Who says Africans are savages?


SINCE the first arrival of white settlers in Africa, negative images of the continent and the people have prevailed in the Western mindset and popular media.
Even when times have changed and there is a positive economic outlook, Africa is still presented by the Western media in the most negative light.
The negative representations of Africa and the Africans in books, movies and letters began long before the colonisation of Africa.
There were so many books written about Africa that were blatantly racist. These books created negative images, caricatures and stereotypes of black people and of Africans across the continent.
Most of the literature of the 19th century written about Africa did not represent a real and true picture of Africa.
These negative stereotypes and misconceptions about Africa came from different sources including the writings of early explorers, hunters and missionaries.
Africa was viewed as a place of savagery and chaos, known as the ‘Dark Continent’, because Europeans believed that it lacked the light of Western civilisation, education, culture, Christianity, commerce and progress.
Africans were depicted as savages, cannibals as or less than human beings. They were also associated with lack of morality and intelligence while African culture was associated with demonic and uncivilised customs.
By 1900, almost 90 percent of Africa was under European imperialist control, and the myth of the ‘Dark Continent’ reigned.
Africans were portrayed as if they were waiting helplessly to be saved from their uncivilised ways.
Novels by European explorers and adventure seeking hunters played their part in perpetuating a negative image of Africa and the Africans.
The most significant of these novels is Henry Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines published in 1885.
It is an adventure book for boys involving a group of English men in search of the legendary wealth concealed in the mines of Ophir.
In Haggard’s novel, Africans are backward, uncivilised savages.
There is a black woman depicted as Gagool the old ugly ancient witch.
As research has now shown, Ophir was Great Zimbabwe and quite possibly, the mythic character called ‘Gagool’ could have been sprit medium, a mhondoro trying to protect our heritage from colonialist predators.
Although King Solomon’s Mines was based on fiction, readers associated the Africans with the primitive savagery reflected in the book.
Apart from H Rider Haggard’s works, the most famous 19th century works of fiction set in Africa is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in 1902.
The book tells the story of the sailor Marlow who journeys to the heart of the Belgian Congo in search of a man called Mr Kurtz.
When Marlow finally finds Kurtz, he discovers that he has ‘gone native’, making himself a god to the Africans and becoming more savage himself.
This book was hailed by the Western critics as a masterpiece because it presented an Africa unknown to Westerners.
People who wanted an insight into the continent read The Heart of Darkness.
In one passage, Marlow described Africans thus: “You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening.
“They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks…. the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar.
In Belgium there was a popular comic titled Tintin the Congo by Georges ‘Herge’ Remi, who created ‘Tintin’, a Belgian fictional character.
It was created 80 years ago featuring a young reporter, his dog and his bearded drunken sailor friend.
Herge, the writer was a strong Catholic who grew up at a time when racism against black people was seen as normal.
The adventures of Tintin show the whiteman making his adventures through Africa as some kind of a civilised gentleman or knight.
The Tintin books portray African cultures as being backward and primitive.
Tintin in the Congo is blatantly and openly racist.
He treats the Africans in a derogatory manner.
In all his journeys in the Congo, Tintin meets black people whose behaviour is portrayed as infantile.
He travels with ‘Snowy’, a talking racist condescending dog.
Most of the Africans in the book refer to Tintin as ‘Massah’ which can be translated to mean ‘Master’.
Herge’s creation of Tintin was inspired by the role of Belgians during King Leopold’s rule in the Congo.
King Leopold of Belgium reigned with terror and murder, between 1885 and 1908 causing the death of millions of the Congolese people.
Yet none of the barbaric savagery, cruelty and murder is mentioned in the Tintin books.
After the death of colonialism, Africa is still regarded through the lenses of negative 19th century ideas.
Movies about Africa in Hollywood continue to represent Africa as a backward and primitive place waiting for Western agencies to save the continent.
Such images serve to disempower Africans, making them vulnerable to the continuing assault of Western cultural imperialism.
Racist books seen as literature continue to promote inferior images of African people.
Such books with racist and derogatory images stereotyping of Africans have remained on library shelves and book shops for a long time.
They must be taken away from the library shelves.
In Belgium, Tintin’s Congolese adventures were banished to the adult shelves, to avoid polluting the minds of children.
In Sweden, there was a debate whether such racist books like Tintin are appropriate for children.
An agreement was made to shelve them elsewhere, in the adult section rather than entertain children with racist and negative stereotypes of Africans.
Africa’s encounter with Europe left our continent wounded spiritually, physically and economically.
Despite independence and the achievements of the African counties since colonisation, we face the challenge to decolonise and reconstruct Africa’s history and reclaim its stolen heritage.
We should continue to be asking what happened at the moment of encounter between the white man and us.
Why, after so many years, has Western negative portrayals of Africa remained?
In the age of globalisation and rapid social change, Africa is taking her rightful place.
We Africans are demanding that we look back and redress the wrongs of the past.
Through social media, movies, literature and the internet, Africans are beginning to tell their own stories and debunk the negative stereotypes of the past.


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