Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Perception of the (African) native.

Since recently I have a Kindle, which is a fantastic device when one reads a lot and travels. I just finished Michele Wong's "In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurz" [1] and am currently reading Marcus Roberts' "A Journal of a Tour in the Congo Free State" [2]. The latter was written at the turn of the century; the previous century!

It is a very interesting read. Roberts clearly defends Belgian involvement in the Congo (even dedicating the book to Leopold II). In addition, throughout his book he is very paternalistic to the African natives. In first instance I thought “ that must have been the Zeitgeist”, but after spending three weeks in South Africa, I am sure many people still feel strong for some of the quotes below:

"The natives however prefer all food in a high stage of decomposition and it is some time before the very smell of it ceases to make one feel ill. To see them eating kwanga fish or the flesh of elephants, monkeys, antelopes or other animals generally both rotten and raw is most disgusting and brings home the fact sharply that man here is of a very low type."

"Some traits of the native’s character were now to be demonstrated to us. His main idea always is, to do as little work as possible and he will often take the greatest trouble in his effort to accomplish this object. Each native endeavored to put his load as near the gangway as possible which was soon blocked and then he had to come back, hoist the package on his head again and carry It to its proper place. Although this performance took place every day, unless an officer was constantly on the watch, the foolish fellows in their attempts to shirk duty brought upon themselves extra work."

"Then to bed, but not to sleep, for the boys to save themselves trouble, had not fixed the mosquito net properly. In my innocence I merely ordered them to do it and had not stood by and watched. It is indeed necessary always to see that the native does as he is told, for the moment one’s back is turned, he is eating if there is anything rotten enough at hand to tempt him and if not, he quietly goes to sleep. Even the State’s servants who speak the native language and also a kind of French, really live the lives of animals, for they eat, drink, and sleep if left alone and only work when they are shown how, and watched all the time."

"In the midst of breakfast we are startled by the report that the ship is on fire, and smoke is seen to be issuing from the fore hatch, under which much of the wood used for fuel is stored. None of the Europeans, however, are more excited than the natives, who, leisurely and with due deliberation, hand up buckets of water. Nothing indeed could make a native hurry."

"This military education is certainly the best that could be given to a savage; it teaches him punctuality, regularity, obedience and collective responsibility; it shows him how to build houses and keep them clean it gives him an idea of justice for he knows he will be punished for wrong doing. The soldier therefore soon becomes an altogether different person and realizes that he is no longer an animal-man living wild in the forest, but a soldier-man and a friend of the great “Bulamatadi” who governs the country."

"They are really just like young children and are easily pleased by trifles."

Tin Tin in Congo. Had to think of this while reading the book.

Finally – and on a completely different note - the following quote is for Simon with whom I was in the Congo the first time for several months in the summer of 2010. Simon – to say it carefully –was not the biggest fan of goat:

"Above all things, remember curry powder, pickles, chutney and Worcester sauce, for even goat’s flesh can be rendered pleasant if it tastes of something else."


[1] Michele Wong. 2002. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo. New York: Harper Perennial.

[2] Marcus Roberts. A Journal of a Tour in the Congo Free State. 1905. Brussels: Lebègue.

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