Shame on You, Old Chaps

High jump competitions were a high status sport; photo by L. Cotlow

“One has to admire the English: they managed to run almost half a billion people and control a quarter of the world’s land—all that from a relatively insignificant island somewhere between Europe and America. Extreme self-confidence—if only Africa had more of that!” I read in the Gorilla Highlands Interactive eBook under the heading “Well Done, Old Chaps,” and had to agree.

On the other hand, that remarkable self-assurance could easily lead to striking arrogance… Look at some ignorant, offensive lines collected under the heading “Shame on You, Old Chaps”. The following lines all came from British colonialists in Kigezi:

District Commissioner Coote:
I wish to be clearly understood that…there are no persons in the district of sufficient intelligence to act as chiefs, in the sense of the word as used among uncivilised tribes elsewhere…

Stanley Smith:
[The Bakiga are] a wild lawless tribe of magnificent physique though as a race not strikingly intelligent. One of the best of their Christians said that there was no love among the Bakiga.

District Commissioner Sullivan:
The Batutsi are of no economic value, their chief asset seems to be a remarkable attainment in the art of high-jumping.

Len Sharp:
The Banyabatumbi inhabit Kinkizi and are a poor and effete tribe.
They [Bakiga] are a cheery though passionate people, they have no vestige of politeness and are fiends when drunk.

When we read these disgusting colonial statements, we need to know they are a century old. The human race has moved on in the meantime and there is significantly more respect for other cultures.

Let’s have a moment of introspection… and forget not the power of words. Opinions can be poisonous!

Think of common perception of the Batwa, considered by other inhabitants of the Gorilla Highlands as unworthy, filthy and insignificant … Is that any better than what you saw above? Let’s face it, the Bantu weren’t first in this area. They came from western Africa and colonised what we now call Uganda and Rwanda, not thinking that highly of the Batwa, the natives. It is hard to internalise that but the Bantu were the first colonisers.

And we can bring it further home, talk about tribalism and how certain ethnic groups feel they are genetically more advantaged than others. A few years ago I almost lost my life in what was allegedly the Baganda claiming back the capital of Uganda. The car I was travelling in was stopped by a group of rowdy men… If you didn’t pronounce mufaliso (mattress) with a Luganda ascent, you were in trouble. I survived by a thread because I had been warned about the right way to say it.

The infamous 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis was another example of the same human folly. The desire of the Hutus to exterminate fellow Rwandans saw around 1 million lives claimed, women raped and children orphaned. How can we perceive a particular race, tribe or culture less worthy than ours to the extent of killing them?

We can blame the British of yesterday for what they said about our ancestors, but we shouldn’t think we are any better…

text: Isabelle Masozera

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