Over a century of deeply racist Western literature continues to influence notions of ‘blackness’ and what it means to be an African
Joseph Conrad. Image Wikimedia Commons
By Milton Allimadi
When I wrote my master’s paper at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia in the 1990s I showed that the literature of 18th century demonisation of Africa—in order to justify the conquest and colonial rule eventually formalised with the 1884 Berlin Conference—has a strong and enduring influence on contemporary Western writings about Africa. European so-called explorers used the word “tribesmen” interchangeably with “savages”. Here’s what Samuel Baker, author of “Albert N’Yanza, Great Basin of the Nile”, (1866), said about African “tribesmen”: “I wish the Black sympathiser in England could see Africa’s innermost heart as I do, much of their sympathy would subside … Human nature viewed in its crudest state as pictured among African savages is quite on a level with that of the brute, and not to be compared with the noble character of the dog.” The German traveller, Georg Schweinfurth, also warned in “Heart of Africa”, (1873) that: “The first sight of a throng of savages, suddenly presenting themselves in their naked nudity, is one from which no amount of familiarity can remove the strange impression; it takes abiding hold upon the memory, and makes the traveller recall anew the civilisation he has left behind.” The “tribalised” image of Africans has endured thanks to passages like this one from Joseph Conrad’s celebrated “Heart of Darkness” (1902): “We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We would have fancied ourselves the first men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled around a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grassroofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy.”
The book is loved by millions of Europeans—and Africans—yet Chinua Achebe correctly concluded that Conrad was “a thoroughgoing racist” in “Hopes and Impediments” (1988). Conrad’s Africa shaped the mindset of professional journalists who started covering Africa in the 20th century. European enforcers of colonial regimes exploited this “tribal” perception of Africa, as demonstrated when Albion Ross, a New York Times correspondent, interviewed Gabriel Teixeira, governor general of Portuguese Mozambique. Ross’s article was published on April 22, 1954 under the headline “Portugal Accepts African Equality”. “We do not believe in superior and inferior races,” the governor told Ross. “The black man in Africa is simply where the white man began thousands of years ago. You cannot rush that sort of thing.” “A native vote is absurd,” Teixeira added. “These people’s grandfathers were sometimes cannibals. How do they vote? What do they vote for?” Ross did not challenge any of the governor’s assertions nor interview Africans to hear what they had to say. There is no question that the personal prejudices of the reporters and editors were reflected in the stories published about Africa, as I discovered from letters they exchanged that I found in the Times’ archives. “I’m afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the emerging republics,” Homer Bigart, a famous New York Times reporter wrote in a letter to his editor Emanuel Freedman from Ghana in early 1960. “The politicians are either crooks or mystics. Dr Nkrumah is a Henry Wallace in burnt cork. I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about.” (Henry Wallace was an American segregationist politician who wanted black people deported to Africa.)
Bigart’s favourite terms for describing Africans in his articles were: “barbaric”, “macabre”, “grotesque”, and “savage”. Typical of the prose that he and Freedman enjoyed was an article by Bigart, published on January 31, 1960 under the headline “Barbarian Cult Feared in Nigeria”. “A pocket of barbarism still exists in eastern Nigeria despite some success by the regional government in extending a crust of civilisation over the tribe of the pagan Izi,” Bigart wrote. He added, “A momentary lapse into cannibalism marked the closing days of 1959, when two men killed in a tribal clash were partly consumed by enemies in the Cross River country below Obubra. Garroting was the society’s favored method of execution. None of the victims was eaten, at least not by society members. Less lurid but equally effective ways were found to dispose of them …” Freedman, encouraged this type of “journalism”, writing to Bigart in a letter dated March 4, 1960: “This is just a note to say hello and to tell you how much your peerless prose from the badlands is continuing to give us and your public … By now you must be American journalism’s leading expert on sorcery, witchcraft, cannibalism and all the other exotic phenomena indigenous to darkest Africa. All this and nationalism too! Where else but in the New York Times can you get all this for a nickel?” When the Times’ editors felt articles lacked the “tribal” element, they simply concocted them. After Lloyd Garrison, a New York Times correspondent who was based in Nigeria read the version of his article published on May 31, 1967 he sent off a letter dated June 5, 1967 complaining to the editors about a fabrication added to his story: “The reference to ‘small pagan tribes dressed in leaves’ is slightly misleading and could, because of its startling quality, give the reader the impression there are a lot of tribes running around half naked … Tribesmen connote the grass leaves image … Plus tribes equals primitive, which in a country like Nigeria just doesn’t fit, and is offensive to African readers who know damn well what unwashed American and European readers think when they stumble on the word …”
Sometimes Western writers play off different ethnic groups against each other. This was certainly the case during the inter-ethnic war between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority in Rwanda after Tutsi exiles backed by Uganda invaded on October 1, 1990. In “Rwanda’s Aristocratic Guerrillas” published in the New York Times Magazine on December 13, 1992, Alex Shoumatoff wrote that Tutsis were “refined” while Hutus were “short, stocky” and “broad nosed”. “In the late 19th century,” Shoumatoff continued, “early ethnologists were fascinated by these ‘languidly haughty’ pastoral aristocrats whose high foreheads, aquiline noses and thin lips seemed more Caucasian than Negroid, and they classed them as ‘false negroes’. In a popular theory of the day, the Tutsis were thought to be highly civilised people, the race of fallen Europeans, whose existence in Central Africa had been rumoured for centuries.” It is not difficult to imagine which side the article intended for Western readers and policy makers to empathise with and favour in the war. The war dragged on for four years. Then suddenly on April 6, 1994 the conflict turned into apocalyptic massacres after the plane carrying Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana—and his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira—was shot down, killing both. The genocidal killings claimed an estimated 800,000 to one million lives of Tutsis and Hutus. In an article about the massacres in Rwanda, Time magazine in its April 25, 1994 edition claimed the killings were fuelled by “tribal bloodlust and political rivalry”.
Where do we stand when it comes to the T-word in this the 21st century? What the late Ugandan scholar and author Okot p’Bitek wrote about the word “tribe” in “African Religions in Western Scholarship” (1970) remains true. “Western scholarship sees the world as divided into two types of human society,” p’Bitek wrote, “one, their own, civilised, great, developed; the other the non-western peoples, uncivilised, simple, undeveloped. One is modern, the other tribal.” This is the same logic that applied when the international community basically stood by during the Rwanda massacres; presumably because Africans were simply quenching their “tribal blood lust”, to borrow Time magazine’s words.
West Africa: new languages
Pidgin and creole emerged to serve trade, but what of their longer-term use and acceptance?
By Simon Akam
When I lived in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, my house had a collection of books on the shelves on one wall. There were copies of the Sierra Leonean government gazette, for my landlord had once run the national printing concern. There was also a Bible, but its title hung on the edge of intelligibility: Gud Yus f Clman. It was written in Sierra Leonean Krio—a creole, a kind of language formed when multiple tongues collide. Krio is not the only linguistic blend in Africa. Such languages are politically significant on the continent. Yet creole and pidgin languages generate intense controversy. Michel DeGraff, a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the topic is “rife with prejudices”. One reason is that creoles and pidgins embody, in linguistic form, the encounters between European and African cultures. According to the traditional theory, when groups of individuals with no common language interact with each other, usually for trade, an initial “contact pidgin” emerges. This vernacular cannot express ideas as complex as those which its users gloss in their respective native languages, and its grammar is scant. According to Joseph Opala, an American historian who spent much of his adult life in Sierra Leone, more than two languages must be involved if a pidgin is to emerge. With just two languages, one group chooses, or is forced, to learn the other’s. During the initial period of European contact with West Africa, Portuguese, English, French and Scandinavian traders and slavers probed the coastline. Malaria kept most Europeans from penetrating inland, but their demands spurred an extensive trading network away from the coast.
The Europeans never saw this system, but its African protagonists had to transect multiple other kingdoms and statelets with whom they shared no language. So West African Pidgin English (WAPE) emerged, a colourful language in which Noah would be said not to have built an ark but an “Elder Dempster”, after the British shipping line that long served the West African coast. In the traditional theory, the first, rough contact pidgin gradually coalesces into a lingua franca pidgin, whose lexis and grammar can convey any idea that the speaker’s native language can frame. The language of the economically dominant culture, in West Africa usually English, serves as the “lexifier”, providing most of the vocabulary, but not the grammar. Examining a comparable situation in Haiti, the anthropologist Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain, in the 1930s, argued that the local vernacular comprised Ewe, an African language used today in Ghana and Togo, spoken with French vocabulary. In Sierra Leone, Krio’s vocabulary includes words that reflect the nautical background of the first English speakers to explore the coast. Ian Hancock, a linguist at the University of Texas, says that the word for “kitchen”, “gyali”, derives from the English word for the galley on a ship. “Mo”, from the English verb “to moor” [a ship], means to keep someone rooted to the spot. “Swaba”, from “swabber” is a term of abuse. “Kyapsay”, from “capsize”, describes anything that tips over. John McWhorter, another linguist at Columbia University, says the usual exception to lexifierorigin vocabulary in pidgin languages involves things from the cultural realm, including items from nature, “private things”, art, music and food.
Despite their sophistication, lingua franca pidgins are languages with no native speakers; everyone who uses them speaks another mother tongue. When native speakers emerge, the conventional theory holds that pidgin becomes a creole language. This “evolutionary model” of the development of such languages has come in for criticism. An alternative school of thought argues that environment is a more important influence, with pidgins developing around isolated trading posts and more elaborate creoles requiring plantations with longer periods of enforced cross-cultural interaction and slower turnover. Hence the emergence of both French and English-lexifier creoles on Caribbean islands, while the Niger Delta, which was heavily slaved but minimally settled, birthed pidgin. Salikoko Mufwene, a Congolese linguist at the University of Chicago, suggests that Sierra Leonean Krio is a Caribbean language that returned to Africa when freed slaves settled in Freetown from the 18th century onwards. Others acknowledge the Caribbean influence: contemporary Krio has numerous words of Jamaican origin. But there are differences. Jamaican Maroons visiting Sierra Leone have to speak English with their Kriospeaking hosts, reports Hancock. Some critics question the idea that there is any difference in the way creoles and pidgins developed and the emergence of, for example, French and Italian from Latin in Europe. DeGraff calls this idea “the fallacy of creole exceptionalism”. The Krio people in Sierra Leone, the descendants of freed slaves for whom Krio is the native language, today amount to around two percent of the country’s population, and are concentrated on the Freetown peninsula.
Yet Krio serves as a lingua franca with inland groups who speak languages such as Mende and Temne. There are radio broadcasts in Krio. The president speaks it, and can modulate between Krio and English. Until the 1930s Sierra Leonean Krio was often called “Broken English”. The Krio elite, who favoured arcane English garb including top hats and tailcoats, despite the heat, strongly resisted attempts to classify it as a “proper language”. Thomas Decker, a Sierra Leonean journalist born in 1916, was pivotal in driving acceptance. He wrote poetry in Krio and, in the 1960s, performed Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in Krio translation (“Juliohs Siza”) to a packed audience at State House in Freetown. Independence provided further impetus, as the Krios saw that a Britishderived group identity was no longer desirable. Eventually the language came to be called Krio, rather than being dismissed as a creole. A written system emerged, including the and , which baffled me when I encountered them in my house. When I worked in Sierra Leone I found that Krio served as an effective barometer of expatriate attitudes to the country. Old lags always spoke it, but new arrivals who were determined to embrace it marked themselves as NGO idealists. Western ambassadors or agency heads found that it was important to deliver speeches, or at least introductions, in enthusiastic, if halting, Krio. In academic circles there is broad consensus that pidgin and creole in West Africa are largely a phenomenon of the Anglosphere. French-lexified creoles are widespread elsewhere, notably with Kreyòl in Haiti, but not in Africa.
The French spoken in Senegal, for instance, is so clear that firms from metropolitan France outsource call centres there. The notable exception is Nouchi in Cóte d’Ivoire, which is French-based but includes words from indigenous Ivorian languages as well as some English: “Je me wash” is one hybrid. Côte d’Ivoire had 30 years of relative stability post-independence and a fairly adept educational system—one possible reason French was disseminated widely enough there to blend. Coleman Donaldson, a Ph.D student in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, working in West Africa, says that, unlike in Abidjan, French is much less likely to be heard at street or market level in other ostensibly Francophone West African countries such as Niger. Criticism, both internal and external, of creole and pidgin is longstanding. In 1935 Geoffrey Gorer, an English anthropologist, suggested in his book “African Dances” that its use infantilised Africans. Last year a popular YouTube video by Freetown Tok focused on the phenomenon of Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora, particularly in the US, pretending to not speak or understand Krio. These prejudices extend elsewhere in the region. Musician Mensa Ansah, one half of the duo FOKN Bois, who grew up in Ghana, recalls that his “Broken English”, as pidgin was then known, was taboo at his boarding school. Though it was universally understood, it was considered a threat to the “Queen’s English”. Like other Ghanaian musicians, he tried to rap like Americans, but found he could express himself better in the old home language. The result, a collaboration with his partner Emmanuel Owusu-Bonsu aka Wanlov the Kubolor, was, as they put it, “the world’s first pidgin musical”.
In Nigeria, pidgin has a sustained following in popular music. When I worked in West Africa the Nigerian duo P-Square scored a pan-regional hit with “Chop My Money”. Recently, Nigerian pidgin has gone upmarket: Helen Isibor-Epega, a British-Nigerian who performs as The Venus Bushfires, last year premiered “Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera”. Isibor-Epega says she encountered some criticism from older Nigerians, who grumbled about a language they viewed as base. Most, though, were enthusiastic.
Swaziland: monarchical abuse
Childhood links to the motherland seem to require a certain patriotism, yet the country is troubled by a self-serving ruler
Young Bheki with Mom and Dad in 1972.
By Bheki Mashile
From a young age I came to admire the notions of “for God and country” and, of course, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” While the first was used to prepare men to go to war and the second— made famous by American president, John F. Kennedy—calls on everyone to focus on contributing to the building of their nation, both represent the embracing of patriotism. Yet they also make me feel guilty whenever someone brings up the subject of my being a Swazi. My father served as a diplomat for Swaziland at the UN and at the embassy in Washington DC. However, my mother was a South African Sotho from Barberton, where they met. This combination—Swazi father, South African mother—has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. But it’s left me with a dilemma. Well, not just a dilemma but also a problem that has seen me battling feelings of guilt. While my family returned to Swaziland after my father’s ten-year diplomatic posting, I remained in the States to attend varsity and I subsequently worked there too. However, when I returned in 1996, due to my father’s death, I did not return to Swaziland, but to Barberton. So I have faced accusations of abandoning Swaziland—a country that gave me the opportunity to be educated in the “great” America. Worse yet, my American twang and associated mannerisms were a clear indication that I’d forgotten my roots. At first these comments were annoying; later I found myself asking the same questions. It was often easy enough to ignore the comments, since they mostly came from people who were inebriated or envious of the fact that I grew up in America.
The view seemed to be that I’d gone there as the son of a diplomat father, and should therefore live in the kingdom and repay my good fortune by serving it in some way. The comments always closed with: “You’re a Dlamini; a Swazi. Don’t you forget that.” I never lost sight of or appreciation for my Swazi heritage, despite arriving in the States at the age of eight. I couldn’t have, in fact, even if I’d wanted to. We were always in the company of Swazis, whether they were in the States on business or because they were members of the royal family who were visiting for one reason or another. Anyway, my mother would never have allowed it. She did everything to ensure my brother and I did not become too Americanised. Pap was not replaced by pizza or spaghetti. Though she did once go a bit too far, by dressing my siblings and me in shorts on our first day of school. This gave our new schoolmates the opportunity to introduce us to the sensation of snowballs pummelling our exposed legs. (We arrived in New York one early November.) There were also the mandatory holidays back home every three or four years—which were intended to give the foreign affairs contingent the opportunity to personally brief the king on their work and progress in the US. I remember my father saying that these trips were not just holidays or compulsory briefing sessions: His Majesty King Sobhuza II had insisted on them, to ensure that the family, more especially the children, did not lose touch with their Swazi heritage. So I never really turned my back on my Swazi background then. The same questions sometimes come up, however, in this part of my life, because I’ve chosen to settle just across the border in Barberton. In fact, it doesn’t really feel as if it isn’t Swaziland. The population of this little mining town, and indeed a good portion of Mpumalanga, is predominantly Swazi, with all that comes with that: language, culture and traditions.
Choosing to stay in Barberton on my return in 1996 had more to do with the desire to be in the wider environment offered by South Africa, with its bigger economy, and cultures and languages, rather than the small environment represented by the tiny kingdom. Many of my Swazi compatriots prefer to come to South Africa, seeking greener pastures. They range from professionals to illegal miners. All the same, most remain fiercely loyal not only to the “motherland” but also to the monarchy—despite the widely publicised excesses of the current monarch, King Mswati III. This is why I see my being born in South Africa as something of a blessing. My fellow Swazis, who are often in South Africa without work permits, must return to the kingdom at the end of every month because of the 30-day entry limitation imposed by South African immigration authorities. Needless to say, I’m glad I’m spared this. Heritage aside, what do I feel about my “motherland”? Well, as one of my professors at varsity said: “How you feel and what role you play in the society you live in must be determined by your understanding of its social, economic and political realities.” I have to say that the current monarch, and particularly his effect on the kingdom’s economy, doesn’t inspire much patriotism. This is a view I share with many fellow Swazis. Our catch-22 reality is that, while most of us, including myself, fully support our monarchical heritage, we have been let down by the sitting king. When my father’s diplomatic stint ended in 1983 he was appointed principal secretary of foreign affairs. In that position he had regular interactions with King Mswati, who was crowned in 1986. When he got to know the king better he commented to my mother one day: “Under this boy Swaziland is in trouble. All he seems to care about are the benefits of being king.” Sadly, my father’s observation has come true.
South Africa: race relations
When white ‘allies’ want to make a difference will there still be space for their contribution?
By Rian Malan
The great struggle of my life thus far has been to come to terms with and, if possible, escape the consequences of being white. The need is, of course, particularly acute for a white South African burdened by ancestral sins of apartheid and colonialism, but it seems my counterparts in the West are not immune. Witness for instance all the earnest young whites seeking to wash themselves clean by joining the clamour on American campuses for “safe spaces” in which blacks can cosset their pain while whites sit in the corner, apologising profusely and occasionally whipping themselves into a frenzy of masochistic self-abnegation. That’s me in the 1970s, denouncing “bloody Dutchmen” like my father, and staying up all night to read the revolutionary polemics of Louis Althusser. In contemporary America young radicals are more likely to read a gender warrior like Professor Judith Butler of the University of California, one of the most influential intellectuals in the world today. Butler visited South Africa in May 2016 as part of a posse that included the resolutely anti-capitalist Professor Wendy Brown and the even more radical Professor David Theo Goldberg, an authority on neoliberals who profess “racelessness” while secretly working to oppress blacks everywhere. Collectively, these three Americans are a formidable force in the struggle for social justice. Between them, they have published 33 books, some of which are sacred texts for the leftists who led last year’s student uprising in SA.
That’s why they came here—to participate in a seminar at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), but also to show solidarity with student rebels. One problem: they were all white, and young black South Africans don’t like it when honkeys presume to speak on their behalf. During question time at UWC a group of young pan-Africanists rose to protest the manner in which they’d been “spoken over, dismissed and undermined” by whites in the audience and on the podium. When moderator Professor Xolela Mangcu declined to yield the floor, they seized the microphone and started toyi-toying aggressively, lunging at Mangcu in a threatening manner and accusing him of selling out to “these people”. As one of the protesters explained later, these antics were necessary to dispel the “false impression” that whites could make any contribution at all to the decolonisation debate. This episode frames an interesting question: what are whites supposed to do if their skin renders them unwelcome on principle? Alternatively, how are we supposed to react when Julius Malema, leader of the opposition party known as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), says all whites are “criminals and must be treated as such”? Yes, it’s just rhetoric aimed at stirring up racial resentment for political gain, but that’s exactly how Hitler began, and look what he wound up doing. And it isn’t just Malema anymore. Talk radio debates are rife with anti-white sentiment; the Twitter sphere likewise. Yes, there are dissenting voices; and yes, leaders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) occasionally reaffirm a belief in colour-blindness. But then they hit the campaign trail and urge blacks to unite against the Democratic Alliance (DA) because it was founded by white people. As President Jacob Zuma put it the other day, “A snake is poisonous and only gives birth to another snake.”
Am I a snake? At this point in my life I would rather die than engage in grovelling apologetics, so let me plead guilty, arguendo. We came, stole the land, and turned black men into mine boys who earned 13 shillings a month while white gold barons swilled champagne. We also introduced the wheel and modern industry, not to mention the smart phone glued to your ear, but never mind: you’re right, we are guilty as charged. So what do we do about it? Scarcely a day passes without South Africans being told that their society is one of the most unequal on the planet thanks to the sinister machinations of “white monopoly capital”. So it’s true that white households earn six times more than black ones. But it’s also true that the average white is 38 years old, and therefore likely to have been working and earning raises for decades, while the average black person is 21 and most likely jobless. But let’s not argue—incomes are skewed in white favour, and guess what? White people feel bad about it, and have tried to correct it. In the formal sector, the only one where white capital holds sway, the income gap between (mostly white) bosses and (mostly black) employees is surprisingly narrow, slotting in between Ireland and Switzerland in the global inequality rankings. It’s only when you factor in the teeming unemployed (upwards of 60 percent in some rural areas) that South Africa starts looking like a slave plantation. Is it possible for capitalism to create enough jobs to ease black pain? Theoretically yes, but investors are wary of the manner in which the South African state’s black empowerment manoeuvres are strangling private enterprise.
Would you set up a business in a country where you might be required to surrender 51 percent ownership to anyone, for any reason? You’d have to be insane. So investors keep their distance, the economy stagnates, and black pain worsens, creating a climate ripe for demagoguery of the sort punted by Malema’s EFF, which has now taken to portraying whites as “descendants of colonial murderers” whose power must be broken by “hardcore Marxist-Leninist” measures. I understand why blacks find such talk persuasive, but the EFF is clearly bent on replicating the ideological folly that has destroyed Zimbabwe. If South Africans were rational, we would look upon Zimbabwe with horrified fixation and focus all our energy on avoiding the same fate. Instead, we are blundering blindly towards Harare. As I write, the outside world is applauding the outcome of South Africa’s 2016 municipal elections, which saw the DA (the only major party whose positions do not rest primarily on race) making major gains in our biggest cities. Granted, the DA’s hold on power is tenuous, but it lifted my heart to see whites helping to vote black men into the mayoralties of Johannesburg and Pretoria. It was a sweet but probably short-lived moment of hope for non-racialism. Why? Because the ANC’s response to its electoral setback has been to intensify its onslaught on whiteness in the hope of winning back lost ground. Within hours of losing its once-towering majorities in Pretoria and Johannesburg, the ruling party entered coalition talks in which it reportedly stated it was “ready to move” on the EFF’s entire agenda—including nationalisation of mines, banks, and white-owned farmland—in return for EFF support in keeping the party of “snakes” out of power.
If the EFF hadn’t demanded the removal of embattled President Zuma too, the verdict of history on our recent elections might have been radically different. And we would have been several steps closer to Zimbabwe. Eish! This country! “Consciousness of race is a deadly explosive on the tongues of men,” said African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston. We whites laid the dynamite, and now it is threatening to blow us all up. But there is a point of light out there. According to a survey carried out last year by the Institute of Race Relations, the vast majority of ordinary South Africans (85.4 percent) want blacks and whites to work together, while 59 percent agree that “all this talk of racism and colonialism is just an attempt by politicians to find excuses for their own failures”. Those good people should ignore politicians and pundits (including this one) and listen to each other.
Rwanda: ‘re-education camps’
A Canadian academic is ordered to pay attention, keep quiet and learn the country’s official history
Genocide Memorial Church, Karong-Kibuye, West Rwanda, Rwanda. Image Wikimedia Commons
By Susan Thomson
In the midst of my doctoral fieldwork, the Rwandan government ordered me to undergo “re-education”. I was just over halfway finished when the executive assistant to the minister of local government told me that he had to revoke my letter of permission because my research was “against national unity and reconciliation” and “was not the kind of research the government needed”. The purpose of my 2006 research was to understand the effects of the post-genocide government’s policy of national unity and reconciliation on ordinary peasant Rwandans living in the south-western region of the country. My research was ethnographic, which meant that I spent considerable time in rural areas, consulting ordinary Rwandans about their lives before, during and after the genocide, to illustrate how they subtly and strategically resist that government policy. In the government’s view, I was “wasting” my time talking to “peasants about politics” since they are “all liars anyway”. Furthermore, I had clearly been “brainwashed”. So, the minister’s assistant took my passport “for safekeeping” and presented me with a list of re-education activities, including: the assignment of a government handler to ensure I stopped talking to peasants; a list of high-ranking government, private sector and civil society representatives to meet so I could “learn the truth” about the government’s policy of national and reconciliation; and an order to attend both gacaca court proceedings and ingando citizenship re-education camps as a guest of the government. I knew little about ingando as it is an under-studied aspect of the government’s post-genocide reconstruction policy of national unity and reconciliation.
I spent a week participating in ingando alongside a group of approximately 100 confessed génocidaires who were in the fifth week of their twelve-week re-education process. All these men had been released from prison following their gacaca court appearances, and were required to go through ingando re-education before returning to their home communities. In ordering my re-education, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) gave me a frontline look at the tactics and techniques it uses to organise the flow of information and determine what counts as the “truth” in post-genocide Rwanda (see Pottier, 2002). In particular, my ingando experience offered a behindthe- scenes look at one of the key mechanisms of the RPF’s topdown policy of national unity and reconciliation. The purpose of this article is to contrast the government’s stated goals of ingando with its actual effects on its participants. I argue that ingando does little to re-educate confessed génocidaires on how to reconcile with family, friends and neighbours. Instead of promoting a sense of national unity and reconciliation, it teaches these men, the majority of whom are ethnic Hutu, to remain silent and not question the RPF’s vision for creating peace and security for all Rwandans. For us, ingando was an alienating, oppressive and sometimes humiliating experience that worked hard to silence all forms of dissent—something that may, paradoxically, crystallise and create stronger dissent in the future. I develop my argument in two sections. First, I situate the ingando as a key mechanism within the broader policy of national unity and reconciliation.
I then set out the official goals of ingando re-education for genocide suspects to illustrate the extent to which ingando teachings are an instrument for consolidating state control—rather than a sincere effort to promote reconciliation among ordinary Rwandans. Specifically, I analyse how those suspects reacted to the version of history that ingando taught. The article builds on Alison Des Forges’ legacy of human rights activism in critiquing and calling to account the oppressive actions of the RPF as it works to exclude a significant portion of the population from political life. It also builds on Des Forges’ academic commitment to including the lived histories of ordinary people. The policy of national unity and reconciliation is an ambitious social engineering project that the RPF-led government claims will forge a unified Rwandan identity while fostering reconciliation between genocide survivors and perpetrators. Under this policy, the government re-educates the population on the ethnic unity that existed before colonialism—a time when Tutsi and Hutu lived in “peaceful harmony and worked together for the good of the nation”, according to a 2004 document by the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC). In romanticising the historical past and presuming that all Hutu need to be re-educated, the policy produces two broad simplifications: all Tutsi (whether they were in Rwanda during the genocide or not) are innocent victims or “survivors” and all Hutu (whether they participated in the genocide or not) are guilty perpetrators.
The policing of boundaries of public speech lies at the heart of this national unity and reconciliation. Rwandans—elites and ordinary folk alike—can only speak publicly about ethnicity in state-sanctioned settings like the ingando camps, the gacaca trials and during the national genocide mourning week (7-14 April). Otherwise, the RPF does not allow for public discussion of the violence that individual Rwandans of all ethnicities—Hutu, Tutsi and Twa—experienced before, during and after the genocide. The government promotes national unity and reconciliation in numerous ways. It encourages collective memory of the genocide through memorial sites and mass graves to show the end result of ethnic division. Every year, commemorations are held during the national mourning week to remind Rwandans of the “pernicious effects of ethnic divisionism” (interview with NURC official, 2006). The government also adopted new national symbols (flag, anthem and emblem) in 2001 because the existing ones “symbolised the genocide and encouraged an ideology of genocide and divisionism” (interview with NURC official, 2006). As part of Rwanda’s administrative re-structuring in 2006, the government changed place names at all administrative levels (from villages to provinces) to “protect survivors from remembering where their relatives died” (interview with Ministry of Culture official, 2006). In addition, the revised 2003 constitution criminalised public references to ethnic identity (article 33) as well as “ethnic divisionism” and “trivialising the genocide”.
The ingando camps, then, are but one mechanism for promoting national unity and reconciliation. The government makes an important distinction between ingando solidarity camps and ingando re-education camps. Solidarity camps are for politicians, civil society and church leaders, gacaca judges and incoming university students, whereas reeducation camps are for ex-combatants, ex-soldiers, confessed génocidaires, released prisoners, prostitutes, and street children. Many of my ordinary Rwandan informants understood the solidarity camps as a form of political indoctrination for those who occupy, or will occupy, leadership positions, while they saw re-education camps as a form of social control to keep Hutus out of public life. I received my ingando re-education with confessed génocidaires who were about to be released back into their communities. These ingando normally run for three months and are designed to “urge them to tell the truth of what they did during the genocide before the gacaca courts” and “to prepare them for reintegration back to their communities of origin”, according to a 2006 NURC document, “The A-Z of Ingando”. Before starting my ingando re-education, I met with the local official responsible for administering the camp. He told me to “pay attention” to the “official goals” of the lessons: “because you will quickly learn how we are successfully promoting unity and reconciliation. The lessons you will see are focused on making them [génocidaires] understand the importance of telling the truth about what they did during the genocide. Once these Hutu tell the truth, Tutsi survivors can forgive them. We also teach them about the real history of Rwanda because we know corrupt leaders have misled them all these many years; they have been poisoned with ethnic hatred. We teach them that their role in society depends on how they tell their truth …”
Following this short speech, the local official assigned me a translator who carried an AK-47, and who held the rank of major in the Rwandan Patriotic Army. Emile was my escort for the week, and he was responsible for making sure “I learned what I needed to learn”. As I stood up to introduce myself, Emile silenced me, saying that he “knew well who I was” and why I had been ordered to undergo re-education. Emile turned to salute the local official, promising him that I would be “appropriately re-educated” under his tutelage. As we walked together to the soccer pitch where the day’s lesson was taking place, Emile advised me sternly “to pay attention” and “to keep quiet”. I was then taken to the meal hall, where I was introduced to my ingando classmates, who were told that I would spend the week with them. Here, we received our final instructions on the government’s expectations for our re-education. As one of the government officials responsible for our re-education said: “You will not be able to return to your communities without understanding the real causes of the genocide. We will test you on history to make sure you understand. Remember also that you are former Hutu. We are all Rwandans now and this is the basis of our history lessons.” Following this instruction, we walked single file, with military escort, to a dusty soccer pitch where the week’s lesson would take place. In stony silence, everyone sat in their pre-assigned place, sitting cross-legged across the field in three rows of five. I sat in the very back in the fifth row on the instruction of my government-appointed translator. Immediately after taking our seats, another government official strode up to the lectern with a retinue of lecturers. They were introduced as national historians and intellectuals who “have studied Rwandan history and understand the roots of the scourge of genocide well”.
We received our lessons in two- or three hour blocks. No questions were allowed; anyone who stretched his legs or began to nod off was jostled back to attention by one of the six armed military escorts who stood guard around the pitch. Our history lessons were taught over three days for approximately 24 hours of lessons. We received detailed lessons on the root causes of the genocide, notably the “deep-seated and seething ethnic hatred that Hutu have for Tutsi”. We were also taught that this hatred that Hutus have for Tutsis is “the root of the Rwandan disease [of genocide]”. We were then taught that the path to peace and security was for Hutus to rid themselves of this hatred. We were also taught that ordinary Hutu men caused the genocide because they acted on their hatred for Tutsis. We were then taught how to recognise the signs of trauma and to respect the needs of Tutsi survivors when they exhibit signs of trauma. Lastly, we were taught how to be a “good citizen”, which included lessons on respecting the orders of local officials, good hygiene, courtesy to others, and the importance of mono-cropping for national development. When we were not receiving our history lessons, we were taught how to sow and till the land. We also played a few games of soccer. Throughout the week, the mood was sombre. When the men showed signs of exhaustion or boredom, the armed guards appeared to ensure they remained focused on the task at hand. I found the pace gruelling, particularly since we were not well fed or rested. There was no downtime. The men around me said that they found the structure of the day to be “no different than being in prison”. As Trésor, a former lecturer in chemistry at the National University, told me during one of our evening meals, “I am a former Hutu.
This means I am a source of shame for this government. Prison, gacaca and ingando are just ways for them to make sure that we don’t think for ourselves. The message is that we are not full citizens.” On the first day of our history lessons, some of the men around me made fun of the mzungu (white foreigner) who had to sit so long in the hot sun without eating. They teased me and some wondered out loud what I must have done to end up at their ingando re-education camp. When they learned that I was a Canadian researcher who had been sent here to “learn the truth”, the teasing stopped and most of the men stepped away from me, perhaps in an attempt to distance themselves from someone who was clearly in hot water with the government. When my translator went to the toilet, a former physician named Antoine whom I had sat next to for most of the week, asked me quietly in French, “to alert the outside world about how being Hutu is a crime in the new Rwanda”. When one of the ever-present armed soldiers who monitored our lesson witnessed this, he strode up to where we were sitting and slammed Antoine’s bare feet with the butt of his rifle. He grabbed my arm, pulled me close to him and then threw me on the ground, pointing to where I was to sit silently for the rest of the lesson. I never saw Antoine again, and my translator did not leave my side after that incident. He immediately took me to the office of the government official responsible for overseeing the ingando training where I was sternly reminded that I was “here to learn; only to listen”. If I insisted on speaking to the prisoners, I would be returned to Kigali where “the punishment could be severe”. I returned to my spot on the soccer pitch, duly chastened. I also wondered at this point what might happen to Antoine.
The history lesson that I heard at ingando did not vary from the official version of history, which stresses that ethnicity is a fiction created by colonial divide-andrule policies and manipulated by the post-colonial Hutu regimes (as outlined, for example, in a 1991 document on the “unity of Rwandans” by the Office of the President and in the NURC document of 2004). At the end of our history lecture on the fifth day of my ingando re-education, I observed more than the usual fatigue on the faces of the men around me. Many seemed despondent and showed little enthusiasm for their usual late afternoon soccer match that I witnessed every evening while waiting for the driver who would take my translator and me back to town. I didn’t get a chance to speak to any of them given both the language barrier and the constant presence of my translator. Nonetheless, ordinary Rwandans I consulted during my research, including a dozen confessed génocidaires who had returned to their home communities, shared their views on the new version of history they learned in the ingando camps. Many saw this historical narrative as a product of the RPF political elite, something that local officials have to adopt to further their careers. Joseph, a 26-year-old Hutu man who graduated from ingando in 2002 said: “I don’t know if Hutu and Tutsi [peasants] like me were unified before the white man came. That is what they taught us. But does it matter? I want to eat every day and I want to send my children to school. If they tell me whites brought division, then of course I agree.”
These remarks illustrate how the version of history found in the policy of national unity and reconciliation is the “politically correct” one, and is the one that most ordinary Rwandans parrot in public even if they disagree in private. In promoting a singular version of Rwandan history, the policy of national unity and reconciliation fails to acknowledge the multiplicity of historical interpretations (and individual lived experiences) that constitute Rwandan history. Ingando re-education camps for génocidaires do not teach reconciliation. Instead, they mostly teach génocidaires to shut up and to stay on the sidelines of public life. During my re-education, government officials repeatedly told me that Hutus “had a responsibility to tell the truth”. Yet, many ingando graduates I interviewed have said there is no point in telling the actual truth of what they did. Gaston, who graduated from ingando in 2004, stated: “Even if I am innocent, I am a former Hutu. In the new Rwanda, this means I must be guilty of killing.” By preventing any public discussion outside the acceptable categories of Tutsi survivors and Hutu perpetrators, ingando is just another tactic of social control rather than a meaningful effort to unify and reconcile Rwandans. As Vianney, a 25-yearold Tutsi survivor said: “The Hutu who killed, they know who they are but are they able to tell their truth? No, and I understand why not. If they say anything, they go straight to prison. I understand their problems; I blame this government for its lack of fairness. If we could all just get along in our own way and at our own time, I know we could find some way to co-exist. Reconciliation is never going to happen under this government …”
Anselme, the 16-year-old nephew of a convicted génocidaire, stated: “For adult Hutu like my uncle, ingando lessons are just a way for the government to make sure we have no ideas of our own, and to make sure we don’t make more genocide for them. It [genocide] could happen because Hutu are no longer welcome here.” As this chapter has shown, ingando camps for génocidaires simultaneously reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the RPF’s re-education “by announcing the gap between enforcing participation and commanding belief” (Wedeen, 1999: 22). The graduates of these ingando camps that I met do not believe in the national unity of the re-imagined past or in the reconciliation of a re-engineered future. Rather, they see the camps and their ideological discourse as efforts to exercise social control over adult Hutu men. Instead of being re-educated, these graduates have merely learned new forms of “ritual[ised] dissimulation” (as Lisa Wedeen observed in a 1999 study of the ambiguities of domination in Syria), and strategic compliance.
This article is reprinted with permission from the University of Wisconsin Press. It first appeared as “Re-education for Reconciliation: Participant Observations on Ingando” in Scott Straus and Lars Waldorf (eds.) Reconstructing Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011, pp. 331-339. For the list of references in this article, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rwanda: the official truth
The RPF government’s version of history is a tool of power rather than a story shared by all
Nyamata Memorial site, Rwanda. Image Wikimedia Commons
By Filip Reyntjens
In 1994 a new government came to power in Rwanda after the country had seen a genocide that claimed the lives of about three quarters of the Tutsi ethnic minority. The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) immediately embarked on a policy of de-ethnicisation and national reconciliation. The RPF is overwhelmingly composed of Tutsis, and it was facing the task of governing a country that included a large majority of ethnic Hutus, estimated at between 85 and 90 percent of the population. Yet, while attempting to avoid new violence, the RPF-dominated regime has used an ideology of national unity and reconciliation to control and preserve its power. Its ideology rests on two pillars: a backward-looking history and a forward-looking policy of national unity. According to the RPF, pre-colonial Rwanda was a harmonious society in which Hutu, Tutsi and Twa were not ethnic labels but categories referring to wealth and status. These groups shared the same history, culture, religion and space. Intermarriage was frequent, and social mobility was real. Hutu could become Tutsi and the other way around, by becoming richer or poorer, particularly as measured by the possession of cattle. While there was conflict, it was never ethnic in nature. The kings belonged to Tutsi lineages, but they lost this ethnic label upon assuming office as they were the benevolent guardians of all Rwandans’ wellbeing. According to this version of history, Rwanda’s unity was destroyed by the Belgian administration and the Catholic Church. Economic and political independence were lost, foreign education and religion undercut Rwandan culture, a divide-and-rule policy set Hutu and Tutsi against each other, and political ethnicity emerged. After independence, the regimes of the first and second republics continued the segregation legacy of the colonial masters, and the problems were compounded.
After a lost century, Rwanda’s history resumed in 1994 when the RPF took power after defeating the genocidal regime. It liberated the country from dictatorial leadership, and built a nation based on law, democracy, peace, security, justice and development. The narrative is promoted in the national and international media, at conferences inside the country and abroad, and in the speeches of national and local authorities. All Rwandans know it and can recite it flawlessly. However, the RPF’s historical narrative involves “a whole set of false propositions and assertions”, according to a leading historian of Rwanda, Jan Vansina. “The linguistic and cultural unity of the country today did not exist in the 17th century and Rwanda is not a “natural” nation. Rwanda really became a nation in the 20th century … “Formerly, neither abundance nor order flourished in the country and it is false to think that everyone was happy with their station in life and all lived under the shepherd’s staff of wise kings,” he writes. The RPF’s narrative of “erroneous propositions” aims at “the projection of a nostalgic utopia into the past, a past that contrasts with a painful present”. The RPF has established a monopoly over the country’s history, to the extent that alternative histories cannot be articulated, at least not in the public arena. Andrea Purdeková argues that, under the RPF, history “is open to replication but closed to debate”. Debate about the past is actively policed by the regime. Indeed, a Rwandan History Project at the University of California, Berkeley initiated in 2001 encountered RPF hostility when it attempted to develop a historical curriculum that included alternative narratives. The government’s attempt to control history conflicts with one of its own goals for education reform—to embrace modern, democratic teaching methods that include critical thinking and debate.
Moreover, most Rwandans do not share the government’s view of history. “Competing singular versions of history—the RPF meta-narrative and the counter-narrative— effectively continue the conflict through discursive means,” Lindsay McLean Hilker writes. Relegating this counter-narrative to the private domain may render it invisible but does not make it disappear. The RPF apparently believes that the Rwandan genocide gave it the right to remake Rwanda, including its history. Indeed, the regime considers knowledge production to be an aspect of its (international) sovereignty. It protects its version against challenges with laws on divisionism and genocide ideology, by judicial prosecution, and by political repression. A document published in 1999 by the Office of the President states that “[b]efore the Europeans’ arrival, Rwandans were understanding each other, the country was characterised by unity” and that “the unity of Rwandans is a foundation on which a new Rwanda will be built”. However, it continues, saying the aim of restoring the unity that existed before colonial days has not yet been achieved. Because of this, a national body— the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission—has been established “to educate, sensitise and mobilise the population in areas of national unity and reconciliation” and “to denounce and fight actions, publications, and utterances that promote any kind of division and discrimination, intolerance and xenophobia”, among other things. The RPF’s strategy is two-pronged: on the one hand, educating people and disseminating information; on the other, monitoring, “fighting” and repressing acts and discourses opposed to unity. The former can be seen at work, for example, in the government’s neo-traditional gacaca courts and ingando re-education camps.
The latter is evident in legislation on “divisionism” or “sectarianism” and on “genocide ideology”, and prosecutions under these laws. The government’s perspective on reconciliation is based on the idea that Rwandans possess an innate sense of social harmony, undermined by previous colonial and post-colonial regimes, which can be recovered, as Phil Clark points out in a 2014 study of reconciliation in Rwanda. More importantly, reconciliation is a “national” process occurring between groups in society, never described as “Tutsi and Hutu” but as “victims and suspects” or “survivors and perpetrators”. With the right policies, harmony can be rapidly restored. Education is one way of achieving this. Schools are tasked with the “detoxification” of youth, and with the restoration of “recently eroded Rwandan values”. Education in schools and elsewhere is considered a “structure to neutralise the ideology of genocide”, Elizabeth King writes in a study of education and conflict in Rwanda. The preamble to the 2003 constitution states that the people of Rwanda are “[r]esolved to fight the ideology of genocide and all its manifestations and to eradicate ethnic, regional and any other form of divisions”. The RPF’s de-ethnicisation project is top-down, and based on the belief that, as ethnic divisions can be made, they can also be unmade. But the regime’s authoritarian approach has prevented the emergence of potentially more complex identities from below that could form the basis for more inclusive forms of citizenship, as noted by Helen Hintjens. Like history, unity in Rwanda is part of a “rehearsed consensus”, as Bert Ingelaere writes. Indeed, the government’s policy produces the appearance rather than the reality of national unity and reconciliation.
Ordinary Rwandans “confront it in ways that seek to restore their personal dignity while subtly attempting to live their own truth”, and the rural poor “must perform the prescribed rituals of national unity and reconciliation, regardless of their private realities”, writes Susan Thomson, a Canadian academic. Ordinary Rwandans’ understandings and expectations contrast with the official government discourse on reconciliation, the “RPF Healing Truth”, as Eugenia Zorbas puts it. Despite the regime’s attempts to suppress public references to it, “ethnicity was omnipresent” in Rwanda, McLean Hilker noted in 2011. She saw “a constant—and almost existential—need to know the ethnic identity of significant others”, adding that though “ethnicity has officially been banned from public life, it has become an unobservable variable in most (empirical) studies of post-genocide Rwanda”. Ingelaere suggests that ethnic group identity in Rwanda is arguably more meaningful than before the genocide, and that Hutu/Tutsi distinctions are more rigid than ever. Hutus interviewed by Anuradha Chakravarty expressed feelings of sympathy, regret and shame for the genocide against ordinary Tutsis, but they were also suspicious of elite Tutsis. In general, they felt that they were victims of a new period of injustice under elite Tutsi rule. Clearly, attempts to “de-ethnicise” Rwandan society aren’t working, and the result has been to emphasise rather than de-emphasise ethnicity. This was reinforced by frustrations about a “Tutsisation” of public office that has been hidden under the guise of ethnic amnesia. By the mid-2000s around two-thirds of positions in the state apparatus at both the central and the local level were occupied by Tutsis, most of them members of the RPF. As Jean-Hervé Bradol and Anne Guibert put it, the stress on “the absence of ethnic identities has become a means of masking the monopoly by Tutsi … of political power”.
Probably the worst long-term consequence of the gacaca neo-traditional transitional justice process and the regime’s discourse surrounding it has been the collectivisation of Hutu guilt. Some 60 percent of Hutu males who were adult in 1994 have been found guilty by the gacaca courts. And, in June 2013, President Kagame “invited” all Hutus to ask for forgiveness for those who killed in their name. In 2006, Thomson was sent to an ingando camp to be “re-educated” when the regime perceived her research as “against national unity and reconciliation” and “not the kind of research the government needed”. Ingando, she writes in a participatory report, was “an alienating, oppressive, and sometimes humiliating experience” that “teaches these men, the majority of whom are ethnic Hutu, to remain silent and not question the RPF’s vision”. Graduates of these camps saw them as efforts to exercise social control over adult Hutu men: “instead of being re-educated, these graduates have merely learned new forms of ritualised dissimulation and strategic compliance”. Legislation on “divisionism” and “genocide ideology” serves a dual purpose: it shields the RPF’s views on history, and on national unity and reconciliation, while enabling the regime to silence political dissent. These vaguely formulated laws conflate criminal defamation and other lesser offences, and even the legitimate expression of opinions, with genocide ideology. Apart from legislation, “shadow methods” such as harassment, disappearances and killings are used to foster self-censorship. Rwanda is not unique in having a dominant ideology that is not (entirely) based on reality, whether historical or contemporary. Nor is it unique in having a dominant ideology that is not shared by many people in society whose lives it wishes to affect, and that is challenged publicly or clandestinely, at home and abroad.
The problem with the RPF’s ideology is that it goes against the grain: many Rwandans do not share it, instead seeing it as a weapon of oppression. A wealth of field research has shown that there is a wide gap between the government’s official version of history and the versions told in private in Rwanda. This is a major challenge to the validity of the RPF’s ambitious reconciliation project.