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Tag: africa

Ernest Hemingway in Theodore Roosevelt’s Africa

I re-read Hemingway’s two “African” short stories last night — both because I’m in the midst of revising my chapter on Roosevelt’s African Game Trails and because I was energized by the hilarious “Hemingway” in Midnight in Paris — and while I was struck again by how deeply responsive Hemingway is to Roosevelt, I became much more aware of how hard he’s pushing against the Roosevelt thing.

First, the former: that Hemingway was deeply “influenced” by Roosevelt is only a starting point, but it’s the important one. Every boy of Hemingway’s generation trying to become a man was beaten over the head with Roosevelt’s stick, and Hemingway was particularly invested in the mythology, to such an extent that when he would eventually do his own big game hunting safari, he tried to replicate Roosevelt’s paradigm setting performance in many different particulars, even hiring Roosevelt’s own guide, Philip Percival. But in so many ways, the “Kenya” that Hemingway visited in 1932 was a different place than the “East African Protectorate” that Roosevelt had toured through in 1910. The first world war and the great depression had not only changed the world — destroying, among other things, the condition of possibility for the kind of synthesis of Victorian gentry and modernist progressive of which TR was a great example — but those two decades had also transformed the political and economic landscape of East Africa from top to bottom, and thus, the way that an American could play safari in Africa.

In 1910, the protectorate had been technically foreign to the British empire, and was largely still an open frontier of the kind that Roosevelt had almost missed finding in the American West: its indigenous peoples had been conquered, and open land had been created by their dispossessions, removals, and famines, but it not yet been filled in by the kind of civilization which the white settlers hoped to bring. Much was still unseen by white eyes, and certainly most was uncontrolled by white government. And it was a place that was, from Roosevelt’s perspective, all potential, the potential to follow in the footsteps of the American frontier as, what he calls, a “white man‘s country.”

By 1932, however, the white settlement project in east Africa was well into the process of failing; as Elspeth Huxley would put it a few years later, the white settlers were covered wagon pioneers in the age of the model-T. There simply weren’t enough of them to make Kenya into a white man’s country in the way they wanted to, and while they would hang on for quite a long time, the forces that would eventually lead to decolonization in the 1960’s had already made their dream of an apartheid state in the white highlands a fast receding mirage. For Roosevelt, East Africa’s white future was nothing but unbounded potential; for Hemingway during the depression, it was clear that imperial hegemony, racial hierarchy, and economic solvency were all under a kind of siege that Roosevelt never dreamed of. He doesn’t talk about it much, but it’s there.

More directly, while Roosevelt had been roaming through (man-made) wilderness, Hemingway was essentially hunting on government regulated game-parks, and he understood that perfectly well. Kenya was now a colony within the empire, and as a state, it was mostly one in which the kind of wilderness adventure that Roosevelt could imagine himself to be having — his daydream of being on a trip back to the Pleistocene — was no longer plausible. In 1910, “punitive expeditions” against “unpacified” African tribes were still ongoing; in 1932, African populations were safely penned into native reserves, educated and Christianized, or were laboring as official squatters on white plantations, and so the fantasy that Roosevelt was meeting wild Africans in their primeval state — which he really enjoyed — was no longer tenable. And while Roosevelt really had been the kind of outdoorsman who could survive, to a great extent, under his own power in the wilderness, not Hemingway wasn’t, and neither was Kenya that kind of wilderness anyway. Finally, while Roosevelt had employed South African guides to help him, the “White Hunter” was, by 1932, a well established institution that made it totally unnecessary for a man like Hemingway to actually have the kinds of skills and initiative that Roosevelt had (and thus to make it impossible to use them if he did have them). Roosevelt institutionalized and popularized the white safari, and that institution would frustrate Hemingway’s efforts at emulation.

This frustration is obvious; all of Hemingway’s Africa writing is about failure and frustration, one way or another. And on the surface, it’s women who are the frustrating force: both “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” are, fundamentally, struggles with women, and as always, “women” in this case really means the emasculating force of civilization or something. Hemingway’s misogyny is on full display in these stories, for not only is authentic manhood the only desirable way to be in the world — Francis Macomber’s life is short, because he’s only really alive in that brief period when he’s a real man — but women, these terrible creatures who aren’t men at all, hate and mistrust any true masculinity and seek to destroy it. A struggle for masculinity is a struggle against the woman who seeks to frustrate it.

And in this respect, the contrast with Roosevelt is strikingly easy: the absence of women from Roosevelt’s text is more or less its constitutive element. You go to Africa, if you are Roosevelt, to penetrate its jungles, to bond and become one with the other men, to roam over the virgin land, to put your bullets in the bodies of your prey and so forth, in a very long list of crypto-sexual exploits, but it’s very important that the feminine be present without any actual females around. In this way, while Hemingway is antagonistic to women who represent his frustrations — and brings them along for that reason — Roosevelt’s unfrustrated manhood not only has no need for a feminine antagonist, but his mono-gendered world view requires only the aura of the feminine in the landscape as backdrop for his performance of manhood. In response to his manhood, the landscape takes on certain feminine characteristics, but an actual woman would only get in the way, so they are excluded. Hemingway includes them, for precisely this reason, to register why the landscape is not responding to his non-manhood in the way it should

I certainly don’t think Roosevelt was anything close to self-aware enough to consciously register any of this. He was a deeply intelligent man, and historians so often fall into the trap of underestimating his perceptiveness (as a way of inflating their own), but it still seems to me that it was organic to Roosevelt’s personality to have closed his mind to anything like what we would now call “psychology.” Hemingway was a little bit different. At a certain level, I think, he got it; he still enjoyed being a stud and a brute and a pig, far too much to ever want to stop, but his Africa writing is filled with conscious acknowledgments that cruelty to women is not nearly as earned as they’d like to think. In Green Hills of Africa this is really clear (especially since it’s a first person, non-fictional account), but even in “Macomber” you can find traces of Wilson’s doubt as he rationalizes his small hypocrisy — sleeping with his employer’s wife and then despising her for it — and in “Snows,” the protagonist directly acknowledges that his cruelty to his wife is a way of staving off fear. These are grace notes, but they are there.

More than that, I suspect that Hemingway could understood the façade that was his own performance of manhood because he had Roosevelt to measure himself against, and to find himself wanting. Roosevelt had managed to get to the Dakota territory before it was a state, and to the East African Protectorate before it was a policed colony. Hemingway had no such frontiers available to him. More than that, his whiteness was as beset as his manhood: his antipathy to women might be a means of registering a different frustration — and he at least partially coded it as projection — but his antipathy to racial others stems from the much more direct and consciously understood challenge  that was being mounted, in the 1930’s, against white imperial authority in ways Roosevelt never saw. Roosevelt would never have written a passage like this, because he never needed to openly register his frustration in this kind of misogyny and race hate. His authority was always real, and so that was the public face he created. Whereas, perhaps, that’s a way of understanding where the particularly Hemingway-an fetish of the real in fiction comes from: the authentic real that he could never find in life could, perhaps, be acquired by writing about that condition of impossibility?

Anyway, believe it or not, all of this is really just to say that this poem I found this morning now makes a lot of sense to me. It’s Hemingway in 1922, directly expressing the extent to which “Roosevelt” could never exist in the world left to him by the Great War, and how angry he is with Teddy that this is the case:

 

“Roosevelt”

Workingmen believed
He busted trusts,
And put his picture in their windows.
“What he’d have done in France!”
They said.
Perhaps he would-
He could have died
Perhaps,
Though generals rarely die except in bed,
As he did finally.
And all the legends that he started in his life
Live on and prosper,
Unhampered now by his existence.

Why Arianna Huffington is Bill Keller’s Somali Pirate

“In Somalia this would be called piracy.” –Bill Keller

“Africa, as an idea, a concept, has historically served, and continues to serve, as a polemical argument for the West’s desperate desire to assert its difference from the rest of the world.” –Achille Mbembe

Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis and Felix Salmon (and Felix Salmon) and all sorts of people have been following and commenting on the New York Times’ rhetorical war against Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post. If you want a close look at it, you should read them. I want to take a far look.

To understand Bill Keller’s first op-ed, for example, a piece of screed called “All the Aggregation That’s Fit to Aggregate,” I think we need to look past the surface level confrontation between Keller — top dog at the New York Times — and Arianna Huffing ton (who he bizarrely tries to portray as some kind of Somali pirate). Sure, there’s something of the “new media” vs. “legacy media” culture clash going on here; Keller is standing tall for the oldest of American journalistic old guards, while the Huffington Post is a manifestation of what the media landscape looks like after the internet. I guess. But while Huffington’s response to Keller got at some of what is most silly and self-serving about his silly and self-serving little diatribe (“patting himself on the back so hard I’d be surprised if he didn’t crack a rib,” as she puts it, is certainly apt), it’s worth noting how quickly she gets just as silly and self-serving as he does, quite literally repeating his own lines back at him. And this is the most important point about what is going on here: especially in the context of this particular argument — which hinges on the “theft” of words and the “convergence” between new and old media — Huffington reiterates and repeats, point by point, precisely the same rhetoric which Keller first aimed at her. This the forest we should not miss for the trees.

After all, this isn’t an argument about anything. What they are most concretely at odds about in that exchange — the little piece of intellectual property which Keller claims Huffington stole from him, and which she then claims he stole from her — is a painfully banal cliché, the notion that old media and new media are “converging.” I don’t care who said it first, and neither should you, because at this point, this is not an idea that can be stolen, any more than one could steal the idea that politicians are corrupt, the American people are getting a raw deal, farmers are suffering, and we need to get back to basics if America is going to be great again. You cannot patent a cliché. Which is why that non-argument demonstrates what’s most interesting — and illustrative — about this exchange: since they are saying the same thing, what they are fighting about is who is going to be privileged with the right to say it.

To put this another way, what is interesting here is that both Keller and Huffington want to say the same thing: they agree on the fact that Real Journalists can and should do Real Journalism, and so they try to portray the other as a mere thief of words, an unimportant parasite. A consensus thereby emerges on the difference between Real Journalism and aggregation-piracy; while they disagree on who the Real Journalist is, they’ve implicitly agreed on how they will disagree, what the distinction over which they‘re jousting actually is. Aggregators are pirates, while Real Journalists do Real Journalism. And what are Real Journalists? People who aren’t pirate aggregators.

The real problem, however, is that journalists are, by their nature, thieves of words. You can call it what you like; you can say “Possibly I am old-fashioned,” and talk about how “actual journalists are laboring at actual history, covering the fever of democracy in Arab capitals and the fever of austerity in American capitals” (Keller) or you can brag about the “148 full-time editors, writers, and reporters engaged in the serious, old-fashioned work of traditional journalism” (Huffington), but all this “old fashioned” stuff is just a way of covering over something really basic about what “actual” journalists “traditionally” do, all the time: write down what other people say. They can exercise editorial discretion in how they integrate and harmonize the various quotes they‘ve aggregated. They can confirm, they can contextualize, and they can (very rarely) manage to witness something with their own two eyes. They can produce collages out of stolen scraps. And they should do these things. But at the core of the journalistic process is the act, inescapably, of taking other people’s texts, weaving them together, and then placing them under your byline (with appropriate citation) and profiting from the activity.

The more you talk about piracy, it seems to me, the more you bump into the uncomfortable fact that journalism is only distinguishable from word-piracy because, and to the extent that, we arbitrarily decide that it is. We have social conventions that determine what is and isn’t okay to say and steal, and how to do so — institutional rules defining the difference between socially useful activities and socially un-useful activities — but while those conventions are under particular stress right now (file this under “the internet”) they were also never quite as stable as we might have liked to think they were. This is not to say that they aren’t necessary, useful, and worth retaining, of course. They just aren’t written in stone, nor were they received from on high; they are a contingent function of what it is that we expect “the press” to do as part of the social function they fulfill. Which is why, ultimately, the kind of society that we believe “good journalism” will serve will be the determinant of what standards we use in defining what is good in journalism.

That line of thinking, however, would take the conversation in a different direction than either Keller or Huffington want it to go. This is because they are not, a such, interested in the social function of “the press” — for which, see Jay Rosen’s manifesto — but rather, in the business of profiting from their activities. This should not surprise us,  but neither should it escape our notice: their job is to make information commodities, to secure ownership of them, and then find some way to sell them. “Real Journalism” talk, in that context, is just market fetishizing, a way of mystifying the work of social production that makes “news” possible, so that it can appear to be the original creation of whoever is selling it to you. Never mind all the different people whose unpaid contributions made the production of the story possible (the original tipoff, unquoted sources, quoted subjects, the reference works consulted, etc); they will not be paid or credited for intellectual labor, because of the magic thing that happens when the story has been published: having become news, it will subsequently be considered the sole production of the New York Times or whoever. And if Arianna Huffington steals it, now, she becomes indistinguishable from a Somali pirate. Once we have decided where ownership of information begins — whose intellectual labor counts and whose does not — then we can proceed to sell it.

In a really interesting paper on the practice of news aggregation (complete with field work, because real writers do it in the field), C.W. Anderson had recourse to Bruno Latour’s idea of the “black box” to describe what it is that news-people do:

Boeing engineers labor to create a new model of jet, which will never reach the market  if its various parts break down during test flights. In forming a friendship, settling a marriage, or composing a manuscript, our hope is to establish something durable that does not constantly fray or break down. A job in which our roles are reassigned each week, or with the constant danger of being sacked by an emotionally unstable superior, is more of a headache  than anyone can endure. Earning a doctoral degree would not be worth the trouble if our transcript and thesis were scrutinized monthly by a panel of experts for the rest of our lives, or if long-time professors had to retake their comprehensive exams every summer. In everyday language we now refer to certain cars and people with the wonderful phrase ‘high-maintenance’. By definition, a black box is low-maintenance. It is something we rely on as a given in order to take further steps, never worrying about how it came into being. The reason it can be either so refreshing or so annoying to speak of one’s work with outside amateurs is that they lack awareness of the black boxes widely recognized in our respective professions (Harman 2009, 37).

and Anderson comments that

“the utility of Latour’s argument is that it gestures at the fairly commonsense notion that all stable definitions of originality and aggregation disguise their incredibly complex histories. They also bracket off the tangled, halting practices of actual journalistic work. The differences between an “aggregator” and an “original reporter” are never as clear in actual practice as they are during testimony in front of a public commission…Once we shift our analytical lens from the domain of rhetoric to the domain of practice, the complexity of the distinction between aggregation and original reporting becomes even more tangled…seemingly-solid occupational boundary lines are actually comprised of a myriad of complex, uncertain, unstable practices”

Exactly so: when posturing in front of the FCC (or in front of customers), journalists will need to make Real Journalism seem as clear and unambiguous as possible, so that they can lay secure claim to being it. Since everyone has agreed to agree that Real Journalism is important to democracy, the people who try to sell their Real Journalism will receive the social sanction for doing so only to the extent that they can clarify and lay claim to their status as such. A natural profit motive therefore flows out of this identity: it is by claiming “originality” that Keller gets to call Huffington a pirate (and justify the Times paywall), and it is by demonstrating his feet of clay that Huffington gets to defend her product from that accusation. Whoever wins the Real Journalism battle royal gets to defend American democracy from the barbarians.

Which is where the Somali pirates enter the picture: since journalistic products do not have value without their claim to a stable originality that will never really obtain in practice, people like Keller and Huffington will find it necessary to lay claim to being Real Journalists by conjuring up the figure of the Not Real Journalist, the aggregator they gain status by demonizing and othering. And since Keller, in particular, is trying to lay claim to capitalist champion of the democratic republic, what better figure for him to be different from — what more perfectly illegitimate aggregator of other people’s hard earned capital — than the metaphor made real in Somalia? What better argument for the importance of a newsgathering corporation’s profit motive to the sustenance of Our Republic than the figure of the failed-state collapse of institutional democracy — with the more specific  specter of Black Hawk Down somewhere in the background —  nicely bundled up in the figure of the actual pirate?

UPDATE: So far, as of noon wednesday, 125 people have clicked the links above for the New York Times or Huffington Post. Those page-views are hardly going to keep the good ship journalism afloat, mind you, but they are a very clear and concrete example of the “parasitic” way that bloggers steal from “real” journalism by, um, directing traffic back at the MSM itself.

Arianna, Bill, you’re welcome!

Our Deafening Silence on the Coast of Africa: Cote D’Ivoire and our Myth of Continents

A deafening silence, while the television world have turned to Japan and Libya.” “The world continues to focus on events in the Maghreb and beyond. The international community’s attention is far from Cote d’Ivoire, which nevertheless continues its downward spiral.” “While the world’s attention is focused on North Africa — Egypt and Libya — the power struggle in Ivory Coast is escalating.” “International media is following protests across the ‘Arab world’ but ignoring those in Africa.“a forgotten disaster in the making.” “Ivory Coast already a disaster and no one cares bc it doesn’t fit prevailing narrative.”All I want is for the international community to take notice of what is happening here. They’re not only killing people in Arab world.“The Story No One is Talking About” ”The US media continues to neglect the country and we are heading towards more violence.“Why are the media ignoring what’s happening in Ivory Coast?”

Those quotes all link to the writers that used them. But I offer this less as an invitation to click through — some of the articles are good, some of them are less so — than as a demonstration of the broad meme that “the world” and “the media” are not paying attention to what is happening in Côte d’Ivoire. This is, of course, more or less true: the international media is not paying much attention to Côte d’Ivoire (with a few exceptions). But why?

This meme got a kick start from an Al Jazeera English article from Feb 21st; Ory Okolloh tweeted a link to it and complained that global media was uninterested in Côte d’Ivoire, which prompted Anna Gueye to start a twitter campaign to get the likes of Nick Kristof and Anderson Cooper to pay attention. Nothing really came of that. Anderson Cooper tweeted on Feb 25th that “I have been following #ivorycoast closely and it deserves far more coverage,” but his promise to do something about it “on Monday” did not materialize. There is too much other shit going on in the world, it seems. But we did get out of it — at least in some circles — an increased awareness that something — vaguely — is happening in Côte d’Ivoire, along with a sort of sense that it should be covered, but isn’t.

(If you follow Cooper’s twitter feed back to that point, by the way, you can see exactly what it was that he covered instead: Libya until March 7th — with a brief stop-over in New Orleans for Mardi Gras — when he switched over to Egypt for a day, then back to Libya until the Japanese earthquake changed his plans (“I had my back packed for #Libya today, but will be going to #Japan instead. We’ll cover both on #ac360 10p”), with a return to Libya, now with Bahrain, about two days ago.)

Anderson Cooper’s barely used twitter feed does not really signify all that much, I’ll grant you, and while the fact that Cooper’s blog features more information on Charlie Sheen than on Côte d’Ivoire is, as Phil notes, a kind of bitter pill, you probably didn’t need Al Jazeera to tell you what you already knew: Africa is not something we need to bother knowing too much about. And there are many other extremely compelling stories: nuclear power is scarier, earthquakes are pathos-ier, Arab revolutions are sexier and oilier (and hit closer to home), while Charlie Sheen is whatever he is. It’s not that anyone denies that crises in Africa are important — it’s telling, after all, that Cooper will acknowledge the inattention as a problem while not redressing it — but no one, somehow, is telling the story in a way that makes it comprehensible.

For what it’s worth, I actually think this is the main problem. Sven Lindqvist’s stirring and horrifying Exterminate All the Brutes makes its moral center this declaration:

“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge that we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

It’s always worth thinking hard about the difference between what we could know and what we allow ourselves to know. But in this case, I suspect it’s less that we lack courage than that a contextual framework which would allow us to understand what is happening in Côte d’Ivoire is unavailable to us. We might know that there has been a “disputed” election — to use the parlance of neutral media non-speak — or that some “violence” is happening in some kind of passive-voiced way. We might even know that there is a refugee crisis that threatens to “spill over” into a “regional conflict” or some other stock “describing-turmoil-in-Africa” set of phrases. But the dots will not connect in our minds, nor will they particularly resolve into a reason to read more, learn more, or resolve. It isn’t that “we” don’t want to understand; it’s that we don’t know how to see beyond the initial same-old-story-ness of this story, when we hear it. Which is why, I would suggest, we end up where we started: a sense that, because there is violence, we should pay attention to what is happening, followed by the discovery that there is no news there; just the same “turmoil in Africa” narratives we sort of quietly presume to be going on across the continent all the time, and nothing we can think anything new about.

In that last paragraph, I went pretty deep into a very particular kind of “we,” so let me back up and clarify what I mean. Part of the problem is that there is too much garbage in our brains. So when I teach African literature, for example, I always begin the class by making a list of all the words that “we” might use to describe Africa (“dark continent,” “refugee,” “civil war,” “tribal,” and “AIDS” are common ones), but I do this only after instructing the class that what I mean is, of course, not what you or I think about Africa, but what “people” think about Africa, what the “media” thinks about the dark continent, what those less knowledgeable, cosmopolitan, and sensitive that us might think, in their sad and tragic ignorance. This gives us permission to think more clearly about how stupid we are, deep down, where we don’t like to go. I could also just give them Binyavaga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa,” and I usually do, but it works better if it comes organically from us first, because it allows us, as a class, to access what we might call that “collectively conscious unconsciousness” about Africa that we all share, albeit in differing ways. We might be more or less aware of it, and we might have differing levels of actual knowledge about Africa, but we are all, still, bombarded and saturated with so much “Africa nonformation” that we can’t help but let it infect our thinking. None of us are pure, here. And the first step towards knowing better has to be taking account of all the ignorance you already “know,” often without consciously knowing you know it. These are our “unknown knowns,” to use Zizek’s Lacanian Rumsfeldianism. And we only defuse them by bracketing them off from ourselves, naming them, and thinking carefully about them.

So what really is happening in Côte d’Ivoire? To answer that question, the historian in me wants to take the long view and frame what is happening now through the lens of Côte d’Ivoire in the sixties, the nineties, and the civil war that blew up in 2002 (starting here, if you want to do that). In other words, to place what is happening now in the continuous history out of which it emerges, as a way of differentiating the evolving situation there from the surface images of it that we are otherwise limited to. After all, most of the pictures, stories, and narratives that are available to us are accurate, more or less: there really is a humanitarian catastrophe, a disputed election, a refugee crisis, and the specter of full-blown civil war. But the question of why is impossible even to address if we don’t go beneath the apparent self-sufficiency of the images, the answers that seem to close down discussion rather than open it up. Just as Egypt’s protests didn’t come out of a vacuum, the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire has deep roots.

But shallow historiography is not the only problem. Take a look at this video from CCTV, which reports on how, on March 3rd, an all-women protest was set upon by government tanks and soldiers, killing seven women. I’ve cued that video to a particularly poignant section from about 0:40 to 0:53 where you can see a crowd of Ivoirians desperately trying to get a visual message through the camera person to whoever is watching. CCTV does not interview any of them; we do not hear their voices or stories. Instead, we get this bizarre game of “international affairs” charades: first, the crowd is seen gesturing wildly at an enormous pile of sandals on the ground, then they’re lifting and brandishing piles of clothing (all the while shouting illegibly), and then you see someone enter the frame holding a sign with the caption: “GBAGBO — LE PHARAON DE TEMPS MODERNES” (Gbagbo – the pharaoh of modern times).

What are the sandals for? What are these clothes to represent? Apparently the sandals are the footwear which were discarded when the women started running from the soldiers, though we don‘t get that explanation in the story itself; the amount indicates, therefore, the number of women who fled. Perhaps the clothing represents something similar? I’m not sure. But the sign is the key, as is the fact that it‘s only by happenstance that it happened to wander across the camera-man‘s gaze. Those Ivoirians were trying to play the internationally understood game of spectacle politics, trying to link what is happening in Côte d’Ivoire to what is happening in the Middle East and North Africa. They were trying to make us see the murder of peacefully protesting civilians by army weapons not simply as an atrocity, but as a particular kind of atrocity, the kind which requires intervention, attention, action. They were trying to take what is happening out of the narrative frame of “another African civil war” and place it in the frame of “dictator clinging to power by violently suppressing popular protest.” Like Ben Ali. Like Mubarak.

In other words, the problem is more than just that we “know” too much garbage about “Africa.” The problem is that we will find it difficult to see what is happening in a place like Côte d’Ivoire as part of the same macro-narrative that we have — slowly — learned to apply to the Middle East and North Africa, precisely to the extent that we place the latter phenomenon in a specifically limiting geographical context. If applying the frame of “Africa” to Côte d’Ivoire gets in the way, in other words, so can unconsciously limiting the geographical scope of “Protests in the Middle East” to the Middle East. Is what is happening in Gabon (here and here) not similar? Or Senegal? Angola? Gambia? Cameroon? And, of course, if what you want is protests for democracy in an oil producing region, let me introduce you to the Niger Delta.

Dibussi Tande has some thoughts on why the Revolution 2.0 hasn’t spread to sub-Saharan Africa, so far. Though it went almost totally unreported in the West, there were demonstrations in Cameroon on Feb 23rd demanding that Paul Biya step down — very much hoping to pull an Egypt on him — and the fact that they were easily quashed has to be dealt with. And, after all, I don’t want to suggest that we are seeing the same thing working itself out in sub-Saharan Africa. Because there is no same thing: while the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Palestine, etc, are all related and connected — and have increasingly converged on a singular language of protest — the political dynamics in each site have proven to be very different. Cameroon or Côte d’Ivoire are certainly no exception to that rule.

But this thing we are watching still might spread beyond North Africa; there’s a reason why so many sub-Saharan African governments are censoring the news out of Egypt. A lot of people outside of the Middle East are trying to figure out a local means of getting to a similar endpoint, and if that guy holding the “GBAGBO — LE PHARAON DE TEMPS MODERNES” was able to see a connection, then it’s there. But to take that into account, we need to loosen our grip on entire categorical sub-Saharan Africa vs. North Africa distinction. As Callie Maidhof pointed out:

…terms such as “Africa” and “the Middle East” function not only on the basis of geography or actual political ties, but as stand-ins for racial signifiers. Despite a shared history of European colonialism in its different manifestations, Africa and the Middle East nonetheless bear extremely different histories of representation or historical imaginaries within the European continent…these deeply rooted histories have frankly hindered our understanding of the recent revolutions—especially that of Libya—and even more so of their effect on politics on the African continent.

It’s not just race, though; it is easier, in some ways, to realize that Libya is part of “Africa” than to accept that Côte d’Ivoire could be part of “Middle-East-North-Africa.” The myth of continents tells us that the former is true, while that the latter is, by that standard, obviously false. And another part of what makes Middle East-North Africa seem to be distinct from either Europe or Africa is the fact that it was — as part of the Ottoman empire — historically distinct both  from the “Dark Continent” Africa that was imagined through European penetration and interpellation and also from the “Europe” which imagined by reference to its Ottoman and Orientalist other.

But race does shed some light on one of the most tellingly overlooked facts about what’s happening in Côte d’Ivoire, the fact that the entire conflict — for the past decade — has hinged on the question of whether Muslim immigrants to Côte d’Ivoire are really Ivoirian, which is to say, whether Muslims from the North African edge of West Africa are really African enough to be part of Côte d’Ivoire. You see where I’m going with this?

I don’t want to simplify it more than I can avoid, but putting it as simply as possible is a way of noting the this fact which has programmatically figured in almost no mainstream Western accounts of the violence: since the 1990’s, but with a major spike in the 2000’s, Ivoirian nativists have been working to place “Northern,” “Muslim,” and “Burkinabé” people outside the definition of Côte d’Ivoire’s political community, a way of denying full citizenship to those who lack full “Ivorité,” as it first began being called in the 90‘s. Moreover, these three categories are not quite coextensive, but the crisis quite clearly began ten years ago, and continues now, when former Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara  — who is Muslim, Northern, and Burkinabé — was then and is now being prevented from assuming the presidency on the basis of a very strategically limited notion of who is truly Ivoirian.

This is, in other words, about the political power structure working to limit who gets to politically represent and be represented in this “African” nation, precisely by drawing a line to separating “North Africa” from “West Africa,” in politically interested ways, to maintain political control for the real Ivoirians in the south. Without denying that there might be other bad guys in this story, the fact remains — virtually unspoken — that ten years ago, Ouattara’s ethnic origin as Burkinabé — his parents were from Burkina Faso — was used by politicians from the predominantly Christian southern part of the country to disqualify him from running for the presidency; a political campaign of “Ivorité” worked to distinguish between “indigenous Ivorians” and “Ivorians of immigrant ancestry,” as a thoroughly programmatic effort to dis-enfranchise the (largely Muslim) north by lumping them all together with the (many) immigrants in the north who originated Burkina Faso. The current violence started with a disturbingly analogous move: after Ouattara was declared to have won the presidential election — by the UN, ECOWAS, the AU, and all international observers — the Gbagbo controlled Constitutional Council threw out 660,000 votes from the north and gave the election to Gbagbo.

It’s all very complicated. But for now, my point is simply to note that these geographical categories are not only part of the problem in Côte d’Ivoire itself. In this case, they are part of the reason why we find it so difficult to even talk coherently about the problem. This is a point which Mahmood Mamdani has made at great length (and shorter length) with respect to Darfur and “Africans” and “Arabs” there, but the general point he’s been making for years, about the political production of ethnicity, is just as necessary here. Take this BBC account of the violence, for example, which tells the story as the emergence of underlying ethnic, religious and economic divisions after an influx of foreign immigrants (drawn by Côte d’Ivoire’s economic success) stirred up resentment in the south:

…under the surface, the country has long been deeply divided along ethnic, religious and economic lines. Its thriving cocoa industry meant living standards in Ivory Coast were far higher than its neighbours, so people from some of the world’s poorest countries, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, moved there to earn their living. Some of these people shared ethnic ties to those living in northern Ivory Coast and, like them, were mostly Muslim. Some southerners, egged on by populist politicians, started to resent the influx and demanded action to protect the country’s “Ivoirite (Ivorian-ness)”. They portrayed northerners as not being real Ivorians.

None of this is untrue, exactly, but one important fact is missing: that the meaning of ethnicity is not given, natural, but made, by conscious political actors, for conscious political gain. Nothing in the BBC story will tell you how this uptick in nativism really began; instead, you are allowed to assume that it is natural to hate “others,” that distrusting immigrants is just something that people do (or, if not everyone, at least “tribal” Africans). They might have been “egged on by populist politicians,” but the real problem is populism itself. And no specifics are given about what the particular divisions were that were targeted, certainly not in ways that might lead us to wonder how a global war on Muslims (and the mainstreaming of anti-immigrant nativism in the US and EU) might provide cover for disenfranchising Muslims/immigrants in a place like Côte d’Ivoire. But while I’m wondering about that, I’m much more certain that precisely to the extent that we take the line separating North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa seriously — naturalizing it as a real thing, in the way that “long been deeply divided” does — the more difficult it becomes to see how that line is being manipulated and used for political gain, and by who. Pre-existing ethnic divisions do not, in any simple way, cause the political violence: political actors are always using (by transforming) ethnicity through violence to acquire and keep wealth and power. And without that insight, we will understand very little about the temporality of this conflict, neither its history nor its future.

On Libya and “African Mercenaries”

A dead man, shown on Al Arabiya and said to be an "African" mercenary

As Tommy Miles put it, two weeks ago (in an excellent piece of writing that should be read in its entirety):

There is a very widespread and dangerous trope being played upon when Libyans accuse Gaddafi’s crimes of being committed by “African Mercenaries”, hints of which are being picked up in the foreign media. CNN has just prominently shown a Libyan woman, tear stained, crying out on the newly liberated streets of Egypt.  She calls for justice for her people, for the killing to end, begs Obama to intervene, and then repeats “Gaddafi is killing us with his Africans!”  She is not alone in arranging this revolution between the Libyan people on one side, and Gaddafi, his family, and dark-skinned “outsiders” on the other.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the use of a map, Libyans are Africans.  But Africans here means “black people” and there is a very long very pernicious racism in their part of the world towards “black Africans”, not unlike that in my part of the world.  When I see tweets like the following, I cringe.  I also see a history of fear and contempt slipping out in a time of unparalleled suffering.

This is because, as N. Thompson pointed out, Libya has both a sizable population of sub-saharan Africans and a history of discrimination against them:

It is estimated that about a million of the 7 million population of Libya are of Sub-saharan origin, some of whom have been in Libya for centuries and mostly found in the South of the country. A significant number of these Africans are, however, recent imigrants to Libya or using Libya as a stop gap destination on their sojurn to greener pastures in Europe. Col. Gaddafi has made no attempts in hiding his supposed love of “Africa” and his determination to help create a free borderless continent and single currency. A 2010 report about the state of “race relations” in Libya does, however, paint a different picture within his own borders.

According to a United Nations Human Rights statement – “Libya must end its practices of racial discrimination against black Africans, particularly its racial persecution of two million black African migrant workers. There is substantial evidence of Libya’s pattern and practice of racial discrimination against migrant workers”. The New York Times in the article “New Status in Africa Empowers an Ever-Eccentric Qaddafi” gives a sense of the experiences of black Africans in Libya: “All over this capital city, illegal African immigrants line up along roadways, across bridges and at traffic circles hoping to be selected for menial day jobs that pay about $8. They call the areas where they congregate the hustling grounds, which are always crowded with desperate faces from early morning until well past sundown. Many people in Tripoli said they resented the presence of so many illegal workers. “We don’t like them,” said Moustafa Saleh, 28, who is unemployed, echoing a popular sentiment. “They smuggle themselves through the desert, and the way they deal with us is not good.” In the New York Time’s article a former Libyan minister of economy, trade and investment Ali Abd Alaziz Isawi was quoted as saying that illegal immigrants “are a burden on health care, they spread disease, crime. They are illegal.”

As the Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday, fears that “African” migrant workers would be scapegoated appears to be valid:

Up a muddy clay road next to the University of Gar Younis in Benghazi lies a work camp, with some 52 rows of white prefabricated housing surrounded by a fence. Dozens of Africans greet visitors eagerly, “Are you from the UN? Are you here to help us? Please help us, we need help.”

These foreign workers, left behind as international companies close up shop and embassies evacuate their employees, are in a double bind. Libyans don’t trust them, and they don’t trust the Libyans. Since reports circulated that Qaddafi hired African mercenaries to kill opposition forces, several suspected mercenaries have been caught, beaten, and even killed, and many of the Africans in this camp fear stepping foot outside the compound.

Between 2,500 and 3,000 African and South Asian guest workers and illegal migrants are staying in the Gar Younis camp waiting to get out of the country. The camp is overseen by Libyan volunteers like Sami al-Bah, an engineer from Benghazi. He stalks around holding a sheaf of raggedy handwritten papers which bear the names of those stranded in this camp. His surgical mask, a precaution against rumored tuberculosis carried by the residents, slips from his face.

“Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Eritrea … they come from everywhere,” he says. “And there are so many of them. We can barely keep track.” Mr. Bah says about a third of the residents are not in possession of passports – “either because their companies were holding them and did not give them back before leaving, or because they crossed into the country illegally and don’t want to say.” In the chaos of the situation, he says, it is impossible to verify who is employed and who is not.

Or this report from Al Jazeera:

Alex Thurston (on Feb 28) argued that since “Qadhafi has long used mercenaries as advisers and soldiers,” and “African poverty has created a substantial pool of potential mercenaries,” he found it “likely that Qadhafi is now using some of these hired guns against his own people,” and outlines

“three categories of foreign fighters in Libya: foreigners who are part of the formal security forces, foreigners who are fighting for Qadhafi for political reasons, and foreigners who are killing Libyans primarily for money. Let’s add two more: those were coerced into fighting, and innocent persons accused of being mercenaries.”

David Styan is more skeptical:

There is a gulf between perceptions and reality; initially both European and Arab journalists echoed what Libyans told them, that Qadaffi’s forces comprised only ‘foreign’ and ‘black’ troops. This perception rested on a double-amalgam: firstly that anyone supporting Qadaffi is a ‘foreign mercenary’; secondly that these mercenaries were drawn principally from sub-Saharan Africa.

To date, there is little evidence that either is true. Initial fighting in Benghazi produced images of a single mutilated corpse of an ‘African’.  Yet Libya’s own population is racially variegated, with ‘black’ populations straddling Libya’s vast Sahelian borders with Niger and Chad. Qadaffi’s power has rested in part on patronage and clan allegiances, which are particularly pronounced within his diverse security forces.

It’s very hard to tell; all the pictures of “African” mercenaries that I’ve seen seem to be wearing the same uniform, for what it’s worth. Anyway, as Tommy Miles pointed out, focusing on the specter of “African mercenaries” distracts from the bigger picture:

Photos and videos, many horrific, have been provided of a handful (I have seen five total) dead uniformed soldiers with varying degrees of dark skin.  This is hardly proof of the hysterical rhetoric built around thousands of black Africans raping women and murdering protesters.

More reports, including those showing troops attacking civilians, point to the Army and the internal security forces. The Security Battalions (‘Kataeb al Amn’) include forces directly under the command of Colonel Massud Abdul Hafiz al-Gaddafi. Not only are these groups well armed and trained, they are carefully chosen for loyalty and ideologically motivated. If there is any truth in the “African Mercenaries” rumors, Tchadians or other former foreign guerrillas, long ago integrated into these internal security forces, would be cause. But the Libyan military and security establishment is gigantic: 50,000 regular troops and almost as many reserves, bolstered by recent spending sprees on Russian and other western equipment. It strains credulity that a few hundred, even a few thousand, “black African” mercenaries would be able to enforce submission upon the Libyan people without the participation of these forces.

On twitter, users have dubbed stories of “African Mercenaries” “Confirmed” after Al Arabiya – and later Al Jazeera – reported as unconfirmed the same stories of “African Mercenaries” twitter users had earlier broadcast.  A news agency, I should remind readers, cannot “confirm” a story by reporting that you are saying it.  It would need multiple individual, reliable, first hand sources providing consistent stories of having seen the original event themselves.  We only have inconsistent third hand reports so far.

And notes, pointedly, that:

…this is not the first time recently we have heard such stories. In Bahrain, where the military opened fire on unarmed protesters with assault riffles, anti-aircraft weapons, and helicopter fire, some locals have accused “Iraqi”, Pakistani” or other mercenaries of having infiltrated the army.  In the recent massacres on Guinea Conakry and Abidjan, victims have blamed Liberian mercenaries for having murdered and raped protesters.  Again and again, as here in Libya, we hear the cry that “no fellow countryman would do this!”  “Gaddafi couldn’t get Libyans to kill Libyans, so he brought Mercenaries”, not Arab mercenaries, not western mercenaries, but those people who resemble the “lowest”, most “foreign” of our fellow citizens.  There have, just today, been a couple of isolated reports that North Koreans were shooting protesters in Libya, but such reports have not gotten the traction that the “African Mercenaries” have.  I must ask why this is?

As Konwomyn wrote, in an open letter to Al Jazeera, and well worth reading:

I think continually pushing a singular narrative about a more complex story has the danger of reinforcing an African and Arab narrative that has an uncomfortable racial connotation to it. I am not accusing Al Jazeera of having a racial bias, far from it. I just feel its important for the network to be sensitive to how this issue plays out to an international audience of both Black Africans and Arabs when the full story is untold.

As reports are emerging, it seems to be that the ‘mercenaries from Africa’ are most likely from Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Tunisia and Guinea as well as South Africa and parts of Europe. So they are White, Arab, European and Black, not all Black Africans. They may not be from the Congo, maybe not from Somalia but almost certainly not Zimbabwe as some wild speculations claimed. Yes, there was no plane full of soldiers dispatched from Harare to Tripoli at 1 a.m (!) on Sunday morning – any well-educated Zimbabwean could have told these international journalists tweeting in their personal capacity that this ‘witness account’, as dubbed by Al Jazeera, was untrue. Of course AJE is only the messenger so you can’t be blamed for what you can’t verify and I don’t blame you. But since this is an open letter I may as well post some info for other inquiring minds who’ll stumble on my blog. For starters soldiers are not mercenaries, our history of mercenaries is mainly from the apartheid era, Mozambique’s civil war and the Angolan war when White South Africans and White Zimbabweans (some of them were former Rhodesian soldiers) would use Zimbabwe as temporary base but they did not operate in Zimbabwe. Secondly today in Zimbabwe we have thugs (don’t often use guns but often beat and rape) not mercenaries (skilled hit-men like Simon Mann (Equatorial Guinea plot)) that are busy with their own electoral campaign of violence, thirdly Zimbabwe’s thugs* have no knowledge of Libyan terrain and finally Zimbabwe doesn’t speak French. Sadly no amount of @’ing international journos on twitter could kill this rumor. But as untruths die in time, I sincerely hope that this untruth will die sooner rather than later. (see Smith’s column)

Anyway about these mercenaries and Al Jazeera’s role in coverage. As there have been suggestions that it is likely the ‘African mercenaries’ are from the above-mentioned African countries, I’d like to know why an investigative journalist couldn’t be dispatched to these countries to find out how the mercenaries work – surely Chad, Tunisia and Niger are not as hostile to international journalists as Mummar Gadaffi’s Libya. If not, could a Chadian Ambassador or Activist could be invited to Al Jazeera studios to share their view? How can the story of mercenaries be reported to the exclusion of Chad, yet Chad is the French and Arabic speaking nation where some of these hitmen are allegedly coming from?

It bears repeating that Chad is an Arab African nation. It is Libya’s neighbor. As your coverage is mainly centered on the ‘Arab World’ its tempting to think that Chad is perhaps not Arab enough that it should be spoken of and not spoken to in news reports and analyses. I appreciate that this is a fast-developing story and there are many angles to cover, but the impact of events in Libya on security and political relations between these two countries cannot be so insignificant that it’s not worthy of mention, can it? At the very least one would think, Idriss Deby must be having sleepless nights while the Arabs next door are revolting. He could very well be the next Arab dictator to go.

And finally, Callie Maidhof at Jadaliyya:

I suggest that it should give us pause to consider the stakes of this conceptualization of a basic Arab-African or Arab-black antagonism—one that not only formulates these as mutually exclusive categories but also pins them against one another in the context of the Libyan revolution. This formulation is taking place both “on the ground” in Libya as well as in its representation outside its borders, and the generalized media blackout has severely compromised understanding of the situation. Just a handful of commentators have questioned the veracity of the “African mercenaries” charge while maintaining their support for the uprising…Whether or not Qaddafi has recruited foreign mercenaries, it is clear that none of us—in Libya or abroad—are getting the full story. However, the speed with which this charge has been accepted as true should call into question our own assumptions about relations between Arab and black Africans.

Whether or not Qaddafi has recruited foreign mercenaries, it is clear that none of us—in Libya or abroad—are getting the full story. However, the speed with which this charge has been accepted as true should call into question our own assumptions about relations between Arab and black Africans.

This is not the first time that Arab and black Africans have been tragically opposed; rather, this has been integral to policymaking in the United States and beyond, as well as to numerous think tanks and international organizations, humanitarian and otherwise. For a far more extreme example, we can look to Sudan. In his work on that topic, Mahmood Mamdani (2009) has argued that the perceived dichotomy between Arab and black Africans is a false one, relying on colonial-era tropes of settler and native which additionally sought to retribalize and reify Sudanese social (and ethnic) divisions. Mamdani holds that anti-genocide campaigns focusing on Darfur such as Save Darfur depoliticize the insurgency/counterinsurgency by shifting the discourse into the moral realm in order to: 1) link the conflict to the War on Terror; and 2) instigate a military response on behalf of the United States and other Western powers. This move also includes Sudan in the political geography of the Middle East.

and notes that:

Libya has long played a critical role with regard to its neighbors, and Qaddafi himself has been heavily involved in African politics. In his February 22 speech, he further reinforced his ties to Africa, calling into question the consonance of something called the Middle East when he claimed that without him, Libya would undergo US occupation or incorporation by the UAE. Additionally, while the Arab League has suspended Libya for its brutal treatment of civilians, the African Union (of which Qaddafi used to be the chairman) has remained silent on the matter.

The use of the term “African mercenaries” points to African-ness as a site of difference. But Qaddafi’s career has been characterized by a loud and memorable involvement in African politics—even taking on the title “the King of Kings” of Africa or in Arabic “malik al-muluk“. This would suggest that if he has deployed non-citizen mercenaries, it would highlight his and Libya’s regional embeddedness rather than its absolute difference.

Given this embeddedness, we may account for the use of the word “African” to suggest “foreign” in a number of ways. One answer would be the radical break this uprising has produced in our conceptions of “Libya” and “Libyans” versus Qaddafi himself, who has until recently been regarded as almost selfsame with his state and people. In contrast with Qaddafi’s African ties, one could argue, Libyans have determined that they will stand in concert with other Arab revolutions.

Invented Communities in Africa and America


In Garry Wills’ Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the phrase is used in a positive way, just as when Mark Egan Essig used the phrase for his Inventing America: the life of Benjamin Franklin or Jack Rakove’s Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America. When the American state is “invented,” it is a good thing.

 By contrast, when the New York Times offers us the picture on the left and the following text, the unmistakable implication is that political states which do not perfectly align with pre-existing ethnic communities are, if not unnatural, somewhat problematic:

A Continent Carved Up, Ignoring Who Lives Where The map of today’s African nations looks much like the map drawn by Europeans to meet their own interests: diverse groups are scattered across many countries with little concern for ethnic links. The patterns shown here represent only the broadest ethnic and language groupings; within those are further divisions, like tribe and clan, too numerous to show.

In the accompanying article, this point (the “Colonial Curse”) is made explicit:

More than any other continent, Africa is wracked by separatists. There are rebels on the Atlantic and on the Red Sea. There are clearly defined liberation movements and rudderless, murderous groups known principally for their cruelty or greed. But these rebels share at least one thing: they direct their fire against weak states struggling to hold together disparate populations within boundaries drawn by 19th-century white colonialists. That history is a prime reason that Africa remains, to a striking degree, a continent of failed or failing states.

The most obvious point, of course, is that the USA is about as invented a community as it’s possible to imagine; ours is a map drawn by Europeans utterly without reference to ethnic groups, and yet we’ve done all right, haven’t we? And every state, every map, every nation in the world is this as well. So, um, what’s the point again? 

The second thing is that Jeffrey Gettleman’s opening paragraph doesn’t really say anything at all. In that most African states are “weak states struggling to hold together disparate populations within boundaries drawn by 19th-century white colonialists,” then yes, it’s true that African rebels have in common the fact that they’re rebelling against that kind of state. But at least as many rebels are trying to capture the state as seperate from it, and in the most war-torn parts of the continent, they’re just trying to maintain the status quo; war is its own political economy in Eastern Congo, for example, and there are many places where borders are too irrelevent to fight over. Gettleman’s sweeping generalization works, in other words, because it actually says so little, and so tautologically. 

And the third point to make is –um,  how should I put this — what a useless map that is. It purports to demonstrate something like ethnic diversity, but what it really shows is an incredibly impoverished version of linguistic diversity, by which, apparently, everyone between Gabon and Mozambique speaks the same language. In fact, just to hit up the difference between Tanzania and Mozambique which that map doesn’t flag: Portuguese is the closest thing to a national language of Mozambique, but because of the particularities of colonial and postcolonial experience, the country is completely divided by language, while Tanzania is almost completely unified by Kiswahili, thanks to the success in doing so first by the Germans and British and then by Nyerere’s postcolonial government. That map tells you nothing of what is actually important, nothing of the histories by which Tanzania and Mozambique were made into what they are as national communities.

One would never want to ignore the destructive effects the scramble for Africa had on Africans, and the last thing I want to do is downplay the extent to which contemporary African politics are organically related to that historical event. But history didn’t stop after that point, and this capsule account of the “colonial curse” relies on your being completely ignorant about almost all of it. The problem with colonization isn’t that Europeans drew up maps “with little concern for ethnic links,” and it isn’t true anyway. The problem is that Europeans drew up the maps they did with the intention of extracting as much in the way of labor and  resources as they could from Africans, and then did exactly that, often by quite carefully seeking to divide and conquer Africans by ethnicity.

It lets Europe off the hook in a hugely important ways to imagine that Europeans were, in any sense, unaware of ethnicity. Precisely the opposite was the case. In most cases, it was Europeans who taught (and forced) Africans to be “ethnic” in the first place. This is not a small point. When Europeans set about conquering Africa, they discovered quite quickly that it was a lot harder than they expected: it was relatively easy to kill Africans, but simply shooting people didn’t actually give a colonial administrator much to work with in terms of actually controlling them and extracting labor and resources. Africans often didn’t live in anything like the absolutist ethnic states which Europeans wanted them to live in — which would have made it easier to govern them — so Europeans colonial administrators worked very hard to create absolutist  ethnic tribal groups and then force Africans to live in them.

This is not to say that ethnicity didn’t exist before  colonization; that sort of generalization is also hard to sustain, as most continental level generalizations are. But the general rule was that the sort of political state which was suited for organizing and controlling a population’s labor and resources did not exist before colonial rule, and had to be invented, and was, by Europeans. “Gikuyu,” for example, means “farmer,” and it distinguished the people (in what is now Kenya) who lived by farming, and took a pride in it, from the people who lived a more pastoral life in the same area, and spoke a different language. But the groups intermarried, crossed over, and traded with each other when they felt like it, and neither was a single political group anyway; there was no Maasai state or nation, nor was there a Gikuyu nation. That is, until Europeans — with their maps and censuses — decided that there was, and codified it into colonial law.  After that, there were such “ethnic” groups, and you can find a version of this phenomenan across the continent; “We didn’t know we were members of X tribe until Europeans told us we were,” is a common refrain. And after that point, it became true, in the same way that my ancestors became “American” at the moment a census decided they were.  

This is not even a controverisal argument, by the way. Read Terence Ranger’s “The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa,” or Leroy Vail’s The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, or Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, or Crawford Young’s Ethnicity and Politics in Africa, or listen to Bruce Berman on this subject, or read just about anything at all on the subject but the New York Times. What you will get from that experience is a better understanding of the extent to which the MSM’s conception of Africa presumes and propogates an intuitive distinction between Africans and the West based on this difference: while it is normal for Westerners — being nturally secular and creative and self-making — to invent and create our own states and governments (to declare our independence and “constitute” ourselves), the fact that Africans are saddled with artificial states is an inherent problem because Africans are, you know, basically tribal, ethnic, and clannish, basically the same as they always were. Because they’re so naturally insular and tribalist, it’s natural for them to fight against the artificial states they’ve been saddled with by colonialism, even a thing to be celebrated. Except — and here’s the really important point — those colonial maps have long ceased to be foreign to Africa, any more than it continues to be weird for Virginians and Pennsylvanians and Californians to live in the same country. “Nigeria” might have once been a colonial imposition, but as Chinua Achebe put it in The Education of a British-Protected Child:

I lived through a civil war in which probably two million people perished over the question of Nigerian unity. To remind me, therefore, that Nigeria’s foundation was laid only a hundred years ago, at the Berlin conference of European powers and in the total absence of any Africans, is not really useful information to me. It is precisely because the nation is so new and so fragile that we would soak the land in blood to maintain the frontiers mapped out by foreigners.

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