The Lion, the Confused African, and the Outraged Oyinbo

“The issue has never been that the West loves our animals more than it loves us. It has been that we have been seen as those very animals against which we compete for petition signatures and coin donations. The challenge we have on our hands is to force our elevation into human category.”

I have been forced into writing this. One after another, I have waited for the blogs and media commentators whose sensibilities I have often trusted to deal with this issue of Cecil from a nuanced analytical angle of interest. So far, not so good.

Cecil is dead. And the bells have tolled for him longer than they ever tolled for any black human; African or otherwise. We are outraged at the outrage. We are dumbfounded that millions of Africans die every year from wars, disease, and the general lack of care shown for us either by our own governments or by the foreign outsiders who would deign to save us.

Cecil’s memory, just like the memory of the man from who he got his name reverberates across oceans in a way the hundreds of thousands of African soldiers who fought alongside the allies in World War II never have. Made possible by £1.4 million from public donations, the ‘Animals in War’ memorial that sits in prestigious Hyde Park on Park Lane in London is a token to the horses and all the other animals who sacrificed their lives in human wars.

On the monument is inscribed:

“This monument is dedicated to all the animals
that served and died alongside British and allied forces
in wars and campaigns throughout time.”

And again is etched:

“They had no choice.”

Neither did the 1,344,347 African soldiers who were proud to serve in wars that were not theirs to fight and for which they have barely been acknowledged. I imagine the soldiers to have taken solace in the possibility that the “ally” to which their governments had attached them would make their efforts worthy. So far the proof is not yet appeared.

So, many black people and many black Africans have wondered this week: why does the western world seem to care more about animals (big ones, small ones, it doesn’t seem to matter) more than they care about African humans. Indeed, on more than one occasion, it has been suggested that not only is the western world’s outrage against the dentist poacher responsible for killing Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, reprehensible, it is unfathomable to we the Africans who hosted Cecil his land.

I am disappointed. The problem, is in fact the other way around. Many in the western world, through the systems that have been developed to allow ordinary westerners to communicate with Africans, have indeed been forced to view us just like voiceless animals. Just as they gathered 1.4 million pounds to show their remorse for the horses and donkeys they killed in war, so they are guilted into dispensing with their dregs of change to feed ‘a starving African Child’. Just as they sign petitions to have an ignoramus dentist put out of business, so they are cajoled by aid agency after charity, after Bono, to pick up their virtual pens to sign away poverty on our continent. Signing done, hands are dusted, back to ITV.

The mistake many black people and Africans have made this week in attempting to confront the issue of Cecil, is to agree to engage in our very own reduction as animals. If we are to take issue with the Western world’s engagement with Africa and Africans, if we are to express our umbrage about what we feel is the lack of real and unpatronising attention African humans get, it cannot be (whether in all seriousness or as a matter of satire) by engaging in analytical falsehoods in which we allow ourselves to be matched to lions and horses as we plead to be given more attention over all the other animals into whose basket we have now argued ourselves.

The issue has never been that the West loves our animals more than it loves us. It has been that we have been seen as those very animals against which we compete for petition signatures and coin donations. The challenge we have on our hands is to force our elevation into human category.

It has disappointed me that many Africans seem to want to have used this issue to differentiate themselves from our fellow humans who happen to be of the paler variety of skin. In our understanding that the actions of the dentist from Minnesota did in fact represent a long and tiring tradition of foreigners consistently disrespecting the African space, we could have stood with our white fellows shoulder to shoulder.

We might lobby the Zimbabwean authorities to no longer name its animals after heinous men responsible for a great deal of destruction on this continent.  But we could have been as eager to have ‘the dentist’ brought to justice in that African space. We could have been of the understanding that the current rate of depletion of non-human species is eroding the much needed level of biodiversity to sustain this planet. A planet which does not belong to humans but which merely hosts us as the latest dominant species. To people of all races, and skin tones, this is of the utmost environmental concern.

Or as Ian Scoones shows, we could have reframed the issue as one of much needed land reform in Zimbabwe as the most tangible benefit to Zimbabwean conservationism and development. In either case, our response could have been one of elevation in which our right thinking concern for human development and environmental conservation were allowed to go hand in hand in showing the demarcation between African humans and African animals.

We should certainly have sharpened our senses so as not to commit the erroneous and hideously analytically unnuanced mistake of having the poor and unequal engagement between West and South and between Brown, Black and Other be symbolically subsumed by those who would ask twits not to disrespect our African landscapes and further the depletion of our natural habitats.

*the penultimate paragraph was added Aug 5


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