Rethinking Africa Or How Not To Talk About Your Africa Photo Project

The American photographer Pete Muller’s is working on a long-term project called Rethinking The Enemy: Men, Masculinity And Violence, that he claims attempts to:

…understand the causes of male-perpetrated violence,”

He explains that he is:

…working around the hypothesis that when men are not able to achieve what are often rigid standards of what makes successful manhood, they become extremely anxious and volatile, and they will revert to dangerous and violent behaviour in order to try to assert themselves as men.

Now, I am worried. 

Vico’s The New Science is everywhere a reminder that scholars hide, overlook or mistreat the gross physical evidence of human activity, including their own.

Edward Said, Reflections On Exile, page 86)

…in the progress of nations negroes have shown less capacity for self-government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary whenever they have been left to their own devices they have shown an instant tendency to lapse into barbarism.

President Andrew Johnson (quoted in Amy Kaplan’s The Anarchy of Empire In The Making Of U.S. Culture, page 83)

Peter Muller’s project has received considerable attention and support, not the least from the Open Society Initiative for South Africa, and he has produced work for the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict. It has recently been featured on Time Magazine’s Lightbox blog, The New York Times Lens blog and various other sites. It is clearly a work that is garnering considerable support and attention, even resulting in Pete Muller rubbing shoulders with celebrities, and diplomats. 

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In a detailed description of the project that is being supported by the Open Society Initiative for South Africa, we are told that in:

…Eastern DRC, the project will engage with men who are involved in military activity. They will be interviewed about their upbringing, perspectives on masculinity, cultural norms and attitudes about violence and honour.

and that in:

…Namibia, he will…try and understand the social, cultural and gender forces that are behind the alarmingly high (and increasing) rates of gender-based violence – in a country that is widely praised for its peace and stability.

and finally that in:

…South Africa, Muller will…try to grasp what role notions of masculinity play in the extraordinary levels of violence that continue to plague the country – twenty years after democracy.

What strikes one immediately – whether in the way Pete Muller explains the project, or in the way it is described in interviews of reviews, is the concentrated attention given to things like ‘traditions’, ‘culture’, ‘notions of masculinity’ and ‘traditional ideas of manhood’. This becomes even more contentious and curious when one simply recognises that this search for cultural explanations of social phenomenon are being sought in societies and communities scared not only be decades of war and conflict, but equally by decades of economic and political instability and its associated displacement, dispossession and discrimination.

Though some lip-service is given to this by Pete Muller, he is quick to dismiss the importance of looking at the political history as when he argues that his investigations into the question of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo…

…does not necessarily require viewers to talk extensively about the DR Congo and the history of the conflict and the country and Belgian colonialism and all these things that people can find somewhat off-putting or intimidating. The issues of men, masculinity, male stoicism and violence are universally relatable.

Apparently the histories of precolonial and colonial genocide, the facts of post-colonial political and internecine violence, the decades of social dislocation and displacement, the disruption of any and all semblance of community and communal norms, the destruction of family life as a result of migrations, escape, or simply because of a search for work, the consequences of relentless and endless levels of military violence are all simply dismissed as ‘…somewhat off-putting or intimidating’.

A people’s history, and political experiences of people are simply ejected into the dustbin of the inconvenient, while an essentialised focus on ‘traditional ideas of manhood’, or if I can summarise: African, black male cultural practices, becomes the principal investigative element in the work. One wonders what ‘traditional ideas of manhood’ Pete Muller expects to find in societies that have been rent asunder under the weight of brutal war, and decades of genocidal violence? What idealised African-ness – whatever that is, and however one can even begin to describe it, can be discovered in a country that has been perhaps permanently and indelibly transformed because of its experiences, and its brutal introductions to modernity? How does one even begin to speak about ‘traditional ideas of manhood’ in a space so militarised, so devastated, so distorted and so disrupted by violence – military, economic and political?

I will argue that the fundamental problem with this project, and the international humanitarian discourse it is a part of, is that by focusing on gender specific violence alone – though lucrative as a humanitarian fund-raising strategy, fails to reflect the actual realities on the ground in war-ravaged regions such as the Congo and South Africa, and in fact distorts these realities. Furthermore, that the presumptions it makes about societies that have for centuries – certainly since colonial times, been subjected to tremendous cultural essentialism to the exclusion of all else, retain even a modicum of what could be described as ‘traditional culture’ or ‘traditional ideas of manhood’ is too fraught with ahistorical presumptions and exotification of the other.

A focus on ‘gender-based’ violence – one that has found particular resonance with international celebrities and NGOs, has created serious distortions in not only our understanding of the general violence in regions such as DR of Congo, but of the causes and reasons for it. And though celebrity voices and media-hungry diplomats may find its meaningful to have their photos taken alongside selected victims and speak eloquent words about the need to fight this obviously serious issue, they also avoiding speaking about it in a way that makes sense, and more importantly, in a way that helps us understand it rather than further exacerbate it.

Pete Muller argues that:

[Behind the story] of almost every brutalised woman, there’s a man. But somehow, it’s become a women’s issue and their burden. They have to learn how to cope with the things that we, men, do, and we’re sort of left off the hook. The question should be: ‘How can we stop this from happening in the first place?’

But is that the only violence that we are concerned about? How has the brutalisation of a woman by a man in a region wracked by decades of mass violence, near genocidal violence, become the principal and celebrated concern? This is a question that requires some examination not only because of its prevalence in the NGO circuit, but also how it frames the answer, and responses we generate through action and intervention.

A report released by the Nordic African Institute of the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), titled The Complexity of Violence: A critical analysis of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) examines of how crimes of sexual violence in the Congo are depicted, documented and reported on. Specifically the report challenges the focus on sexual violence, as something ‘abnormal’ and different from other forms of violence, and the undue and highly publicised attention given to it by international health, aid and media organisations. The writers – Maria Eriksson Baaz, a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI), Uppsala and the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg and Maria Stern, Associate Professor in Peace and Development Studies at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, point out that (see page 13 through 15 of the report):

…sexual violence in the DRC has tended to be conceptualised as “abnormal” and fundamentally different from and outside of other forms of violence, which are presumed to be ungendered…Conceptualising sexual violence as somehow “abnormal” or outside other forms of violence by being gendered has ultimately contributed to dehumanising those who rape (and also ultimately those who are raped)…

…the specific, often exclusive, focus on sexual violence is problematic in that it hampers our understanding of the relationship between sexual violence and other (supposedly) “ungendered” violence. Emphasising and commenting on only the sexual violence mentioned in testimonies that also talk of other forms of violence hinders our understanding of the relationship between sexual violence and other violence. These forms of violence are, to a large extent, manifestations of the same systemic failures and mechanisms as those contributing to SGBV…

…the DRC experience shows that a singular focus on sexual violence within a very wide repertoire of human rights abuses by state security forces risks feeding into the “commercialisation of rape” or the perception of “rape as an income earning strategy”. In a context of a corrupt judiciary, rampant poverty, decreasing stigma and the almost total absence of basic health and social services, the focus on sexual violence as a particularly serious crime and the resources provided specifically for survivors of rape give rise to situations where allegations of rape become a survival strategy.

…the storyline of GBV in the DRC has been embedded in a limited understanding of gender, which conflates sex with gender and ignores the many ways in which wartime gendered violence also affects men and boys.

Note the explicit placement of violence in the broader political and economic context of the situation in the DR of Congo, and never a resort to cultural simplifications or presumptions. Furthermore, their explicit highlighting of how a telescopic view of ‘sexual violence’ distracts from our understanding of how it is a part of a broader structural violence in a society torn apart by decades of war.

But they go on to also point out very explicitly to the ethos and practices of the military that contribute to the prevalence of sexual violence. As they argue:

…the soldiers themselves cite poverty as the main reason for rape. According to this line of reasoning, it is as “somewhat unavoidable” that a man—who in any way is “denied sex” through lack of financial or other means—will eventually rape. This reasoning is a familiar echo of myths about male heterosexuality, masculinity, soldiering, and violence reproduced in military contexts. The Congolese military celebrates certain ideals of macho heterosexual masculinity. A (male) soldier’s libido is understood as a formidable natural force, which ultimately demands sexual satisfaction from women. Similar portrayals of masculinity can be found in most other military institutions globally. For example, men’s sexual needs are often presented as the reason for the need of regular R & R… Army brothels have also frequently been used, not the least during the Second World War. The prostitution rings that notoriously surround army bases, including current UN forces worldwide such as MONUC, is another example of this phenomenon. (page 47)

Note the statement that “…similar portrayals of masculinity can be found in most other military institutions globally.” In fact, this is one of the reasons for the massive prevalence of rape in the US military. As an Economist report pointed out:

The DoD announced in May [2013] that reported incidents of sexual assault in all branches of the armed forces rose almost 6% in 2012, to 3,374. Based on responses to anonymous surveys carried out by the DoD among all members of the services, however, it estimates that there were 26,000 cases of sexual assault last year, up from an estimated 19,000 cases in 2010. Of the 3,374 incidents reported, just 302 went to trial, leading to 238 convictions.

It is the ethos of a military – and the values, ideas, ideals, goals, objectives of militarized violence that feed into the general violence of which the right to ‘loot’ bodies and booty. Pete Muller must obviously know this. He isn’t ignorant of the general violence that has plagued the region, for after all, he has been working there as a photojournalist for some years. What I find curious is his easy dismissal of all that he can see, and experience, and his insistence on searching for answers in areas that he cannot see, nor comprehend. It is the prioritization of the imagined over the obvious, an erasure of reality and a projection of the less ‘’ which the celebrity and diplomatic tpe find easier to digest. Sexual violence, and rape as a weapon of war are clearly important issues to focus on. But what confuses me is the idea that they can be isolated from the broader environment of mass violence, military actions and wars taking place, and the larger level of violence being faced by all citizens, regardless of gender.

There is of course a long history of such erasures. We do not have to go too far back to see how seemingly ‘scientific’ and ‘rational’ minds continue to indulge in to. A recent and pertinent example is the work of Jared Diamond and in particular his best seller Guns, Germs And Steel: The Fate Of Human Societies. In a detailed and thorough analysis of this work, and tearing down of its false presumptions and historical erasures, the economic geographer David Harvey, in his book Cosmopolitanism And The Geographies Of Freedom, had this to say (page 203-204):

Current geographical inequalities in economic development and in the global distribution of wealth, Diamond argues, are largely explicable in terms of the initial environmental conditions that gave rise to domestication. If this is true, then…it means that Western colonial and imperialist practices…have little or nothing to do with the sorry state, of say, contemporary African development. A predatory capitalism engaging in ruthless resource extraction from Africa pales into insignificance compared to the dead weight of African environmental legacy. The well-documented history in which the fragile fertility of the tropical and subtropical soils in Africa was destroyed within one generation of colonial rule passes unremarked, as does the earlier shadowy history of a thriving rice agriculture in West Africa that was destroyed by the slave traders. The damning histories of Belgian colonial rapine of Congo and the violent repression of the Ogoni peoples in the Niger Delta in the name of big oil do not figure in Diamond’s account because it is “the hand of history’s course at 8000 BC [that] lies heavily upon us”. The ghost of King Leopold of Belgium and the current directors of Shell Oil will doubtless appreciate being let so easily off the hook.”

Harvey’s point is obvious: the erasure of a modernity that has deeply if not permanently transformed and distorted the societies we claim to study creates nothing but essentialist and reductive conclusions. And wrong ones too. Pete Muller’s determination to avoid the ‘off-putting’ facts of Congolese modernity, and the horrors it has rent upon the people of the region, and instead search for ‘traditional [African/black] ideas of masculinity’ is similar to Jared Diamond’s avoidance of modern realities and to look for answers in ‘ancient’ environmental realities – none of which have managed to survive man’s impact.

Furthermore, we have to remember that, as Didier Fassin has argued in his book Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present, that:

The representation of black men as sexual predators was, of course, nothing new. The Western imaginary of African sexuality has a long precolonial and colonial history fed by a fantasy representation of the other, which was taken to an extreme in human zoos. In South Africa, the proximity of whites and blacks in the cities and industrial centers from the late nineteenth-century onward gave rise to a common discourse on “African sexuality” that stigmatized “sexual impulses”, describing African…men as dangerous; the ‘black peril’ because a standard troupe, and it has in fact never completely disappeared from the mental world of white society. Thus…clearly a social construction developed over time that tends to centralize violence – that is, to essentialize it in cultural terms, making it a feature specific to African societies, in other words to the black population. However…it is important to understand that [sexual violence] emerges within a context of a social and historical reality of violence. The brutality of relations between men and women or boys and girls cannot be separated from the brutalization of social relations over recent decades, whether through apartheid or in the struggle against the regime…The culturalise essentialization of violence ignores the historical conditions of its social reproduction.

Such essentialist and reductive approaches have great appeal to celebrities looking to endorse their own ‘humanitarian’ credentials and are equally seductive to charitable organisations and diplomats. Such approaches allow for uncomplicated and univocal solutions, avoid complex realities, dodge difficult political complexities and perhaps most egregious, prevent us from thinking about more serious and demanding actions. They are easy, sellable, and marketable. But they are ultimately self-defeating, exploitative and damaging to the very people they claim to be for.

I will also add, as an aside if nothing else, that such essentialized generalizations – about African ‘traditions’ or ‘ideas of masculinity’ are dismissive of an entire corpus of post-colonial writings. Writers and intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois, Aime Cesaire, Wole Soyinka, Frantz Fanon, Henry Odera Oruka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, C.L.R James, James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, Okot p’Bitek, Taban Lo Liyong, Achille Mbembe, Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, and V.Y. Mudimbe are just some examples of those who have transformed how the continent can and should be confronted. To these incredible voices we can also add those of people like Didier Fassin, Sander Gilman, Alexander Butchart, Jean-Pierre Dozon, Alain Badiou, Partha Chatterjee, Etienne Balibar, Binyanvanga Wainaina to name a few whose works on race, capitalism, racism, imperialism and empire cannot be ignored. It is then surprising that we can still find photographers, celebrities, diplomats and humanitarians who go about speaking about people of the continent in ways that reveal their indifference to its voices, lived realities, social structures and historical trajectories.

There is no doubt that the issue Pete Muller wants to explore is an important one. There is also no doubt that violence against women remains a major issue. And it is equally important to state that I do not accuse Pete Muller of being a bigot or a racist. I fear that people will walk away from my criticism of his simplistic and evasive approach to the issue with the impression that I am accusing him of prejudice. If anything I am accusing him of intellectual and methodological laziness. My point is that it behoves us to not essentialize the issue, or ignore the significantly obvious larger social and political context of the violence. These issues – about the seemingly perpetual spiral of the region into violence cannot be separated, if we are to address and resolve it. Africa is not a black hole into which we pour of personal struggles and need for significance into. As the writer Teju Cole argued:

…Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.” 

And when Pete Muller, standing alongside celebrities that continue to see African nations and situations as ‘…a space onto which [their] egos can be conveniently projected], reveals that this project is also a form of personal therapy, we find ourselves returning to Teju Cole’s advice that.

…there is an internal ethical urge that demands that each of us serve justice as much as he or she can. But beyond the immediate attention that [s]he rightly pays hungry mouths, child soldiers, or raped civilians, there are more complex and more widespread problems. There are serious problems of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order. These problems are neither simple in themselves nor are they reducible to slogans. Such problems are both intricate and intensely local.

How, for example, could a well-meaning American “help” a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places.

Pete Muller seems unaware of the power dynamics that allow him to simple enter a region of conflict, photograph it, and play at being a personal psychiatrist to ‘damaged’ men. He may not, as Marsha Henry, Lecturer in Gender, Development and Globalisation at the LSE Gender Institute argued:

…think about the power relations between those who are able to speak about sexual violence, to name the victims and the perpetrators, likely at a distance, and those who witness, but who may not want to testify, speak to truth or even to be given what Pupavac has termed ‘therapeutic governance’.

In fact, Pupavac’s work raises serious concerns about this new trend of p

Psychosocial conflict management approaches have long been criticised for concentrating on feelings to the detriment of rational thought (Scruton, 1985) and being process rich and content poor (Lister, 1987). Their preoccupation with emotional stability and role playing effectively reduces social problems to poor individual morale and bad socialisation. One pitfall of the focus on individual feelings as the reference point is that it may obscure structural sources of conflict, thereby making it harder for the warring parties to see beyond their own conflicting perspectives and overcome their mutual enmity. Another issue is that international psychosocial initiatives at the micro-sociological level may potentially erode community and family cohesion…

Fundamental questions need to be asked about the ethics and efficacy of the therapeutic model in the West too. However, the pathologization of the borderlands has implications for self-government as well as individual rights.

Concluding with a devastation summary of the consequences of the replacement of politics with trauma analysis. She points out:

The imposition of the therapeutic paradigm in post-conflict societies does not just entail an attack on ethnic nationalist politics, but represents the demise of the realm of politics. Therapeutic governance is reducing democracy to a question of self-esteem (Lasch, 1995). Rights entail the recognition of competing victim statuses, but the substance of political rights is denied. Power is not exercised by the ostensible subjects of rights, but by international advocates on their behalf. Populations are de-coupled from policy formation. Instead of societies formulating policy, policy is being formulated for them.

An African people, nation of imaginary is not a vessel for us to work the needs of our ego, or of our personal histories. There has to be a less demeaning way to see the region and its people. There has to be a more equal, and humane way to speak about them. And it begins by making connections, and revealing inter-relationships; between our privileges, and those of celebrities like Angelina Jolie, here in the ‘civilized’ world, and their deprivations there. It begins by speaking about the world in ways that interweave our histories, and our perspective, and shun positions of privilege and imaginary ‘neutrality’. To use what Edward Said called a contrapuntal approach to life, history and experience. It begins by seeing the world as it is experienced by others and reaching for a compassionate imagination, as Martha Nussbaum argued, that allows us to place ourselves into the lives and experiences of the other.

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