February 24, 2015 § 3 Comments
Recently, Angelina Jolie announced that as part of her efforts to raise awareness about wildlife endangerment, she would be directing Africa, a biopic on elephant poaching. The film will tell the story of Richard Leakey, the archaeologist who became an anti-poaching crusader in Kenya during the late ’80s. While I’m all for wildlife protection, I’m not particularly thrilled about Jolie’s latest cinematic venture. Here’s why.
Whenever westerners make “a film about Africa”, it’s never really a film about Africa. Western films on Africa typically stereotype African people and caricature African societies by presenting nameless Africans with affected accents, acting in a service capacity . In the case of Jolie’s Africa, I won’t be surprised if, apart from one or two resistant locals, all the other Kenyan characters in the film are portrayed as colluding “bad guys”: ivory poachers who slaughter the elephants; locals who protect their interests and threaten prying “outsiders”; and officials depicted as secretive, deceitful and domineering with regards to poaching activities and their regulation. Even the choice of title for Jolie’s film smacks of stereotype. Seriously, a film about Kenya titled “Africa”? Whenever westerners use the word “Africa” as an umbrella term for an entire continent of 54 diverse countries, sweeping generalizations and stereotypical images typically follow.
Moreover, any African characters that are not portrayed negatively are likely to instead appear as victims of those who have been negatively portrayed. For instance, the African anti-poaching guards who die at the hands of poachers while protecting elephants. And even then, their story will only be secondary to that of the white protagonist; if they talk at all, it will only be in reference to the white protagonist. They will not be presented as multi-faceted human beings who are reflective of their culture and history. Africans in western “films about Africa” are there only to serve as a backdrop to the main story of the white protagonist.
Western films set in Africa rarely make any effort to bring out the complexity of the story. Westerners don’t bother to obtain the perspective of local communities on why poaching is so important to their livelihoods. They instead portray Africans as threats to wildlife, while ignoring their crucial role in caring for endangered animals. Moreover, such a narrow focus on the conservation efforts of the 80s is likely to leave the impression that Kenya today lacks a vibrant environmental movement, while minimizing the role of environmentalists like Prof. Wangari Maathai in leading environmental protests.
Films about Africa by the West rarely seek the input of locals, team up with local activists or even independent African film makers, but instead keep it an exclusively American/ European affair. The end result is storylines that rationalize the mission of white saviors through black-and-white and ‘us vs. them’ narrative construction, along with allegations of African collusion, cover-up, and conformity.
Such conservation films also tend to romanticize and instrumentalize animals, whereby filmmakers resort to their Disneyfication, portraying them as having high intelligence and a human-like consciousness. The animals are shown to be ever affectionate and always happy – especially around white people, with whom they share a special “connection” and language. Yet such simplistic anthropomorphization and sentimentalization of these mammals by white saviors is not to engage in genuine relationship with them but to objectify them, to endear them to the audience, so as to rationalize the film’s mission – their rescue.
And is it not ironic that while aiming to put an end to the poaching of elephant tusks, Africa is a commercial movie that will be premised on the very use of elephants for our entertainment? That said, movies are not the only ones to blame for this, as the environmental movement often transforms animals into sentimentalized media icons for political purposes.
Another problem is that such films only target African countries, picking exclusively on Africans, while overlooking the West’s own role in wildlife endangerment. With colonialism and western capitalism, poaching mutated into a complex economy that today supports special interests in game meat, hides and animal trophies. The theft of fertile grazing lands by European colonialists also resulted in a human-wildlife conflict, in which pastoralists were forced to encroach into wildlife areas and wildlife going into farms.
By narrowing her focus on Africa, Angelina Jolie overlooked plenty of environmental conservation issues in her very own backyard to make films about. A fair share of animal slaughter continues to this day in Jolie’s own America, with millions of cows and pigs, and billions of chickens killed annually in US corporate agribusiness industrial slaughterhouses. Environmental contamination by oil companies like Shell has also endangered fish. And then there are the American zoos and animal amusement parks that profit from the capture and caging of elephants and other wildlife. Moreover, the guns used to kill elephants in Africa are produced in the West – Jolie’s own America being the largest weapons manufacturer in the world.
There’s a story to be told, not only about the white men in history who saved African animals, but also about the white men who killed them. In 1909, American President Theodore Roosevelt came to East Africa on a hunting expedition during which he massacred and captured over 11,000 animals – including elephants, while collecting animal trophies under the guise of scientific research. Or is it that only the westerners with means are allowed to wantonly kill wildlife?
In an effort to construct white environmental heroes, such potential screenplays become elephants in the room, conveniently ignored in favor of narratives about white men saving cute animals from black men. By focusing on a far-away other “culturally and politically inferior” Kenya rather than their own backyard, and by depicting and rescuing adorable elephants, white people get to prop themselves up as saviors. The audience is then drawn in as they identify with the heroes of the film and get to feel good about themselves and “their” humanitarian icons. The end result is a commercially successful, award-winning, audience-pleasing movie that earns praise from film critics across the West.
Ending the slaughter of elephants should be a top priority for environmentalists and citizens around the world. But we should be wary of cinematic efforts to raise awareness that are stereotypical, crowd-pleasing and which sideline inconvenient truths.
February 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
Baga was destroyed, a fifth of its population wiped out, and yet the world remained silent. The outrage and attention of the world’s media was focused instead on the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack. The attacks in Baga and Paris unfolded over the same time frame, and yet the 17 victims in Paris received more media attention than the combined 2,000 victims killed in Baga. For Charlie Hebdo, the coverage was intense, news articles were longer, the op-eds were numerous, and the editorials full of emotion. While the Paris attacks dominated the international front page headlines, for Baga there were hardly any mentions, less attention, less indignation and no outrage. In a clear double standard, the stories of both the victims and the attackers of Charlie Hebdo were repeatedly told, while the Baga victims were depicted as mere statistics.
The media tried to explain away this double standard by saying it was difficult for journalists to obtain evidence on the Baga victims. They said this even as alternative press with fewer resources was able to gather substantial material on the Baga massacre from credible sources such as Amnesty International. Others excused the intense coverage of Charlie as just the media’s way of showing solidarity with their own; while ignoring the fact that more non-western journalists have died due to “terrorism” than westerners, and yet have never received as much attention.
The real reason for this double standard is the massive political bias that exists in western media reporting, in which the deaths of westerners are sensationalized while those of non-westerners are downplayed or neglected altogether. Its only when reports of non-western victims can be politically advantageous that their plight receives attention. The kidnapping of the 200 girls in Nigeria last year was sensationalized by the West and its media under the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag so as to provide a moral basis for increased western militarization of the region. Close to a year later, the girls still haven’t been rescued.
The media bias also means that the severe abuse faced by victims of depraved western torture, illegal drone strikes and war crimes receives more antiseptic reporting. Deaths of victims of western terrorism are considered as natural, with the media offering minimal, if any calls in search of responsibility. By ignoring those victimized by the West, ongoing western policies can proceed more easily, without interference due to concern over politically inconvenient victims.
If you’re not careful, the media will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.
– Malcolm X
Critics are already voicing concerns about the lack of critical media coverage and the acceptance at face value of official allegations on the Charlie Hebdo attack. There are legitimate fears that this intense coverage will be used to justify a crackdown on civil liberties in the West, and in particular to silence critics of Israel/ supporters of Palestine in France. Other fears are that the portrayal of the Paris attacks as a “Clash of Civilizations”, in which western ideals of freedom are under assault from Islam, is fueling Islamophobia. This false portrayal persists despite the fact that more Muslims and non-westerners die from “terrorism” than non-Muslims and westerners.
And then there was the general African reaction to the two attacks, which left a lot to be desired. Ignoring the victims in his own continent, Gabon’s President Ali Bongo was quick to fly to Paris to mourn in solidarity with the French. Incidentally, the hypocrisy of this African dictator marching in defense of freedom of speech while clamping down on free speech at home was not lost on observers.
Equally culpable was the African media whose reporting normalized and treated the Baga massacre as business as usual. Rather than providing coverage that could generate public interest, mobilize activists and institutions, and bring about change, Baga was left pretty much in the incompetent hands of the Nigerian government. To the African media, a few lives lost in the West were more newsworthy and therefore important than thousands dead in their own backyard.
Even more worrisome was the spectacle of Africans on social media rushing to declare “Je Suis Charlie”, while displaying a lack of concern for the victims in Baga. For us to express shock and outrage at the killing of westerners, but be unmoved by the slaughter of thousands of our own is a sign that we have internalized racist western views about ourselves. We no longer consider our own deaths to be important but instead believe that western lives matter more, are more human, more worthy, more valuable, more deserving of life. Its time we stopped neglecting our own tragedies while valuing the lives of westerners over our own.
February 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
Dedan Kimathi, a leader of the Mau Mau group which led an armed military struggle against British colonial rule in Kenya in the 1950s, was murdered 58 years ago today by the British colonialists.
I’m currently reading The Trial of Dedan Kimathi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Micere Githae Mugo, some excerpts below:
… it is generally assumed that Kimathi fought in the Second ‘World’ War and people have tended to assume that was where he learnt his military skills as well as his skills in making guns. Kimathi never fought in that war. He evolved his brilliant guerrilla tactics and his enormous organizing capacity from the needs of the struggle. Karunaini people were proud of their son; they talked of him as a dedicated teacher, the committed organizer of a theater group he named Gichamu, as a man with a tremendous sense of humor who could keep a whole house roaring with laughter. They talked of his warm personality and his love of people. He was clearly their beloved son, their respected leader and they talked of him as still being alive. ‘Kimathi will never die’, the woman said. ‘But of course if you people have killed him, go and show us his grave!’ She said this in a strange tone of voice, between defiance and bitterness, and for a minute we all kept quiet.
Wanjiru, they called her. She was lean, wiry and strong. Fought like a tiger in the battle of the Beehive. No wonder the terrorists made her a Colonel… Should have seen when we captured her. She swore at us, spat in our faces and kicked like a wild goat as we bound her. Later at Karunaini camp, she would not eat or drink. And she would not tell us where we could find Kimathi. And you know? She bit my finger. And why? I wanted to see if she was really a woman. Our Africans: Gati, Hungu, Mwendanda and even Wambararia, Kimathi’s brother, were frightened of her.
To a criminal judge, in a criminal court, set up by criminal law: the law of oppression. I have no words… I will not plead to a law in which we had no part in the making… Two laws. Two justices. One law and one justice protects the man of property, the man of wealth, the foreign exploiter. Another law, another justice, silences the poor, the hungry, our people.
Which people? Loyalists? Home guards? Traitors! Simpletons! These are your people.
I have never feared anybody’s rivalry. I have only sought to protect the struggle from betrayal, opportunism and regional chauvinism.
It’s not numbers that fight. Better fifty men armed with faith, armed with discipline, than a thousand villains, doubters, possible collaborators.
It is true children, that Kimathi could do many things. Even today, they sing of the battle of Mathari; the battles he waged in Mount Kenya; the battle of Naivasha. Yes, they sing of the enemy aeroplanes he brought down with only a rifle! He was a wonderful teacher: with a laugh that was truly infectious. He could also act and mimic any character in the world: a story teller too, and many were the nights he would calm his men and make their hearts light and gay with humorous anecdotes. But above all, he loved people, and he loved his country. He so hated the sight of Africans killing one another that he sometimes became a little soft with our enemies. He, Great commander that he was, Great organizer that he was, Great fearless fighter that he was, he was human! Too human at times!
And, a few memorable quotes attributed to Kimathi:
“We reject colonization in Kenya because it has turned us into slaves and beggars.”
“The journey to freedom is full of sacrifices, tears, hunger, clothes full of lice, blood and death”.
“I don’t lead terrorists. I lead Africans who want their self-government and land. God did not intend that one nation be ruled by another for ever.”
“I consider myself a great African patriot fighting, not for the liberation of Kenya alone, but for East Africa and the rest of the continent.”
Rest in peace O great warrior, freedom fighter, African hero.
February 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a good man – and yet he was arrested 20 times and was even at one point stabbed. When a good man gets punished by a system, it can only mean that the system’s laws are neither good nor just. Every unjust system must be taken on because as long as the humanity of people is not recognized by laws, then anything goes against those people. And that’s exactly what Dr. King did: through disobedience he raised the issue of unjust laws. This is what makes him a revolutionary, a warrior.
That is the true legacy of Dr. King. But what we are served today is the watered down version of Dr. King sitting back, being moralistic and placid, while heading a “non-violent” Civil Rights Movement. Yet the Civil Rights Movement was far from “non-violent” or “pacifist”. There was violence; only that this violence did not come from the agents of the Civil Rights Movement. All the Movement did was to bring the violence already existing in American society to the forefront. In so doing, the movement raised the uncomfortable truth about society: there is no violence if black people are being killed. There is violence only when white people get harmed.
The problem with how we remember Dr. King today is that we focus on him instead of the ideas he represents. In so doing, we transform him into a messianic figure. And the problem with messianic figures is that they create people who are politically lazy, people who are looking for someone to “save” them. In such figures we look for gods but always end up disappointed when we get politicians and human beings with flaws.
Yet, no single human being can fix our society for us: it is our collective responsibility to make our society and institutions better. By ourselves, we are vulnerable; but collectively we can achieve a lot. We must begin to set the foundation for our future through actions connected to those of everyone else across the globe. We also need courage because people can stop you from doing things if they make you afraid. And always remember that although the struggle isn’t over, the struggle we have fought was well worth fighting!
Incidentally, some of my favorite quotes by Dr. King:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Listen to the full speech by Prof. Gordon below.