Well That’s Africa

Typed on the 26th of June at Sankofa.

A few months ago when I put together this post about Toms Shoes and Ethos Water – well I almost didn’t. I originally intended to rant about a different topic that proved a little too daunting. The stereotypes of an entire continent (or at least a region of that continent). But I recently read an article about the DRC which made me want to attempt this post one more time.

My primary grievance is people’s response to hearing about things going on around the world.  My favorite response after telling people about what’s happening in central-east Africa is the tendency to say “that’s terrible, but that sort of thing is always happening in Africa,” or the terse version of “well that’s Africa.”  In the op-ed article, the author addresses the assumption, or should I say excuse, that the use of mass rape as a weapon in the DR Congo is “cultural.”  But I’ll get to that in a second.

It’s true that many of the states in sub-Saharan Africa have faced a lot of problems. It’s true that not all of it is a direct result of colonization – sometimes people fight and tragedies occur.  But what makes the genocide in Darfur different than that in Cambodia?  What makes the atrocities carried out by the LRA any different than those by Hamas?  Well, for one thing, they happen in Africa.

Yes, I oversimplified it.  Things are very different between each conflict.  But still, there is nothing about Africa that says “a majority of states must be consumed in war and mass atrocity,” except a foreign and uninterested outside culture that wants to assume that.  If you’re tired of hearing me rant about abductions or you simply don’t know how to respond to me explaining the plight of the Acholi, just tell me so.  Or just cut me short by saying “oh, that’s awful.”  You don’t need to say “well, that’s Africa,” because all that says is “well, this is the best excuse I can come up with to let it happen.”  I know a lot of people don’t understand the cultures of other societies – I know I don’t.  But what makes one think that something as horrible as rape might be a tradition of the culture?  One thing that I thought was particularly important from the article was this:

Any Congolese will tell you rape is not “traditional.” It did occur in Congo before the war, as it does everywhere. But the proliferation of sexual violence came with the war. Militias and Congolese soldiers alike now use sexual violence as a weapon. Left unchecked, sexual violence has festered in Congo’s war-ravaged east. This does not make rape cultural. It makes it easy to commit. There is a difference.

And this type of thinking can be lethal.  Troubles arise when people on the ground in these areas, those who should know better than any others, think this way.  To assume that something like rape or abduction is normal will effectively change your perspective in dealing with the very people who are targeted by these actions.  It’d be like telling blacks in 1920s New England that it was safe to go back to the South because you were convinced that lynching was just a part of the culture there.  That doesn’t make any sense, so why should aid workers tell women it’s safe to go home to a village where rape is rampant?

I encourage you to read the article.  It’s short, but strong, and it gives more details as to the implications of such thinking.  And I’d like to add a short note in response to her call for charging electronics companies an extra penny per product: Congress recently voted to include anti-conflict mineral language in the financial reform overhaul – hopefully it passes and our favorite electronics will not longer fund perpetrators of things so horrible that they just can’t be called cultural.

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