Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Gentlest Exploitation

One longstanding difficulty in dealing with Africa as a focus of study is its representation, as it has a history of having its history rewritten by outsiders, from explorers to colonialist powers to anthropologists in the modern day. Sometimes it can be easy to spot the heavy hand of Western influence on the African past and its present image, but often the effects are more insidious--and therefore all the more unsettling. I'd like to look at two examples of well-intentioned exploitation of African peoples and their representation: anthropological interaction with the Hadza of Tanzania, and the popular film The Gods Must be Crazy. 

The Hadza are a community in Tanzania that subsist mainly by hunting and gathering, adhering relatively closely to practices that for most of the rest of the world are buried in antiquity. This has led them to be the focus of many anthropologists with points to prove about Homo sapiens' technological and social past. However, their use as an archaeological case study is problematic, as often anthropologists' desire to preserve their "primitive" society results in keeping them impoverished--they are discouraged from the beneficial practice of cattle herding, and since archaeologists don't want to disturb the subsistence patterns that make them so special by compensating their time and involvement with food, the Hadza are often given things of little use for their participation. Planting the Hadza, a contemporary people, in the past is not only a fallacy but a disservice to their history.

A photo from National Geographic's Hadza album, which literally illustrates the temporal paradox surrounding this people: in one photo Hadza hunters wear cargo shorts and plastic sandals, while National Geographic's main article says that these "hunter-gatherers live 10,000 years in the past."

Similarly, in The Gods Must be Crazy (1981), the Kalahari bushmen are depicted as a people outside the world--a people so unlike us in our greed, materialism, and labor-saving devices that they seem more like children than anything else. The film received favorable reviews from many critics but was critiqued by Toby Alice Volkman in a review which discussed its negative impact and implications--mainly in its controversial portrayal of black Africans as either primitive innocents or bumbling gunmen. As Volkman concludes, "[the] San (Kalahari bushmen) are very much of this planet and of this moment. The denial of this reality allows South Africa to continue to dispossess them of their autonomy, their history, and their land."

Two San natives inspect the Western materialism that has touched their community in the form of a glass cola bottle.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post Rose. It's especially pertinent to the issues we've discussed in the course. The Nat Geo picture is a particularly good example of what you are writing about. What more positive representations are out there - and what opportunities are there for people such as the Hadza and San to represent themselves today?