Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
States of Violence: Politics, Youth, and Memory in Contemporary Africa. Edna G. Ray and Donald L. Donham, eds. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. 268 pp.
Watching a documentary on the siege of Leningrad, a friend (of African descent) muttered to me during a particularly lethal battle, “Would you look at those Europeans? They’re worse than Africans!” The popular myth that Africans are brutally tribalistic surely is a legacy of European stereotypes of the “savage” in need of “civilization” (and, of course, colonization). “Hotel Rwanda,” “Blood Diamonds,” and “Last King of Scotland” all depict Africa to Western movie-goers as a site of extraordinary cruelty. Charles Taylor’s alleged cannibalism, pre-pubescent child soldiers slaughtering their parents, mass rape in Central Africa, torched huts in Darfur, election warfare in Kenya and Zimbabwe, and al-Qaeda operatives plotting catastrophe are the footage of Africa that appears on Western television (if Africa appears at all). These have not helped to improve Africa’s vicious image. However, as the World Wars, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and forced labor under European colonialism evidenced, Africans do not hold a monopoly on inflicting massive violence.
The goal of the edited volume States of Violence: Politics, Youth, and Memory in Contemporary Africa is to explore the tragedy of violence in contemporary Africa. For decades in some regions and centuries in others, Africans fought – and eventually won – the wars of liberation. Now that Africa is free, why do one-third of all the current wars in the world take place there? To answer this question, political scientists such as myself might begin with the international level of analysis. The contributors to States of Violence are overwhelmingly anthropologists, however, and instead they employ a micro-level, ethnographic approach. Most importantly, they astutely sidestep the problem of whether a particular episode of African violence is political and instead focus upon the relationship of the state to such violence.
Much more common in the post-Cold War era than conventional wars are low-intensity, identity-group conflicts between or among a hodgepodge of actors, varying from armies to thugs. Examples of this politically ambiguous violence in States of Violence include teen gangs in the Western Cape and vigilante youth groups in Nigeria. It is not always clear whether such violence is an expression of political or personal animosity. Nor is it clear whether the motivation for the violence is advancement of the ethnic group, or merely self-enrichment. The distinction between crime and political violence becomes blurry. A strength of this volume, States of Violence, is that it tackles the complicated interplay of today’s micro- and macro-level violence.
The editors had an unenviable task of collating wildly different subjects and genres into one volume and should be commended for the effort. “Mau Mau” (liberation fighters in colonial Kenya) is the image that introduces the volume, but I am not sure why or how well it works. The chapters in States of Violence were originally conference papers and are disjointed stylistically and substantively. Some of the authors write in abstract jargon and other authors write crisply. Some chapters draw from long periods of field research; the descriptions of Zimbabwe veterans and neighborhood relations in Guinea-Bissau are especially strong. The provocative chapter on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission clearly involved over a decade of research (and participation) by the author. Three books would probably not do justice to her findings, much less one chapter. However, some of the authors rely exclusively on archival sources and some appear to use no data at all. A few authors “read” suffering as “text,” as in literary criticism, which left me uneasy both methodologically and morally.
The uniting themes of “memory” and “youth” that the title promises appear inconsistently. Not every chapter directly addresses youth and not every chapter directly addresses memory. Additionally, as the editors themselves admit, the case selection is peculiar. Of the eight empirical chapters, two are on Sierra Leone and two are on South Africa. With exception of Rwanda, there are no case studies of Central Africa, East Africa, the Horn or North Africa. Surely there has not been an absence of violence in these regions to study.
One trait common to all these disparate pieces, however, is that none of the research involves quantitative methods. The work stands as a refreshing contrast and complement to the plethora of statistical investigations of conflict that already exist. Moreover, the individual topics that appear in this volume are not ones that have already received excessive scrutiny.
Different chapters of States of Violence will appeal to social scientists who research the specific communities described therein. It is quite possible that conflict scholars in general will find the ethnographic approach of this volume interesting (for instance, the chapter on gangs in South Africa would be a useful comparison with gangs on other continents). It would be an unlikely choice for a textbook in an African Studies course because there is too much emphasis on two regions of Africa at the expense of the rest.
Lisa Sharlach University of Alabama, Birmingham