Kenya Colony’s Insane Asylum

June 12, 2017

 

How Kenya Colony’s used its Insane Asylum as a Form of Social Control

 

If you have ever taken the British Airways flight from London to Nairobi you will know that it lands at nine o’ clock in the evening, too late to catch a domestic flight, and too dark to risk Kenya’s notoriously lethal roads. It is usual to spend a night in the city before travelling up country on safari. If you happen to know someone who lives in Kenya (my late father-in-law emigrated in 1953) then you may be signed in as a guest of that old bastion of colonial life, The Muthaiga Club – a pink colonnaded building sitting placidly in an oasis of well watered green lawns, stubbornly holding back the chaos and fumes of Nairobi’s rapidly developing urban centre. The rooms within are paneled with dark wood, lined with photographs of English men in cricket whites, and an old display cabinet at the end of the corridor holds a lion’s head shot by a white hunter in a bygone era. The manager may gently request that you wear something other than a t-shirt and remind you that ladies are not permitted in the members’ room.

         Life moves slowly at Muthaiga, and the air is warm. Dinner is served on a squeaking trolley, and just outside on the darkened terrace, a man sweeps up the jacaranda blossom, in a rhythmic, soothing motion. A tourist, flicking through the pages of Karen Blixen, might be lulled into believing that Independence has scarcely changed this country; that population explosion and telecoms are still words from the future; that the colonial idyll of living like aristocrats on a land of limitless opportunity, the idyll which was so attractive to those early settlers, might still be within grasping distance.

          More than likely you will leave Nairobi early the next morning to fly up country to start your safari, without ever knowing that just down the road lies Mathari Mental Hospital - the unsettling counterpart to Muthaiga’s story, the dark legacy of Kenya’s colonial past, and the answer to the question which has nagged at me for years. What happened to the men and women who transgressed the ideals on which institutions like the Muthaiga Club were built? A girl, for instance, living in 1950s Kenya, who crossed the sacred lines of class and race? If Muthaiga was the mark of social solidarity for whites in Kenya, the shining example of European prestige and the success of the Colony, then Mathari was where it hid its dirty secrets.

          Like the Muthaiga Club, Nairobi’s mental hospital was established in the early 1900s. In the 1940s it was run by a man who used to visit his patients – drunk after dinner – with visitors in tow. There were rumors of abuse. By the 1950s ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) and anti-psychotics were being liberally dispensed. The European wards at Mathari soon became a boarding house for those whites who failed to conform to the standards of the Colony – the mad, depressed, psychotic or simply controversial. These were men and women who weren’t behaving as whites ought to behave.  They drank too much, sometimes with Africans; were occasionally intimate with natives; couldn’t be schooled because in some cases they were neither white nor black; lived in poverty in the city eating in the same eating houses as Africans. Professor William Jackson, who spent months looking at Mathari’s archives, puts it well, ‘Getting these people out of sight was vital in order to maintain the cherished conceit that expatriate Europeans enjoyed a natural right to rule.’ Maintaining white prestige - the fiction that whites were in Kenya to civilize the savage African, was of paramount importance, and no more so than in the 1950s, when the very existence of the colony was being challenged by Mau Mau rebels.

          An estimated 1,000 European patients passed through the doors of Mathari between 1939 and 1959. Professor Jackson tells the story of a woman who was given a five day course of Largactil (a powerful anti-psychotic). The psychiatric doctor treating her wrote in his notes ‘here only because she was unable to find suitable hotel accommodation.’ Another patient was given a course of ECT - dreaded by psychiatric patients, after the doctor diagnosed her as an alcoholic suffering from a ‘psychopathic personality’ and ‘character neurosis.’ He later wrote there 'has been no signs of actual mental illness… her past behaviour has proved her well enough to be a social scandal, and is part of her psychopathic personality, which is our diagnosis.’ As Professor William Jackson points out, to be psychopathic in Kenya in the 1950s was as much a moral diagnosis as a medical one. She was labeled as ‘untreatable. A social problem’, and was later repatriated – as many patients were - ‘at public expense, away from African eyes.’

          Mathari Mental Hospital still exists today, just down the road from The Muthaiga Club, a worn down, desperate place with limited funding to treat the overwhelming numbers of Kenyans who find themselves there. It holds within its walls the memories of a bygone Colonial era. We are familiar with the ostentatious forms of social control exacted on its people by colonial governments under threat, and Kenya was no exception – the closing down of native newspapers, the closure of native schools, the introduction of emergency legislation, curfews and the abuse of power, but we are less familiar with a more subtle form of social control – the Colony’s attempt to ensure the perpetuation of its own creation myth – white prestige, and in this, Mathari Mental Hospital played a dark and troubling role, one which is reflected in the pages of my book.

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