A Knowledge Gap

My apologies. Yesterday and the day before my computer was down. Therefore, my planned Thursday posting on history has been combined today in a general commentary on a current research project I am pursuing.

My friends consider me well-read. This means that when they are fishing for an author's name, a lost fact, or advice on what they might read in order to increase their knowledge in a particular area, they come to me and avoid the encyclopedia. I usually do well at Jeopardy , playing at home with my wife. In general, when my friends come to me I am able to help them. Other people are aware of what I know, or seem to know, while I am most conscious of what I do not, of the whole list of worlds yet unknown to me.

This week, I decided to begin exploring in earnest one of those missing worlds. I went to my university library. The missing world is huge, but I hope to make some progress through stubborn diligence and a plan. It is the size of a continent, and the continent in question is Africa.

For a long time, we in the West did not believe we had any reason to know anything about Africa at all, unless we were in colonial administration, and then we needed only to know how to rule Africans. Africa was an adventure or a possession, both of which deformed efforts to learn and to express what had been learned of the countries, peoples, customs, and difficulties of that land. The natives had assigned roles, a truth to their existence, personalities, and natures, that pre-existed the individual encounter with them. They were to be picturesque exotica or savages raised up and tamed by Europe's civilizing hands. Unfortunately, general media coverage of Africa remains tainted by these views developed and maintained through the age of the great European empires and the tensions of decolonization. We are now told of savage wars, somehow more savage than our own, picturesque villains and exotic deaths by famine, torture, and disease, and we can watch these vignettes on barbarism and the darkness of human nature without feeling responsible in a real direct fashion for any of it. Africa in some ways appears to be the horror as entertainment segment of the First World news broadcast.

This is a broad criticism. Some commentators rise above it. Most do not. Part of the reason for the continuing reliance on out-dated and illusory visions of Africa lies in the medium through which we receive our dose of reality--the broadcast and the newspaper. Neither is a vehicle for thoughtful, extensive analysis and commentary. It is the land of the image and the sound-bite, cutting the complexities of existence within human communities, themselves placed in a geographical and socio-political matrix that adds further differences and complexities, into morsels that can be digested over a single cup of coffee on your way to work.

Nigerian Nobel prize winning author Chinua Achebe
Nigerian Nobel prize winning author Chinua Achebe
Kikuyu author Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Kikuyu author Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Central Africa
Central Africa
Sudanese child soldiers
Sudanese child soldiers

This grave problem with the media and Africa was brought home to me through the coverage of the Rwandan genocide, and the continuing opaque coverage given to Darfur. The genocides of Rwanda and Burundi, when Burundi was mentioned at all, were different from the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, or so the presentation of the facts of these separate cases of populist violence assured me. The European murders were given a history, a placement within complex events, interactions, and choices, that the African events were not. Instead, the media hid behind tribalism as the single, simple cause of Rwandan and Burundian excesses. Rwanda became an event we did not have to examine too closely because it was sufficiently explained by the "primitive" state of the peoples involved. In this post-colonial world, we had in the West really not moved very far from the positions of moral superiority and higher civilization developed in the age of Empires.

I suspected that what I was seeing was incorrect. Talking to a professor who did volunteer aid work in Rwanda for over a decade convinced me that my suspicion was well-founded. Then, last year, I read Romeo Dalliere's book on his experiences in Rwanda, and Jason Stearns Dancing in the Glory of Monsters , a highly insightful examination of the regional situation in which Rwanda and the Congo are implicated. I knew then that I should find out more, but other interests interfered and I did not get around to a full investigation.

So it remained until I picked up Eggers What of the What , another intelligently written book, this one a novel about a Lost Boy of the Sudan in America. I remembered that I was ignorant. I remembered that my only excuse for this ignorance is laziness. I told myself it was time to get to work in earnest. I compiled a list of texts, checked on their availability in my area, wrote down call numbers and questions, and went to the library. I looked over my list and thought: Maybe you have taken on a bit more than you can chew. After all, one of our errors is to think of Africa as a single unit, as an entity which if we understand one nation we understand all. We do not think that by studying Canada we have learned about the USA, or that British history teaches us all we need to know about France, but we do think that if we have read Chinua Achebe we grasp African literature. It is a very strange, unreasonable presumption. Africa is a continent of many peoples and nations, all of them complicated by external forces of empire, Cold War proxy wars, and commerce, as well as those difficulties specific to local geography and the internal stresses of the given nation and/or community. A book or two is not going to do the job.

If the intensification of economic and cultural contacts across national boundaries discussed as globalization is true and lasting, then these neglected spaces on our cultural map, like Africa, but also Afghanistan, Malaysia, and Central America, should have a new relevance to those of us who live at a comfortable remove from daily life and struggle in those places. Our neglect of their realities, our flight from complexity into manufactured images that can only contain the most extreme instances and are presented in order to garner a pre-ordained response largely based on pity or horror, will not erase those realities. That we do not know their histories does not erase it, does not erase them, but cripples our ability to understand what is occurring and our responses to events. We cannot meaningfully contribute to solutions or help shape pragmatic paths towards possible solutions as the junior partners to African nations and communities so crippled, so blinded, and so ignorant. Armed only with commercials of starving children, media bytes on militias and wars, and the occasional praise of a great man, we are stumbling around in the dark when it comes to Africa, and doing damage as we walk the path lit by our good intentions.

Hostages for the labor of their men, Congolese women in King Leopold II's Congo Free State
Hostages for the labor of their men, Congolese women in King Leopold II's Congo Free State
Mutilation: hands taken in Leopold II's Congo
Mutilation: hands taken in Leopold II's Congo
Nations of the Congo basin
Nations of the Congo basin
King Leopold II of Belgium and ruler of the Congo Free State
King Leopold II of Belgium and ruler of the Congo Free State
Roger Casement, later executed as a traitor for his participation in the Easter Uprising in Ireland, investigated charges against the Congo Free State for England's Foreign Office
Roger Casement, later executed as a traitor for his participation in the Easter Uprising in Ireland, investigated charges against the Congo Free State for England's Foreign Office
Frantz Fanon, necessary reading for those interested in the liberation struggles and post-colonial intellectuals of Africa
Frantz Fanon, necessary reading for those interested in the liberation struggles and post-colonial intellectuals of Africa

I am not among those who would lay all of Africa's present problems on Europe's or America's doorstep and think now we have achieved something. However, I am equally unwilling to pretend that all that is wrong in Africa is the fault of Africans. History, the little that we know of it, goes against such a presumption. The troubles of Africa were created cooperatively, in the actions of natives, EuroAmericans, and Soviets. Our corporations, our resource demands, and our abandoned weaponry fuel local contests for access to power and domination. It is not enough to feel pity and horror. These are emotions that cost us nothing and contribute little. We have also to accept the responsibility for the evils we have done and continue to do. We must examine our behavior, and where our behavior has resulted in harm, we must be willing to change it. I am hoping by this self-imposed course of study to discover at least the points at which harm is done, and, more ambitiously, some ideas as to where our mutual benefit as humans on this world together might lie. And, as ever, I intend to come out of this knowing more than I do going in.

I have only been working at this for a few days, and already I am running into difficulties. If you are told that the sixties changed nothing, that the civil rights movement in America failed, and that this is the same old world spinning around in its same old way, I invite you to do as I did and read a text about Africa written in the days of liberation. Read Frantz Fanon, but also read some white apologists for Empire. What is written by the apologists, the way it is written, reveals the great changes that have occurred. It is disturbing, but also hopeful--that a few decades wrought the changes in attitude and perception that allow me to be horrified by the blasé racism and self-serving dogmas of the late 1950s and early 1960s allows me to hope that in the future our own dogmas and racism will be similarly horrific to a new reader.

I am reading George Martelli's Leopold to Lumumba written in the first years of the Congo's existence as an independent nation. Part of what this book must cover, and which it covers extensively, far more extensively than it covers any later imperial developments, is the rule of Leopold II in the Congo. Leopold II conceived of empire as a personal exercise in dominance, cunning, and commercial success, wed to a public discourse of humanitarianism. Behind the humanitarianism, Leopold was a crass, blustering profiteer, and in the interests of creating a colony that paid for itself, and paid him as well, he allowed the vicious abuse and radical deformation of Congo life. He spoke of the good of the natives, but claimed as his own the forests and resources from which they made their livings. His profitable arrangements, good for European companies and certainly good for Leopold, resulted in slavery, mutilation, torture, and famine. However, Martelli does not detail these or the actions that produced them. He dwells on the sacrifices Europeans made in bringing civilization to the Congo, on railroads and markets, on the savage who benefited from European interest. Every mention of the African in this book, and they are rare until the final indictment of decolonization, is accompanied by a moral judgment on his native barbarity, his savage nature, his lack of readiness for independence, for he is not quite done being civilized yet. Even Leopold II's excesses are laid upon the Africans, for mutilations were a native practice not a European one, as if the native soldiers were in command of the situation. According to Martelli, such savagery is to be expected of African soldiers when white men are not in command. According to Martelli, the Congo had no history before the arrival of Belgium, and its peoples had no civilization, no culture to speak of. They were waiting for the arrival of the European in utter darkness.

Martelli makes a lot of this contrast between savage-civilized, African and European. It is in his interest to do so. Interestingly, one of his proofs of the savage nature of the Upper Congo is the lack of knowledge Europeans had about it. Thus, he posits a complete savagery and primitiveness from the fact that Europeans did not know what these peoples and their societies were like at all. The African given life and death power over another African will always use it violently and savagely, Martelli tells us, without indicating that the same temptation and the same tendency may be found in Europeans given the same sort of power over their fellow men. This is not an African psychological trait, nor an indicator of one's level of civilization; it is a human trait, present always and ineradicable. He also extensively contradicts himself. For example, he stresses that Leopold II made no personal profit from his Congolese experiment. The State profited. However, he clearly establishes that Leopold was the State during this period of exploitation. He also mentions the Riviera estate and luxury yacht that Congo profits paid for. Leopold II did not buy himself a new watch with the profits of the Congo; he was beyond such frivolities. He bought estates and he re-designed Brussels. He beautified Belgium with the blood of African men, women, and children. That was empire.

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