Connect with us

Op-Eds

Returning the Gaze: How COVID-19 Is Inverting Colonial Imaginaries

5 min read.

COVID-19 spreads from Europe to Africa, inverting colonial imaginaries of African disease and challenging inherited hierarchies.

Published

on

Returning the Gaze: How COVID-19 Is Inverting Colonial Imaginaries
Download PDFPrint Article

Five days after the first COVID-19 case in Kenya—a young, middle-class returnee to Nairobi—was announced, the word “corona” was beginning to go around in western Kenyan villages. We had come here to look for the sedimented remains of past epidemics and anti-epidemic interventions. We were looking for latent residuals of colonial sleeping sickness and malaria, AIDS and cancer, when this future pandemic caught up with us. At this point, people still shook hands and touched (a week later, many didn’t), and young people played with the word “corona” like it was a novel token. Sylvanus, proud father of seven and devout member of the Legio Maria Church, seemed thrilled by exclaiming the name of the new affliction, followed by somewhat surprising bursts of laughter. He rather enjoyed challenging our seriousness about the matter. He did not fear it, “No, because this is a disease for whites.”

We took a stroll along the shore of Lake Victoria facing the Ugandan border, passing a fishing settlement. It was some years since we had been there and the children ran after us in friendly excitement. Their high-pitched calls rang out like the familiar: “Mzunguuu (white person), how are youuu?” But there was an unexpected variation: “Coronaviruuus, how are youuu?” As we continued walking, the childrens’ choir shifted to a cheekier whisper behind our backs: “Corona! Corona!” which went quiet each time we turned around—probably the point of the game. Returning to the main road, the looks of fishermen and market women felt more intense than usual, though not (yet) hostile. As we climbed in the car, Sylvanus whispered “Corona … ” and shared a bright, disarming laughter with those around us. Driving back towards town, many eyes seemed to follow us. Young men shouted “Corona” as we navigated speedbumps. One added “bye-bye.” A mother waiting for a bus waved us away dismissively. “As if we were Chinese,” our colleague Jehu remarked indignantly.

“Mzungu” had for the moment morphed into “Corona.” White man had become a virus. As we got back to Kisumu city, the address began to carry a latent sense of threat (though the market women during the evening’s shopping were cheerful as ever). This scene was not unfamiliar. Twenty-five years earlier, when Wenzel and his colleagues from the Kenyan Ministry of Health collected blood and stool samples from schoolchildren in the area, they had been called kachinja, “blood-stealers” and once were attacked.

Since colonial occupation, similar scares have occurred all over Africa (as depicted by the Congolese painter Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu). As we were writing this blog, social media posts emerged about COVID-19 vaccine research, one picturing French doctor Didier Raoult, allegedly warning “Africans not to take Bill Gates’s vaccine that contains poison”; another claiming that Obama promised “not to allow white people to kill Africans with their toxic vaccines.” Nothing new here—except that now, the calls for resistance, as well as the menace itself, originate from afar, and are given credibility by the faces of “international” figures appearing on one’s smartphone.

There is a rich literature on African stories about (post-)colonial Europeans and their African government-helpers, especially doctors and scientists, deploying alien tools (electricity, cars, syringes, condoms, tape-recorders, etc.) for nefarious aims. Much of this writing concedes some truth to the “rumors” arguing against their colonial dismissal as mere “misunderstandings.”

Such stories, the argument goes, reference experiences of oppression and exploitation (be it specific local situations, layered colonial histories, or the global political economy) and translate racist violence into locally meaningful, some call them “cultural” idioms. The scholarly value of these interpretations of rumor notwithstanding, there was something else at stake as the young men waved us the corona bye-bye. One quarter century ago, we could displace their accusations by means of interpretation. These were not really about the tiny blood samples Wenzel collected for his doctoral thesis as a medical anthropologist seeking to contribute to peoples’ health, but expressed an awareness of historical and global exploitation. And his respectful and critical recognition of these covert meanings served to position himself as different from the colonial agents at whom the rumors were really targeted.

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, the white man is actually the threat they make him out to be. He, or she, is more likely than others to carry the virus. Instead of washing his hands after visiting someone’s household, he should do so before greeting anyone. The COVID-19 epidemic has an inverted directionality. It runs against both a century-old colonial narrative of Africa as a diseased continent and millennial pandemic predictions of bushmeat-eating African villagers unleashing viral threats to the world.

Now, Europe is the pandemic epicenter, even though within Europe, the disease still follows well-worn tracks of racial and social inequality. Europeans, and the Kenyans close to them, bring it to Kenya, not Chinese builders and businesspeople as initially claimed (and who were the first to offer their help). The Kenyan president therefore prohibits European planes from landing and quarantines their crews. And urban, middle-class Kenyans carry the virus upcountry to forest and bush. On Kenyan TV, villagers urge their educated urban relations to stay in the city, as they threaten the lives of their elders if they come home to visit (or to shelter from draconian anti-epidemic measures).

Whites feature here as a threat in a direct, embodied way—not as mere symbols of historical violence or effigies of the global economic order. Their touch and breath can be lethal. And yet, the epidemic also reveals the same whites as terminally weak, challenging centuries-old assertions of enlightened mastery over humans and non-humans alike. Nigerian film producer Moses Inwang’s much-shared list of lessons from corona opens with “China won the 3rd world war without firing a missile,” followed by “Europeans are not as educated as they appear” (a similar point was made in The Lancet), and “rich people are less immune than the poor.” In other recent “African” epidemics—HIV and Ebola—the figure of the benevolent and potent white person still prevailed. Help flowed from north to south to stem an affliction perceived as originating in Africa. Now, this image is replaced by a combination of danger and impotence mutually enforcing each other, which evokes neither gratitude nor inferiority. One of the most recent anti-vaccination trial memes features a painting of an African woman wielding a knife below the face-mask of a white, male doctor, underscoring that “we’re different from our ancestors.”

Nairobi MP John Kiarie captures the paradox of residual power and infirmity in a tweet from March 28, which warns of harrowing COVID-19 death-tolls and calls for radical action. Before his climax, “Ignore and die!” he says:

Where does this leave the European anthropologists, who departed from Kenya on one of these last planes that arrived empty at night? Our traditional interpretation of local fears as (significant) rumors no longer offers redemption—we are what they address us as. Our knowledge about what happens is not superior, nor more effective than that of those who call us “Corona.” More importantly, our detached and benevolent claim to ethnographic participant observation, always from a position of privilege and relative security, is put into question at precisely the moment when true participation finally becomes inevitable.

Now it is us who “are participated” (as the old aid-worker joke went) by the pervasive virus that is in every touch—maybe in our body, maybe in that of the other. It challenges differentiation, threatening pathogenic communion. And the escape route that we had been able to count on for six decades of post-colonial anthropology is finally being withdrawn—the return flight home, in the worst case the medical evacuation at “unlimited expense.”

It was the Kenyan president’s ban on flights to Europe that gathered us all in the eerie silence of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, as we boarded the flight just before the midnight curfew deadline. We got away ok, on the last plane, and did not turn into pumpkins. But, we left with a sense of an ending brought about by coronavirus. As if some irreparable damage has been done to the position of the old white man of any age or gender, and it is not yet evident what new anthropological persona will emerge from it. It is “bye-bye Corona” indeed, and maybe it was time. And yet, we know that COVID-19 has not yet fully arrived in Kenya, along with the inevitable suffering that the epidemic and the anti-epidemic measures is likely to bring about.

This post is from a new partnership between the African website Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

Avatar
By

P. Wenzel Geissler currently conducts fieldwork on the remains and afterlives of the East African AIDS epidemic. Ruth J. Prince studies the cancer epidemic in Kenya along with moves towards "universal" health care.

Op-Eds

SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the country is economically healthy but the reality is that the IMF has come in precisely because Kenya is in a financial crisis.

Published

on

SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan
Download PDFPrint Article

Never did I imagine that opposing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Kenya would be viewed by the Kenyan authorities as a criminal act. But that is exactly what transpired last week when activist Mutemi Kiama was arrested and charged with “abuse of digital gadgets”, “hurting the presidency”, “creating public disorder” and other vaguely-worded offences. Mutemi’s arrest was prompted by his Twitter post of an image of President Uhuru Kenyatta with the following caption: “This is to notify the world . . . that the person whose photograph and names appear above is not authorised to act or transact on behalf of the citizens of the Republic of Kenya and that the nation and future generations shall not be held liable for any penalties of bad loans negotiated and/or borrowed by him.” He was released on a cash bail of KSh.500,000 with an order prohibiting him from using his social media accounts or speaking about COVID-19-related loans.

Mutemi is one among more than 200,000 Kenyans who have signed a petition to the IMF to halt a KSh257 billion (US$2.3 billion) loan to Kenya, which was ostensibly obtained to cushion the country against the negative economic impact of COVID-19.  Kenya is not the only country whose citizens have opposed an IMF loan. Protests against IMF loans have been taking place in many countries, including Argentina, where people took to the streets in 2018 when the country took a US$50 billion loan from the IMF. In 2016, Eqyptian authorities were forced to lower fuel prices following demonstrations against an IMF-backed decision to eliminate fuel subsidies. Similar protests have also taken place in Jordan, Lebanon and Ecuador in recent years.

Why would a country’s citizens be against a loan given by an international financial institution such as the IMF? Well, for those Kenyans who survived (or barely survived) the IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 90s, the answer is obvious. SAPs came with stringent conditions attached, which led to many layoffs in the civil service and removal of subsidies for essential services, such as health and education, which led to increasing levels of hardship and precarity, especially among middle- and low-income groups. African countries undergoing SAPs experienced what is often referred to as “a lost development decade” as belt-tightening measures stalled development programmes and stunted economic opportunities.

In addition, borrowing African countries lost their independence in matters related to economic policy. Since lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF, decide national economic policy – for instance, by determining things like budget management, exchange rates and public sector involvement in the economy – they became the de facto policy and decision-making authorities in the countries that took their loans. This is why, in much of the 1980s and 1990s, the arrival of a World Bank or IMF delegation to Nairobi often got Kenyans very worried.

In those days (in the aftermath of a hike in oil prices in 1979 that saw most African countries experience a rise in import bills and a decline in export earnings), leaders of these international financial institutions were feared as much as the authoritarian Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, because with the stroke of a pen they could devalue the Kenyan currency overnight and get large chunks of the civil service fired. As Kenyan economist David Ndii pointed out recently at a press conference organised by the Linda Katiba campaign, when the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”. It can no longer claim to determine its own economic policies. Countries essentially lose their sovereignty, a fact that seems to have eluded the technocrats who rushed to get this particular loan.

When he took office in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki kept the World Bank and the IMF at arm’s length, preferring to take no-strings-attached infrastructure loans from China. Kibaki’s “Look East” economic policy alarmed the Bretton Woods institutions and Western donors who had until then had a huge say in the country’s development trajectory, but it instilled a sense of pride and autonomy in Kenyans, which sadly, has been eroded by Uhuru and his inept cronies who have gone on loan fishing expeditions, including massive Eurobonds worth Sh692 billion (nearly $7 billion), which means that every Kenyan today has a debt of Sh137,000, more than three times what it was eight years ago when the Jubilee government came to power. By the end of last year, Kenya’s debt stood at nearly 70 per cent of GDP, up from 50 per cent at the end of 2015. This high level of debt can prove deadly for a country like Kenya that borrows in foreign currencies.

When the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”.

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the fact that the IMF agreed to this loan is a sign that the country is economically healthy, but as Ndii noted, quite often the opposite is true: the IMF comes in precisely because a country is in a financial crisis. In Kenya’s case, this crisis has been precipitated by reckless borrowing by the Jubilee administration that has seen Kenya’s debt rise from KSh630 billion (about $6 billion at today’s exchange rate) when Kibaki took office in 2002, to a staggering KSh7.2 trillion (about US$70 billion) today, with not much to show for it, except a standard gauge railway (SGR) funded by Chinese loans that appears unable to pay for itself. As an article in a local daily pointed out, this is enough money to build 17 SGRs from Mombasa to Nairobi or 154 superhighways like the one from Nairobi to Thika. The tragedy is that many of these loans are unaccounted for; in fact, many Kenyans believe they are taken to line individual pockets. Uhuru Kenyatta has himself admitted that Kenya loses KSh2 billion a day to corruption in government. Some of these lost billions could actually be loans.

IMF loans with stringent conditions attached have often been presented as being the solution to a country’s economic woes – a belt-tightening measure that will instil fiscal discipline in a country’s economy by increasing revenue and decreasing expenditure. However, the real purpose of these loans, some argue, is to bring about major and fundamental policy changes at the national level – changes that reflect the neoliberal ethos of our time, complete with privatisation, free markets and deregulation.

The first ominous sign that the Kenyan government was about to embark on a perilous economic path was when the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, made an official visit to Kenya shortly after President Uhuru was elected in 2013. At that time, I remember tweeting that this was not a good omen; it indicated that the IMF was preparing to bring Kenya back into the IMF fold.

Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, shows how what she calls “disaster capitalism” has allowed the IMF, in particular, to administer “shock therapy” on nations reeling from natural or man-made disasters or high levels of external debt. This has led to unnecessary privatisation of state assets, government deregulation, massive layoffs of civil servants and reduction or elimination of subsidies, all of which can and do lead to increasing poverty and inequality. Klein is particularly critical of what is known as the Chicago School of Economics that she claims justifies greed, corruption, theft of public resources and personal enrichment as long as they advance the cause of free markets and neoliberalism. She shows how in nearly every country where the IMF “medicine” has been administered, inequality levels have escalated and poverty has become systemic.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan. Or, through carefully manipulated data, it will make the country look economically healthy so that it feels secure about applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, the IMF inflicts even more austerity measures (also known as “conditionalities”) on it, which lead to even more poverty and inequality.

IMF and World Bank loans for infrastructure projects also benefit Western corporations. Private companies hire experts to ensure that these companies secure government contracts for big infrastructure projects funded by these international financial institutions. Companies in rich countries like the United States often hire people who will do the bidding on their behalf. In his international “word-of-mouth bestseller”, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins explains how in the 1970s when he worked for an international consulting firm, he was told that his job was to “funnel money from the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development and other foreign aid organisations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s resources”.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan.

The tools to carry out this goal, his employer admitted unashamedly, could include “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder”. Perkins showed how in the 1970s, he became instrumental in brokering deals with countries ranging from Panama to Saudi Arabia where he convinced leaders to accept projects that were detrimental to their own people but which enormously benefitted US corporate interests.

“In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty. We can draw on them whenever we desire – to satisfy our political, economic or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of US engineering/construction companies become fabulously wealthy,” a colleague told him when he asked why his job was so important.

Kenyans, who are already suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic which saw nearly 2 million jobs in the formal sector disappear last year, will now be confronted with austerity measures at precisely the time when they need government subsidies and social safety nets. Season Two of SAPs is likely to make life for Kenyans even more miserable in the short and medium term.

We will have to wait and see whether overall dissatisfaction with the government will influence the outcome of the 2022 elections. However, whoever wins that election will still have to contend with rising debt and unsustainable repayments that have become President Uhuru Kenyatta’s most enduring legacy.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.

Published

on

Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul
Download PDFPrint Article

Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.

Published

on

Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ
Download PDFPrint Article

When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Continue Reading

Trending