Monday, April 14, 2008

A book through my fingers

Once in a while you stumble on a book that's been out for a while and ask, 'How could I have missed this?' Chris and Katy, my PRISM partners, have an excellent Africa library in Nairobi. I picked up a travelogue/investigation by Sven Lindqvist called 'Exterminate All the Brutes'--the reference being Conrad's Kurtz character in Heart of Darkness.

Out in Swedish since 1992 and in English since 1996, how did it slip by me? Old and lazy, I surmise. To make up for my failings, I've been trudging around with it for the last couple weeks, letting its thesis seep into my veins, like a slow-drip IV.

Lindqvist writes with a delectable dryness, like Kapuscinski (Guardian obit here), one of the few western writers on Africa I respect. Lindqvist also travels 'embedded', and his content is driven by his encounters and their always unpredictable unfoldings. A man infatuated with Fortuna is a kindred soul.

Unlike Kapuscinski, always meek before taxing geopolitical questions, Lindqvist is a gleeful slaughterer of sacred cows, an iconoclast and anti-ideologue par excellence. The thesis of this book is that the Nazi quest for Aryan supremacy and Lebensraum was at its core an application of the expansionist and racist principles of imperialism and colonialism that Europeans had long been applying to the Third World.

In this light, there is little exceptional about the Holocaust itself, given that its precursors were myriad. No one notices this historical continuity because the victims of European expansionism and subjugation were not Europeans, until Nazism--itself a culmination of certain trends in European thought and action over centuries. Is this so shocking a thesis? I think not.

Among the African countries I know well where large scale human massacres have occurred, I'm finding that debate in Rwanda over justice, reconciliation and root causes is relatively free of the usual blame game and denial of responsibility that goes on elsewhere. All are aware that colonialism did much to poison Hutu-Tutsi relations here, and post-independence relations with France have been dubious to say the least. France was forced to pull its diplomatic presence here in 2006.

But Rwandans are not blind to the fact that a homegrown logic was unleashed here: it was not imported or forced down anyone's throat by outsiders. What I've found so uncanny is that many here read the metamorphosis of mind that led to Hutu Power and the 'Intent to Destroy' (the name of Lindqvist's new book on the methods of genocide) that were unleashed in April 1994 in almost identical terms as Arendt's elucidation of the origins of totalitarianism.

A group I met today, Never Again Rwanda, made this case quite clearly, despite no one knowing Arendt or her work. Their efforts revolve around creating a 'culture of reason' in a country where a 'culture of silence' predominates, and automatic obedience before authority is expected and assumed. Critical thinking is rare, and not rewarded. NAR are trying to inculcate these values in schools and among local authorities.

Genocidal ideology is resurging, and eyewitnesses to the genocide who survived and can now testify are being targeted and killed. 'Survivor' and 'perpetrator' are the new categories for Tutsi and Hutu. Although everyone knows that ethnic hatred is an organizing principle to the violence and not its root cause (which is unequal wealth and power sharing), many remain susceptible to ethnic rhetoric. NAR is doing good work; we hope to find them more funding to expand their efforts on a national scale.

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