In reaction to an article I am required to read for my History 318 course (Twentieth Century World History) I was struck, yet again, by the horrific suffering of millions of people in Africa – in this case, of Congolese at the hands of the militia that plundered their families, towns and mines around the most recent turn of the century.
The most vivid representation of this kind of suffering I’ve been exposed to was the film Blood Diamond. After the film we walked to a coffee shop in the lovely Stellenbosch summer air – about 8 of us, among us engineering students, an American volunteer teacher, and a couple of arts students like me – and we couldn’t help feeling ridiculous surrounded by cappucinos and soft chairs. The world around me seemed held together by an intangible authority, assuring me that no-one like the militia in the film would ever touch us in Kerk street, Stellenbosch, South Africa. We 8 young people spoke about what we had seen… the conversation trailed off… and by the next morning, we had all returned our focus to the challenges of our own lives.
We hear about “rape as a weapon of war” in our Political Science classes and we read horrific accounts of human suffering; then we sit and talk about them in air-conditioned discussion classes. Of course, the stories are spun nicely into political theory in the articles so that there is some intellectual reason for our exposure to them; the fact that some unsuspecting student’s heart might just wrench at the atrocity of it all is of no account.
In Sociology we learn about female genital “operations” (or “mutilation” if you are against it; or “circumcision” if you don’t mind it) and some articles encourage us to develop a broader, more relativist perspective on the practice. Yet some seven-year-old girl is experiencing excruciating pain today… and even if this can somehow be explained away as making cultural sense, she might die for simple lack of disinfectant.
The History article I started with explains that in Congo, much of the suffering is caused by the abundance of natural resources in the country, particularly a mineral called coltan (but also others). Coltan is used to make cellphones, laptops and Playstations. Western corporations turning a blind eye to the source of their coltan supplies may well be encouraging captive labour, pillaging, and grotesque human rights abuses in Congo.
I want to tell you about it – I want you to understand the kind of ridiculous torture the woman at the start of the article has been through. Or about the practices in Darfur that makes Congo looks like a preschool class. But I find myself so ravenous for this kind of information – in the same kind of way that I compulsively watched horror movies as a young teenager – that I am afraid to indulge the urge. The more stories I read, the less real they seem to become… the less I feel like I could meet one of the survivors and exhibit the appropriate emotional response. Am I alone in this experience of de-sensitization, and my fear of it?
So… what do we do?
Do I stop buying the products that fuel the strife?… “But the corporatocracy has millions of consumers lined up to take our place” (Kern, 2007). Do we start buying only peace-certified products, as we’ve started doing with diamonds… how long would that take to catch on?
I guess I’m utterly naive to believe I can do anything. I’m a student. What did the 1960’s American students really achieve against the war in Vietnam and the “technocracy” that they sensed was ruling their lives? I don’t have money to withold from any company. I don’t even have money to help support humanitarian organizations… Even if I give my life to one of these organizations… even they seem to do little more than to minimize the effects of phenomena far out of their control.
Who are we even fighting? Corporations? Consumers, or consumerism? Free trade?… and in the broader sense, disenfrachisement brought about by colonization? Lawlessness and weak state structures?… are we in any position to dictate something better? If we allow the full intensity of our frustration to show, will we look as silly as the conspiracy theorists we like to laugh at in movies?
The article ends with the same kind of helplessness. Kern realized that the best thing he could do was to tell the stories. What do you think? What would you do?
1 Kern, K. 2007. “The Human Cost of Cheap Cell Phones” in S. Hiatt (ed). A Game as Old as Empire: The Secret World of Economic Hit Men and the Web of Global Corruption. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler, 2007.