The question of representation has increasingly become mainstream. Africa presents a particular historical and contemporary challenge to representation. Representation in this context is ‘the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone’ or ‘the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way’. Academic, fictional and media representation is important because without accurate and dignified representation, the voice, visibility and validity of a people are distorted. But there is a history here.
The people who are harmfully represented begin to doubt the validity of their experiences. We are gaslit. Constantly. Till we begin to believe the lie. Therefore our collective vision and ability to engage with the world is damaged. Africa has long been the site of silence and absence. This is epistemic violence.
G C Spivak discusses epistemic violence in the violence of knowledge production. Epistemic violence includes the distortions, stereotyping and generalizing of conditions, as if all Africans are all homogeneously belaboured, lacking agency and needing saving. Spivak developed and applied Foucault’s term ‘epistemic violence’ to describe the destruction of non–Western ways of perceiving the world, and the resultant dominance of the Western ways of perceiving the world. [Spivak: 1988]
I posit here that there are four manifestations of epistemic violence upon Africa, both from within and without – Silence, Absence, Distance and Remembrance – all resulting in sanctioned vulnerability to death.
There are few African voices in mainstream media, fiction and academia. From Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to contemporary publishing restrictions, from Hegel to limitations preventing African academics access to the rest of the world, African voices have often been silenced or distorted. Wa Thiong’o makes the argument that all prizes for African fiction are for work written in non-African language. A large swathe of African works will not qualify on both content and format. How much of Africa do you know? How are we told about Africa? Permission to consign Africa’s children to slow and quick death starts by structurally confining most of the voices of Africa’s people to silence. ‘Speak to me only in the way I have conditioned myself to hear’ is the same thing as ‘do not speak’.
One can be silent and still appear, but in addition to the silence we have the absence of large sections of African realities. If you google the words ‘African History’ you will receive information mainly on slavery and colonialism. Post-colonial African history can be traced back approximately 56 years from 1960. Colonial African history, which includes the Mandate system, lasted from 1860 till circa 1960, a period of 100 years. Organised political Precolonial African history has been recorded as far back as 3500BC. Civilisations sprang up in West, East and Central Africa around 2000BC – over 4000 years ago. The ‘Transatlantic slave trade’ (that most vicious of human endeavours, better described as a trade in kidnapped Africans for the purpose of coerced labour) started circa 15th century. African history is therefore wrongly defined solely by colonialism or slavery. The first women leaders in the world were mostly African. Queen Amina was a 16th century monarch in present day Nigeria. Rwanda current has the most gender balanced parliament in the world. But when you study the world it is implicitly understood that Africa is excluded. If you wish to study Africa, you must study it as an exceptional case. By discounting the importance of African presence and voice, but now and in history, we distort reality, trapping ourselves in a false present.
Considering the ease, duration and lack of remorse with which the trade in enslaved Africans was conducted, the distance between the rest of the world and Africa (figuratively and physically) remains enormous. Border control as a means of keeping in and keeping out. Africa is no longer just our home, but also our prison and their plantation. State as a continuation of both slave enclosures and colonial properties. Resources flow out cheaply, but not people. Restriction of movement, covertly punitive. Protagonists in books and movies wake up in London and decide to fly to New York that same day and get there! Across the African continent, there people who had been trying to go to the USA for ten years. Everyday we hear of Africans drowning as they try to leave their home. Freedom is not universal. You can hardly go to a conference outside Africa, where an African academic was unable to attend due to visa problems, except there was no African in potential attendance in the first place. The other side is always over there. One more hurdle to climb over. One more requirement to check off. One more river to cross.
I think the worst failure in the representation of Africa has been in reference to memory. Africa’s rich history has been forgotten. The trade in enslaved Africans has no historical counterpart in its level of destruction – it was predicated on the dehumanisation of an entire people for profit, it lasted four centuries, it is the first form of globalisation and its cultural, sociological and economic aftershocks still reverberate. Yet we fail to reference it or repair the damage. It is a forgotten wound, gaping and ulcerous.
‘No human disaster . . . can equal in dimension of destructiveness the cataclysm that shook Africa . . . the threads of cultural and historical continuity were so savagely torn asunder that henceforward one would have to think of two Africas: the one before and the one after the Holocaust.’ [Sertima: 1984, 8]
Colonialism again was predicated on the presumption that Africa’s precolonial structures were inadequate and inferior and therefore all of her resources could be taken from her children. Congo was visited by enslavement and dismemberment by the Belgians. German genocide of the Herero is wilfully swept under the carpet. British torture in Kenya is frequently trivialised. France was known to have enslaved many Africans and used African women as an inducement for their soldiers. France still has the first right to buy or reject any natural resources found in the land of the Francophone countries. Portugal were the first to colonise and the last to leave (1985) and practised strict racial segregation. It continues to be blindly argued that colonialism brought more good than evil, an argument which Robinson roundly refutes.
But more significant than the non-remembrance of the atrocities of colonialism and trade in Africans, is the forgetting of who Africans were and still continue to be, before, during and after this history. The first universities in the world were in Africa, at Sankore and Al Quaraouiyine. We have forgotten the street lamps of old Benin City built in the 14-15 century. We have forgotten women like Nzinga, Moremi and Amina. We have forgotten the Mino of Dahomey. The world forgot who we were, what we had done and where we had been… and we did the same. We have forgotten who we were, and where we have been, so we cannot imagine where we can go and who we may become.
The contemporary but false idea of Africa is made from silence, characterised by absence, viewed at a distance and is replete with lost memories. And it all smells like death.
Chakravorty, Spivak Gayatri, Nelson Cary, and Grossberg Lawrence. “Can the subaltern speak?.” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture 271 (1988): 271-313.
Robinson, Nathan J., A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism Was Bad, September 14, 2017, Current Affairs
Van Sertima, Ivan. Black women in antiquity. Transaction Publishers, 1984.