Friday, March 20, 2009

The Lawino Letters



I am in dialogue with a good friend of mine on some serious matters. Here is the back catalogue:

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

And here is the new shit:

Nick,

Thanks for the response.

Just so you know, I don’t think you have a problem expressing yourself. Expression is a process. And since we are not having a conversation in person, but rather yapping in text, things that would come across in body language and tone are very often lost when our thoughts hit the blog. Maybe if we hung out more than once every five years, we would be good. Ha ha.

Anyway, on to the style.

I am glad that you let go of the thoughts that you are worthless because you are white. Racial makeup, quite simply, does not necessitate any type of worthiness. But I don’t think that p’Bitek would want you to draw this conclusion anyway. When Lawino talks about the activities and actions of the colonizer, she is not making claims about their racial makeup. She is making claims about their actions and their ideology. About their beliefs and the things that they value. On this account, you should feel bad because you have been harboring a harmful ideology. Just like the colonizers in Song for Lawino. And it doesn’t matter what race you are, which is why Lawino sees Ocol as such a problem. He is a native, he has access to the culture as a native, yet he has given over to another suckier way of being, one that negatively evaluates his wife.

The primary harbinger of this way of being, according to Lawino in this fictional work and in history as we understand it, is Jesus. And Jesus is white. In my last letter, I didn’t properly communicate what I meant when I said that the white man is also God. I meant simply that the image that set in front of the people whom the missionary converts is of a White man. So, it doesn’t matter really, whether you think that God has no racial identity. He is given one by the people who are responsible for the images in the first place. People from Europe. So, the icon of supreme value in a culture of dark-skinned people is lily white. His picture adorns church walls and there are statues of him in the public square. Some may find it easy to make light of this fact. But I, like others, believe that this is psychologically damaging. Frantz Fanon has an entire book on the neuroses that strike the native as a result from the presentation of whiteness as the supreme value in a colonial society. Under the foot of colonial power, brown people come to desire to be white, which they can never do, of course. So some live their lives in constant pursuit of an impossible ideal, which they see as a way to escape the material and psychological poverty of their situation. When I was in Uganda, a guy that I met confessed that he wanted to marry a white woman. He told me that some priests said they would try to find such a woman for him. Perhaps the priests were joking. But it really doesn’t matter. They played into the cycle of whiteness as supreme value just like images of white Jesus do. Black churches in america have become hip to this and replaced such images with black jesus. But in most african countries, brown people were given a savior who doesn’t even look like them and this image stands as a testament to who it is that holds power.

You seem to think that Colonialism and Christianity don’t deserved to be grouped together. I suppose that, technically, you are right. But history is replete with tales of Colonialism and Christianity working together to economically and socially dominate a group of people who were not previously Christian. Christianity has been a primary vehicle for Western expansion and domination ever since Constantine had the notion to convert his empire. I think you are resistant to this fact because you reject categorically the possibility of a Christian doing something bad. Like, yo, they are no longer following Christ now that they are doing bad stuff. This perspective is problematic. It prevents you from seeing yourself in history, on the continuum of people who self-identify as Christians and still do grimy ass shit to other people. So then you don’t feel like you are capable of bad things, because, clearly, you are following Christ, unlike these pretend Christians. You abstract yourself from history and what I would like you to see as your possible complicity in the colonial effort. Thus, you are in a good position to become the type of believer that you reject. And I am not claiming that those who self-identify as Christians are doing grimy shit on purpose. I am making no reference to the Crusades, though I suppose I could. I am sure those cats who put up that statue of white jesus right next to a damp IDP camp thought they were doing great work. But the fact is they have a particular understanding of the world and relations between people, an understanding that has very often been very different from the people that they have encountered. And they haven’t really cared about respecting those differences, because they have a mandate to minister to all nations somewhere in their authoritative collection of 66 or so books. A collection of books from which they interpret instructions that can hurt people. Recently the Pope made negative claims about condoms while flying over a continent that has a ridiculous AIDS problem. I guess he also can’t see the possibility of doing something Christlike and having it negatively effect people.

So no, I don’t think I am scape-goating well-meaning believers. You have to not be responsible to be the scapegoat. But I am also not placing myself outside of the possibility of wrongdoing. The fact is, so long as any of us hold fast to one ideology concerning the structure of the world we risk destroying it. We don’t let the weight of different interpretations affect us, since they don’t fit our picture and we see our picture as being the only one. We refuse to amend it. So we amend the world instead, trampling people and their customs underfoot. Even if we think our shit is all happiness and joy that should be shared. Maybe this is a bad methodology. Maybe it is best for us to spring into action and “help.” Maybe we should just leave shit the fuck alone. But either way, we need to know what things were like in history to know our place in this mess. We can’t eschew the past and its dark corners in favor of our ossified worldview.

Our presences in Africa can’t not be disruptions. The whole history of Africa and Europe is one of disruption. We weren’t around for it, but we inherited it and acting as though we are not tied to it is an invitation to suck. Rachel and Olivia, the midwives, feel this. So they are not in Uganda trying to convert anyone. They are not offering moral prescriptions. They are not importing their way of life. They are simply trying to stop women and babies from dying in childbirth. And they are not exclusively using Western methods, incidentally, because it is those methods that have been responsible for the increase in infant mortality in the first place. But whatever. My main claim is that a project of religious conversion is necessarily a colonial project, since it seeks to replace a native way of believing with a largely European one. And it does this for no good reason, other than the converters can’t not believe in the superiority of their perspective. And I think that if one is to change anyone’s mind, it should be because of an exchange of good reasons. Which is what Rachel and Olivia are doing. They are giving and asking for good reasons to adopt particular practices. It doesn’t matter where they come from, so long as they work. But they aren’t doing anything different than what they do here. They don’t have a “heart for africa” (which is, by the way, a deeply problematic and colonial concept). They are health care workers trying to find answers to globally agreed upon problems in places that need it. Whether it be Uganda, Brazil or New York City.

Lawino is a story about a time and place that won’t ever be recovered. We should all feel a good measure of guilt about that. Not because something old has been replaced. But because the method of its replacement was coercion. And we should carry this guilt into all of our dealings with other cultures. Maybe then we will be sympathetic to projects of decolonization. But, as my professor, Kwasi Wiredu, says, there can be no decolonization without conceptual decolonization. And a big part of that project is conceptually decolonizing religion, ridding african minds of undue religious influence. Like the influence of that collection of books that you and the Pope read.

I hope you feel my status so far. Hope to hear from you soon.

2 comments:

Rocho said...

You say "My main claim is that a project of religious conversion is necessarily a colonial project, since it seeks to replace a native way of believing with a largely European one."
I'd suggest replacing 'European' with 'foreign' since there is nothing about religious conversion that makes it inherently tied to Europe.

Chismatic said...

If that is your only criticism, I am getting better at writing.