The White Man's Influence in Africa

Hindsight is 20/20. And, with the power of hindsight, it is easy for us to say that what we did to colonize Africa was horribly wrong. The infamous "Scramble for Africa," which took place between 1881 and the start of WWI in 1914, saw western powers competing to take control of Africa and divide it up among themselves. Desiring the land, labor, and resources, western powers completely ignored the rights and wishes of the African people, and Africans were largely unable to resist the war technologies of a post-Industrial society. In the collective western psychology, there were many justifications provided for the morally questionable actions of colonization. The most famous example is the White Man's Burden, describing the African as a savage and primitive man whom it is our duty, with the blessing of Christ, to civilize. It is easy to look back and frown upon the inherently racist and greed-driven motivations of African colonization, but it is not so easy to consider how these actions are still resonating in Africa today, and how we are collectively ignoring the fact that it may now be the White Man's Burden to clean up the mess we created in the first place.

external image White-Mans-Burden.jpg

The stories of men who actually experienced African colonization provide some of our best windows to the complexities of the situation. The most famous example of such a work is without a doubt Joseph Conrad's classic novella Heart of Darkness, which follows the story of a steamboat captain's travels through the Congo river. Conrad himself went to the Congo on a steamer 8 years before the book was written, a trip which was widely believed to provide the basis for his most well-known novel.

In reading Heart of Darkness, it is clear that Conrad is still a man quite shaken and troubled by his experiences in Africa, and not quite sure what to make of it. When Conrad visited the Congo, it was ruled by a Belgian named King Leopold, who exploited the area for ivory and used his private army to force the native population into slave labor. Beatings, mutilations, and killings were commonplace under his regime and it is estimated that millions of natives died under his rule. The atrocities that Conrad witnessed during his time in the Congo trickled down to shape the character of "Kurtz," an employee of an ivory trading company who has taken root in the Congo, collected ivory through forced labor and raids, and is worshipped as a demigod by a small group of devotees, both white and black.

Joseph Conrad

Conrad's assessment of the situation in Congo seems to be one of absolute despair and darkness, reflected in Kurtz's final words, and the most famous of the book, "The horror! The horror!" And although to the western eye the book may appear quite critical of the effects of colonization, the African author and intellectual Chinua Achebe thought quite differently when he wrote his 1977 essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness," in which he claims that Conrad's depiction of Africans deprives them completely of humanity and culture, instead using them as a background device and part of the extended metaphor of darkness present throughout the novel. He claims that although "Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation [he] was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth." There are those who argue that Conrad was merely a product of the inherent racism of his time, but Achebe argues that inherent racism is still deeply rooted in the western view of Africa. He says that the racism is "more akin to a reflex action than calculated malice. Which does not make the situation more, but less hopeful." He concludes his essay by saying that, although he considered listing things African culture would have to offer the West if a more collaborative, understanding view was taken on, he decided that offering bribes to the West was not the answer. Instead, the disposal of "unwholesome thoughts" must be its own reward.

Achebe's claim to fame is writing the novel Things Fall Apart in 1958, which tells the story of colonization from the perspective of the colonized. In it, a strong African tribesman named Okonkwo watches the deterioration of his clan and the coming of the white man. The imposing of a foreign religion and an economic system is at first unimposing, but quickly spirals out of control and the traditional african culture begins to disintegrate. The book takes place in what would later become Nigeria, where Achebe was born.

When we read about the past situations of the Congo or Nigeria, we can almost universally see that what we did was wrong. But few of us have paid attention to how the story has continued to play out, and what role we are playing (or, more often, not playing) in these events that are largely the consequences of our own past actions.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the deadliest armed conflict since World War II is currently raging on. After the belgians became economically weak and had to deal with more internal conflict, they abruptly left the Congo, essentially giving all political power to the Congolese in 1960. Congolese politician Patrice Lumumba was able to secure the independence of the Congo without having to resort to violence, although in the politically unstable atmosphere he was quickly overthrown by the militant dictator Mobutu Sese Soko. The West supported Mobutu partly because Patrice Lumumba was viewed as a Communist (or, more accurately, he was not an anti-Communist), and partly because under Mobutu's violent regime the Congo's resources would be sold inexpensively, as Mobutu had little stake in the welfare and interest of the Congolese people. Mobutu ruled until 1997, and over the years the US gave him $300 million in weapons and $100 million in military training in order to ensure our own economic interest in the area.

When Mobutu's regime was overthrown, there began an era of political instability that continues to this day. There have been many factions fighting to gain power over the years, and none have had problem funding their war due to the vast national resources present in the area. By exploiting water, diamonds, tin, copper, timber, and other resources, all factions have been able to buy arms and training from larger nations such as the U.S. and previous members of the Soviet bloc. Multinational companies have been charged with profiting greatly from the constant turmoil. Since 1998, 5.4 million Congolese have died. Children account for 47% of the deaths, and 45,000 continue to die each month. There are over 10,000 child soldiers fighting. Plundering, rape, and mutilation are all common practices in the total war being waged. And yet, the international media seems to pay little attention to the conflict there. Salvatore Bulazumi, a Congolese man who witnessed the deaths of his two wives and five children said, "I am utterly convinced now... that the lives of the Congolese people no longer mean anything to anybody... Not to those you call the international community..."

The situation in Nigeria is no less dire. the country is oil-rich, corporations such as Chevron, Mobil, and Shell have huge economic and political interest in the country. There is an interdependence between the military dictatorship that exists there and the multinational companies with the economic ability to them in power. The environmental pollution caused by the practices of the companies have made farming, fishing, and self-sustenance nearly impossible for the Nigerian people. Chinua Achebe may even claim that these ancient tribal practices put at risk by the Oil Industry, are the very ties Nigerian attempts to organize and protest the situation are often met with violence and military repression. Environmentalists and human rights leaders have been executed, and protestors have been fired upon by military carried in Chevron-marked helicopters.

Vladmir Lenin once wrote an essay calling imperialism, "the highest stage of capitalism," and although blatant imperialism may have disappeared from Africa, the people of Africa are still suffering while we allow private companies to continually exploit the area for capitalistic profit. Still, as a society, we collectively ignore the problems that we largely created in Africa by dividing our colonies with no regards to tribal African interests, and now the tribes and factions of Africa are fighting for political power while international corporations continue to benefit. Even though we view what we did in the past as wrong, we continue on the path of inaction regarding the consequences of those actions. It appears that, collectively, we are only able to see a "burden" in Africa when there is something for us to gain.

Works Cited:

Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251-261

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Press, 1994

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Konemann, 1999.

Shah, Anup. “Conflicts in Africa.” Global Issues, Updated: 21 Aug. 2010. Accessed: 12 Dec. 2010.