To hell with the dark continent

January 14, 2006

While peacemakers cheer the new “peace process” and transitional government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa), massive human rights violations are still taking place in the east, including rape as a tool of war and mutilations. Mass graves are still being uncovered in Bunia. Now I could say that this is a result of a war (supposedly ended) that has killed over 4,000,000 in four years. I could say that this war has caused a second genocide in less than 100 years that has gone without mention. I could say that the root cause of this war is the world’s insatiable thirst for diamonds, coltan, copper, rubber, and gold that began even before King Leopold II infected the Congo with his Acquired Immune Dictatorship-from-a-distance Syndrome. I could even say that in addition to corrupted Congolese leaders caught in their own scramble for Congo, this war is a result of Western forces such as the United States and Belgium, who have participated in assassinations of democratically-elected Congolese leaders so as to insert a leader (Mobutu Sese Seko) whose 32-year dictatorship easily rivaled Saddam Hussein’s. I could say that is why mass graves are still being dug up, the proliferation of child soldiers continues, and women are still be used as sexual toys. I could say all this but what’s the point? Nobody gives a damn about the Congo, much less Africa.

I watched coverage of the war on Iraq from before day one. As much as I empathize with the people who suffered under Saddam, I kept asking myself why no one cares about US-supported dictators in Africa. I wondered, rather than debating whether America is responsible for Saddam because of the support he enjoyed in the eighties and nineties, why is it that no one talks about the current support that Rwanda and Uganda receive from America, even though these countries invaded Congo twice within the last decade? I wonder why it is that Americans do not realize that our purchase of cell phones, computers, and diamonds have indirectly supported this genocide. The reason is that no one gives a damn about Congo, much less Africa.

Once again, Africa has vanished off the map of human concern. The average American is resigned to the fact that whatever transpires in Africa is destined because Africans are savage and “unsaved.” Africa is still the Tarzan-inspired, AIDS-infested country where people die because they are heathens. I even wonder how many readers will gloss over the fact that I just referred to Africa as a country and not a 54-nation continent. I can do this because, as you’ll find in many of your conversations, we recount our travels to China, Brazil, India, Canada, and Africa. To the average American, Africans have been engraved in our mind’s constitution as three-fifths of a person from three-fifths of a continent. I should actually say four-fifths since Northern Africa is so conveniently left out of the doomsday-statistics concerning the continent.

As disheartening as these facts are, as a former middle school teacher, I looked every day into the eyes of America’s future and saw the cycle continuing. Before I showed videos of my travels to African countries, I had my students write about their images of Africa. I got the same answers you probably would have given as a child (or give now as an adult): far, half-naked heathens, “people” living next to wild animals, dirt roads, huts. However, after seeing my videos of African cities, my students asked to take a field trip to “Africa.” It was no longer far. It was no longer savage. In 15 minutes, I often changed images of Africa that these children had learned since birth.

While I never heard the word “spic,” “chink,” or “kike” used to refer to any of my Latino, Chinese, or Jewish students; insults such as “African bush-boogie” or “African booty-scratcher” roll off the tongues of my students whenever a dark-skinned student aroused their ire, particularly if that student had a “foreign” accent or name. Is this the melting pot that we are striving for in America? Is this indicative of a nation that promotes true understanding of diverse backgrounds and is open-minded towards the beliefs of others?

It seems that we Americans talk about embracing differences only when we feel threatened by a foreign agent or domestic upheaval. Since Africans in the Diaspora are, for all intents and purposes, complacent with the stereotypes put forth about them throughout the international community, Africa will continue to be that dark, faraway, unsaved country (yes, “country”).

I could tell you about my cousin in Congo who died of tuberculosis at 22 years of age; which happened on the day I met him for the first time, because his family could not afford medicine. I could tell you about my other cousin in Mozambique who is living with AIDS and has already lost her husband to the AIDS grim reaper because he had to choose between money for expensive Western AIDS medicine or financial aid to feed his children. I could tell you that this great country that invaded Iraq to “liberate” the Iraqis has supported genocidal regimes in Africa. You would probably like that.

On the other hand, I could tell you about the warmth of the African people who opened their doors to me and fed me like a king though no one in the family was working. I could tell you how I honestly felt more safe walking the streets of all but one of the ten African countries I have visited than I do on the streets of America where I can have my life snatched away just as easily by a crook as by a cop. I could tell you that I often think about why I should give a damn about human suffering in Iraq or Israel and how I could never think that way because of an African traditional principle that my mother taught me — hate hatred, not humanity. I could probably even tell you that each time I leave the African continent, I am more inspired that those “savages” are the hope for all of humanity’s children. I could say all of this but what’s the point? As long we do not have a government, an educational system, and a society that actively challenges its people on misconceptions of a people whose ancestors built this country, the same, irrefutable fact will hold for all eternity — no one gives a damn about Africa.

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