On NYT’s Misguided Nostalgia for Conrad

The smoked monkeys brought the point home. During my first day on a boat on the Congo River, I’d embraced the unfamiliar: how to bend under the rail to fill my wash bucket from the river, where to step around the tethered goat in the dark and the best way to prepare a pot of grubs. But when I saw the monkeys impaled on stakes, skulls picked clean of brains and teeth thrusting out, I looked otherness in the face — and saw myself mirrored back.

I was the real exotica: the only tourist to take this boat in nearly a decade, and the only white woman, as far as the crew knew, ever. Expect to be kidnapped, people had warned me. Expect to have everything stolen and expect every arrangement to go awry. Bring your own mosquito net, waterproof everything twice and strap your cash around your ankle.

These are the opening paragraphs of Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff‘s piece on the Congo River in the Times. In the piece Prof. Josanoff seeks to uncover what has changed (or not) since Conrad was in the Congo a century ago. She has a forthcoming book titled The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.

The piece reads like a satirical rejoinder to Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write About Africa.

Why did Jasanoff decide to embark on this mission? In the third paragraph we find out:

The Democratic Republic of Congo, I read in my guidebook, was “a huge area of dark corners, both geographically and mentally,” where “man has fought continuously against his own demons and the elements of nature at large.” This, in other words, was the heart of darkness, which was why I had wanted to come.

I would like to think that Prof. Jasanoff consulted more than a guidebook to find out more about the Congo before her trip. But I digress.

The whole thing is worth reading. After which you should write the New York Times editors to let them know what you think.

The point here is not necessarily to call out Prof. Jasanoff, but to highlight what seems to be an insatiable demand at the Times for orientalist pieces on Africa and Africans.

And while on the subject of Conrad and the Congo, a fitting antidote is by none other than Chinua Achebe. In his review of Heart of Darkness, Achebe laments the use of Africa and Africans as background against which Europeans act out their neuroses:

Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.

Read the whole review here.

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How to write about Africa in one picture

This is a story about Kenya building the first new railroad since the British built the old one more than a century ago. The new line goes through a National Park. A watchman was attacked by a cheetah. No one was mauled by lions. The attempts to link the current project to the Man Eaters of Tsavo trope is noted, but that happened a century ago when the lion population in the Protectorate was still quite big, and rhinos charged mail cars.Screen Shot 2015-02-26 at 11.33.38 PM

The rest of the story is here. Please skip through the Conrad-esque first paragraph.

Achebe (on Conrad’s racism) and Binyavanga (on how to write about Africa) should be required reading before some of these correspondents (and the social media interns) are inflicted on the world.

More on the DRC

CFR has a nice interview with Jason Stearns, DRC expert and author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. Jason in part notes that:

This crisis has brought about a shift in international donor policy for the region, in particular criticism and financial sanctions against Rwanda, which is something that’s new. However, using aid as leverage only makes sense in the context of a larger political process. Bashing Rwanda just for the sake of bashing Rwanda is not a solution. There needs to be a comprehensive political process into which that kind of pressure can be funneled and channeled. But there is no such process at the moment. What you have are talks mediated by a regional body—the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR)—that has the irony of being presided over by Uganda, which is itself playing a role in the conflict by supporting the M23. These talks have been largely limited to an evaluation of the March 23, 2009 peace deal, and the potential formation of a regional military force to deal with the FDLR and M23. But the causes of the crisis run much deeper and involve the failure of local governance, the weakness of the Congolese army, and the persistent meddling of neighboring countries in Congolese affairs.

This is precisely what informs my contention that there is too much focus on the international dimension of the conflict at the expense of the kinds of reforms that Congo needs in order to improve state capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest country.

You can’t do business, implement a human rights regime, or even pretend to have democratic governance in a stateless environment (Unless, of course, you live in a state of nature in which everyone has capacity to defend themselves against aggression by others).

Some, including very serious and influential people, think that the solution to Congo’s weakness is to plea with its neighbors not to prey on it. I disagree. I believe that the best solution ought to be the strengthening of Congo so it can deter its neighbors. The international community just wasted a good opportunity to force a cornered Kabila to agree on a peace deal that is self-enforcing, i.e., that reflects the power balance in eastern Congo.

As things stand the continuation of the power vacuum in the Kivus will continue to attract rebels, foreign-sponsored or not.

More on this here.

Also here is a  glimpse of some of the actions by Kabila and his Kinshasa cabal which make it extremely unlikely that the situation in Congo will improve under his rule.