12 years a slave: A movie Rwanda relates with

With the simmering conflict in South Sudan that has been casting a dark shadow on regional stability in the past weeks, it helped that attention was momentarily diverted with the burst into regional and global consciousness of Lupita Nyong’o – the acclaimed supporting actress of the movie, 12 Years a Slave.

With the simmering conflict in South Sudan that has been casting a dark shadow on regional stability in the past weeks, it helped that attention was momentarily diverted with the burst into regional and global consciousness of Lupita Nyong’o – the acclaimed supporting actress of the movie, 12 Years a Slave.

In a region under constant threat of conflict or violence – whether from the al Shabaab or the troubled eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – talent that casts the region in a more positive light offers welcome respite.

Lupita may be Kenyan, but she is also East African. And, resident in New York, she is also a global citizen, having also been born in Mexico to the well known Kenyan academic-cum-politician, Prof. Anyang Nyong’o.

However, the movie Lupita starred in would probably be of interest to Rwandans, if only by virtue of forced labour at the lash of the whip during the colonial period, which is akin to what the American slave had to endure. 

First, about the story the movie depicts, which I watched marking the highlight of a trip to Mombasa last week.

It is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, an African American living in freedom in Washington who was kidnapped into slavery in Louisiana. 

It also tells the story of Patsey, a young slave played by Lupita, but who was initially a house-slave and favorite of the mistress when she was still a girl. 

This was until she grew old enough, when the sadistic cotton plantation Master Edwin Epps started to take a liking to her – sexually – that the mistress had her sent out to work in the fields.

Therefore, even as Patsey is objectified by Epps, she also is scorned at by his wife in equal measure and is subjected to horrifying cruelty by both. 

A particularly poignant moment is when Epps tries to find Patsey, who apparently has gone to the neighbouring plantation to borrow soap so that she may keep clean for the master.

But Epps would hear none of it. She is supposed to be at his beck and call at any time. Egged on by his wife, who is only too pleased to see her punished, Patsey receives a severe beating on her naked body strapped to a tree, leaving her with deep and painful welts from the whip.  

Beatings of the whip were common, whether as punishment or to enforce labour. 

Which brings us to Rwanda’s colonial experience of the whip under Belgium, as perfected in the neigbouring rubber plantations in King Leopold II’s Congo.

This is how the experience is described in the book, The Resilience of a Nation: A History of the Military in Rwanda:

“In order to ensure production quotas were achieved in rubber plantations, for instance, wives would be held hostages to force husbands to deliver in order to secure their release.  Also, for failure to adequately produce, the chicotte (ikiboko), a whip made of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide that could inflict deep cuts on the body, was used in savage beatings that left gaping wounds of which even children were not spared. The chicotte would also be used on chiefs in public humiliation for their villages’ failure to deliver their quotas.”

The Rwandan ikiboko was no different than the whip used on the American slaves as so evocatively enacted by Lupita and the talented actors in 12 Years a Slave.

For her role, Lupita has already received a couple of awards, including the Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actress in a supporting role, and was nominated, among others, for the prestigious US Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress set for next month.

To come back to South Sudan, it is not all unhappy news. The country has bequeathed us the beautiful and stunningly arresting black model, Alek Wek, who continues to grace catwalks from Paris to New York making us all proud to be African and black.

The writer is a commentator on local and regional affairs. He co-authored the book, "The Resilience of a Nation: A History of the Military in Rwanda".

Twitter: @gituram

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