Pygmy Zombies in Hyperspace

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We hereby officially re-open our blog with a guest post by Stan Frankland, after a period of silence during which we improved the functionality of our website. The text below was sent to me by Stan after a conversation unfolded on our Facebook page with a photo from Ivar Mikalsen’s slide collection. I will end this blog post by summarising that conversation and the photographs relevant to it in screenshots, but first hand over the blog ‘floor’ to Stan, who has been visiting Uganda since the early 1990s and is a lecturer in social anthropology at St. Andrews in Edinburgh

 

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This picture is of a friend of mine. His name is Asule Jackson and he is a member of the Basua community, a highly marginalised group of ‘Pygmies’ who live in the Western Ugandan district of Bundibugyo. I came across this particular image on one of my frequent trawls through the internet to see how what passes for knowledge is constructed and represented in the post-digital revolution era. It was the lead picture in a short article published in the Daily Mail on 20th August 2014. The article was speculating on the age-old question, why are ‘Pygmies’ so small? To someone like me who has spent nearly half his life working with the Sua, the article was not news. What did interest me was the caption that accompanied the picture of Asule. While alluding to genetic adaptation, the blurb informed the reader that it was a Ugandan Pygmy on a ‘monkey hunt’ in the Semuliki National Park.

I have known Asule for twenty-five years now and I have never known him to hunt monkeys. In fact since the creation of the National Park in 1994 and the Sua’s eviction from the forest, the whole community has been prohibited from any hunting activities at all. Two or three men may occasionally transgress this law and use steel wire snares to trap forest pigs and other small animals, but absolutely no one uses bows and arrows. These are made only to sell to tourists, one of the Sua’s main sources of subsistence for over 75 years. The picture itself has clues that point towards this being nothing more than a staged re-enactment paid for by the photographer. The lack of tension in the arm muscles indicate clearly that Asule is just posing as does his aiming at the ground. Shooting an arrow requires effort and monkeys live in trees. There is a long history of similarly posed pictures of ‘Pygmies’ in which they are made to act out our imagination of what we think they should be. Below is a picture taken by Herbert Lang during an expedition to northeast Congo (1909-1915) sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History.

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As with Asule, these nameless ‘Pygmies’ are performing for the camera. And also like Asule, their image floats around in virtual hyperspace with the original context of the moment lost through the process of recycling and reproduction. Another similarity is that both pictures reveal the subjection and pacification of the ‘Pygmies’. While it is true that bows were used to hunt, they were also used in warfare. As with many other African peoples, the ‘Pygmies’ put up a fierce resistance to the forces of colonialism. Many were taken as slaves and many were killed as a consequence of the European ‘discovery’ of Africa. However, this resistance has been written out of the historical record in favour of a romantic fantasy of the eternal hunter. An evolutionary antiquity has been created with the ‘Pygmy’ as a symbol of an archaic form of life which we all once lived. The political history of the actual people, of their oppression, is simply brushed aside. When I look at Lang’s photograph, I do not see a group of proud hunters. Instead I see an act of submission performed by a conquered people. It is with great shame that I have to say that my own discipline, social anthropology, has been as culpable of this denial of full humanity as any academic discipline and it has also played a crucial role in spreading this insidious myth out into the world of popular culture. In fact, I could go so far as to say that academia as a whole has played a constitutive part in the continued colonization of the ‘Pygmies’.

It is this myth of the eternal Pygmy that Asule is acting out in the photograph above. He is more than used to doing such performances. Whenever the Sua receive formal visitors, whether they are tourists, missionaries, high-powered development officials or politicians, they always end up having to put on a ‘traditional’ dance for them.  It is an expected part of the encounter from both sides. It has been this way for a long time. Accounts of colonial explorers describe the bringing of ‘Pygmies’ to them and the dances that then took place. The power relations at play in these situations are self-evident. This same basic structure of inequality also informs later tourist accounts, photographs and films. And they continue on within the context of postcolonial life. The Sua performed for the infamous dictator of Uganda, Idi Amin, who also used to refer to them as ‘my Pygmies’. The current situation in Uganda is really no better. Whilst many other people do suffer, the Sua can be described as the marginalised within the marginalised, the disinherited of the disinherited. What I am suggesting here is that the Sua, like other ‘Pygmy’ communities, have suffered from multiple colonisations and that this subjection of them continues to this day. 

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No doubt Asule would have been paid for the ‘monkey hunt’ performance, perhaps quite well. However, the Reuters photographer, James Akena, will have made a good deal more money out of this incident of staged authenticity. The copyright always remains with the photographer or with the company who pays him. Other photographs from the same shoot are also circulating within the public domain. One of a young man called Tababa, born only a few years before the eviction from the Park, accompanies the same basic ‘news’ story carried by the Daily Mail.  This version comes from February 2014 and features on the ABC Science webpage. Alongside some speculations on genetic diversity, Tababa poses with some élan, seemingly focused on the hunt. Like Asule, he has decorated himself with leaves gathered from the forest. Quite amusingly, they are wrapped around a baseball cap that he used to wear quite often. He was very proud of the cap and the mark of modernity it conferred upon him. Obviously, the disjuncture between the evolutionary content of the article and Tababa’s cap goes unmentioned by the journalist.

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A similar disconnection appears in the picture above, another image from the ‘monkey hunt’ series. This one features in a piece from July 2011 entitled ‘Most tacky and weird uses of animal dung across the world’ on the website of the International Business Times. According to the caption below, the two men are eating elephant dung, which they believe reduces thirst. Quite how this relates to business is not made apparent. Unlike the previous two images, names are given to the two Sua. My oldest friend amongst them, Nzito, appears on the left, his blue shorts glowing, a glaring contradiction in the over saturated pantomime of primitiveness presented to the viewer. As a rule, he prefers to drink waragi, a Ugandan version of gin. Asule sits on the right. While Nzito is named correctly, Asule is not. He is given the name of a much younger man instead. A simple mistake perhaps, but it does point towards a more general problem with naming. In the hundreds of pictures of the Sua that continue to proliferate on the Internet, they are rarely named correctly, often simply referred to as ‘Pygmies’ or the catch all descriptor of Batwa. Nzito appears elsewhere as a generic Bayaka man, his cherubic face intended to signify the egalitarianism that lies at the root of the myth of the ‘Pygmies’. The Bayaka live in the Central African Republic, quite a distance from Uganda. In the same way that the great diversity of the African continent is reduced down to the familiar trope that treats Africa as if it were one country, so to is the diversity amongst the population of ‘Pygmies’. This homogenising of difference appears over and over again in neo-colonial data bank of images that floats in the aether of hyperspace.

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A further manipulation of the actuality can be identified if you look at an article published by Reuters themselves in April 2007 that contains the last image from the series that I have managed to find so far. It is the least artful of the collection of pictures, showing a group of men in long shot, bows directed towards the trees. Asule’s back is to the camera, easily recognizable by his somewhat tatty shorts. The accompanying story has absolutely nothing to say about the Sua or the forest in which the picture was taken. The image seems to be there only to provide an exotic gloss to a claim that poverty is a cause of deforestation elsewhere in Uganda. While little of merit can be gleaned from IBT article mentioned before, it does contain one interesting fact. It states that the monkey hunt was unsuccessful. That the hunt failed came as no surprise to me. After all, it was staged only a kilometre away from the headquarters of the National Park. This distortion becomes even more important when temporality is considered as well. So far the ‘monkey hunt’ has appeared in 2014 and 2011 and 2007. The Reuters article gives the actual date when the pictures were taken as 8th August 2006. While eight years may not seem like a very long time, it was a period of considerable change for the Sua.

There is not the space to give a full history of the Sua since their eviction from the forest in 1994. Briefly, from that year on, they have lived as what the award-winning journalist Mark Dowie calls ‘conservation refugees’, moving from one failed development project to another. They have also survived a dreadful period of civil war in which many of the younger generation were infected with HIV. They have been rendered landless and impoverished, surviving through casual labour and money gained through tourism. Their community had been deeply traumatised. In 2007, the Sua were moved from a squatter’s camp at the edge of the forest as part of a resettlement programme funded by the European Union. This project failed due to mismanagement and corruption. At the time of writing, the Sua’s conditions of existence remain precarious. They remain enpauperised, without access to health care and education, and without any long term, sustainable means of economic survival. Too many of my friends have died for me to list them. Simply put, they continue to be an oppressed people, abused by those who claim to help them and those who photograph them. It would seem that ‘Pygmies’ are destined to eat elephant shit forever.

Nothing demonstrates this better than the image below. As the lines across the frame and the claim of ownership at the bottom show, it is one of the many stock photos of the Sua that can be bought online. As with the Reuters pictures, these are normally bought by media outlets to pad out what passes for news. The copyright does not belong to the person whose image is being traded. In this particular picture it is my dear friend Ndige who continues to be exploited even in death.

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It is only one among the many skilfully taken works of photographic enslavement that have turned him into a commodity. This particular death mask, along with the many others available, is not only bought by the Daily Mail and their ilk. It comes in a number of other formats designed for mass consumption. It can be made into a variety of cards and into a mouse pad. I have even bought Ndige transformed into a jigsaw puzzle. Dignity was rarely granted to him in life and it is most certainly not given to him in death. The same abuse happens all across what we hopefully imagine to be the liberating space of the Internet. Old photographs of long forgotten ‘Pygmies’ re-emerge as the analogue world is made digital. Dead memories are given a new and usually decontextualized second life. Dead people are reanimated, transformed into zombies stumbling through the shopping mall of the web. As the captured corpses of Ndige and my other friends continue to wander the infinite space of this virtual graveyard, I often wonder what he would make of all this. I imagine that he would laugh at the stupidity of it all and wonder just how such another cruel injustice could be perpetrated against his kith and kin. The Sua continue to live a bare life, a life in which they are continually denied the full accordance of their humanity. They are excluded from the realm of legality and human rights. Their history is erased and the real harshness of their world is airbrushed out of existence. Ironically, the photographs I have used to demonstrate the violence that is still carried out against them make the actuality of their suffering invisible. And to me, all they do is represent the ongoing exclusion, subjugation and repression of the Sua.

I have spoken to some of the Sua during the time that I have been writing this short piece. They have given me permission to use any image of them that I can find. As such, I am wilfully breaking copyright law by taking back the stolen lives of Asule, Ndige and the others. And I would like to end with a very different type of picture of Asule. Tababa, one of the men forever frozen in the ‘monkey hunt’, took this one with my digital camera. It shows Asule as he really is, not as some fantasy of what ‘we’ might want the world to be. It shows you Asule through the eyes of the Sua.

Stan Frankland

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This takes us back to where we started. A photograph shared on our Facebook page because a question was asked here on the website.

What you find below are screen shots of the conversation that I consider to be relevant here. Click on them to enlarge and read the text.

 

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The last word is for Stan Frankland. He (of course) already knew the photograph made by explorer Stanley that ends the sequence above, and told me in a chat:

‘I know this picture – it is somewhere on my laptop along with another one without the white men. It is an amazing image. The young woman was the ‘maid’ of Thomas Parke, the doctor on Stanley’s Emin Pasha expedition. He writes about her a lot although he never names her. The young boy who is clothed is most likely the ‘servant’ of Gaetano Casati who spent years in the area before joining up with the Stanley expedition. It was common practice for most ‘explorers’ to be given or buy a ‘Pygmy’ assistant! The contrast with the others is fascinating. As Mboga was a transit station on the slave route, they could be ‘captured’ or seeking refuge.’

For further reading check this article titled ‘African Pygmies, what’s behind a name?’ 

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