Terror from the white man’s grave. Ebola and the legacy of colonialism.

 “White Man’s Grave” – (archaic) Africa, or more specifically, western Africa or Sierra Leone by extension, any other land subject to Western colonialism or missionizing that is comparably deadly. 

 – wiktionary.org

2004-04-24 03.42.28

I haven’t been following the spread of Ebola for the same reason I didn’t follow with any great interest the spread of Bird flu or Swine Flu. These things are tragic and it’s entirely reasonable for governments and organisations that have the resources, to contribute to trying to stem and eventually eradicate  the diseases, and it’s good that news keeps everyone up to date on what, if anything, they need to do if there is ever a possibility of infections spreading etc. The things that have made me get interested in Ebola how weird everyone is around the fact that this diseases  is happening in countries in West Africa. Unlike Bird or Swine Flu, Ebola seems to have taken on a radioactive element requiring the drawbridges to be drawn up and anyone who might have been near anyone who touched anyone who might have had Ebola needs to be expelled or imprisoned. Ebola is different because it carries with it the bestial image of Africans and the violent inhuman lives and deaths they have that have been drilled into white people – specifically Europeans and Americans – for centuries.

The first troubling aspect of this phenomena is that a lot of people don’t seem to understand that this is an environmental condition caught by people in a very specific part of the world and anyone who has extended, intimate contact with those people. This has come out in a lot of ways from a drop off in contact with established West African communities who’ve been living in the United States for years to quarantining people who have been to Kenya, despite the fact that London is Closer to the outbreak than Nairobi by nearly a thousand miles.

I could say something clever like this is the geographic equivalent of Quarantining people from London because of an outbreak in Tehran. But it isn’t is it? Whilst the idea of London and Tehran having anything but the letter ‘n’ in common is laughable; Africa and Africans inhabit a vague area in the western popular imagination, we don’t think of Kenyans or Liberians or Malawians, we don’t even think of Kanuris or Mandens or Bantus; we just think of Africans. Despite immigration from various places on that continent to Europe and America; from generic tribal warriors to starving people pop stars can save; Africans still remain interchangeable bit players in White people’s narrative

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I Say! Fighting the Mad Mahdi is almost as fun as fighting those uppity Zulus!

I Say! Fighting the Mad Mahdi is almost as fun as fighting those uppity Zulus!

Ebola is a good example of this trend of dehumanizing Africans for our own titillation continuing into the twenty-first century. Ebola was identified nearly forty years ago, it’ not as though this is a new terrifying illness, it is possible to treat. However the fact that this disease has been exclusively African until this year adds a level of terror built up by centuries of dispatches from malarial missionaries, or movies and books depicting The continent as fundamentally untamable and unbearable for civilized human beings. Ebola is being treated like A.I.D.s for no reason other than it’s an African sickness that Africans are selfishly getting on our nice white skin, as opposed to politely staying put and quietly waiting to catch whatever variant of Jungle fever they’re likely to get anyway in the manner they are supposed to. No one is too concerned when Africans are suffering in of themselves as that is just to be expecting, and is less interesting to the developed world’s public than two comedians making a prank phone call. The fear comes from a weird disjointed reality were Africa is neither distant nor fun.

The outbreak is happening in a region with much deeper historical ties to  both the United States and Europe than most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. This is also the first major outbreak in the region since that region stopped being a war zone, meaning people can leave for work or pleasure, like they’re people and not Zombies grappling to destroy the last enclave of humanity. The idea that our only responsibility is to make sure that the walls of the disease pit are well-greased for our own protection, is evident in the weird way certain outlets are grumbling about committing resources to combat a sickness in a country we have connections with as somehow motivated by white guilt as opposed to self-interest.

The apparent blind terror portrayed by the media in the developed world over Ebola has very little to do with anyone’s actual fears or the relative deadliness of Ebola. It has everything to with a long history of cultural dismissal of Africans themselves as not quite as human as we are, meaning we don’t have to worry about their diseases  or suffering, as though these are the results of bad choices or just another stage of development we are immune from as long as Africans don’t get all their poverty all over our stuff. If we as a society lean anything from this latest outbreak of giving a shit about Africa, I hope that it is that we can’t keep shrinking the world with travel and technology whilst also maintaining a profound disinterest in the well-being of  around a billion of our brothers, sisters and sibsters .

Fun Fact: December 20th is Human solidarity day

Fun Fact: December 20th is Human solidarity day

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