This week I attended a conference on Pan-Africanism and leaders in the community at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. At the end of the presentation by two eminent pan-Africanists Onyekachi and Explo, I asked the following question:
Why does the youth (African among others) get behind causes such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, but fail to turn up when it is about Libya, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast?
The answer I received did not satisfy me at the time. While listening to Professor Howard French speaking in this video I think I found the answer to my question: the general public’s image of Africa is still stuck at the portrayal of Africa by Joseph Conrad in his book Heart of Darkness published in 1899. Cornard describes in his story how the river Congo is bad while the river Thames is good.
There is something wrong with the general public when their mind look at the Congolese crisis with all the millions of people who died and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped then most of the time killed.
I reproduce here the transcript of the professor’s explanation of how the general public is wrong.
“What is the greatest violation of human rights that exists? That’s my question to you. Is is rape which is an awful thing? A rape is a horrible thing, but is it the greatest violation of human rights? For me the greatest violation of human rights is the loss of life.
Millions of Congolese people have lost their lives as a result of the crisis that we have been discussing, and has warranted almost no sustained enterprise in reporting from the media of the world. It has obtained no great purchase on popular imagination.
Millions of people’s death, but so in order to mobilize some kind of attention you need something new and sexy, something that jumps out and shows its horror. And this is what the rape story is all about for me. That it allows Africa to be depicted in a way that not these rapes are not taking place, not that we shouldn’t be horrified, not that we shouldn’t do everything we can to stop them, but there is more going on not simply as that. It allows us, meaning the general public to become Africa-interested in ways that respond to pre-existing notions that we have of Africa, that Africa should be a certain kind sort of way, that Africa should provide an escalating sense of horror in order to get us interested at it. And the rape story responds to that.
Women being raped like that, all villages of women being raped like that gets us excited and interested in ways, even though we are talking of thousands of people, gets us excited and interested in ways that millions of people being killed in a conflict in Africa doesn’t.
There is something wrong. Not wrong with the attention in the rapes, but wrong with the overall picture. There is something wrong with us in terms of the ways we think about Africa, and the space our brains are willing to commit to Africa as a subject, and the way we relate to the subject. There is something profoundly wrong here.”
A lot is still to be done to get that public see Congolese and other victims of Paul Kagame and Joweri Museveni’s wars in the region as human beings. The African story as narrated by Peter Conrad in 1899 seems today to remain the same in the minds of many westerners.