Sunday, 21 November 2010


Woolworths R.I.P.
As we all know now, Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton in October during a private holiday at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in the northern foothills of Mount Kenya. Intense media speculation about the exact location and circumstances of the marriage proposal has been accompanied by interviews with Ian Craig, founding Executive Director and now Strategic Advisor of the conservancy, and other staff, all of whom have remained understandably discreet. Having worked there during his gap year, William has been a regular visitor to Lewa, and royal aides were once forced to deny speculation in the press that he was romantically involved with Jessica (Jecca) Craig, Ian's daughter.

The wildlife conservancy began life as a smaller rhino sanctuary carved out of the ranch of Ian's parents David and Delia Craig in 1983. I visited Lewa Downs in February 1992, before all of their lands had been declared a conservancy (for more on Lewa's history click here). I was working on a consultancy in Isiolo district (see Walsh 1992), and joined a group of colleagues one Saturday afternoon to visit the Craig family. We arrived unnanounced: David was away at a wedding, but we found  Delia and their son William (Ian's brother) at home. My abiding memory of this visit is drinking tea with Delia and talking about the threat of poaching and the need to erect fencing to keep the poachers out. I was particulary struck when, in the course of our polite conversation, Delia referred to the surrounding African population as "the indigenae". I'd never heard this expression before, and had to conceal my amusement: my immediate thought was that this is how one might refer to a barbaric tribe on the frontiers of the Empire, Roman, British, or whatever remnant of it survived on the Lewa Downs. Indigenae is of course Latin for 'natives', 'aborigines', 'autochthones'; it was used by Tacitus and other classical authors, and even by Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights. Although its use by Delia that day may have been entirely innocent, I couldn't help but feel that it might be given more negative connotations.*

This was certainly the case with other expressions used by the descendants of European settlers to refer to their African bretheren. When I scribbled "INDIGENII" (sic) in my Isiolo notebook, I also wrote down a term that was said to be more widely used in the post-settler community: "NON-REFLECTORS". This, I was told, was a humorous allusion to the fact that Africans were harder to see when driving at night: their dark skin didn't reflect the light from car headlights as well as the skin of white people. This etymology further implied that if "non-reflectors" were run over at night, then was their fault rather than that of the (white) drivers who couldn't (be bothered to) pick them out. Be that as it may, "non-reflectors" is clearly a racial label or slur that many Kenyans will find offensive. Let me add, though, that I don't have any evidence for its continuing or common use in Kenya: it may be that it has fallen out of favour since I recorded it in 1992.**

A much more widespread practice was, and probably still is, use of the Swinglish phrase "the watu" to refer to Africans. Watu of course means 'people' in Swahili, but the addition of the English definite article turns this innocuous word into a racial label with negative connotations, depending on how it is used. As we can infer from the etymology and history of the infamous N-word and its use in English, sociolinguistic context is everything. I'm reminded of my own reactions to being called an mzungu ('white', 'light-skinned person, especially of European origin'). I don't mind it at home and among friends, and might use it in jest myself. But I'm not thrilled when youths and adults shout it at me in the street (I can forgive young children). This annoying habit has spawned the production of T-shirts for tourists with the ironic banner "MZUNGU" and elaborations thereof. I haven't been in a hurry to buy one of these. But I might be tempted to wear one written in Latin.

* Delia Craig (née Douglas) inherited the ranch at Lewa Downs from her stepfather, Will Powys, who was the youngest brother of the novelist John Cowper Powys and an enterprising farmer. Her mother, Elizabeth Powys (née Cross, ex-Douglas) was the hard-working granddaughter of a Viscount who became a supporter of multiracialism in Africa before the more radical agenda of decolonisation took hold (these and other details of family history are taken from Elspeth Huxley's Out in the Midday Sun). Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is now noted as conservation programme with strong community development and education components, a model for private conservation initiatives and the reinvention of 'white farmers' as ecotourist operators.

** Des Bravington tells me that this expression is also known in South Africa, and it may be that it was originally imported into Kenya from the south of the continent.


Brontë, Emily 2003 [1847]. Wuthering Heights. London: Penguin Books.

Huxley, Elspeth 1985. Out in the Midday Sun: My Kenya. London: Chatto & Windus.

Szapary, Peter 2000. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya: A case study. In Herbert H. T. Prins, Jan Geu Grootenhuis and Thomas T. Dolan (eds.) Wildlife Conservation by Sustainable Use. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 35-50.

Walsh, Martin 1992. Community Participation in Isiolo District: Past Initiatives and Options for the Future. Annex 4 in The Isiolo District Support Programme, report submitted by Masdar Ltd. to the Overseas Development Administration (ODA), London.

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