Laura Lee Huttenbach, an Atlanta native and a graduate of the University of Virginia, has written about her travels in Africa, South America, and the Middle East. She is the founder of The General History Project, a 501(c)(3) organization, which seeks to record the life stories of aging community leaders in their own words, promoting cultural awareness, creating historical documentation, and enriching the lives of all people, young and old. Ayiba‘s KellyAnne McGuire spoke to Laura Lee about her first book, The Boy is Gone, an account of one man’s role in the Mau Mau Rebellion, for which he earned the nickname the General.

 What initially inspired you to travel on a backpacking trip through Africa?  

I wanted to go to Africa because I didn’t have a good sense of that continent. Sure, I’d taken classes and I had read articles in the New York Times and National Geographic, but I couldn’t imagine what it was like to live in a country like Kenya. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to live without running water or electricity and to eat only what came from the farm. And I didn’t know what I would have in common with people living in such different conditions from how I grew up. After I graduated from the University of Virginia, I went to teach English for a year in Brazil and while there, my friend who was doing Peace Corps in Lesotho called and said, “Do you want to meet me here and then we can backpack together?” I said sure. 

What countries did you visit?

I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa and went straight to Lesotho, where my friend was finishing up Peace Corps. From there, I traveled through Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. All that was by public transport—buses, trains, matatus, boda-bodas, and one donkey cart. From Nairobi, I flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and spent three weeks between Aksum, Lalibela, and Aksum. Then I flew to Cairo and finished my African backpacking adventure in Egypt with my sister and mom.

Did you know anything about the Mau Mau before meeting the General?

This may have been a case where ignorance was helpful. Because I didn’t know a great deal about how the Mau Mau Rebellion had been perceived in the West—probably because it happened three decades before I was born—I didn’t bring preconceptions to the table when I sat down with the General. I could listen to his version of the story without trying to make him say what I expected to hear or what others had said before. To put the General’s story into a greater context of the Kenyan independence struggle, of course I read many other accounts on the Mau Mau Rebellion, but the General’s personal narrative steered my research and made history come alive.

In your introduction you wrote, “His [the General’s] awareness of how Mau Mau had been portrayed made him suspicious of how the rest of the world perceived his country.” Why do you think he decided to let you tell his story (as opposed to a family member or fellow Kenyan)?

The General let me tell his story because I asked to. As a child, he had learned history by visiting his grandparents and listening to their stories. (The General didn’t learn to read or write until he was a teenager.) His elders could rattle off seven generation of family folklore. When the missionaries introduced the Western system of education—for all its benefits—they told Kenyans that true education takes place in the classroom, thus dismantling the tradition of oral history.

The General regrets that his children and grandchildren were too busy or uninterested to record his stories. So when I showed up, asking all kinds of questions, he didn’t see me as a white American stranger. He saw me as a young person who wanted to learn about his life, and he loved that. As historian Jeff Fadiman rightly observed, “Every time an old man [or woman] dies in Africa, a library is lost to mankind.” I’m grateful that the General entrusted his library to me, and now his legacy outlives his body.

What surprised you the most during your conversations with the General? Or what was something that you didn’t expect to learn?

Every conversation with the General had a surprise, but if I had to choose one, perhaps it was his response to when I asked him, “What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?” I had thought he might answer his role in Kenyan independence, his successful tea farm, or perhaps the multimillion-dollar farmers’ cooperative that he founded. But no. “I married the right lady,” he said. “That was my greatest accomplishment.”

Jesca, his wife of over sixty years, was the hardest worker I have ever met. When I interviewed Jesca (with their son, Murithi, translating), I wanted her to open up about hardships she’d endured—her time in prison during Mau Mau, raising a family of ten, or illnesses. But she said she’d lived a good life. Try as I might, I couldn’t elicit an iota of self-pity or bitterness. I came to understand that Jesca was raised to believe that life is hard. Life could be rewarding and fulfilling and have its share of love and happiness, but at its most basic level, life is hard. The times and troubles that I considered unjust and insurmountable, she considered normal. These conversations made me look at my own life and all the happiness I’d come to expect from every day.  

What are the challenges of transcribing an oral history into a written text? What affect, if any, does the medium have on the content?

One challenge is the act of transcription itself. One hour of spoken conversation takes between four and five hours to transcribe. From my first trip with the General, I came home with about a hundred hours of interviews. So that took me—oh, I don’t want to do the math, but it came out to over a thousand single-spaced pages. It was a long process, yet it was rewarding to revisit our sessions and spend afternoons with the General.

I can relate to what historian Theodore Rosengarten wrote in the preface to his book, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. “There is something lost and something gained in the transformation of these oral stories to written literature,” he said. “No exclamation point can take the place of a thunderous slap on the knee. The stories, however, are saved,” and lives will “get a hearing beyond [their] settlement and century.”

Sometimes, the General and I would get to laughing so hard that he had to remove the handkerchief from his coat pocket to wipe a tear from his eye. Because The Boy is Gone is the General’s first-person testimony, these moments didn’t fit in this text; I didn’t want to get in the reader’s way. I wanted that direct connection between the General and the person turning the page, without a narrator’s interference. This medium accomplished that.

Why do you think it is important for readers outside of Kenya to learn about the General’s story?

As the great Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her Ted Talk: “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Our media throws so many strange, sad, and scary images at us from Africa. From headlines of the New York Times, you see poverty, corruption, genocide, violence, civil war, starvation, and disease (AIDS, Ebola, malaria). Then you also see these noble, wild animals—zebras and lions and elephants—but even those are getting picked off by poachers.

The General gives us a different story from the continent. My book allows Americans to spend a lot of time with a wise man from Kenya, who wants to be understood for who he is and not where he comes from—yet of course he is shaped by where he grew up, as we all are. One of the nicest emails I received was from my friend Lindsay after she read the book: “Here is a man who has spent most of his life somewhat isolated in a remote region of the world many of your audience will never visit, doing work they will never do, having experiences they will never have, and yet his wisdom is wonderfully relevant: Forgiveness. Respect. Know when to let go. Trust your instincts. F*** the haters.”

What has the response to the book been?

I love hearing from people who remember the original coverage of the Mau Mau Rebellion; an article in Time Magazine in 1960 described how Mau Mau murdered their victims “by methods ranging from merciful garroting to having their heads bashed in and their brains removed, dried, and ritually eaten.” Stories like this (understandably) stick in people’s minds, so it’s a wonderful thing that, through the General’s story, people are taking another look at history. Readers have told me, “I had no idea these people were fighting for the right to self-govern and grow tea and coffee on their land. I admire the General and see that he was fighting for freedom.”

I also love speaking to high school and college students and seeing their eyes open to meeting someone like the General, of crossing paths with an unexpected source of wisdom.

Marketing The Boy is Gone to strangers does come with challenges. To an American audience, I am unknown, the General is unknown, and to lay readers Africa is still cloaked in darkness and stereotypes. I have to convince readers that this story is relevant to their lives and told in language that doesn’t go over their heads. I think it’ll take time and a lot of hollering to get the General’s voice heard by a lot of people. In Swahili, you say, “Pole-pole,” which means “slowly but surely.”

Do you plan on revisiting Kenya, or are there any other African countries you’d like to see?

I definitely plan on going back to Kenya to visit friends and launch the book there. I’m working hard to get the it published in East Africa because right now there are like three copies of The Boy is Gone at one bookstore, called Bookstop, in Nairobi, and it’s 3,900 Kenyan shillings—about $45 USD, aka a sum of money that I’m not sure even my friends would shell out. That’s silly, and unfortunately this is a common model for Western researchers: they go and collect stories on the ground and then take the work back to libraries and universities in the United States or Europe. It’s a big priority of mine to make it available and affordable to a Kenyan audience, though I need help in making that happen. (In the meantime, could someone please purchase the three books at Bookstop?)

Read an excerpt of The Boy is Gone by Laura Lee Huttenbach, Copyright © (2015). This material is used by permission of Ohio University Press. Now available on Amazon.