirror in Bristol Archives’; may reveal to us our hidden, yet obvious, roots.

Images:

  • 1995/076/1/2/5/54 – Kikuyu woman photographed by Elspeth Huxley, 1937
  • Lydia Muthuma looking at BECC images, April 2019 (© Mark Small)
  • Confession from Athi River Rehabilitation Camp describing Gathiru Muthuma as a Mau Mau oath assistant

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