The question of representation has increasingly become mainstream. Africa presents a particular challenge to issues of representation. Representation in this context is ‘the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone’ or ‘the description or portrayal of someone or something in a particular way’. Academic, fictional and media representation is important because without accurate and dignified representation, the voice, visibility and validity of a people are distorted.
The people who are thus harmfully represented begin to doubt the validity of their experiences. Furthermore, other people will find it difficult to engage with the real person when all they have seen previously is the stereotype. Therefore our collective vision and ability to engage with the world is damaged. Africa has long been the site of silence and absence. This has been termed epistemic violence.
G C Spivak defines epistemic violence as the violence of knowledge production; epistemic violence includes the distortions, stereotyping and generalizing of conditions, as if all Africans are all homogeneously belaboured, lacking agency and needing saving. Spivak developed and applied Foucault’s term ‘epistemic violence’ to describe the destruction of non–Western ways of perceiving the world, and the resultant dominance of the Western ways of perceiving the world.
I posit here that there are 4 ways in which epistemic violence is visited upon Africa, both from within and without – Silence, Absence, Distance and Remembrance.
There are few African voices in mainstream media, fiction and academia. From Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to contemporary publishing restrictions, from Hegel to limitations preventing African academics access to the rest of the world, African voices have often been silenced or distorted. Wa Thiong’o makes the argument that all prizes for African fiction are for work written in non-African language. A large swathe of African works will not qualify on both content and format.
If you google the words ‘African History’ you will receive information mainly on slavery and colonialism. Post-colonial African history can be traced back approximately 56 years from 1960. Colonial African history, which includes the Mandate system, lasted from 1860 till circa 1960, a period of 100 years. Organised political Precolonial African history has been recorded as far back as 3500BC. Civilisations sprang up in West, East and Central Africa around 2000BC – over 4000 years ago. The Transatlantic slave trade (that most vicious of human endeavours) started circa 15th century. African history is therefore wrongly defined by colonialism or slavery. The first women leaders in the world were mostly African. Queen Amina was a 16th century monarch in present day Nigeria. Rwanda has the most gender balanced parliament in the world. But when you study the world it is implicitly understood that Africa is excluded. If you wish to study Africa, you must study it as an exceptional case.
Considering the ease and lack of remorse with which the slave trade was conducted, the distance between the rest of the world and Africa (figuratively and physically) remains enormous. I can remember reading novels as a child where the protagonists would wake up in London and decide to fly to New York that same day and get there! At the same time, I knew of people who had been trying to go to the USA for ten years. Everyday we hear of Africans drowning as they try to leave Africa. You can hardly go to a conference outside Africa, where an African academic was unable to attend due to visa problems, except there is no African in potential attendance in the first place.
The worst failure in the representation of Africa has been in reference to memory. Africa’s rich history has been forgotten. The Transatlantic slave trade has no historical counterpart in its level of destruction – it was predicated on the dehumanisation of an entire race, it lasted 4 centuries, it is the first form of globalisation and its cultural, sociological and economic aftershocks still reverberate. Yet we fail to reference it or repair the damage. It is a forgotten wound, gaping and ulcerous.
Colonialism again was predicated on the presumption that Africa’s precolonial structures were inadequate and inferior. Congo was visited by enslavement and dismemberment by the Belgians. German genocide of the Herero is wilfully swept under the carpet. British torture in Kenya is frequently trivialised. France was known to have enslaved many Africans and used African women as an inducement for their soldiers. France still has the first right to buy or reject any natural resources found in the land of the Francophone countries. Portugal were the first to colonise and the last to leave (1985) and practised strict racial segregation. It continues to be blindly argued that colonialism brought more good than evil, this argument ignores the fact that the so-called ‘good’ would have come to Africa anyway as states that were not colonised exist. The ‘good’ of Westernization is seen in them too. Imagination has the potential to limit our possibility; it also has the potential to explode our possibility.
The contemporary idea of Africa is made from silence, characterised by absence, viewed at a distance and is replete with lost memories.