Wednesday, August 30, 2006

White Martyrs and Black Savages

800,000 killed in 100 days. Would you risk your life to make a difference? That’s the question that informs Michael Caton Jones’ movie, Shooting Dogs. “I wanna make a difference, you know,” says a skinny british doctor in the new movie The Last King of Scotland. So here I am, negro all of 35 wondering why I’m not so stupidly happy, delirious even that all these white boys are in blackest Africa trying to save the blackies because they so want to make a difference. Not in Africa, mind you, but their own lives. Shooting Dogs is yet another movie about Rwanda and The Last King of Scotland is ostensibly about Idi Amin, but these movies are really not what they seem to be. The former is not about Rwanda at all, nor is the latter about Idi Amin; they’re the stories of a white man trapped in black (and sometimes yellow) hell where in the midst of all this inhumanity he discovers what it means to be human. He tries to make a difference.

Am I the only one sick of this bullshit? I see the trailer for The Last King of Scotland and it reminds me of Shooting Dogs, which reminds me of The Serpent and The Rainbow, which reminds me of Tears of the Sun, which reminds me of Zulu! Which reminds me of Shaka Zulu, which reminds me of King Solomon’s Mines, which reminds me of Tarzan, which reminds me of The African Queen, which reminds me of Patrick Swayze’s horrendous City of Joy, which reminds me of Dances With Wolves which reminds me of Apocalypse now which reminds me of Heart of Darkness, the novel that all but invented this formula. Take a white man, add savages noble and ignoble, stir and great god ‘a moighty, lookee there at the spanking new (though bruised and battered) white man that floats to the top. The black, brown and yellow people, they stay down in the mix.

I for one am tired of it. Oh but we have black characters, they say. It’s not like we’re DW Griffith. But at least I knew where I stood with Griffith. It’s these whiny, oh-so-conflicted characters that truly piss me off. Of course these stories have black characters; do you mean the under-qualified bureaucrat? How about the long suffering but essentially skill free doctor, or perhaps the oxford educated negro who comes back to Africa to find himself just another white man trying to make a difference? What about the malevolent villian who insists that he's merely misunderstood while he abuses the native girl, the one who works her charms, never her intelligence? The mama who doesn’t talk English? The cute kid who steals from him at first but comes to look at this strange white man with the weird music as the coolest older brother ever? Who comes up with this stuff? Who watches it? Why do people like this story? Is it because of the inevitable bloodshed that follows?

And there’s always bloodshed coming. People seem to be riveted by African atrocity these days. News from Rwanda, Darfur and the Congo stir reactions that are almost id-like, revelatory more for what is not being said than what is. So under the code word of blood-lust, reporters and pundits hint at something that nobody would dare say: that maybe this genocide is a particularly black or at least coloured thing, occasionally dormant but ready at any moment to spring fire. That at the core of genocide may be a savagery that resides in black flesh.

This perplexes me. I’ve never really understood why African atrocities should stun anybody. I thought the foundation behind Rwanda’s ethnic butchery, Congo’s kleptocracy, Uganda’s casual serial murder, and Angola’s civil conflict was plainly obvious. They were imitating Europeans. Belgians to be specific. 19th and early 20th century Belgians to be particular. King Leopold II to be exact.

Cousin of Queen Victoria, King Leopold was also the man behind the Congo Free State (which was anything but), a personal project of the King to plunder rubber and ivory, through the re-institution of slavery. Even by Europe’s stiff standards for butchery, King Leopold was a piece of work, a sociopath hated in his own country let loose on a continent he never went to, and unleashing barbarity that is still imitated to this day. Over half century before Stalin followed his lead in Russia, Leopold subjugated Africans to his will and was responsible for the death of millions.

But so far, so predictable. Europeans have been exterminating non-Europeans from the days of Cortez. But Leopold brought something extra to the mix, a level of cruelty and atrocity unforeseen in the continent. He had a particular thing for hand maiming, or maybe he had no idea of the cruelty he unleashed after he was given the Congo to play with. “Given” of course being relative since nobody African can remember handing anything to Europe, other than slaves of course. Nobody knows for sure but the body count is estimated from 5 to 15 million. But more than that, he taught Africans cruelty by example, to the point that most of his innovations, including hand chopping is still practiced today. And the Belgians in the Congo that came after were almost as bad. The Rwanda massacre was a shock only if you weren’t familiar with Belgian dominated Africa. Otherwise the only question would have been how come it didn’t happen before. One does not turn an ethnic group against another for almost a century, then step out of the way to expect peace talks. I’m not excusing the killers, but when one creates monsters one should expect the monstrous.

One junior white officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The white officer in command: "ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross." After seeing a native killed for the first time, a Danish missionary wrote: "The soldier said 'don’t take this to heart so much. They kill us if we don't bring the rubber. The Commissioner has promised us if we have plenty of hands he will shorten our service.'" In Forbath's words again:

The baskets of severed hands, set down at the feet of the European post commanders, became the symbol of the Congo Free State. ... The collection of hands became an end in itself. Force Publique soldiers brought them to the stations in place of rubber; they even went out to harvest them instead of rubber... They became a sort of currency. They came to be used to make up for shortfalls in rubber quotas, to replace... the people who were demanded for the forced labour gangs; and the Force Publique soldiers were paid their bonuses on the basis of how many hands they collected.

In theory, each right hand proved a judicial murder. In practice, soldiers sometimes "cheated" by simply cutting off the hand and leaving the victim to live or die. More than a few survivors later said that they had lived through a massacre by acting dead, not moving even when their hand was severed, and waiting till the soldiers left before seeking help. —Wikipedia

But enough about killing. What about political repression? That was taught by the colonial government. Jamaica’s police and military were/are no different, trained by the colonizers to kill their own people and creating a chasm between law and public that exists to this day. Congo’s Mobutu was a monster, but he was a European created monster given leeway by CIA station chief Larry Devlin. What about theft? Europeans have been pilfering African resources for centuries and continue to do so, so why not Africans? And who are buying these diamonds anyway? Other than rappers of course. I’m not saying that Africans were these idyllic peoples who spent the day banging drums and eating millet, but I’ve not come across any record of black on black atrocity that predates the European rape of Africa.

So you must understand my revulsion at the sight of these movies, the people who continue to make them and the black, asian, indian and arab actors who co-star in them. They stole the land, they enslaved millions, they gave the continent the worst aspects of European governance and social prejudice and now they’ve come back to save us. Well thanks, but no thanks. You’ve done so much already.