A couple of decades ago, when the civil war in Liberia was raging, I went into a bookstore and opened a high-end literary magazine that reported on that terrible war. The article described how a Liberian rebel fighter cut off the penises of 52 of his enemies and carried them about in a plastic bag. I was outraged and offended, and threw a tantrum—I stopped reading Western newspapers and magazines for six months (even though I was a magazine journalist). A part of me raged at the American writer who produced this “nonsense,” and another part thought, why do Africans have to create fodder for Western journalists to confirm stereotypes about us?
What I did not realize then is that this horrific behavior is a part of human (mostly male) behavior in wars around the world and through the ages, not just in Africa. You don’t think so? Perhaps you imagine that if Europeans or their descendants ever did such terrible things, it has to be way, way back in the Stone Age or earlier? Well, you would be wrong.
How about American soldiers as recently as the Vietnam War? In Nick Turse’s brilliantly researched book Kill Anything That Moves: The real American war in Vietnam, he writes, “Some [US] soldiers hacked the heads off Vietnamese to keep, trade, or exchange for prizes offered by commanders. Many more cut off the ears of their victims….and [wore them] on necklaces …. While ears were the most common souvenirs of this type, scalps, penises, noses, breasts, teeth, and fingers were also favoured. ‘There was people in all the platoons with ears on cords,’ Jimmie Busby, a member of the 75th Rangers during 1970-71, told an army criminal investigator.”
I often tell my friends that any cringe-inducing thing you hear that African peoples do or did, no matter how seemingly shameful and embarrassing, no matter how horrific, such things can be found at different times and places around the world, including Europe. In a perverse way, these things are proof of our common humanity: they are proof that “civilized” Europe also once engaged in “barbarous” behavior just like Africa. To me, this suggests that we too can traverse that road from disorder, violence and poverty to order, peace and wealth if we do things right like Europe did relatively recently, and now Asia is doing.
In my last post, I wrote about one of my ancestors, a legendary warrior, who kept the skulls of his slain enemies in his hut and used them to drink palm wine as was customary at the time. Headhunting as war trophy and proof of male valor was once common around the world among tribal warrior people, from Africa to the Americas to Asia. We know that European peoples practiced it in their tribal days, the most famous being the Gauls, ancestors of today’s French, whose naked warriors gave the ancient Romans so much okpanikor (conniptions)—ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus tells us that the Gauls proudly nailed human heads won in battle to the walls of their dwellings.
Blacks like to say to one another that we don’t know our history. This is true, though not in the sense that it is said—they often mean a glorious history such as they imagine was found in Ancient Egypt and Kush. The truth is that most of the descendants of Europe don’t know their history either—what they know is often a whitewash of the past. Europe presents today only the shiny patina of its modern civilization, and its brilliant reality-creating multi-media has erased its Africa-like horrific past from existence. Africans seem to now want to do the same for Africa.
As moral values evolve, all humans want to sweep deep under the carpet all those parts of their historical behavior that now embarrasses them. But this is not helpful in understanding the why and how of the present. This is why in my next post I will discuss three things that were found in parts of traditional Africa that make Africans and their friends very uncomfortable. Perhaps talking about it openly will deprive it of its power to make us squirm and become defensive.
“If members of present-day Western civilized society were to find themselves suddenly transported into a past epoch of their own society, such as the medieval-feudal period, they would find there much that they esteem “uncivilized” in other societies today.”
—Nobert Elias, The Civilizing Process.