Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Meanwhile in the Congo

There was a documentary on HBO recently titled, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. It is about the long standing systematic use of rape as a tool of the endless war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese women have been raped, sodomized and killed during this conflict that has been going on for more than ten years. The stories of the women, told in their own voices, are excruciatingly vivid and painful. To the credit of the film’s director, Lisa Jackson, there is equal emphasis on hope and the few, but important, sources of support.

What struck me deeply, once I could see beyond the pain of the women, was the barbarism of the Congolese men.

I grew up influenced by men such as Cheikh Anta Diop, Chinweizu, Louis Farrakhan, Bruce Wright and certainly my own father. One of their collective and abiding lessons to me was that of counter example. In different ways they all pointed out that the attacks on black people, and black men in particular, are incessant and ubiquitous. They made the connection between black people in the Diaspora and Africa and pointed out that criticism of our intellect and cognitive abilities are legendary. There are also centuries old questions about our decency, civility and basic standing as human men.

What these mentoring men did was make sure that young black people like me did not fall victim to the assault - that we did not begin to believe that African men have a monopoly on human weakness and indecency. They prompted us to take the offensive and point the questioning finger at others. That is not to condone bad behavior, but to recognize that it is manifest in everyone, particularly white men who were held as sacrosanct in our public education history. In doing so we find that the black male persona – whatever that might be – is not disproportionately prone to wickedness as the history books, the news and all manner of messages would have us believe. No, the human spectrum – our capacity for both good and bad – is found in everyone. That is a simple intellectual conclusion, but a very difficult psychological challenge.

The function of the counter example is not only to know the positive sides of the black experience, but to be aware of the far less examined instances of human wickedness among white men and others such that in arguments of history and human capacity we are not bowed into a corner of shame and broken pride about ourselves.

Armed with that balance, I sat down to watch The Greatest Silence. I was conscious that it was directed by yet another well intentioned white woman going deep into the heart of Africa to expose a social reality that I might otherwise not see. But I did see a reality that I would not otherwise have seen. I saw the intimate destruction of African women by African men. I saw barbarism. Some of the men spoke dispassionately about the number of women they had raped and how it was destiny and magic that made them do it. This was after listening to stories of how some women had their anuses and vaginas cut open with machetes after having been raped and others had burning embers stuck inside them.

In this case the counter examples couldn’t help. The African continent is virtually in convulsion under war, rape, pillage, looting and human fracture. There is scarcely a continuous line that can be drawn from one coast to another that will not cross some incident of gross human barbarism meted out on African people by African men.

What I wonder now is what the next set of examples will be? What will the mentors of black boys in the coming generations be able to draw on as examples of our heritage as African men?

kamau