Darkest: Africa

31 Jan

The image many Americans have of Africa resembles the word map you see here—a loose gathering of ideas associating the whole continent with every imaginable negative force or condition.  I pulled this image from a website that makes free art available to nonprofit causes; presumably this has been designed as a basic message for bringing people’s attention to the severity of various issues in Africa.  This is a troubling image and a dissatisfactory call to action for a couple of reasons:

While the image may be arresting, it doesn’t help you understand what’s important for taking appropriate action.  It’s overwhelming and uninformative—the worst combination for inviting people to take a thoughtful interest in any effort or cause. 

Africa is a huge, diverse continent.  The histories, cultures, languages, etc. of Nigeria or South Africa are quite different from those in DR Congo,  and the needs of each particular place reflects these differences.  Imagine what the USA would look like if its worst problems were represented in the same format. Things like greed, pain, alone, and debt can characterize our place, as they can  describe anywhere humans live.  In America we can take out dictatorship and child soldiers but insert serial killers, child pornography, floods, and terrorist threats.  Would this be an accurate depiction of American needs and American people?


We are bombarded with messages that dehumanize Africans by turning them into flat symbols of suffering.  Looking at the word map, it’s impossible to imagine everyday folk in Africa who are making a living by working, raising families and participating actively in their communities.  Unfortunately, this is consistent with the last 120 years of representation for the continent, and especially for Congo: there is almost no sense that Africans play roles other than victim or aggressor, and the old, tenacious stereotype of “darkest Africa” paints it as a lawless, primitive, threatening, and mysterious place, “where terror and adventure meet.” 

Many of you may know that Congo is the subject for the most famous literary example of this: Heart of Darkness.  The stereotypes in that book, in fact, look a lot like the word map above.   It's strange to think that seeing the Congolese as victims was acceptable across a wide range of purposes, both those who were invested in improvement, and those who were at the source of it suffering.  The Belgian King Leopold capitalized on  image of the Congolese as being "in need of help" back in the late 1800s when he wanted to colonize the area.  He used the language of charity to make his idea popular in the West.  In fact, you can see his idea in the first flag of the Congo—the “Congo Free State”—with its star in a dark blue background, because which was meant to symbolize his role as “bringing light to the darkness.”  This idea floated because a conventionally-accepted attitude at the time held that Africans had to be saved from each other and themselves though the force of law and imposed measures of western civilization; publically, he capitalized on this racial dynamic and played the part of the Western savior—a man who wanted to help “free” the Congolese from local slave-trading and the bad Arabs, who he claimed were the aggressors in this story. 

The Western world was completely taken in by this rhetoric, and the USA was the first country to officially recognize King Leopold’s flag, confirming the legitimacy of his rule over Congo—a fact that Mark Twain would later publically mourn and use as a call to action for American citizens during the  egregious misrule that followed.  Twain appealed not only to people’s sense of responsibility but their capacity for empathy with the Congolese who suffered under this rule.  He said that American citizens should help end the injustice in Congo, not only because of the USA's part in helping create its political situation, but because the “horseless carriage and the telegraph” has made the whole world neighbors.  Despite the fact that  this advice is 100 years old, his reason why people should look at the crisis and invest in a solution remains relevant to the current situation because of the double-edge of technology.

The role that technology plays in the relationship between American consumerism and Congolese exploitation of labor proves consistent over time.  Twain was using the horseless carriage as a reason for Americans to see people far away as “closer to home”; meanwhile the market for motorcars was actually incentivizing atrocity in Congo, because King Leopold profited most from conscripting labor to extract the Congo’s natural rubber resources during the rubber boom, when Ford started making cars at factory speed.  Ultimately, technology both helped to fuel Leopold’s exploitation and end it.  When photography became affordable and portable, new, self-appointed “neighbors” to Congo brought back pictures of his cruelty and made them public.  What undermined the legitimacy of King Leopold’s story,  in which he was the savior of Congo’s people?  This combination: photos and testimony of Congolese who experienced the cruelty, missionaries who saw this first-hand, and American and European visitors dedicated to informing their public about the situation in Congo.  Ultimately, with good, reliable information at hand, folk like you rallied to raise the public outcry that led to new legislation and changed the nature of what was happening in the Congo for the better. 

The difference now is that, instead of rubber, we’re dealing with "conflict minerals"—materials needed for every memory chip that goes into cell phones and laptops.  This means that the money we spend to make our everyday lives easier here in the US automatically translates into making the everyday lives of the Congolese harder, as the political cartoon  lampooning multinational business tycoons makes plain.  Merely by having such big spending power, and a technology-dependent lifestyle, we create a demand that rewards rebels in Congo for warring over its mineral-rich territories; those profiting from this system benefit from weak government and weak community leadership, because this allows them to do as they please.

This creates a destructive pattern that we're a part of: with our electronic purchases we unknowingly and unwillingly put money in the pockets of criminals, baddies, neer-do-wells and opportunists, giving them power to do damage and keep control of unprotected areas so they can continue their exploitation.  We, like the Americans in Twain’s day, automatically have a negative footprint in Congo, and there is a sinister correlation between our everyday purchases and the continued instability that taxes ordinary people in Congo, leading to hard lives and many deaths.

My point here isn't merely to explain what a negative impact we have on the DR Congo, or to mourn our long and fraught connection to it, but to show you that we're already involved, whether we like it or not; luckily, because of technology, and our relatively widespread access to it, we can claim and help define a better relationship to Congo than the one we've already got.  We have a lot more ability to do good at the touch of a button than most of us realize.  Perhaps it is because we're busy and distracted.  It's easy to take a narrow focus as we speed through our daily schedules.  We tend to forget our privilege when we turn on the porch light, walk down well-lit streets, and flip a switch to turn on any one of many appliances and pieces of technology we rely on for daily use.  Taking a moment to reflect is important.  The next time you hear a story that reminds you of “darkest Africa” I hope you will think of this image, which shows how the metaphor is actually better suited as a literal explanation for the problem.... Darkest: Africa.


The problem is not the attitudes or natural inclinations of Africans or the Congolese: the problem is the uneven worldwide distribution of power.  This satellite photo of the world at night is a dramatic visual representation of how the “heart of darkness” is just that: the place where power is not widely-distributed.  Meanwhile, the US is a beacon of light... or the place where power is wide-spread.  When we lived with Bizi in 2009, I remember the struggles he was going through to get consistent electricity in his neighborhood.  Nowhere in the whole city of Goma had access to electricity for more than a few hours a day, at best.  We  usually used a generator at night until the fuel ran out or its carbeurator clogged.  Then we used a lantern or went to bed.  Bizi later told me that, after more than a year of negotiations, neighborhood meetings, delays, and hassle, he was making some progress on "the electrification of our avenue."  Next time you flip on a house light, or walk down a well-lit street, think about Bizi and what we can take for granted just by living anywhere in the US.

It's a powerful thing to recognize our privilege, work to understand how our everyday actions are affecting others, and to take small and immediate measures of responsibility to shift the balance toward justice and fairness.  If the Kodak was capable of helping inform a public to take action and end impunity, think of what the internet can do to bring good information to people with the power to help. With our technologically-savvy and -saturated lives, we have in our hands the tools that can help us easily cross the divide of distance and change the nature of our footprint in Congo.  While we don't, as individuals, choose the system that rewards people viciously pursuing profit at the expense of human lives, we CAN, as individuals, choose to empower people in the Congo who are committed to doing good for others, and who are positioned to break cycles of violence and corruption, and to change the course of things by creating good community leadership and good government.  Congo Story and the CAMP Fund specifically aims to put more power where it belongs: into the hands of honest folk who work wisely, productively, and for the good of many by problem-solving and giving care to their fellow Congolese.  If you benefit personally from using technology with memory chips, please consider getting involved and sharing some of those personal benefits with the Congolese.  Imagine the impact if everyone who had a phone or computer donated even $10 toward empowering Congolese who are working to make things safer, healthier, and better for many.


I encourage you to learn more about conflict minerals, the challenges facing the Congolese, and what you can do to help from an activist's perspective by visiting Friends of Congo.

3 Responses to “Darkest: Africa”

  1. Anonymous February 4, 2011 at 9:24 am #

    Two words: bravo and amen!

  2. Anonymous February 14, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    Unfortunately, you lost me on the Heart of Darkness example. You obviously do not have a sense of the brutality of the Belgian colonial project under Leopold. There are many good books on the subject. Conrad's efforts were to expose the Belgium colony for its inhumanity (as the King proclaimed his work as a humanitarian effort). Conrad crossed paths with many of the people he describes in the book including the outpost director with the skulls in the yard.

    I'd cut that part out of your essay. Unless you want to turn your example around and use it as an example of inhumanity under the auspices of a humanitarian mission (in line with Leopold's project). But that, I think, would be taking it too far.

    The rest is a worthy analysis of marketing and perceptions.

    Thanks for your contributions to the cause.

  3. congostory February 14, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

    I do have a sense of the brutality of Leopold's colonial project--a very palpable sense.  Though it's not apparent above, I've read many graphic accounts and analyses of Leopold's rule, academic and otherwise.  A significant part of my PhD work has involved postcolonial literature, and I've taken a special interest in Congo's history and its literary representations.  This will be clear, I hope, when I finish the history write-ups which will go in the "library" section of this site; these will include my sources and recommended readings; if you have suggestions to add at any point, I'd be glad to hear them.

    The way you've responded suggests I should make a revision, but I'm not ready to cut my example, because I have a well-considered argument behind it.  It appears I may need to clarify my point, or satisfy those who have a deeper understanding of the literature and history of Congo, since this post is  introductory in nature.  When I teach Heart of Darkness in the college classroom,  I work hard to give students good context, and teach them the history behind the story.  It is my belief and experience that, without good contextualizing, the novel feeds people's fear rather than their understanding about Congo.   

    I know that Leopold's rule resulted in 10 million deaths, which is not to speak of the disfigurement and dismemberment he caused; the king's reign was brutal, and I understand that Conrad and Twain, and writers like them, depicted the kind of terror and death he underwrote, using graphic detail and horror as a call to action so that people would rally to combat the problem.  These are international, activist writing in their time.  If you watch the CAMP Fund video I make reference to Heart of Darkness, and suggest that it functioned well as an exposee of Leopold's crimes.   I do believe this form is valuable, but I don't think it suffices as the only representation people have; ultimately, it describes a problem, not the general character of a place and its people.  I'm concerned that today's average reader overlooks this distinction, encouraged by the Afropessimism that dominates our media.  

    My use of Heart of Darkness above was meant to convey a simple point: If this is your image of Congo, don't assume this is the whole elephant.  Look further.  Learn more.

    Thank you for the response.  It lights a fire under me to populate the history section of this site.

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