John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada’s The Big Conservation Lie (2017) is an important book in the sense that it says what many Kenyan students of conservation wouldn’t dare to say openly: that western-based paradigms of conservation are doomed to fail because of not only their disregard for local perspectives and practices but the greed that characterises the white-dominated conservation NGOs.
It examines from an African post-colonial perspective what it views as the racial prejudices governing conservations choices in Kenya. Most studies of African ecosystems and wildlife are by western writers.
Despite the presence of animal motifs in most African expressions, critics only see white writers (e.g., J.M. Coetzee, Barbara Gowdy, and Barbara Kingsolver) when they train their binoculars in the direction of Africa for our perspectives on the environment and animals. To write a book about African animals that elite presses can publish, you would need to be white.
It is as if black people do not give a hoot about environmental and conservation issues. The general attitude, as bemoaned by Glen Martin in The Game Changer, is that Africans only care about those animals they can kill and eat. Mbaria, an award-winning environmental journalist, and Ogada, a carnivore ecologist, attempt to correct this bias against Africans in conservation circles.
CLUB OF THE DISHONEST
A successful book, Mbaria and Ogada’s work is one of the most popular in Kenyan bookshops, where it costs Sh1,300. Kenyan cultural analyst Joyce Nyairo praises the work in the blurb as “the bravest book to come out of Kenya in this decade.” While sometimes sounding too angry at white conservationists, its anti-racist populism and combative language will resonate with many Kenyan black nationalists.
The authors are critical of conservationist NGOs for using falsehoods about indigenous populations to attract donor funding. They charge that, to succeed in the conservation NGO world, one has to be “white or have a close and preferably familial or business affiliation with one or more members of the Kenyan white community.”
The book’s attitude towards well known conservationists (from Richard Leakey to George Adamson) borders on irreverence. For instance, we are told that the figure of Adamson as conservationist is “a product of creative storytelling” crafted to promote him to the status of a saint.
“Very little is said of a man who killed animals for fun, traded in ivory, and even tried to sell hunting safaris to clients, who failed in nearly all of the businesses he attempted once he arrived in Kenya in the early 1920, and who took a post in the game department to escape his many failures,” the authors say about Adamson.
The greatest strength of the book is its energetic polemic against mainstream conservationists. They are portrayed as a club of dishonest white people with a racist agenda against the interests of local communities. Their driving motivation, according to the book, is nothing but greed for donor funding. They come through as villains with no redeeming qualities.
The debate the book stages against white-led conservation efforts is unsparing in critique. The authors’ caustic language is entertaining to those of us who like to see adversaries ruthlessly roasted at the public square.
The book is also written in simple language. It avoids academic jargon that has become the bane of environmental studies in what has haughtily come to be called “the anthropocene” (simply, the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment).
Yet the book’s strengths are the source of its greatest weaknesses. If the white conservationists are as evil as the book claims, then, the authors open themselves up to smear campaigns because of their failure to tie many loose ends in the book.
Because of its gladiatorial and one-sided polemics, the book can easily be dismissed as just another piece of nationalist (even racist) vendetta against Caucasian conservationists. It would have been strategic for the authors to acknowledge work by white conservationists, especially from Southern Africa (e.g. Michelle Pickover and Jacklyn Cock) or Australia (e.g., Val Plumwood) who share a similar vision as theirs regarding the need to incorporate minorities in environmental conservation efforts.
In the book, Mbaria and Ogada try to explore whether pre-colonial conservation ethics are still feasible in contemporary Africa. They contend that the dominant stakeholders in the conservation industry are reluctant to consider local conservation practices because that would “upset the power structures, if not the direction of the flow of donor money.”
They give examples from a community in Nyeri that has done a tremendously good job in preserving the Mt Kenya ecosystem. They show that Kenyan communities have deep respect for wildlife. For example, the Samburu consider an elephant as a moral being that cannot be exploited or owned.
The authors also argue that most communities in Africa show symbolic respect for animals by naming children after animals. This is a line of argument common among indigenous conservationists, such as Wangari Maathai, who in the autobiography Unbowed, connects her name to Kikuyu respect for the leopard.
However, a similar argument has been debunked in African feminism, whereby critics have demonstrated the tendency to put female figures on a pedestal in symbolic practices while societies continue to marginalise women in the materials world.
The authors run the risk of appearing to create ecologically noble savages in pre-colonial Africa, people who lived in perfect harmony with nature. The fact that Africans praise animals in folklore does not mean that the communities live in harmony with the wildlife in the real world.
Neither do names translate to respect for animals. A case in point is John S. Mbiti’s attitude towards animals in his discussion of traditional African religions. Mbiti’s name derives from the Kamba word for a hyena, but not many animals would enjoy his extremely anthropocentric comments about animals.
Mbaria and Ogada institute a similar hierarchy in the sense that, throughout the book, they demand for local human communities a degree of priority in relation to non-human animals.
Critics will decry the book’s obsession with debunking the claim to honesty and integrity among western and neo-western conservation efforts in Africa, instead of highlighting the positive work being done by local communities to preserve the ecosystem.
Even Wangari Maathai and Lupita Nyong’o are criticised for seeming to toe the line of the apparently evil white donors. Prof Maathai is presented as having gained prominence after Europeans awarded her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
The book makes fun of awareness campaigns, claiming that Africans were always aware about animals even before Europeans came to Africa. It assumes the continent is still populated by those pre-colonial “ancestors” (to whom the book is dedicated) who lived in harmony with animals.
Citing sympathetic historians, Mbaria and Ogada acknowledge that colonialism destroyed most of the ethical structures that the ancestors had set up to take care of the ecosystem.
There are many Africans today who know nothing about animals. Therefore, rather than dismissing awareness efforts in general, we should emphasise campaigns that incorporate indigenous practices and philosophies.
This is not an academic book. Mbaria and Ogada make quick references to other works that they don’t deign to explain. For example, we are told about Norton-Griffiths’s “shamelessly shallow” scholarship, but there is no review of his claims in those works.
The book is published by a small US publisher, Lens & Pens. It would have been good for a 200-page discussion of this nature to include an index because of the many names it mentions and breadth of its coverage.
Although I think it should have been written differently to avoid unnecessary polemics, I think this is an important work.
I highly recommend it. One hopes more books like it will be written to celebrate the conservation efforts being made by local communities.