On Max Röing, “White Morans” and the Colonization of Maa Cultures

December 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

Three years ago when Max Röing decided to shake up his comfortable life in Sweden and embark upon a tough humanitarian mission to Kenya, where he’d assist in planting trees in Kajiado, little did he know he would become a Moran – or so he says. Last weekend, Max underwent the traditional Ilkiramat Eunoto rite of passage with members of the Ilchamus tribe, shedding enough of his formerly privileged western existence to become a Moran, an African warrior among the Maa people.

Having arrived in Kenya as a white voluntourist savior, to save Africans from their destructive environmental habits, 25-year old Max now returns as an Ilchamus Moran. As expected, Max’s adventures have elicited widespread outrage from critics condemning his actions as cultural appropriation. There has also been push-back from apologists labeling this “cultural exchange”. It’s not.

Max, who was welcomed and accepted by the minority Ilchamus, hails from Sweden, a country plagued by racism and intolerance towards African minorities

Max, who was welcomed and accepted by the minority Ilchamus, hails from Sweden, a country plagued by racism and intolerance towards African minorities

A common element in many African cultures is hospitality and the readiness to welcome and accept strangers. It is not uncommon for African communities to invite non-Africans to ceremonies such as weddings where they get to participate as guests. It would have been perfectly fine for Max to demonstrate his love for the rich Ilchamus culture by accepting an invitation to observe the traditional circumcision ceremony of youths graduating to manhood. However, for him to insist on taking part as an initiate alongside young Ilchamus men who are trained for this achievement their entire lives is utterly disrespectful.

In so doing, Max has reduced an entire culture to a self-help program that enables white westerners who have fallen out of love with their own culture to find meaning in their lives. Rather than an exchange of cultures, this is a case of just another attention-seeking westerner stealing the limelight at an important cultural celebration in Africa, to showcase his amazing adventure to become warrior.

True cultural exchange would entail an evenly-matched interaction of cultures, which would only be possible among equals. Yet there is no equal relationship between Max and his 5,000 fellow initiates from the minority Ilchamus ethnic group. Max’s fellow initiates are unlikely to find the same sort of belonging that he did in their homeland, as belonging is a privilege that is often denied to African minorities in Max’s own Sweden. Would an Ilchamus warrior in Sweden be embraced, received, welcomed and accepted as Max has been? Highly unlikely.

Behind the idyllic façade of an inclusive Scandinavian paradise, an egalitarian beacon of hope in an intolerant world, racial tensions constantly brew in Max’s Sweden. An Ilchamus warrior arriving in Sweden today can expect to find themselves in a struggle to find belonging in a society characterized by racial inequalities. While he may take comfort in even being allowed into Sweden (a country notorious for its low acceptance of applications from asylum-seekers) in the first place, his reverie is likely to be cut short during a stroll down central Stockholm in which he is accosted by shouts of “go back to your own country”. Even worse, he could find himself a victim of the increasing hate crimes against African-born residents of Sweden.

Disturbed by the hostility and intolerance of white Swedes, the Ilchamus Moran may decide to escape to his only sanctuary, his home in Tensta, one of the many segregated underground suburbs designed to keep Swedish people of color well hidden from view, thereby projecting the image of an all white Sweden. But in seeking comfort in the distractions of TV, he would be assaulted by populist xenophobia which is the order of the day in Swedish parliament. He would hear Swedish politicians arguing in defense of the establishment of economic divisions in Sweden based on racial hierarchies, thereby sowing the seeds for Swedish police brutality. Disgusted by the blatant racism in the Swedish political sphere, he may flick the channel only to find a rerun of the TV show Pippi Longstocking, in which Pippi – a national treasure in Sweden and the embodiment of the country’s “egalitarian spirit” – says her father is “king of the Negroes.”

Or maybe TV is not his thing, and so the Moran instead decides to visit the local library in Stockholm where he finds the openly racist Tintin in the Congo in the children’s literature section. Leaving the library in frustration, he may be forced to walk past segregated schools and arrive at a café for a coffee break. Only that at the table next to his, young white Swedes are loudly claiming the privilege to define what is and what isn’t racist for Africans in Sweden. He would then be reminded that as an African immigrant and minority in Sweden, he is expected to be grateful just for being allowed to be there.

***

The Maa people comprise the Maasai, Samburu and Ilchamus ethnic groups, whose homeland stretches from western Kenya into northern Tanzania. This land of the Maa is a popular destination for young, middle-class westerners seeking an escape, a transformational experience, a rare encounter with the “authenticity” and physical hardship they sorely miss in their own post-industrial societies – for a small price. A westerner out to experience something that their affluent lives do not offer is guaranteed to find it among the Maa: from blisters from spear hunting training, to sleeping on the ground in a communal bed of leaves and branches, and even going days without food. Westerners obsessed with the pursuit of emotional highs (and photo ops) among the exotic peoples of Africa are always quick to turn to the Maa people  – with the Maasai being a particular favorite. Once here, the westerners waste no time in using these exotic African cultures to boost their self-worth, and even profit from their romanticized trips to Africa, often through lucrative book deals.

Max Roing with Ilchamus Morans during the ceremony to initiate young Ilchamus men into manhood

Max with Morans during the ceremony to initiate young Ilchamus men into manhood

As a Kenyan woman, I have grown up aware of the importance of the rite of passage among the different cultures of Kenya, in fostering a sense of community within a given ethnic group. An important sense of unity, identification, belonging and togetherness is cultivated during this ceremony to transition youth from childhood into adulthood. Upon completion of the celebration, the young man feels well bonded and connected to his fellow initiates and integrated into the social fabric of his community. For some communities, this is a deeply religious step, with leaders offering sacrifices or prayers asking for blessings for the young people. In other communities, the spirits of the ancestors are invited to witness this occasion.

In stark contrast, western culture is characterized by the fraying of relationships, the disintegration of communities, and the fragmentation of society, all of which can be attributed to rampant individualism, manic consumerism and unrelenting careerism. It is therefore understandable why Max Röing would be eager to embrace the sense of community found in diverse African cultures such as that of the Ilchamus, which is difficult to experience in the cultures of the West. It is also easy to understand why Max would turn to the more meaningful African societal rituals, when the rites of passage typically available to young westerners in the west involve experimentation with alcohol, cigarettes and hard drugs, teen promiscuity and eating disorders.

But like many westerners before him, Max doesn’t see the irony in “finding himself” in a country and culture quite different from his own. Typically, when you lose your way, you retrace your steps to arrive at the point where you got lost, and then figure out the best way forward. You don’t get out of your car; abandon it in the middle of the highway to go take a plane to Africa. Rather than fixing the problems that plague their own fractured societies, young westerners experiencing emptiness are quick to flee into African cultures for fulfillment and as a perfect escape from their own problems that bedevil western culture and society.

In his selfish quest for his own experience, it is unlikely that Max even considered the actual needs of the Ilchamus. Did he consult Ilchamus women, to find out how they felt about a foreigner being granted the privilege of becoming a Moran, when they themselves despite being Ilchamus by blood, born and raised are denied the same? Did he take into account the fact that during colonialism in Kenya, the Maa people were some of the most affected by land grabs orchestrated by white men like himself? Is he aware that decades after “independence”, the Maa people have continued to lose their fertile grazing lands to environmental conservationists like himself whose singular aim is to protect wildlife, never mind the human cost? Did he consider that his photo-ops surrounded by Morans may only end up doing more harm than good, by promoting stereotypes that fuel the white-savior industrial complex?

Or was he just here to take?

The absurdity of Max Röing’s warrior adventures among the Ilchamus is further compounded by the original media report which reads like a parody worthy of The Onion:

“My name is Max Lemeyan Le Kachuma from the Ilchamus tribe and a clan called Iltoimai,” he confidently introduces himself as he sips sour milk from a cup. He then unwraps a polythene with round, yellow substances. He picks a handful and pours some onto his milk.”

How could Max fail to see the ironies that would entail when, after embracing poverty and hardship, he would have to return to his previous life of luxury? Will Swedish (let alone Kenyan) airport security allow him onto the plane with his warrior sword strapped to his brown belt, let alone the polythene bag with round, yellow substances he uses to garnish his sour milk? Will he be wearing his Moran shuka dress during the wintry months in Sweden or was this just a fun costume to wear but take off before heading to the airport? And what will his vegan pals in Stockholm think of “his” new cultural tradition of suffocating a goat to death and drinking its warm blood with herbs?

His Moran title secured, Max can now leave “his” Ilchamus tribe and return to his wealthy, privileged lifestyle in Sweden armed with photos as proof of how he chose hardship and survived it, how he deliberately embraced poverty and its discomforts as an indication of his superiority of character. He now has a story to tell that will place him in the ranks of the fearless and worldly-wise of Europe.

Yet the physically and mentally challenging tasks required to become a Moran are easy to endure for a couple of weeks when you have the comfort of knowing that this sort of hardship will not characterize your future way of life. But young Ilchamus men do not enjoy similar privilege. Unlike young whites like Max for whom this is just an “experience” from which they can walk away at any time, for the Ilchamus, this is their way of life. And therein lies Max’s profound disrespect.

By now claiming to be part of the Ilchamus tribe, the Iltoimai clan and the Ilmeng’ati age-group, Max seeks to create the impression that he belongs; that he is now one of them and therefore understands what it means to be an Ilchamus Moran. While the experience may have been “real” for Max, he should recognize it for what it actually was: symbolic. The idea that anyone can come in to a society, assume their practices and become a Moran in a couple of weeks is absurd, insulting and disrespectful to Ilchamus culture in particular and to African cultures in general.

#BandAid30: Philanthropic Colonization of Africa, One Patronizing Lyric at a Time

December 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

When Bob Geldof recently announced the revival of his song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with slightly altered lyrics, to raise money for the countries afflicted with the Ebola virus, this sparked a Twitter riot by critics the world over protesting the resurrection of the patronizing song that has only done more harm than good in Africa since its 1984 debut.

Offensive, Patronizing, Condescending

First off, to many critics, the idea that Africa needs to be saved in 2014 by washed up C-list pop artists is a perverse and offensive example of the white messiah complex. Moreover, the revision of lyrics promised by Geldof, founder of the Band Aid charity, did not make the tone of the song any less offensive, patronizing and condescending. Dripping with “White Man’s Burden”, epitomizing agony and inviting sympathy to “save Africans” and cure Ebola, the revised lyrics include:

“There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
Where a kiss of love can kill you
Where there’s death in every tear
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom.”

Even worse, the song’s video features a clip of what looks like the corpse of an African woman being carried out of her home. This perverse use of images of dying Africans as disaster porn is not only exploitative of their suffering, but also disrespectful to the dying who deserve dignity even in their final moments.

Perpetuating Negative Stereotypes of Africa

But even more than the offense is the long term damage that the lyrics and images of this song will do. For years, Ethiopia has been trying very hard to move away from its image as a poster child for poverty, an image that was created by the original Band Aid Charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” of 1984. The country has been trying to portray a bright new image to the world in order to attract tourists and foreign direct investment. However, this uphill battle is always hindered whenever the images of the 1984 single appear on the screens of those they are trying to persuade.

The original Band Aid campaign and similar subsequent western efforts, have led to an image of an Africa full of  people, unable to help themselves and constantly looking to foreigners for help. The constant appeal for funds by charities like Band Aid perpetuates an image of Africa as a basket case in need of western salvation. As a result, the rest of the world associates Africa only with a single story of stereotypes of disease, war, conflict, voodoo, 419 scammers, corruption, poverty, hunger, polygamy, lawlessness, child soldiers, child laborers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation.

Moreover, these stereotypical images are not associated with any one particular country. In fact very rarely are countries within Africa, allowed to have their own identity, but are bundled in together using sweeping generalizations. Though the original was recorded to raise money for Ethiopia, the stigma its simplistic message left behind affected not only that country, but a continent of 54 hugely-varied nations, with its legacy hindering investment, hurting tourism and inspiring the sort of aid that has a negative impact.

Africa – a continent rich in resources and full of unbridled potential, has sadly found itself with the challenging task of trying to erase the lingering image of despair perpetuated by psychologically powerful negative images made even more so when projected over long periods of time. These negative depictions are today available in every sphere of western life: media, academia, politics, business, international relations and popular culture.

But of course, charities like Band Aid wouldn’t really raise any money if they showed happy, healthy Africans. That said, the money raised in aid of Ebola victims will come at a price, as they will have to live with the damage of a blemished image of West Africans and Africa in general. This is only likely to exacerbate the stigmatization of and discrimination against Africans as potential Ebola-carriers that we have already seen. Shock tactics that use negative imagery may raise money in the short term, but the long-term damage will take far longer to heal. However well intentioned this Band Aid 30 campaign maybe, it will only end up promoting the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of poverty, disease and death.

Western Complicity

Western charity campaigns such as Band Aid 30 are designed to give the impression that they are “saving Africa from itself”. Yet, this view point deliberately omits and completely ignores the complicity of western governments and multinationals in causing the problems facing Africa today. Fact is, the current health crisis is a consequence of the years of IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), economic injustice and neoliberal policies tearing up local healthcare infrastructure all across Africa.

It’s noteworthy that the very same Geldof who is now out to “save Africa”, has been deeply complicit in marketing neoliberal policies to the continent with a humanitarian/ anti-poverty sheen of respectability. Along with other celebrity activists, Geldof has been pushing for the adoption of policies that continue to fail African people while preventing governments from putting in place the quality public services people require. When celebrities like Geldof and Bono perpetuated the dubious “Africa Rising” narrative of a fast-growing West Africa, especially in Liberia and Sierra Leone, this did more harm than good. The result was that GDP growth through extraction made these countries poorer in terms of not only broadly measured wealth, but also the society’s ability to contend with health and welfare crises.

For Geldof to now turn around and purport to save Africa is a case of the right hand providing solutions to problems caused by the left hand. Yet, you cannot solve a problem with the same mind-set that created it. Geldof’s disaster appeal is devoid of all historical context and therefore does not paint the right picture of the Ebola crisis or its structural and systemic causes. The only way to contain the current crisis and prevent a similar occurrence in future, is by first making the world aware of the long-term factors which have made the Ebola crisis possible.

Philanthropic Colonialism

According to Geldof, he was spurred into action to revive the song after he received a call from the UN to say that Ebola was “getting out of control”. But why would the UN send an SOS to charity rather than seek inter-governmental action? Yet Ebola is a public health issue to which no individual or private actor can make an effective contribution. The only way to combat this would be to have a well-resourced public health sector, well-trained health workers, good planning, logistics and coordination.

Yet, this is not the first time that the UN has overlooked the cooperation of states as the most effective means of tackling problems in Africa. Over the years, the UN has come under criticism, along with NGOs and IGOs for engaging in “philanthropic colonialism” in that these “new colonialists of Africa” see something that needs to be done, and they get to work – with or without the cooperation of states.

While this mode of operation can be good for the short term, it can be a blow to the authority of an already weak government.  And it may do nothing to ensure that a state will be able to provide for its citizens in the future. Liberia is a case in point. That Liberia – a country with one of the largest concentration of private non-state actors and aid agencies in the world is experiencing this crisis, is an indicator of the inefficiency of charity in effectively combating the virus.

The 19th century colonialists justified colonialism as being the antidote to the savage behaviors of those they colonized. This noble mission to save us from our “inferior” culture entailed the dehumanization of Africans through the perpetuation of negative stereotypes that still linger today. The policies put in place by the colonizers which led to economic exploitation, destruction of local heritage and the creation of a culture of dependency, were all touted as being essential to easing the White Man’s Burden. Today, it’s the bearers of aid, charity and philanthropy who are the new colonizers of Africa, nourishing and destroying the continent simultaneously.

Denial of African Agency

Since the Ebola crisis began, local healthcare workers in countries such as Nigeria, Senegal and DR Congo have managed to effectively deal with their outbreaks without much international help. Moreover, in countries such as Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria, transformative movements have been launched to deconstruct stigma and raise awareness about Ebola.

These are the people who are actually making a difference and “saving Africa”, yet who get no credit for their work. Rather than highlighting the Africans who are actually making a difference in this crisis, the western media has instead focused their coverage on hysteria-fuelled reportage on the disease.

Moreover, increasing celebrity activism and the celebritisation of global problems has meant that the people whose lives are affected are not listened to. Instead, it’s the celebrities who become experts: Clooney for Darfur, Bono for Poverty and now Geldof for Ebola.

This move to deny the ability of Africans to solve their own problems only serves to disempower African governments and people by negating their agency, and instead promoting western celebrities as the true agents of change in West Africa. This erases the effectiveness of local efforts, by making it appear as though western charitable interventions are what saved poor diseased Africa once again.

White Messiah Complex

Band Aid 30 is nothing but a sexy campaign designed to use an emotive song to sway impressionable westerners  eager to jump onto fashionable social causes promoted by celebrities. It’s yet another classic sign of white saviorism, in this case with self-aggrandizing celebrities desperate to seem compassionate, searching for saviordom by swooping in as savior.

Sadly, this is nothing new. It’s in fact a very popular paternalistic narrative that always places westerners in the position of benevolent elders or messiahs, helping out poor, diseased Africans, on their constantly blighted continent. However, such assistance always fails to come off as genuine, but rather being given as a way of affirming the traditional belief of white cultural superiority. By portraying Africans as inferior, westerners are privileged as superior. This only serves to contribute to the dehumanization of Africans.

Band Aid 30 is exploiting African misfortunes as an opportunity for which “saving” them yields profits and photo ops for washed up artists seeking to remain relevant and unknown artists out to make a name for themselves. With Band Aid marching in to “save the day”, the only people set to benefit the most from this “good cause” are the celebrities and their images.

If the purpose of Bob Geldof and others is really to help the Ebola response rather than burnish their own profiles as modern day saints, they would donate money behind the scenes. The money that will be raised through their Ebola single could easily be raised by these rich musicians among themselves and their friends.

Western Guilt-Washing

There’s a powerful psychological feeling of being moral by “giving back”, an emotional high from altruism, which allows westerners to feel as if they were saving the day. They get to pat themselves on the back and bask in morality at the little good they have done for those poor Africans far away. This effort places them in the ranks of the kindhearted and they get to feel good about themselves for “doing something”.

It would seem that wracked by guilt at the humanitarian crisis it has created around the world through war and pollution, the West is once again turning to Africa for redemption. As more lives and communities are destroyed by a global economic system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the West, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” This is a form of “conscience-laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than others need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity. This is guilt-washing the White Man’s Burden, which enables westerners to sleep better at night.

Escapism

Typically, other people’s problems seem simpler, uncomplicated and easier to solve than those of one’s own society. In fact, it is this lack of knowledge of other cultures that makes them easier to help. In this context, the decontextualized disease in West Africa becomes an easy moral choice for western do-gooders. Its noteworthy that Geldof’s own Ireland is regarded as having “the worst managed healthcare system in the developed world”. Yet, unlike the problems of Africans far away, the failing health care system in Ireland, which is connected to larger political narratives, isn’t as easily pitied as dying Ebola victims.

Its instructive that one of the main problems plaguing the Irish healthcare system is the privatization of the public health sector by populating it with private for-profit institutions. As in Liberia – private actors were favored over state actors in solving national problems in Ireland. Therefore the challenges facing the Irish healthcare system today were caused by the same neoliberal mindset that led to the breakdown of healthcare systems in West Africa and the inability to contain the Ebola virus. If charity truly begins at home, then shouldn’t Geldof be focusing his creativity in writing a song for his own crippled Irish healthcare system, rather than West Africans thousands of miles away?

The need to feel like a savior is understandable especially in those whose lives are full of tragedy that they do not want to face or resolve. However, this often causes the person to take actions that hurt more than help. These are the pitfalls of the “saving Africa” charitable-industrial complex: buoyed by the imagined nobility of their endeavor, the saviors fail to consider the needs of those impacted by the problem and end up doing more harm than good.

Band Aid Legacy: More Harm Than Good

The announcement of Geldof’s 2014 revival of “Do They Know Its Christmas?” led to the penning of a lengthy criticism highlighting the legacy of Band Aid as follows:

“But the harsh truth is that for all the generosity, for all the good intentions, those heartfelt efforts ended up doing more harm than good in Ethiopia. Band Aid kick started an age of celebrity activism – and with it the idea that simplistic campaigns and slick slogans can solve complex global problems…

Inevitably, Ethiopia exerts a special hold on the aid industry after Band Aid influenced an entire generation, and is among the biggest beneficiaries of the global aid boom. There was a 200-fold increase in the number of charities operating there after 1984, although it remains one of the world’s poorest places. As in other developing nations, this influx of outsiders distorts local priorities and entrenches corrupt elite in power. The flood of donations even allowed the repressive Ethiopian regime to reduce spending on the disaster at home and spend billions of dollars buying arms from abroad…

So what of the long-term legacy of the Band Aid phenomenon? Today, Ethiopia remains a despotic state that does not just steal land from the poor. It also shoots pro-democracy protesters, locks up dissidents, tortures political prisoners, gang-rapes women, jails journalists and uses food aid to starve the opposition. Tragically, this is the sad legacy of Band Aid.”

If the legacy of Band Aid 1984 is anything to go by, disaster appeals through songs for charity is not the best way to fix African crises. Geldof and his Band Aid need to stop fixing band aids on wounds inflicted by their own western governments and multinationals. They would be more useful if they instead used the power of their celebrity to influence changes in predatory western government policies towards Africa, rather than promoting dazzling charitable interventions which only end up keeping the existing structural and systemic failures in African health systems in place.

The western media is also complicit in that it chooses to focus on negative stereotypes of Africa and thereafter offers solutions to “save Africa”. Through the reproduction of this negative idea of Africa, the media offers a continuing invitation to “philanthropic colonialism”. Instead of focusing attention on what Geldof and co. can do to “save Africa”, western media should shine the spotlight on how we ourselves are implementing African solutions to African problems, providing an African directed approach, instead of a western pop star-determined one.

And western consumers tempted to buy this single need to realize that Africa doesn’t want to be saved. Africa needs the world to acknowledge that through fair partnerships with the international community, we ourselves are capable of tackling the challenges facing the continent. And that includes Ebola.

Update: December 22: A British study is released stating that:

“Reforms advocated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) may have contributed to the rapid spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa. Researchers found that the healthcare systems in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia had been weakened by the IMF’s requirement of economic reforms that cut government spending and capped the public sector wage bill. Consequently, the countries had been unable to hire nurses and doctors and pay them adequately.”

On Racism, Whitewashing & Cinematic Colonialism in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

December 12, 2014 § 1 Comment

Although set during a specific period in ancient Egyptian history, the film Exodus: Gods and Kings features white American, European and Australian actors in the majority of the key roles playing ancient Egyptian characters. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film stars Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Ramses, and Aaron Paul as Joshua. John Turturro and Sigourney Weaver have supporting roles as Seti and Tuya, another king and queen of Egypt. This controversial casting decision sparked outrage online among film fans calling for a boycott of the movie under the hash tag #BoycottExodusMovie.

exodus-gods-and-kings-christian-bale-joel-edgerton

The controversial cast of “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

Hollywood – A Legacy of Historical Revisionism

This is not the first time that Hollywood has produced period films based on colonial fantasies of white domination, never mind that European “civilization” was not even in existence yet. Similarly in the classic epic The Ten Commandments, white actors were cast to play people of color. To fathom what the outrage is about, you would first need to understand that a black character played by a white actor is in no way equivalent to a white character played by a black actor.

Apologists for racist casting are always quick to defend it saying “it’s the interpretation of the artist” or its just fiction”. Then when we inquire about the glaring absence of black characters in fictitious productions of fantasy films, we are told it would be “inaccurate” for black people to play a role in films that feature flying dragons, wizards and ghosts. It would seem that, to Hollywood, including flying dragons, wizards and ghosts would produce a much more real and “accurate” portrayal of the world than including black characters.

And if “accuracy” is of such importance, how is it ok for Ridley Scott to cast black and white characters in a manner that is historically inaccurate? The answer is because there is a double standard that exists in Hollywood, with regards to casting. Remember when Donald Glover expressed an interest in playing Spiderman? There was a lot of controversy with people saying ‘But Spiderman can’t be black!’

But even then, disgruntled viewers would still have had the option of watching one of the many other Spiderman adaptations – with an all-white cast – that are already in existence. But that didn’t seem to matter as it would appear that color is only an issue when a black actor takes on a white role.

Whitewashing

Because the ancient Egyptians are not fictional characters, but are situated firmly in history, to cast them as white is to erase an entire race of people from their own history. Not only are African people being disappeared by replacing them with the likes of Joel Edgerton, but it’s also virtually impossible to find a similar type of epic historical movie on ancient Egypt starring African actors in the lead roles.

That there aren’t many movies that don’t whitewash or horribly stereotype African characters is a fact that is hard to miss. There are countless films today that spew an abundance of stereotypes and misrepresentations about African people. And the fact that whiteness is being constantly touted as “normal” by the global film industry is just as hard not to notice.

Cinematic Colonialism

Not only are all the main characters of gods and kings white, but the slaves, thieves and assassins are played by black people. To make the main characters white and the subservient ones African is plain racist and a clear manifestation of cinematic colonialism. Moreover, the actors of color who did get a role in this film are treated like props, wordlessly relegated to the background, with white actors in the foreground. Black people muted in a movie set in Africa.

This portrayal of the very same oppressive imagery that has helped perpetuate the unjust system of race-based hierarchical domination makes Exodus an artistic tool to promote the neo-colonization of black people. This is not “just a movie” – as Scott and his cast have tried to excuse; it’s a reinforcement of the existing racial structure of subjugation, oppression, devaluation and dehumanization of people of African descent.

Moreover, Scott’s portrayal of racial hierarchy in Exodus is in itself a gross inaccuracy, as there was no such division existing among humanity during the time of the ancient Egyptians. While there was classism among ancient humanity, even then, humans of all “races” could be king or servant, master or slave. The modern day racism denoted by skin color and characterized by white superiority did not exist during the time of the ancient Egyptians, but is in fact a late 17th century phenomenon invented by the slave plantation owners of America.

Ramses II, as portrayed by Edgerton, was alive between the years 1303 BC – 1213 BC, close to 3000 years before race and racism were invented. Therefore, for Scott to choose to portray the ancient Egyptians in accordance with a “white-master/black-servant” racial hierarchy that only emerged thousands of years after the reign of the ancient Egyptians is a revisionism and fabrication of the worst kind that must not be taken lightly.

Director and Cast Responses

In response to the backlash and mounting online criticism, director Ridley Scott and actor Joel Edgerton said the following:

Scott:

“I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

Not quite. Ridley Scott got funding for American Gangstar that had a nearly all-black cast with Denzel Washington and Cuba Gooding Jr. in lead roles. Even without casting a “Mohammad”, he could’ve found black actors with box office success to play Ramses. Neither, did Scott seem to have any problem featuring black actors in negative, subservient roles. Or is such casting easier to obtain funding for? Trying to use Hollywood’s tradition of whitewashing to excuse racism is just lame.

Edgerton:

“It’s not my job to make those [casting] decisions… I got asked to do a job, and it would have been very hard to say no to that job.”

In other words, it’s not my fault that I accepted payment to be racist.

The Power of Images

Even in our so-called “post-colonial” world, colonialism continues to play out and is kept alive through the systematic perpetuation of economic and cultural inequalities; a perpetuation that heavily relies on the power of images. Historically, popular culture such as film has been used to help create and sustain the racial hierarchies that colonial rule and the mission to “civilize” required. By depicting Africans as occupying the lowest rungs of humanity according to an imperial racial hierarchy, colonialism and imperialism could be justified. And the end result was that European dominance was projected while the world’s attitudes towards Africans became even more negative.

There is no excuse for the substantial harm done by the production of films like Exodus. This is because Hollywood, with its formidable influence in mainstream media, uses such productions to project a false image of “white-superior/ black inferior” normalcy that enables racism to prevail in the world today.

Why You Should #BoycottExodusMovie

We cannot simply wish away the political reality of skin color in our world today by saying that Exodus is “just a movie”. Racism is a reality founded on centuries of lived history and its continuing effects in creating the white dominated world we live in that devalues black people. To effectively change this reality, we must actively voice criticism, question, challenge and combat racist messages wherever they appear.

As for the commonly used “art ought to be above politics” argument – this is utter rubbish. Artists, including filmmakers and actors are humans who are expected to be more, not less, sensitive than others in rejecting racism. When they choose to promote racism for money, fame or other material gains at the expense of basic commitment to human rights, they end up selling their souls and declaring their utter ethical corruption.

The purpose of the #BoycottExodusMovie campaign is to make the statement that in 2014, there is really no excuse for this type of casting. The blunt and shameless westernization of ancient African royalty as displayed in Exodus must not and cannot be accepted nor tolerated. To boycott this film and fight this racist inclination to paint history one color is to fully commit to a future in which every black child can know who they are and what their history is. But this cannot be possible if the only face the world constantly sees is a white one.

We are also using #BoycottExodusMovie to send a message to actors like Joel Edgerton who accept racist roles due to the lure of money, ignorance of or unconcern over racism, that they must stop promoting racism, stop profiting from racist money and stop serving the propaganda purposes of racist segments within the film industry.

The boycott is aimed at sending a message to Hollywood and the global film industry that oppressive images, racist messages and the whitewashing of world history have no place in 21st century cinema. If Hollywood wants to tell our story, they must first learn to treat it with respect.

Take Action!

We therefore call upon all people of conscience to boycott Exodus as a contribution to the struggle to end the system of racism. To do this:

  1. Refrain from going to see the film;
  2. Advocate a comprehensive boycott of the film both online and offline;
  3. Actively condemn racism in Hollywood;
  4. Support films that portray black people in a positive way.

Some action to take:

  • Sign this petition.
  • Visit the film’s Facebook page here and leave a comment on their posts voicing your condemnation.
  • Review the film on Rotten Tomatoes here by: clicking on “Not Interested”; giving it a half star rating; and then leaving a comment to voice your condemnation of the racist film.

It’s Time for Kenya to End Its Occupation of Somalia

December 7, 2014 § 6 Comments

Just days after a deadly attack in which the Somali militant group Al Shabaab killed 28 Kenyans on a bus from Mandera, a new raid by the militant group in the town left 32 people dead. In the first attack, Al Shabaab gunmen commandeered a bus leaving Mandera, and separated non-Muslims from Muslims who they then proceeded to shoot dead. The militants said the massacre was in response to Kenyan Muslims being “attacked in places of worship and in their homes.” In the weeks leading to the attack, the Kenyan government had ordered the closure of four mosques in Mombasa, with police shooting one person dead and arresting more than 200 Muslims.

In the second attack the heavily armed Al Shabaab operatives struck at a miners’ camp at dawn, and again separated the non-Muslims from the Muslims before shooting dead and beheading 36 Kenyans. In claiming responsibility for this second attack, Al Shabaab said it was carried out in response to:

(a) “Kenya’s occupation of Muslim lands and their ongoing atrocities therein, such as the recent airstrikes on Muslims in Somalia which caused the death of innocent Muslims and the destruction of their properties and livestock,
(b) As well as the continued suffering of Muslims in Mombasa.
(c) As Kenya… kills innocent Muslims,
(d) Transgresses upon their sanctities and throws them into prisons.”

The militant group went on to promise further attacks, should the Kenyan government fail to address these issues.

A Record of Failures

Since October 2011 when the Kenyan military invaded Somalia, insecurity in the country has spiraled out of control, with attacks that largely target non-Muslims on killing sprees, becoming common occurrences in Nairobi, the coastal region, and parts of North Eastern. Earlier this year, close to 100 non-Muslims in Mpeketoni, Gamba and Hindi areas of the Kenyan coast were killed by Al Shabaab militants.

Following the assault on the Westgate shopping centre in September of last year, which left over 70 dead, the Kenyan government responded by putting forth various security strategies that have since proven to be failures. First, they instituted the ‘Nyumba Kumi’ (know thy neighbor) ten houses initiative. This concept is based on dividing homes into groups of 10, with the household members holding each other accountable by sharing information on any suspicious activity. While appearing neat in theory, the concept proved impotent in foiling the ever-mutating Al Shabaab attacks.

After the Mpeketoni, Gamba and Hindi attacks, the government then instituted Operation Usalama Watch. This involved the large scale state-led ethnic profiling, scapegoating and collective punishment of the entire Somali community for the crimes of a few. During this operation more than 4000 Somalis were arrested and detained at Kasarani stadium in dehumanizing conditions. Rather than improving the security situation, this security sweep touched a raw nerve, exacerbating the already tense relations between the Somali community and the state.

Kenyans Continue to Die

Acting under the umbrella of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), a regional military intervention in Somalia that included African soldiers from other western proxy countries and client states, Kenya assisted in pushing Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu. A further push took away Al Shabaab’s control of the port city of Kismayo, which in turn diminished the capacity of the militant group by denying them their core source of revenue. Following this success, the Kenyan government and military were quick to pronounce the defeat of Al Shabaab to Kenyans. But this was a deadly exaggeration.

As we can see from the Mandera attacks, despite its diminished capacity, Al Shabaab has had no problem whatsoever in carrying out attacks in Kenya. If anything, these recent attacks are a sign that, to the militants, Kenya remains vulnerable and open for staging even more “spectacular” attacks.

Moreover, the Al Shabaab strategy of bleeding Kenya through multiple attacks in far-flung vulnerable areas like Mandera will only contribute in making the country look increasingly unsafe to outsiders. As we speak, Kenya’s tourism industry continues to suffer the negative effects of western travel advisories issued following the Mpeketoni, Gamba and Hindi attacks, warning westerners not to travel to certain areas in Kenya due to security concerns.

Deeper Issues

Ever since Kenya invaded and began its occupation of Somalia, Kenyans from all walks of life – commuters, the poor and rich, miners and policemen, Somali, Kikuyu and Luhya – have all suffered the effects of insecurity. From bomb explosions to grenade attacks, massacres and ambushes – more and more aspects of the daily lives of ordinary Kenyans are being impacted by this violence that only continues to spread. As with previous attacks, the Mandera attacks have left the nation shaken, sowing fear anew in a country that is sadly growing accustomed to sophisticated attacks of murderous brutality.

The attacks by Al Shabaab have also laid bare deeper issues and fundamental problems that Kenyans face, which have nothing to do with the militant group or even the conflict in Somalia:

(a) Politics of fear: The Kenyan political elite thrive on manipulating the public into supporting their harmful policies through scare-mongering and the exaggeration of threats in order to instill fear.
(b) Politics of ethnicity: Even after Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the Mpeketoni attack via live broadcast, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta instead blamed internal politics, dissidents and outlawed groups, claiming that a specific ethnic group had been targeted. This move was characteristic of the polarizing ethnicity that continues to plague Kenya.
(c) An incapable police force: The failure of all the security strategies implemented by the security agencies charged to protect Kenyans is a sign that Kenya’s police force lacks efficient investigative abilities.
(d) An unprofessional and undisciplined army: Following the Westgate massacre, CCTV footage of looting by Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) was released, serving as evidence that the Kenyan military lacks integrity and consequently the capacity to bring about lasting peace to the region.

What Kenya Needs to Do

Even as the perilous Al Shabaab threat looms ever larger in Kenya, the government seems hell-bent on leaving Kenyans vulnerable to more shocking violence. In response to the latest Mandera attack, President Kenyatta addressed the nation saying: “We will not flinch or relent in the war against terrorism in our country and our region.” He then moved to fire Cabinet Secretary for the Interior and Coordination of National Government, Joseph ole Lenku, while accepting the resignation of the head of police, Inspector General David Kimaiyo.

However, this move to change security personnel is just a political sideshow to divert the attention of public from the true cause of the spiraling attacks: Kenya’s continued presence in Somalia. It’s time for Kenyans to realize that it’s not the policy-implementers like Kimaiyo and ole Lenku that are the problem – it’s the policy itself of continued occupation of Somalia.

Firing ole Lenku and having Kimaiyo resign will not solve our grave national security problem. To prevent more Manderas, the Kenyan government must define its Somalia exit plan. All efforts at countering the Al Shabaab security threat must be linked to a clearly defined strategy for exiting Somalia. The current policy of an open-ended stay of KDF in Somalia has only led to mission creep. And now Kenya, once posturing herself as “liberator” has been transformed into an invading occupier.

While some of my fellow Kenyans may find it admirable when our President talks tough, this dogged insistence on remaining in Somalia is not sustainable, given the growing insecurity within our borders. As Kenya’s indifferent politicians continue with their tough stance, and instead use this key national security issue to score political points, Kenyans continue to die. The adventures of KDF in Somalia and every other security measure have not only failed to improve security and stop Al Shabaab attacks, but seem to have worsened the already grave situation. The only way to guarantee the safety and security of all Kenyans is by the Kenyan political leaders mapping out a strategy to end the occupation of Somalia.

#MyDressMyChoice: The Ideology Behind Stripping Women

December 1, 2014 § 3 Comments

Perpetrators and proponents of stripping violence try to justify these hate crimes by blaming the victim for being “indecently dressed” in a miniskirt, contrary to African modesty. But the truth is, just as with rape and every other crime of sexual violence, strippings are about men who feel entitled to women’s bodies lashing out when their sexual advances are rejected. It’s about men seeking to assert power, control and dominance over women.

The recent cases of strippings including the lady whose stripping led to the #MyDressMyChoice protest march; “Wairimu” in Kayole; and the 16-year old school girl almost stripped by a policeman, all had the same facts:

a. A man tried to seduce a woman/ girl.
b. The woman/ girl rejected or ignored his advances.
c. The man, in the company of other men, stripped or attempted to strip the woman/ girl.

These facts are not coincidence, but evidence of a pattern that should tell us something about our culture. And what it tells us is not good.

Male Privilege, Entitlement & Violent Masculinity

We live in a society which places males in a social class that is dominant over women, thereby affording men many privileges. From this position of privilege, men are taught that women – as the dominated social class – owe them. Women owe men love, attention, respect, obedience and most importantly – sex.

This idea that women owe men subsequently breeds entitlement. As a result, men feel completely entitled to women’s bodies and to their time. When a man wants to have sex with a woman it’s simply because this is what they deserve just for being a man. And when a woman rejects their sexual advances, this makes the man angry for being denied what they deserve, what they are entitled to.

In their anger, the man blames the woman for denying them their birthright of easy power. They blame the woman for romantically rejecting him and withholding what is rightfully theirs.

Society further teaches men that because they belong to the dominant social class, they are entitled to power and control over women. Consequently, the rejection of his sexual advances is regarded as a loss of this power and control. This hurtful loss of power and control over women is taken as emasculation.

Moreover, this emasculation occurs in front of other men, making the man feel less than an alpha male in the eyes of his peers. And because society teaches men to never show weakness, he therefore feels the need to prove his manhood to his peers; to prove that he is still hard and tough. And it is in this attempt to prove that he is the true alpha male that he decides to strip the woman.

Rather than trying to figure out how to improve his approach towards women, he blames the women for their lack of interest in him and instead decides to retaliate. Why? Because masculinity teaches men that when they are aggrieved, they are entitled to retribution. Men are taught: don’t just get mad – get even. So stripping becomes a form of righteous retaliation.

Stripping is therefore a form of “deserved” punishment whose origins lie in society teaching men that they are entitled to punish women who take their power away. The man regards his inability to attract the woman as something he needs to “punish” them for. The woman’s refusal to give herself to him is to blame for his anger and violence, for which the woman deserves to be punished.

And because our society has taught men to solve their problems and earn respect through aggression and violence, what we end up with is men stripping women perceived to have denied them respect.

Misogyny

From a young age, society teaches men to hate women. This misogyny or woman-hatred is characterized by disdain, contempt and resentment of women. We raise boys and teach men to see women – not as full human beings – but as trophies to be won and hags to be used and harassed. We teach boys that women are objects to have sex with; to cook for them and do their laundry.

And in order to maintain this image of women as lesser humans, we use violent, degrading and dehumanizing language when discussing women, thereby guaranteeing their constant devaluation. We teach this woman-hatred to young boys and men and then we get surprised when they act on this hatred. And in our surprise we make pronouncements such as “real men don’t strip women.”

Stripping is but one of the extreme manifestations of woman-hatred in Africa. And proclaiming that “real men do not strip women” is to deny the existence of this pattern of woman-hatred. While those making this statement may not intend to, they are in fact excusing this brutal practice. The fact that all the perpetrators were men is not a coincidence but a pattern that should tell us something about our culture. Men have stripped women many times before. Men strip women because they have been taught to hate women.

The perpetrators were ALL men. Moreover, they all felt they had been denied something that they should have been given. This attitude did not just appear out of thin air. It was cultivated and nurtured by our culture, generation after generation, perpetuating negative ideas over the course of time. The perpetrators are just the latest manifestations of men who think women owe them something and retaliate for this denial. By stripping the women, they were simply participating in the age-old tradition of controlling women through violence and punishing them when they don’t behave as required – only that they did so publicly, in broad daylight.

Similarly, the argument that the victim is “somebody’s wife, daughter, sister or mother” also hurts more than it helps because it implies that women are only as important as the male relations they have. This only serves to reaffirm male dominance over women by suggesting that women are only important because of their relationships with men. Yet, women are full human beings who deserve respect just for being full humans. Rather than teaching our daughters how not to dress, it is our sons that we need to teach that women are full human beings with the right to wear whatever they want.

While being careful not to inadvertently excuse stripping violence, we must, at the same time actively condemn those who deliberately excuse these brutal crimes, as they have chosen to side with the worst of men. Because the motives of the perpetrators were rooted in hate, strippings should be considered hate crimes against women. Subsequently, all those supporting these crimes online should be prosecuted for hate speech.

“Undress the Government! Not Innocent Women!”

Strippings are perpetrated by men who are angry at the hand they’ve been dealt. These are men who long to lash out at a system they believe has cheated them, but lack the courage to think for themselves beyond the easier path of hating women. These are men hurt by the loss of power and control, by the fact that they are no longer as dominant as before, as women become more empowered. They are experiencing a humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to regain respect and sense of purpose.

And how does society deal with this growing anger in men? We teach the girl child to fear men. We tell girls not to wear miniskirts, not to walk down certain streets, not to upset men. Because doing so could get them hurt or even killed by the bad men out there.

But even the women and girls who internalize such fear and submit to these warnings – by dressing decently, avoiding dangerous streets and not angering men, still face street harassment from entitled men who actually believe that catcalls are a sign that they are putting women on a pedestal. And when the women ignore these advances, they are subjected to verbal abuse, stalking, threats, intimidation and assault. Society then tells women to deal with this by laughing it off and ignoring it as these misogynists do not pose any real threat… Until they decide to take their hatred of women a step further and strip a woman naked. Until they escalate even further in their hatred to rape and kill women.

Undoubtedly, the substantial anger of dispossessed men in Kenya during this age of inflation, low wages and unemployment is valid. However, this anger is wrongly directed towards women. It’s not women that are to blame – it’s the system of patriarchy.

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