Knowledge is power. It also ‘butters the bread’. Sometimes the knower knows that, what he knows is mumbo-jumbo but will anyway go ahead and confuse everyone else! I am also apt to suspect that knowledge impacted without the power of local languages is halfway diluted!
I must admit that when I signed up for the PhD program back in 2009, I was not sure that I would come this far and develop my own little peculiar academic thinking. I didn’t even know that the term ‘donor gaze’ that haunted me since the ‘parachute filmmaking’ of ‘Talking about sex’  in Arumeru Tanzania, could be useful in conceptualising how filmmakers silence the subjects of their films, sometimes intentionally, most of the time not. The meaning gets lost in translation. Actually objectification of the subjects is a more appropriate term, because if the filmmaker intentionally reconstructs reality he/she then makes the subject speak as he/she wishes. In other words, filmed subjects are metaphorically silent; -although they clearly hear themselves speaking. Their individuality does not enter the narrative. In terms of ‘documentary voice’ it is called ‘SPEAKING ABOUT’. What I want to propose to Western filmmakers packing for another ’parachute poverty-tainment’ in hell-hole Africa is to perhaps re school themselves in ethics of the voice and be firm during negotiating the ‘boardroom truth’ with the donors at home who are sponsoring the filming spree. Donors want a particular truth and you are the beast of burden that will point the camera and configure reality to produce that truth. Ideally, one ought to ‘listen’ and allow subjects to speak; even when they are Africans and desperate because of an HIV infection, hunger, genital mutilation or any other African misery you might want to portray. Now you ask me: ‘HOW DO I DO THAT?’ …-SIMPLES …If you do not have cultural competency..STAY HOME AND FILM PEOPLE YOU CAN RESPECT AS EQUALS. Without an appropriate cultural toolkit you won’t be able to ‘speak with’ your African subject’s voice!…..What Africa doesn’t need now, is insincerity from career focused NGO filmmakers keen on their own survival. -Africa is already overloaded to maximum with ‘cassava experts’ who have never seen a cassava in their lives. METAPHORICALLY SPEAKING.
As a humble philanthropist and a humanist documentarist who naively believes in the inherent goodness of humankind, I am awed to be involved in the tough world of academia where you either make sense or get lost. Literally. Performance guarantees durability and ascendancy on the ladder of intellectualism. Who remembers people who didn’t say much anyway? Luckily I genuinely don’t give a rat’s ass about the intellectual ladder; rather I just want to say something genuinely and say it fast and coherently. I do not want to overstay my short welcome in the ‘Ivory Tower’ because I certainly do not belong with the intellectual power house and never could! A doctor’s hat might be a good reward for my efforts, but even if I am rubbished as not-academic-enough, at least I have managed to make sense to myself, as a filmmaker, and perhaps even learned some english on the way. My philanthropic motto is about changing one person’s life at a time and right now I am drawing on the age old wisdom of ‘charity begins at home’, by empowering myself with enough information to convince at least myself that the negative media images I see of black African women like myself have pretty much to do with the Eurocentric worldview of the past and present. (and by the way, blackness is just a differentiation category when races encounter each other and the ignorant Dark Continent an absolute total myth: it was started by explorer H M Stanley to justify their uninvited presence in Africa!) We are black ONLY in the presence of whites which is fair enough. Back in my village with no whites around, you’d struggle to make anyone of my tribe think in terms of blackness or indeed you’d be laughed at to suggest that they are inferior to some white tribes somewhere far far away. In their eyes they are perfect. Actually, before the penetration of visual media in rural Africa people were just fine and never imagined that it-was-greener-on-the-other-side of the pond. Now McDonaldization has turned most of us into big consumerist larvas. Some fatter than others. ;-( We now live in a world where some die of abundancy whilst others of deficiency. As a philanthropist this is my NR. 1 LOST IN TRANSLATION..
Anyway forget the food on the table, mat, ground, treetop or wherever people feed themselves: my initial research interest was to find ways of addressing HIV stigma with the help of documentary film. This was necessitated by the hype in the Western hemisphere where research was concentrating on combating the otherwise socio-cultural phenomenon with universalised measures. Before my pilot study in 2010, I was overwhelmed with all the findings and recommendations of Western HIV/AIDS experts with appropriate doctor hats, who knew precisely how to combat the HIV stigma in Africa because it is the engine that was powering HIV/AIDS. I agreed and still do. I just do not agree with ‘diluted knowledge’. Africans were taught to start talking about sex and disclose their HIV status otherwise we would all perish. This was bad news. Very very scary and I, like most humanists had to be involved. I wanted to be sure that we could survive this ‘mostly African’, pandemic just like we made it through slavery and other genocidal events. Luckily, HIV stigma could be scientifically measured! Fingers crossed The HIV research gurus had actually come up with a universal ‘anti-stigma-toolkit to help us along the way. IMPRESSIVE. I won’t ask how much the ‘groundbreaking’ invention cost, but African communities everywhere were paid ‘sitting allowances’ to listen to this newly hatched formula, which looked and sounded comic, but mostly incomprehensible to most of them. It is ridiculous to believe that one could measure the stigma level in societies. Since when did it become possible to predict human behaviour? Why do we still have latent racism in society that won’t go away if one could measure it and teach people to wish it away? HOW COULD ANYONE COME UP WITH THAT TOOLKIT? Nevertheless I was open to the idea that this clever toolkit was helping in saving precious lives. HIV/AIDS pandemic is after all a global phenomenon and if a global approach spearheaded by the ‘rich’ nations is the solution, who am I to moan? What voice do I have? More precisely, what resources do I have? I am just a die-hard philanthropist with limited resources: http://naaike.yolasite.com
When I landed in Tanzania for the pilot study in July 2010, I did not know what to expect. My PhD title at this point was very naive, perhaps not ‘properly’ academic but in my eyes, it was an ambitious and a needed one: I wanted to survey ‘the role of documentary film in reducing stigmatisation of AIDS orphans in Tanzania’. I knew that anti-stigma film worked to stimulate wider discussion, perhaps even empathy if one gets the ‘voice’ right. I had already made a very effective anti-stigma film that addressed bullying in Birkaskolan in Stockholm. My style of filming until 2005 was very personal. I thought about the need of the ones I was filming. It was very important for me. As a philantropist I ONLY film for a specific reason that is close to someone’s heart or mine. If I am documenting someone’s life, I primarily focus on the needs of the person. WHAT DO THEY WANT TO HAPPEN? CAN I ‘SPEAK WITH’ THEIR VOICE? as opposed to ‘SPEAKING FOR OR ABOUT THEM which is predominantly the Western attitude. And finally, Who should be allowed to hear their personal story? After all some people I filmed just saw me as a ‘help’ channel. So a long ethical discussion always preceded the filming moment. I could suggest that we reconstruct a happening in the person’s life if that helped the argument. The camera can be very intimidating for some people so it is important to talk the process through. Sometimes, the camera should be ignored and to allow the ears to pay attention, -sometimes not. Observation style can be attained only if the ‘subject actor’ understands the essence of what ‘we’ are trying to achieve. Questions are asked in the beginning and answers are filmed logically. I do not wish to patronize my subjects. That way their ‘voice’ will disappear. The result becomes objectification of the ‘Other’.
The field study revealed that urgency in the HIV stigma research was a methodological exaggeration to mobilize more resources for the already well paid swam of stigma researcher without care for the crucial organic link suitable for the socio-cultural specificities of sub-Saharan Africa. Bill Clinton had actually warned against this phenomenon at an AIDS conference in Vienna complaining that the tons of research reports were collecting dusts in oak paneled offices whilst the HIV/AIDS sufferers were not being listened to. The trouble is, Bill was talking about people’s ‘bread and butter’, which doesn’t go down so well. Before I pen off, I want to remind myself of the reason I have to finish this PhD. I am doing it for humanity, so that I can say what the women I studied back in Mlandizi district cannot say anywhere. I was humbled by their dignified responses about what was most important in their lives, which did not include sitting in donor-sponsored seminars to be told how to respect their infected neighbours because they already did. They pointed out the HIV positive woman in their midst and the beautiful woman smiled at me. I still do not know if her son who was actually cuddling in my arms was also infected. it did not matter and it still doesn’t. The community was so supportive of them so i knew they will both be OK. One of the women told me: ‘We don’t need peer educators to tell us how to treat mama xxx. She is not a prostitute, we know that it was her deceased husband who infected her, so are we supposed to laugh at her? Because that is what they (mass media & NGO) say ‘unyanyapaa’ (stigma) is.’ It was funny how they struggled with the Swahili word for stigma. That is when I understood that the HIV/AIDS language was being literally ‘Lost In Translation’. I won’t go into that, rather, I want to follow the thread of visual colonization. Black African people have been ‘Othered’ and continue to do so by various Eurocentric discourses, especially the audio-visual. Their ‘voice’ isn’t theirs, because they are ‘spoken for’ and spoken about’. Their reality is seen through tainted filters. It is ‘gazed’ upon by a camera holder that sees with biases packed in their cultural toolkit.
HOW DO I KNOW? First and foremost, As an African woman I definitely see a disjuncture between the ‘reality’ portrayed in the Western visual media and the reality as lived by women on the continent. Secondly, as a documentary filmmaker, I know how to ‘take away’ a voice if I wish to. I can also choose where to point the camera in order to compose a ‘suggestive’ mise-en-scene that was ‘not there’. I will still come up with an aesthetic production, but void of the ‘soul’ of the person filmed although pleasing to my expectant audience. My argument will replace the subject’s perspective. Thirdly, my position as a philanthropist with a good level of empathy allows me to connect with the subject in such a way that, what I produce with the technical equipment communicates the humanity of the subject. I can ‘speak with’ my subjects. I therefore find it difficult to believe that a well-funded Western ‘parachute’ filmmaker can do justice to personal African stories without falling into the ease paradigms of stereotypical ‘templates’. Black African woman peasant = poverty, therefore disempowered. It is impossible to tell any story without personal connection. The rule of thumb is: If you do not have enough time, or genuine respect for ‘Others’ you should refrain from filming them because you can’t tell their stories. Hiding behind ‘development’ seems to give right to many quasi-documentarists who stigmatise ‘underdevelopment’ and see the world as polarized between Rich and Poor. They can prove it because apparently there are UN poverty indicators that can tell you if you are poor. Whatever that means! Post-developmentalist like myself are not impressed by the pyramid development ideal. ‘Poverty is in the eyes of the beholder’ and that is why as a philantropist, I always insist on listening as a tool for telling the story.
Up to now I am convinced that, the negative stereotypes in the media are deep rooted to the racist past and present. Since the first (unequal) encounter between Europeans and Africans, the voice of Africa was literally ‘lost in translation.’ It was misrepresented by people who could not make sense of their contented reality despite the absence of skyscrapers. They mistook their consumerism for an ideal to be sought after by the whole world. Nobody has thought through the consequences of everyone living in skyscrapers and attacking the ATM to buy food they have not grown! I find nothing wrong with simplicity of lifestyle. E F
Schumacher, a humanist economist is the only Western I have read who does not worship mass technologisation. ‘Small is beautiful’ he writes. Simple technology should be in hands of the masses so that they can respectifully interact with the nature. Greed is bad, he says. The lack of advance technology that made colonisers to take the piss at Africa is perhaps not a category for being overly proud at, after all. Somehow, I also believe that enlightenment dudes in particular, played a crucial role in establishing the inferior position that is assigned to Africa today. Darwin’s evolutionary theory gave birth to so many myths about the primitive status of the Black African people still haunt the hell out of black African to this day. Important philosophers like Immanuel Kant, Hegel & co also contributed to the racial witchunt with their rantings about hierarchy of human society. Clever progressive man like Gramsci made a go too by suggesting that since former enslaved African-Americans had ‘seen the light’, they should save Africa albeit with spreading the English language to combat the wretched tribal dialects. Nice try! Until today, I know of no black African who is not a proud acknowledger of his/her tribal identity and tribal tongue. Even in Tanzania where we all speak a national language Kiswahili we still have that cozy sense with our tribes and elders who still impart wisdom.
Now then, like a true academic who clears throat on twenty pages before making a point on the twenty first page, I will come to my point:
Elder is a phenomenon not known in the Western hemisphere according to Chinua Achebe or some other post-colonial African ‘elder’ I read.
1. An elder possesses wisdom: FACT…
2. Not all old people have wisdom…FACT…
3. You can be elderly but not an ‘elder’…..ANOTHER HARD FACT!
That reminds me..
In Tanzania for instance everyone will be titled at some point in their lives. (Forget working your ass off inventing more bigger more accurate machines or stuff to have an invisible title of Sir, or Lady bestowed upon you by royalty)
Ours is visual. Its your own grey hair and the hierarchy is simple, live long enough and wise enough to be an ‘elder’.
We call the male ‘Mzee’ and the female just ‘Mama’ or ‘Bibi’
These people are living encyclopedias and their word is authoritative. YET..They are totally ignored in the AIDS discourse in favour of polished and self-congratulatory swam of ‘experts’ from the West..
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN???