In a week during which memorial ceremonies commemorating the defeat of Hitler’s axis and the end of the Second World War were held, I watched two movies of peculiar interest but with a slightly similar violent story.
One, an Oscar award winning performance by Kate Winslet chronicles the legacy of the gas chambers in which millions of Jews were incinerated by Hitler during the Holocaust.
The other, fuelled by one of Africa’s curses, the diamond, is about the conflict in Sierra Leone which ended in the early 2000s after claiming more than 50,000.
The first, ‘The Reader’ is about the story of an illiterate female prison officer that falls in love with a young supposedly Jewish law student that later participates in her trial.
The story shows the blind hand of fate and the innocent clash of two other-words irreconcilable worlds. The other movie, ‘The Blood Diamonds’ tells Africa’s misery in dealing with its natural resources and its failure to simply connect resource to market without a war.
The story is told in the simplest of terms that only Hollywood knows and wants to understand about Africa and our conflicts.
As is expected, there’s wielding of sharp machetes here, grotesque images of Africans butchering each other and the occasional Whiteman baffled by the scenario.
The Whiteman is on the beaches holidaying, holding a photo camera, sometimes writing the next big humanitarian story from Africa for a major media house in the US or Europe and other times it shows the businessman unconcerned with a ‘dark’ people who cannot coexist peacefully while he is doing business.
From my simple write up you can tell one thing, the way that I grasped the stark contrasts in the two movies. The complicated nature of the legacy of Nazi German and the simple ‘good-bad’ guy in the African story.
The European story is told in such a way that tells of sophistication, it is a civilized encounter among human beings that are innocent.
On the other hand, the African story is told in such a way that its actors are simple blood thirsty monsters bent on eliminating each other by virtue of greed for resources whose value they cannot grasp as the diamonds are shown to be traded far away in Europe.
And that’s the story of Africa. Since most people out of Africa never read about the continent in books or in newspapers, they know most things about the continent from movies, and sometimes (honourably) wildlife features about the animals on the continent.
(It is my opinion that Europeans and North Americans know more about the animals in Africa than the people living on the continent.)
So since movies tell their stories in terms of good and bad guys, most people outside Africa know of the continent in terms of good and bad guys. Just recently, an acquaintance introduced me to his North American girlfriend, “he is among the good guys”, and I was baffled by what he meant.
If one comes from Rwanda and travels to another part of Africa or the world, they will once in a while be asked a question or two after the proverbial; ‘Where do you come from?”
Having established that one is from Rwanda the next question or conversation will be probing to establish whether one is Tutsi or Hutu, in order to place you among the good or bad guys of Africa.
And people in developed countries know about conversations and getting information when they want to. They thrive on information after all.
To many, this probing is humiliating, some foolish people are quick to point out that they are Tutsi as this is likely to win some sympathy votes, (In a related idea and also as part of this paradox, every Rwandan that goes outside Africa automatically gets the Tutsi tag and plucks it on a pedestal.)
There are categories of bad and good in other parts of the world as there was during the holocaust but their differences were not recorded on obvious structures as ours.
In the same way, if you were asked to describe the bad guys of the European genocides, (they have had a couple there, have they not?)
This description will pit one particular idea against another. No particular specifics, these are civilizations after all. It is not really popular how the Jews were identified for extermination by the Nazi for example, but there’s a wide collection of variables that the Hutu used to butcher the Tutsi in Rwanda.
If the identity card never gave one a particular designation of tribe, you could look at the neck, the mouth, demeanour, the hair, complexion and particularly the nose.
The good bad guy analogy is a simple one in the Rwandan context, this is because of the fact that as you answer innocent queries about your Hutuness or Tutsiness ( such that one can approve whether what they watched is true) they have a set of givens and trademarks as established by anthropologists. It is an attempt to show the blur on the African story.
Closer to home, the story of Rwanda’s genocide-in its most ‘famous’ script as told by Paul Rusesabagina and his book; “An Ordinary man” way after he left Rwanda, and more eloquently in Hotel Rwanda is the moral of this rambling.
When a local story is told in the eyes of a foreign audience and acted out for that audience the people affected by actual events of the story become figures, graphs and theories.
And in this way Africa misses out in the real story of the world, our story is told only when a powerful entertainer visits and we take advantage of the photo ops or a charity organization makes a video asking for sponsors of this or that cause.
(Hotel Rwanda is off a book written by a Hutu man, and acted by an American and a Nigerian plus a couple of Ugandans.)
The people that are living the events are reduced to appear as extras. It is with this hindsight that French president Nicholas Sarkozy remarked in 2007 at a Senegalese University ‘Africa has never entered history.’ Africa needs to find a way to help real African story tellers to get into mainstream media outlets.
Or even easier to develop our own media where we will not be fed on other people’s impressions of us.