Lately, that old conversation on the contest between African and Euro-American beliefs and values has found renewed energy. So, as Rwandan President Paul Kagame would sternly ask recently at the margins of the CHOGM meeting in Kigali, “Who defines those values?”
African and Western values are still seen as problematically and diametrically opposed to each other despite co-existing in a global village. “Why is that so?” European journalists, academics and diplomats ask themselves after working for five years in an African capital, and after seeing no difference between elite Nairobi and elite London. Why should we not have the same sensibilities? Consider the ways in which Nairobians and Londoners make their livelihoods, which is by renting out their labour for eight to twelve hours every day. Even the anti-capitalism activists in Nairobi or Kigali sound like Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders! Why then should we have different values regarding governance, animal rights, democracy or women’s rights?
This discussion that underlines an aspiration for common ground—some form of universality—on, among other things, what it means to be human, and the question of governance, specifically, electoral democracy as juxtaposed with growing authoritarianism, ironically and problematically still has the support of sections of the African elite.
It is curious that this conversation found new energy with Belgium’s return of a tooth belonging to CIA-murdered African giant, Patrice Lumumba, and with the holding of the CHOGM meeting in Kagame’s Rwanda, who will be running for another term in office. “How does Kagame continue like that?” the democracy enthusiast asks. “We returned the tooth; that matter should be settled or not?” another Eurocentric die-hard adds. There was also the small inconvenient issue of the Melilla massacre on the Morocco-Spanish border and the plight of black folks in Ukraine. But who cares? Why are African political actors and sections of their elite still indifferent and slower to embrace the democratic ethic—as British democracy professor Nic Cheeseman wonders—and perhaps also to embrace other beliefs and values as espoused in Europe and North America?
Worth noting—and terribly problematic—is that there is a great deal of pressure on African political actors to exhibit inexplicable civility and loyalty especially as regards constitutionalism (as if constitutionally extending their stay in power isn’t a form of loyalty itself), and in the treatment of opposition groups and critics (even while journalist Julian Assange has been incarcerated for years and is facing extradition to the United States where he potentially faces 175 years of imprisonment for exposing the war crimes of Western modernities. Notice also that this conversation continues in a colonial-racialised paradigm and hierarchization where the African cultural and political actors have to constantly explain themselves to the Western world from a point of disadvantage—because theirs is the primordial position (a position that President Kagame touches in his interview cited above). I am not a defender of any abhorrent African political actors (whose actions, in all fairness, and in a more theoretically grounded sense, are not unique to them, but are, rather, a product of power). But I am concerned about the language of values and rights and the apparent insinuations of “indifference or slowness” on the part of African communities and actors to appreciate the universal values of democracy and human rights as understood in Western discourse.
First, despite being open to cross-cutting influences from elsewhere, it is difficult to achieve common ground on performative practices since cultures tend to be geographically contained. Talal Asad has told us that even Islam, which has a universally appreciated text, manifests differently in different geographic and time spaces. It is my contention that the conclusion of this beauty contest of cultures and traditions—achieving common understanding of their inherent differences—is dependent, ironically, on non-cultural markers, specifically, power, power being the term for Western military and economic advantage. It is not the superiority of ethical-cultural-value systems, and nor is it the absence of similar handicaps and vulnerabilities on either side of the Atlantic, but rather power and politics. It is the power relation embedded in the African adage about the hunter (more privileged) writing the story of the hunt to their advantage, before the animal (the less powerful) learns to tell their own story.
It is difficult to achieve common ground on performative practices since cultures tend to be geographically contained.
This contest over African and Western values is an old one. West African historians Ade Ajayi and Cheikh Anta Diop were among its first African pugilists. East African interlocutors including, more famously, Okot p’Bitek, Ngugi wa Thiongo, and Ali Mazrui participated in this conversation. Okot p’Bitek accused African actors of being fully imbued with the “colonialists’ practices” (exemplified by such accoutrements as the wigs won by judges to ape Europeans) and thus needing to “decolonise their minds”, as Ngugi would famously put it. Mazrui’s essay, Islamic and Western Values, which tackled topics such as press freedom and democracy, concluded that the difference between Europe and the Islamic world was a difference of method, but the ills of power on either side of the aisle were the same.
Although I find it endlessly productive for African activists to constantly remind themselves and their European/American interlocutors of the words of Africa’s early intellectuals—on the non-uniqueness of the crimes of African political actors or the absolute goodness and uniqueness of African cultural traditions as understood on their terms—my intention is not to rehash the words of those intellectual giants. My intention is rather modest. Mine is a traveller’s tale of a journey into the lands of our “former” colonisers. My people in Buganda say that “travelling is seeing, and returning is telling”. However, in telling this traveller’s tale, I want it to be read within the problematic frame of culture talk—or of a beauty contest between cultures.
For the last couple of years, I have been observing our former colonisers, and have become obsessed with turning the gaze on our beloved friends. How would a native from the African continent, from deep in the countryside, supposedly “untouched” by colonialist modernity, react upon encounter with some European—still present or recently dying—cultural/traditional practice? Because, frankly, the idea of cultural cross-fertilisation and integration, while it presents itself as pick-and-choose (where one aspect is chosen over another), it also presents itself as a package, as an entire system or civilisation. Here mediations that are understood as political (such as modes of governance or economics such as capitalism or the peasantry) intimately tie in with that which is viewed as essentially cultural (such as family, marriage, sexuality, kinship or inheritance). As I have argued before, our European friends have toned this down as “cultural shock”, preparing the native’s mind for the horror they might encounter upon reaching Europe. It is some sort of challenge to understand, learn and perhaps embrace. But as a native I am stubbornly refusing to accept this as simply cultural shock.
Intercourse and kinship with animals
A few years ago in Berlin, I encountered a group of activists who were inconsolable about being denied their right to make love to animals by the German state. “Why seek to moralize our country?” they angrily asked. I need to start this story from the beginning: Before 2012, our former colonisers in Germany—the country which hosted the 1884 Berlin Conference—had the legally sanctioned the right to make love to animals. This is understood as being in their blood; not that they lacked other outlets for sexual release, but that this was their natural inclination. Yes, it was normal to enter your bed, visit a pig stye, a kraal or a kennel and lower your pants and penetrate or be penetrated by the animal of your heart’s desire. It was only after 2012 that animal rights activists made a breakthrough, convincing co-nationals that it was unnatural for humans to find pleasure in mating with animals. The Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, finally passed the law banning intercourse with animals. Dear Africans, this was in 2012.
Dear reader, I am kidding you not, after this 2012 ban—just ten years ago—concerned Germans petitioned the courts to remove the ban, arguing that they were naturally attracted to animals. But in 2016, the ban was upheld much to the celebration of many Germans. However, the agitation for this right to be restored continues to this day. Please note that around this time, Norway, and Sweden had also banned the practice, and a British newspaper, The Independent, reported, that this had led “to a rise in the underground animal sex tourism in Denmark”. People interested in sex with animals—Zoophiles, so they are called—made trips to Denmark, which was yet to ban the practice, to satisfy their desires.
Two years after Germany, Denmark was conflicted on the same issue. While animal rights activists seemed to have made a breakthrough towards having the practice proscribed, the 12-strong Animal Ethics Committee of Denmark was opposed to banning the practice. The president of the Animal Ethics Committee, Bengt Holst, argued that the ban was unnecessary since the Animal Welfare Act, which was already in place, advocated for the protection of animals as it prohibited “animal suffering, pain, distress or lasting harm”. This meant that you were free to make love to the animal of your choice as long as you didn’t cause it “suffering, pain, distress and lasting harm”. For Bengt Holst, seeking to “moralise” the issue of making love to animals was not in good taste.
Great Britain—the world’s largest coloniser—only banned the practice in 2003 with the Sexual Offences Act. Some of its clauses are captured in this article which publishes allegations that former UK prime minister David Cameron once inserted his manhood in a dead animal while still at university in Oxford. Quoting a biography that is rightly described as controversial, the newspaper wrote that, “the Prime Minister inserted a “private part of his anatomy” into a “dead pig’s head” while at Oxford University—an act that was allegedly photographed.” So, before 2003, our friends in the UK would have liked the African primitive to understand their reaction to the idea of mating with animals as simply cultural shock.
This meant that you were free to make love to the animal of your choice as long as you didn’t cause it “suffering, pain, distress and lasting harm”.
Our new colonising powers in the United States still have several states where mating with animals is permissible despite campaigns to ban the practice. By 2016, bestiality was still acceptable pleasure in Texas, Hawaii, Kentucky, Virginia, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Vermont, West Virginia, Montana, Wyoming and the District of Columbia, and New Hampshire. In a nicely researched article, British psychologist, Dr Mark Griffiths reveals that, “many zoophiles believe that in years to come, their sexual preference will be seen as no different to being gay or straight”. And while it is difficult to ascertain it, many zoophiles believe animals have given them some form of consent.
My intention is not to add to the voice of anti-bestiality campaigners in Europe or the United States, or to ridicule lovers of the practice. Not at all. But if I took the vantage point of an African anthropologist—of the colonial type—writing my tales about Europe and North America (with titles such as Into the Heart of Dark Europe; Flame Trees of Berlin, the Orients of the West, etcetera) for travellers, and students on the African continent, I would tell them about the inexplicable backwardness of the people in the West. I would challenge them to be careful about these animal-loving barbarians of Europe and North America. African readers would be appalled by the idea of human beings sleeping with animals, and lobbying and fighting to keep the right to do so. Part of my intention would be to inspire them to travel to these lands and perhaps seek to civilise these people, forcefully if need be, and if they can, to also take their lands. Because the culturally backward have no right to property and neither are they able to govern themselves.
Before 2003, our friends in the UK would have liked the African primitive to understand their reaction to the idea of mating with animals as simply cultural shock.
Perhaps my larger contention is this: while cross-fertilisation is true about cultures and traditions, and oftentimes, and that, for their survival, less powerful communities/traditions are conscripted to the dictates of the most hegemonic power, the aspiration for common ground is merely a delusion of the militarily powerful. There are dislikeable, almost disgusting things on either side of the aisle, and cross-fertilisation ought to be understood as slower and fluid. While conscripts are often cast in an inferior position, they retain a great deal of agency within the constraining limits. They will not only remodel, repackage, or refashion that which they have to adopt from the hegemony, they will also often reject outright those practices and values they find either unsuitable to their contexts or completely repugnant to their traditions. Thus, journalistic and academic promoters of implied notions of “common ground” and “common values” from the Western world to their colonised conscripts ought to beware of these nuances and dynamics of time, fluidity, and refashioning.