Tarzan Swings Again, or Africa, The Dark Continent

It’s curious to see the ways in which the notion and images of Africa as Eve, as the birthplace of the human species, and as “the dark continent” intersect, specifically in and through ideas of the feminine – the female as dark and dangerous, the black widow and femme fatale, as blood and the body, as the emotional, with men as the rational.

This isn’t at all an original observation, but I have no intention of going back and refreshing myself on the literature on the subject, and then rehearsing it with you. I was thinking about the subject in relation to what I wrote earlier, about the way in which all of the diverse peoples, nations and cultures of Africa are so often compressed down into one thing, Africa – and also in relation to a series of conversations I had with one of my more politically conservative friends (yes, you, George, but don’t take what follows too personally) about the future prospects of Africa – a subject we got onto, I seem to recall, from discussing the all-South African final in Super 14 rugby.

Like many people, one of my friend’s key points, touchstones, in any discussion of Africa is tribalism. Outbreak of violence? Tribalism. Political corruption? Tribalism. Starvation and disease? Tribalism. Rigged elections? Tribalism. Failure to develop adequate infrastructure? Tribalism. Uneven economic development? Capitalism – no wait, that’s tribalism, too. For my friend and others, (Sub-Saharan) Africa’s prospects for peace and justice are more or less fatally compromised by the persistence of tribalism everywhere on the continent.

As an answer to everything, tribalism draws heavily on the associations of “the dark continent” and of Africa as the female. Tribalism is uncivilized, pre-modern, pre-rational – irrational even, based on ties of blood (familial). And at the end of the day, basically inexplicable, intransigent, unamenable to change. So as an explanation, tribalism has the added benefit of essentially dismissing the problem – all the problems – as impossible, unwinnable, and thereby absolving us of any need to intervene, to pursue change, to help – and, finally, to care.

And tribalism as explanation offers the additional very real and powerful benefit of situating the root causes of the problem in pre-history, in the mists of time, in biology. Nothing to do with the legacy of colonialism, or the impact of the current forms of corporate colonialism and globalized exploitation. Nothing to do with us.

Like the other higher primates of Africa, the chimpanzees and gorillas and the fossil remains of australopithecines and homo erectus, the various peoples of the African continent are relegated to the past, to pre-history. They are what we left behind in the march to the heights of civilization – nomads, animists, tribes, all rooted in biology and somewhat animalistic.

And like the threatened extinction of chimpanzees and mountain gorillas and the lives of those proto-humans, the terrible struggles of African peoples are known principally through television specials – this week famine in Ethiopia or massacres in Rwanda or conflict diamonds (with supermodels!), last week the discoveries of Olduvai Gorge or Jane Goodall in the Gombe (no disrespect intended – a great person and one of my heroes). It’s moving television – but what it depicts is generally seen as distant and unstoppable tragedies. That framework – gorillas and proto-humans – helps position the deaths of Africans, indeed the decimation of the continent, as almost a matter of evolution. Not of politics, corporate exploitation, disastrous aid policies and the legacy of European rule.

Last weekend, there was a terrible outbreak of violence in Kyrgyzstan, centered in the southern city of Osh. Initial and official estimates put the number of dead at 200, but reliable sources on the ground – including the country’s interim leader – suggest the true figure is closer to ten times that amount. And among the survivors there are stories of horrific violence and the systematic rape of women and girls. Reports have suggested that as many as 400,000 people may be on the move, trying to escape the violence, and the World Health Organisation says that as many as a million may soon be affected, with hundreds of thousands of refugees creating a major humanitarian aid crisis.

The violence seems to involve conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbekis, and the term “ethnic cleansing” is already being used for this rapidly developing crisis. But it is ethnic cleansing – not tribalism.

When violence broke out in Kosovo, again it was ethnic or sectarian or cultural or nationalist violence. Not tribal.

Likewise, in Northern Ireland – and even in Gaza – it is ethnic and sectarian conflict, never tribal violence. On the BBC today, they were talking about the Kyrgyz and Uzbeki “communities” – not tribes. On Wikipedia, both the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks are described as “ethnic groups.”

We don’t have tribes here in the United States. Obviously. What we have rather than “tribes” are beltway insiders, old boys’ networks, school ties, fraternities, the Mafia, cliques of Ivy League educated lawyers running huge swathes of our political system, Bush and Cheney and their cronies, etc. Groups of people, banded together around shared histories and values, marked out by distinctive habits, lifeways and linguistic and cultural patterns, and using those groups to gain and maintain power and wealth. So a lot like tribes. But not tribes.

From what I’ve heard of some of the rituals at fraternities and in groups like Yale’s infamous “Skull and Bones” society, even some of the more extreme “tribal” groups might hesitate and say “I say, hang on just a moment – is that really necessary for generating group cohesion? Bones through the nose are one thing…” But no, that’s just university life – we don’t have tribes in the United States. Well, maybe the gay mafia and feminists – who, note well, are colored by that association with the feminine. But other than that, no.

It seems fairly clear: they- those Africans,  the dark continent – have tribes, we have ethnicities, cultures and nationalisms. They are relics of the past, primitive, rooted in pre-history; we are the products of history and civilization. Our grudges and murderous rampages have reasons, and we intervene in them. Their’s… We don’t try to figure them out. What’s the point? They are either inexplicable – the dark continent, blood and fire – or evolutionary holdovers, relics, doomed to extinction.

Earlier this year, I wrote about an outbreak of violence in Africa that left hundreds dead – this one near the city of Jos in central Nigeria, in which groups of machete-wielding men rampaged through villages killing 100s of mostly women and children. Almost all the news coverage of this event made a point of situating it within the tribal framework – though there were clearly a number of other optics, possibly more relevant, that might have been used: Christian versus Muslim, or nomads versus settled agriculturalists. Or in complicated ways, haves versus have-nots.

But these optics, these ways of describing the violence in Nigeria, would have allowed for different ways of interpreting and analyzing the violence – and might have produced analyses that situated that violence within structures of power and privilege in Nigeria, structures in which the former colonial regime, and the current globalized corporate colonialism, are implicated.

There would have been explanations and answers in which we were more directly implicated, which had implications for what we do, and for ways in which we might try to end such violence. That might have caused us to care, or to confront our failure to care. In other words, Africa would no longer have been just the “dark continent.”


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