Incoherent rant about District 9 and African tribal Cannibalism

“….the cannibals that each other eat, The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders”-Shakespeare, Othello

This post is inspired by the good people over at pageslap. A few days ago they made a post that has since gone viral titled: District 9 is racist. In the said post, they criticize the critically acclaimed and popular movie District 9, a film about oppressed alien inhabitants in Johannesburg forced to live in a squatter camp segregated from human species by the regime. This post is not about the movie, I haven’t seen it so I can’t possible make a post about that now can I? This post is about something even more interesting, the long held sterotype that African tribes are/ used to be cannibalistic. The author of the post points out that by having Nigerian characters that are portrayed as gangsters who have a witchdoctor who instructs them to eat raw flesh and having Nigerians eat the flesh raw, perpetuates the stereotype that Africans are degenerate savages who are pretty damn eager to eat people (not to mention how this might reinforced the widely held South African stereotype that Nigerians are good-for-nothing gangsters, pimps and druglords). The post and the comments were quite stimulating. What caught my attention though from reading the comments is the amount of people who still believe that African tribes practised cannibalism and that some still do. Being Unemployed and bored, I decided to do a little amateur research on the topic and here is what I would like to present:

here are a few quotes from early African explorers about the subject that I found floating in the internets:

A young Basongo chief came to our Commandant while at dinner in his tent and asked for the loan of his knife, which, without thinking, the Commandant gave him. He immediately disappeared behind the tent and cut the throat of a little slave-girl belonging to him, and was in the act of cooking her when one of our soldiers saw him. This cannibal was immediately put in irons, but almost immediately after his liberation he was brought in by some of our soldiers who said he was eating children in and about our cantonment. He had a bag slung round his neck which, on examining it, we found contained an arm and leg of a young child.

A man with his eyes open has no difficulty in knowing, from the horrible remains he is obliged to pass on his way, what people have preceded him, on the road or battlefield – with this difference: that on a battlefield he will find those parts left to the jackals which the human wolves have not found to their taste; whereas on the road, by the smouldering camp fires, are the whitening bones, cracked and broken, which form the relics of these disgusting banquets. What struck me most, during my expeditions throughout the country, was the number of partially cut-up bodies I found. Some of them were minus the hands and feet, and some with steaks cut from the thighs or elsewhere; others had the entrails or head removed. Neither old nor young, women or children, are exempt from serving as food for their conquerors or neighbours. Sidney Langford Hinde (former captain of the Congo Free State Force), The Fall of the Congo Arabs, Methuen, 1897

The whole wide country seemed to be given up to cannibalism, from the Mobangi (a major tributary of the Congo) to Stanley Falls, for six hundred miles on both sides of the main river, and the Mobangi as well. Often did the natives beg Grenfell to sell some of his steamer hands, especially his coast people; coming from the shore of the great salt sea, they must be very ‘sweet’ – salt is spoken of as sweet, in the same way as sugar. They offered two or three of their women for one of those coast men. They could not understand the objections raised to the practice. ‘You eat fowls and goats, and we eat men; why not? What is the difference?’ The son of Matabwiki, chief of Liboko, when asked whether he ever ate human flesh, said: ‘Ah! I wish that I could eat everybody on earth!’ Happily his stomach and arm were not equal to the carrying out of his fiendish will.

Fiendish? Yet there is something free and lovable in many of these wild men; splendid possibilities when the grace of God gets a hold of them. Bapulula, the brother of that ‘fiend,’ worked with us for two years – a fine, bright, intelligent fellow; we liked him very much………Sometimes a section of the people would club together to buy a large piece of the body wholesale, to be retailed out again; or a family man would buy a whole leg to divide up between his wives, children and slaves. Dear little bright-eyed boys and girls grew up accustomed to these scenes from day to day. They ate their own morsels from time to time, in the haphazard way that they have, and carried the rest of their portion in their hands, on a skewer or in a leaf, lest anyone should steal and eat it. To this awful depth have these children of the Heavenly Father fallen! This is no worked-up picture, it is the daily life of thousands of people at the present time in Darkest Africa. –Rev. W. Holman Bentley (Baptist Missionary Society), Pioneering on the Congo, TRS, 1900 (2 vols.)

Innumerable acts of cannibalism have been reported from time to time by both Belgians and French, the most recent of which I have actual knowledge being the waylaying by a party of Azande of a Belgian Officer proceeding on leave from the Lado Enclave (now Western Mongolla); they tore him limb from limb and ate him raw. This occurred twelve years ago… –Basil Spence, in Sudan Notes and Records, vol. III, no. 4 (Dec. 1920)

Yikes! Those early explorers really didn’t mince their words now did they? Although the above quoted explorers’ accounts are about cannibalism in Africa, it should be noted that whenever an “explorer” encounters any native, tales about cannibalism are sure to follow. similar statement has been made about Native Americans, certain tribes in South America, tribes in Oceania etc. I’m not saying cannibalism didn’t exist, I’m just saying that it was probably exxagerated by racist explorers, actually I’m not saying that either, William Arens is. In his book the Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (New York : Oxford University Press, 1979; ISBN 0-19-502793-0) He “questions the credibility of reports of cannibalism and argues that the description by one group of people of another people as cannibals is a consistent and demonstrable ideological and rhetorical device to establish perceived cultural superiority. Arens bases his thesis on a detailed analysis of numerous “classic” cases of cultural cannibalism cited by explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists. His findings were that many were steeped in racism, unsubstantiated, or based on second-hand or hearsay evidence. In combing the literature he could not find a single credible eye-witness account. And, as he points out, the hallmark of ethnography is the observation of a practice prior to description. In the end he concluded that cannibalism was not the widespread prehistoric practice it was claimed to be; that anthropologists were too quick to pin the cannibal label on a group based not on responsible research but on our own culturally-determined pre-conceived notions, often motivated by a need to exoticize.” [Jacked from here]

My favourite book on Steretypes and racial images, White on Black: Images of African and Africans in western pop culture by Jan Pieterse offers a great explanation. Cannibalism in any culture usually occurs during times of famine and during rituals. The western version of cannibalism was used to serve a specific purpose, it had nothing to do with actual natives. Infact none of the people quoted here or anywhere else have ever witnessed cannibalism they all heard stories from tribes describing an enemy tribe. The first reason the image of cannibalistic savage African tribes became so popular was to justify conquest. The missionaries wanted to paint the natives as savage heathens who needed to be mentally transformed into god-worshipping noble savages, the missionaries also wanted to counter the european utopian perception that African tribes where these peaceful naked people living in a far away lost paradise, to counter that they had to portray as grotesque as possible. During the second phase of African discovery when more explorers and missionaries where in the ‘interior of Africa stories of man-eating Africans persisted (like the Niam Niams of Central Africa) and where even more exxagerated, stories of human butcher shops, Africans that don’t bury their loved ones but eat them caused a sensation back at home. After Africa was finally “conquered”, Images of cannibalism changed. African tribes where no longer seen as threatening, a new image had to be thought up. That’s when the new cannibal humour came into play ( Adventures of tin-tin, disney etc) The image changed from savage cannibal to colonized and pacified cannibal with western attributes. This shows how a particular image has been perpetuated as a justification for colonialism, then neo-colonialism and finally (in a humorous form) to justify conservative attitudes of people in the third world.  This world . What this type of humour, Jan Pieterse says,  want to suggest is that Africans haven’t changed when it really demonstrates that Europeans haven’t changed.

It was interesting when reading the comments that a bulk of people kept saying “There are tribes in Africa still practising cannibalism” it is really amazing considering that they can’t really state which tribe is it, they only assumed that by seeing an exxagerated report about Tanzanians killing albinos for muti. I guess Prof Pieterse was right, westerners haven’t changed.