Chapter 8: Into the Heart of Dark Imaginations
“We were simply saying that culture was more important than
politics, and that the slave trade could be explained,
first and foremost, by the cultural contempt.”
Léopold Sédar Senghor, On the Origins of Negritude.
For centuries Africa has provided fertile soil for the growth and blossoming of the European imagination. It has also been a powerful source of popular literature of all genres. Ship captains, explorers, slave traders and pirates have recounted their adventures. Stanley and Livingstone and others wrote of their travels. Early anthropologists wrote learned treatises, though we now know that there was nothing scientific about their work. Non-fiction tended to dominate until the middle of the nineteenth century when novelists began drawing their inspiration from Africa. This type of literature continued to grow in the twentieth century before, during and after the upheaval that occurred has Africans liberated themselves from colonial rule.
Any body of literature of this magnitude inevitably develops a set of conventions, images, and metaphors. Fortunately, writers and researchers, including many Africans, have studied and analyzed that literature, first to identify the ideologies and the prejudice therein that allowed Europe - and America - to exploit and rape Africa and Africans with impunity for four hundred years, and secondly to determine whether or not the same prejudice pervades modern literature. Among the best known and most eloquent of these are Chinua Achebe, Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Ishmael Reed, to name only a few. In France, Pascal Blanchard and Nicolas Bancel have also researched and published the images of empire as reflected in posters and photography. 89 One of the most systematic works published on this question is the well titled The Africa that Never Was, Four Centuries of British Writing about Africa. 90
The book presents the results of Dorothy Hammond’s and Alta Jablow’s in-depth study of more than 500 British publications, fiction and non-fiction, dating from 1560 to 1960. The authors conclude that a literary tradition was developed in Europe and America and that that tradition informs most popular literature on Africa. Though their detailed study focuses on British literature, the authors maintain that, except for a few subtle differences, the same tradition holds for all Western literature.
Hammond and Jablow showed that fantasies and myths from past centuries developed into a set of awe- and dread-inspired conventions and images from which novelists, travel writers and essayists draw their inspiration to tell their tales. The conventions are so ingrained that they even withstand powerful changes in political sensitivities such as antiracism and anti-colonialism. New sensitivities and new political concerns sometimes force writers to do literary gymnastics, but more often than not they simply become a new matrix in which writers further develop the images and metaphors based on fantasies of bygone days. Novelists differ from non-fiction writers only in the measure of their unbridled imaginations.
Hammond and Jablow conclude that the literary image of Africa is a fantasy of a continent and a people that never was and never could have been. Nonetheless, when an image is constantly repeated it becomes the substance itself. European ethnocentrism is the constant and unifying theme of this literary convention. “Ethnocentrism created and preserved until today a persistent fantasy: the civilized Briton in confrontation with savage Africans in an Africa that never was.” 91
The subject of European perceptions of Africa cannot be addressed without mention being made of Joseph Conrad whose name is intimately linked with Africa, especially in the English-speaking world. Conrad and his novella Heart of Darkness, published in 1902 when Europe’s so-called civilizing mission in Africa was reaching a peak, seems to be a necessary reference for all people who write about Africa, and specifically about Central Africa. Conrad quotes are de rigueur in all popular literature. These writers may be trying to be cute or erudite, despite the fact that anybody who has taken first-year English has read Heart of Darkness. I submit however that modern writers simply do not have the excuse that Conrad himself had. He was writing at a time when colonialism was at its height and was widely considered to be a good idea. So any prejudice in his work was common stock. Now that is not the case.
92 Is it too much to ask that modern writers take into account the searing criticisms of Conrad’s work and especially those written by African writers before they use him to tell their stories and illustrate their opinions? The fact that they do not consider those who have rejected Conrad is a telling sign of where they are coming from.
Chinua Achebe does not mince his words about Conrad. In his opinion, Heart of Darkness is a thoroughly racist book “which parades in the most vulgar fashion the prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today.”
The main problem of Conrad’s novella according to Achebe is the “dehumanization of Africa and Africans”. Achebe asserts that “the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.” In the following quote, he highlights the very troubling aspect of Heart of Darkness, namely the terrifying thought that Africans were human and even relatives of Europeans, though somewhat remote.
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there - there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were - No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it - this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity - like yours - the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough. 93
Conrad’s defenders would insist that it was Marlow’s attitude and not Conrad’s that is described in this passage and others. Conrad’s prejudice however comes out clearly in other works. The tale he told about his first encounter with a Black man should remove any doubts that, as Achebe bluntly put it, “Conrad had a problem with niggers”. “A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my (Conrad’s) conception of blind, furious, unreasoned rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards.” 94
Conrad is one of the most studied writers in the English language. He and his work embody Europe’s and America’s vision of Africa. Adverse criticism of Conrad, like that of Chinua Achebe, abounds and is well known. Because of his racism some schools in the United States have stopped teaching Conrad in their literature courses. It is surprising therefore that so many writers continue to use him as a crutch when they are writing about Africa. He is regularly quoted, paraphrased, used as a starting point. Writers compare themselves to him and borrow his images. It would appear that the prejudice towards Africa and Africans contained in his work has permeated so deeply in Western consciousness that it is not even noticed.
Let us return now to the literary tradition identified by Hammond and Jablow. They identified a series of metaphors that describe the African continent and its inhabitants on the one hand, and the relationship between Europeans and Africans on the other. Each of the metaphors is constructed by the whole body of literature of past centuries.
The most common metaphor they identified is that of the “abysmal gulf” that separates Africa from Europe. Everything African is light years away from Europe: the land, the people, the animals, the vegetation, the institutions, the beliefs and more. Attempts to bridge the gulf are all in vain and are doomed to fail. People are even attributed the qualities and the flaws of the African land mass: wild, unchanged, unchanging, unchangeable… The literature abounds in descriptions of the beauty and majesty of African landscape, but these descriptions are used as relief to emphasize the contrast with the evil and horror that pervades the continent.
Africa and Africans are impervious to change and improvements that Europeans have brought. Though some may well have tried to adopt the institutions such as Christianity, European political systems, constitutional rule, and clothing, they have never really succeeded. These efforts have only resulted in pale copies that are beneath contempt for Europeans and that cannot withstand the powerful innate forces of Africa. For example, for a very long time the term “African King” was considered to be an oxymoron, since there were no kings, only despots. The same reasoning applies to African religions, which were no more than superstition, and to polygamy, which was institutionalized lust.
Their languages, cultures and beliefs made Africans a different order of humanity, an order that is incomprehensible to Europeans. Just as Africans could not be understood by Europeans, the same holds in the other direction: Africans cannot understand Europeans.
Another common metaphor is that of the “dark labyrinth”. Africa is mysterious. It threatens but it also enchants. Death and violence are everywhere. Africa’s soil is blood-soaked. Africans are unconscious victims of their own instincts and imbecility. From the earliest contacts between Europeans and Africans, the descriptions of violence and death have been horrific and presented with the most lurid details. Unlike historical accounts of the bloody wars that tore Europe apart, none of the accounts of similar battles in Africa offers the least social, economic, political or institutional explanation. Africans simply like to kill. They cannot help but do it.
African religion, even after Christianity was adopted, is fundamentally phallic, inspired by fear, fertility and blood. Descriptions of religion are inevitably embellished with examples of cruelty, bloodthirstiness and, of course, cannibalism. Images of cannibalism were particularly popular at the end of the nineteenth century, perfectly timed to legitimate Europe’s civilizing mission, but they never really disappeared from the literature.
In the “dark labyrinth”, Africans are only body and instinct. They are incapable of abstract thinking, and cannot make the link between cause and effect. When Europeans venture into the labyrinth, they do so to test character or to find answers about their own identity or about life and death.
In their research, Hammond and Jablow identified three other recurring metaphors, one of which is that of Africa the “strange woman”. She draws the European to her only to trap him. This metaphor allows European writers to explore their own fantasies about Africa, but it also reveals their own perception of the relationship between the Western world and Africa. The two other metaphors identified are Africa “the land in amber” and “the antagonist”.
In the following pages, it will be shown that this literary tradition is still powerful, persistent and, unfortunately, altogether too pervasive in the modern popular literature on Rwanda. Generally speaking, long quotes from earlier works are avoided. Other writers have quoted them with rigour and at length and their research is easily accessible.
Modern writers on Rwanda, though predictably politically correct, sometimes make efforts to break with the tradition by using a cleansed legalistic vocabulary. They liken the Rwandan tragedy to past events upon which a general agreement has been reached, such as Nazi Germany, Nuremberg and the Holocaust, or by proclaiming loud and strong their opposition to colonialism. Like old habits, however, the tradition dies hard. In fact, it so permeates these books that it has become their very substance. One might even think that use of the tradition is a necessary condition for the successful marketing of the books.
I have chosen four writers. Their books on Rwanda have won many awards and have been widely praised. They have sold well and are widely quoted as trustworthy sources. They are the foundations of the “right and proper tale” about Rwanda. Though the four writers come from four different nations - though Québec is not independent, culturally it is a different nation than Canada - the national subtleties that distinguish them are but dust on the bedrock of the popular literary tradition.
Philip Gourevitch, from the United States, published a non-fictional book entitled We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, Stories from Rwanda. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker in which he also published articles about Rwanda. Gourevitch was also very close to the United States Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, Madeleine Albright. Gourevitch’s brother-in-law Jamie Rubin was Ms Albright’s senior political attaché and head of communications. His book won many awards and was a “New York Times Editors’ Choice”.
The second book, from Canada, is also non-fiction. It is entitled The Lion, The Fox and The Eagle, A Story of Generals and Justice in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Its author Carol Off is a television journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Ms Off also did some television reporting on the Rwandan tragedy and events that followed.
The third book, a novel, comes from Quebec and first appeared in French. Sunday at the pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche, published in 2000 won awards and much praise. Gil Courtemanche is a well known Quebec journalist who describes his book as follows: “This novel is fiction. But it is also a chronicle and eyewitness report”. The novel was a best seller in Québec and has been widely distributed in Europe. It is also being made into a movie.
The fourth book, Rwanda: Histoire d’un génocide, by the Belgian journalist Colette Braeckman was instrumental in the development of the new paradigm imposed on Central Africa since it was published only months after the Rwandan Patriotic Front took power in 1994. It is not surprising that the author is Belgian. Though Belgium does not wield the power it once did, it still boasts an abundance of “experts” that give the impression of power. Many others defer to the Belgian “experts” in recognition of the former mother country’s supposed historical ascendancy. Ms Braeckman is a prolific and high-profile reporter with the Brussels daily Le Soir and with Le Monde diplomatique. Ms Braeckman has published other books since her 1994 book. Word has it that her position on the Rwandan Patriotic Front has changed since that first book appeared and that she now favours the return of the Rwandan monarchy. Though she may have changed, the effect of her 1994 book cannot be erased.
89 Nicolas BANCEL, Pascal BLANCHARD, Francis DELABARRE, Images d’empire 1930-1960, Éditions de la Martinière/La Documentation française, 1997; BANCEL ET BLANCHARD, De l’indigène à l’immigré, Gallimard, 1998.
90 Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, The Africa That Never Was : Four Centuries of British Writing About Africa, Twayne Publishers, inc. New York (1970).
91 Ibid. p 18.
92 Achebe, Chinua, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Contrad’s Heart of Darkness.”, New York: Doubleday, 1989, pp 1-20.
93 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness,
94 In Achebe, op. cit. p. 13.