I’m not a fan of Hillary Clinton or her husband. I know too much about the harm they’ve repeatedly brought to Haiti. But even the Devil tells the truth sometimes.
Several years ago, in 2011, then U.S. Secretary of State Clinton sounded the alarm about the new face of colonialism in Africa. Instead of the whites of the past (and let’s face it, present—they never left) China was quickly made headway into many African nations. Today the Chinese continue with their pillaging of the natural and human resources of the land.
I did a painting based on Clinton’s article. It’s called Caterpillars and plays with the idea of caterpillars as ravenous (little) creatures that devour plants so that they may flourish and evolve and the man-made caterpillars that gut the land in the name of development.
Just to be clear, I love the little caterpillars. I make sure that when I find them on my walks in nature, I wait for them to cross ahead of me and marvel at the beauty that they are and that they will become. They live in harmony with the plants, because they “be” as part of the natural world.
Humans, not so much.
The imperialists take and take and take until there is no more to take and then they leave the land they have ravaged (raped) to perish.
Because they do not “be.”
This death-dealing orientation to the environment has meant in the past and means in the present that those who have lived off the land for generations are forced into cities because after so much exploitation and degradation, the land no longer sustains them.
What becomes of those displaced?
They arrive disoriented and out of step in the concrete jungle to blend in with their displaced sisters and brothers, unemployed and unemployable, hungry and destitute, left to perish.
An absolutely gorgeous film that I just finished watching as part of the African Diaspora International Film Festival entitled A Taste of Our Land sensitively explores many of the issues that I have just named and more in nuanced ways.
The film takes place in an unnamed African country in which the Chinese have ensconced themselves and with the support of the corrupt African government, mine for gold. More specifically, the film centers an older African man whose wife is very pregnant and who may have to have a cesarean section.
The African man, Yohani, receives absolutely no compensation for the beautiful and rich mountains that the miners bore into. Every time he tries to confront the Chinese foreman, Cheng, about the miscarriage of justice, Cheng quickly bribes the lawyer that Yohani brings with him.
During one of these visits in which Yohani is playing the macabre game that has played out countless times before, first a white British man, Donald, visits Cheng to try to do business and then a large piece of gold is found by one of the workers.
Following a very disturbing scene that is indicative of the shit in which Africa is mired in its dealings with foreign entities, Yohani manages to leave the mine with the gold. His hope is to sell it so that he can secure a safe birth for what the audience can assume is his first child. Cheng ends up murdering Donald, Yohani is blamed for it and he along with his young friend, Gangi, go on the lam.
In a mere 1 1/2hours, the filmmaker, Yuhi Amuli, manages to comment on corrupt African governments that sell the land and its people to the highest bidder, corrupt local officials who do the same, and foreign entities, both governmental and private that continue with the legacy of colonialism, raping Africa and its people who are rendered powerless to defend themselves and their land.
But the film also beautifully renders the strength and resilience of those Africans who have and continue to say “Enough is enough. You have taken too much from us. And we will fight you for what is right and just.”
In one poignant conversation between Donald and Cheng the audience is introduced to some of this history of foreign savagery when Donald tells Cheng to “remember who was here first.” Cheng counters with his own little history lesson, reminding Donald that the Chinese were trading with Africa in the 15th century when it was, according to him, “the most peaceful place on earth.” Indeed, Africa was trading on an equal and mutually beneficial level with many other regions of the world centuries before the transatlantic slave trade disrupted (corrupted) everything. Dr. Henry Louis Gates chronicles some of this history in his wonderful series, Africa’s Great Civilizations.
I was particularly interested in watching A Taste of the Land because during my year in Benin Republic I witnessed first-hand the Chinese’s exploitative practices. Most notably, how in Cotonou they built businesses to extract money from the Beninois people, but did not put a dime into building the country’s economy. In other words, all the money the workers made they sent home. They only did real (aka big) business with other Chinese people and the workers all lived together (men) in shells of houses cooking, washing their own clothes, and cutting each others’ hair.
It was great to see that finally, someone was dramatizing the irreparable damage that the Chinese, as inheritors of European imperialism, are doing. While watching the film I kept thinking about African American slave narratives and the way they were written to expose to the world the injustice of slavery as a way of ending the institution. I see Amuli’s film as serving a similar purpose, laying bare the barbarism of modern-day colonialism.
But, as I’ve always lamented about this wonderful festival, too few people are exposed to the brilliance of the filmmakers who contribute. Instead, the majority of us are happy to remain zombified by the drivel that Hollywood vomits on an all-too-regular basis.
How many of us will know this truth?
In another conversation between Yohani and Gangi, Yohani asks Gangi what ethnic group his name comes from. Gangi responds that he doesn’t know because his family is from the city.
No one’s family is from the city.
Again, the conversation between the two men—one old, the other young and hail—speaks to the displacement of people from their homelands as a consequence of imperialist “development” that is predicated on subduing and destroying the land. The resulting barren soil that no longer produces enough to sustain agriculture or worse, the land that is stolen from people with the blessing of the African government means that people are kicked off of or forced to abandon their land and plant themselves in the concrete jungle.
Later Gangi tells Yohani that he wants the gold so that he can get on a boat heading to Italy where his cousin already lives. Yohani tells him that the village needs him.
His entreaty goes unanswered.
Of course, the exchange comments on Africa’s brain drain whereby the young and hail feel compelled to seek life in other, mostly European, countries while their home that needs them is left to wither and die. All while they expend their intellectual and physical labor to build their adopted “homes” while they are treated as subhuman and live and often die in subhuman conditions.
Indeed, if we remember the father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene’s Mandabi (The Money Order) all too often, when they make it to those other nations they are stuck doing menial labor like the street sweeping that is shown in the film and which sets off the film’s plot.
I can’t tell you how many young, strong, intelligent people I met in Benin, in Ghana, in Haiti, in Jamaica, who are either unemployed or underemployed; people with masters degrees who drive moto taxis because that is all the work they can get. And I should add that the vast majority of the moto taxis in Benin are manufactured in China and produce incredible amounts of air pollution.
The destruction is vast and deep, touching every level of the African landscape including the people who are treated as if they are just another part.
Many of the films in the festival are social justice works AND really beautiful. I wish more people were hip to them.
Because you can’t unsee what you see.
You can’t unlearn what you learn.
And you can’t remain silent once you know the truth.