Flawed lenses

How much work do we need to do to see our history and that of the African continent in all its complexity?

Image credit Nicolas Rénac via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

In 1976, when my three-year-old son was hospitalized for a serious illness, a powerful photo of a rhino and her calf came to my attention. I identified with it instantly, and an image of a rhino mother and offspring has hung near my desk ever since. She might not see well, the image suggests. It might take a lot to provoke her. But head for cover if you ever do anything that endangers or threatens her child. A decade later, as an activist and staff member for the American Committee on Africa, I was engaged in solidarity work with Namibia’s liberation movement (the South West African People’s Organization, or SWAPO) and wrote about the exploitation of Namibia’s mineral wealth before independence. I’ve cared about Namibia and rhinos for a long time.

That’s why I was thrilled when I came across The Black Rhinos of Namibia, by Rick Bass, published in 2013. I would find it to be a beautifully written, deeply felt account of a trek to find the black rhino, one that causes the author to ponder unanswerable questions about Earth, the rhinos, the land, about time and space. However, after my initial reaction to the title, I took in the book’s subtitle: Searching for Survivors in the African Desert—not “an” African Desert, not the “Namib” Desert—and it is from here that Bass makes telling omissions and errors in the story’s background and context.

There is a complexity to the use of “African.” As Chimamanda Adichie has said, “Before I went to the US, I didn’t consciously identify as African. But in the US, whenever Africa came up, people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways, I think of myself now as African.” These are complexities that Bass seems not to understand or appreciate.

Bass, like many others, speaks first of Africa as an idea, a single place, not a continent with 55 countries. Meanwhile, he writes very specifically about his own home: Lincoln County, Montana, a tiny, impoverished community with high rates of unemployment and a population ravaged by an asbestos mine. He says that this place gives him a set of lenses that would “allow me to look at Africa.”

Bass sees with the eyes of an environmentalist, engaged in work to protect the habitat of Montana’s grizzlies. “Everything I would see,” he writes, “would be new and different, but the prescription for my lenses did not need changing, and the stories were so eerily the same.” He goes on: “It seemed the only difference was one of time, not space; that the rhinos were the grizzlies, and Africa’s Bantu our Sioux.”

“Bantu” is a word with a history, the nomenclature chosen by the apartheid government of South Africa to speak of the majority African population of South Africa: the population that apartheid separated into twelve “Bantustans” based on language (Zulu, Xhosa, Tsonga, Venda, etc.) in a strategy of divide and rule. It is also a linguistic term, which includes hundreds of distinct languages from Southern to Central Africa and the Great Lakes, and as many as 350 million speakers. It is not meaningful to compare Bantu and Sioux. The Great Nation of the Sioux is indigenous to the Great Plains of North America and today number an estimated 10,000 people. A more meaningful comparison would be to Namibia’s indigenous people—not the Bantu, not the Herero, but the San and several other peoples including the Nama.

Another more meaningful comparison would be that genocides were perpetrated in both places. The Native American population endured one. The Germans carried out a genocide in Namibia. Instead, Bass gives a harrowing description of how “prisoners” were shipped to inhospitable Damaraland to die because of “how tedious it was to execute entire villages.” He is speaking of the Herero and the Nama, but in his telling, these “prisoners” remain nameless.

Bass is a geologist. He is thinking geologically. He writes of the Namib Desert: “Existing unchanged for so long—ten million years, at least, on the oldest unchanged landscape on earth—the Namib Desert has not so much as blinked, geologically speaking, in its last fifty-five million years.” In passages such as this, Bass tells the story of his trek in the desert in search of the black rhino. Near the end, he says that he is awestruck, overwhelmed by the beauty of the land, and he struggles to find language for what he has seen.

He has seen a black rhino—one of a species which, he tells readers, is extremely nearsighted. He explains this nearsightedness by asking: “for who, or what, needed vision in [that] landscape in which nothing ever changed, and in which there were so few challengers—so few of anything?” May I suggest that Rick Bass could use new lenses to address his nearsightedness, not for the landscape and the flora and fauna, but for the historical and geopolitical context in which they exist.

I think back to that little boy who first made rhinos important to me. When he was still young, I took him to the Statue of Liberty in New York City. The museum in the statues’ base included a model of a ship that brought captured Africans to enslavement in the New World. That is, perhaps, the first time that he attached meaning to the word “African,” and what he saw made a deep impression on him. I suspect also, that as a little child in mid-America, I first heard the term “African” mentioned with slavery. Is it too much to suggest that such innocent learning in young children haunts us into adulthood and hovers unnoticed, blinding us to how much work we need to do to see our history and that of the African continent in all its complexity?

Further Reading