8 January 2016

Africa: A Study in Cultural Imperialism in Africa

opinion

Chernoh Bah's 'The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa'

The new book is a genuine and significant contribution to the understanding of one of the worst tragedies of this century, an indispensable resource for anyone who wants to know what the human costs of regional poverty and underdevelopment are today, and a much-needed voice for the actual victims of the tragedy.

The region most devastated by 2014's Ebola outbreak -- a tragedy that officially killed more than eleven thousand innocent men, women, and children in a matter of months -- bears the mark of colonialism and neocolonialism.

Sierra Leone, a small country on the West African coast, was once a British colony. Together with its neighbors, the former French colony of Guinea (usually referred to by locals as Guinea-Conakry to distinguish it from Guinea-Bissau) and the de facto US colony of Liberia, it makes up the Mano River region of West Africa.

The Mano River region is a resource-rich tropical territory that is also one of the poorest regions on earth, with Sierra Leone ranking 183 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index, Guinea ranking 179, and Liberia ranking 175 in 2014. Every year, billions of dollars' worth of iron ore, bauxite, rubber, aluminum, diamonds, palm oil, and other natural resources are extracted by European, American, and Chinese corporations.

This economic and historical context is indispensable for understanding why the Ebola outbreak arose in, and ravaged, the region. In other words, it's critical to put a spotlight on exactly that which the media overlooked: the conditions of extreme underdevelopment in the Mano River due to neo-colonial exploitation. Western journalism's ahistorical reading of the Ebola outbreak's genesis and transmission was just another manifestation of the general tendency to normalize the death and suffering of Africans, which includes the demonization of African culture and dehumanization of African victims of tragedies.

'The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa: Corporate Gangsters, Multinationals & Rogue Politicians', the latest book from Africanist Press, an independent book publishing company based in Philadelphia, is the first indigenous account of the Ebola outbreak. Written by Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, a well-known journalist, human rights activist, and chairman of the Sierra Leone-based African Socialist Movement, the book provides a critical reexamination of the Ebola outbreak and offers a corrective to the dominant narrative.

The chief goal of the book is to rebut a report by German scientist Fabian Leendertz, an employee of Germany's Robert Koch Institute, entitled "Investigating the Zoonotic Origin of the West Africa Ebola Epidemic" and cited by almost every major news source as the definitive answer to the outbreak's origin.

The Leendertz study traces the outbreak to a two-year-old boy from a small Guinean village who, the study claims, contracted Ebola from an "insectivorous bat" after playing with, grilling, and eating the bat. Bah, who traveled to the Guinean village in question to interview patient zero's surviving father and relatives, deftly dismantles Leendertz claim, demonstrating that the study's findings are based on problematic circumstantial evidence. For example, the scientists involved in the study failed to find any presence of Ebola within the wildlife and bat populations surrounding the village despite extensive sampling, and also failed to provide any evidence that the boy actually died from Ebola, let alone constituted the virus's index case.

Most telling about the Leendertz study was its uncritical embrace by Western academics and journalists as legitimate, and the fact that its explanation for the outbreak trafficked in the colonial discourse of blaming the African's cultural habits (hunting and eating wildlife in this case) for human tragedy -- thus exonerating a colonial legacy of underdevelopment and exploitation.

Anyone who watched the news late 2014 saw the shameful way in which the media reproduced that mentality. Sensationalized images of doctors in hazmat suits and interminable interviews with talking heads about the chances of the virus spreading to America defined the media's response.

At the start of the outbreak, Vice News, the viral investigative journalism outlet that's helped define Western journalism in the twenty first century, released a video entitled "Monkey Meat and the Ebola Outbreak in Liberia." The segment's host, a handsome, American, Peace-Corps type twenty-something, travels to Liberia and investigates the cause of the outbreak, which he says unspecified scientists have "speculated might come from the prevalent consumption of bushmeat" -- an entirely unsubstantiated claim.

At one point the host buys a cooked monkey from a local market woman after belittling her for selling it despite the government's moratorium. As ominous music rises beneath the scene, the host then offers the monkey to two young men outside of the market, who gladly accept the gift and begin to eat the monkey, amused at the response of the American as he looks on in disgust and bewilderment. When the men playfully struggle to tear the monkey in half to share it, causing bits of it go flying, the host cries out in panic, "Oh my god, I'm getting fucking pegged with Ebola monkey right now!"

The contrast with 'The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa' could hardly be starker. Bah's book offers the most exhaustive investigation into the causes of, and responses to, the tragedy, exploring the political economy and historical context of the outbreak and questioning the official origin story.

The book reveals the extensive presence of Western research on highly contagious and deadly pathogens in the region -- research that provides millions of dollars of funding to Western corporations, universities, and defense initiatives -- and asks why this securitization, monetization, and cultivation of deadly pathogens within a region incapable of withstanding a lab breach due to a total lack of health infrastructure was not considered in Western attempts to understand the virus' genesis and transmission. Tulane University alone recently received US$25 million from the US government to study Lassa fever in the region, a viral hemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola.

As Bah points out, employing medicine for racist and colonial purposes has plenty of precedents: American physicians using African slaves for surgical exploration, the US government infecting black men with syphilis in Tuskegee, and the Nazis experimenting on European Jews during the Holocaust.

It is only within this context that the 2014 Ebola outbreak can be understood. The presence of islands of well-funded, prestigious, pathogen research centers in one of the most impoverished regions on earth, the obviously false official explanations for the outbreak, and the clear financial and political incentives of corporations, foreign governments, and local politicians in a disaster such as the Ebola outbreak must enter the picture if the outbreak is to be explained and justice for its victims is to be had.

The deployment of US, British, and Chinese troops in response to the epidemic; the complete failure of the international community to adequately respond to or contain the outbreak; and the West African politicians' exploitation of the contagion to stifle dissent and arrest political opponents are also central to the book.

The same week Barack Obama was praising Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma in Washington, DC, for example, a group of young protestors who showed up at the US Embassy in the capital Freetown to decry the Koroma administration's use of emergency laws to arrest radio hosts, protesters, and anyone else critical of the government, were being rounded up and thrown in jail.

In Liberia, where over three thousand US troops were deployed, the fulfillment of the long-time US goal of establishing a military presence in West Africa -- previously thwarted by concerned locals -- was achieved with little resistance.

Even within leftist and progressive circles, a critical evaluation of the Ebola epidemic's origin and the world's response has been lacking. Bah's book aims to change that. Well-researched, scholarly, and deeply human, it aspires to give foreground to West Africa's political and economic degradation -- and the potential for popular resistance. His is also a case study of the workings of global capitalism and cultural imperialism in twenty-first century Africa.

As one of the editors of Bah's book and a close friend of many Sierra Leoneans, I watched helplessly from afar as schools shut down, entire villages were quarantined for weeks with little to no food, and thousands of people were rounded up against their will for simply having a common fever and then forced into tented treatment centers from which few emerged.

Bah's book is not an exercise in conspiracy theory or anti-imperialist polemics. (If anything, it pulls back from its indictment, concluding with a modest request given the death of thousands of innocent people: an independent investigation into the outbreak's origin and transmission.) 'The Ebola Outbreak in West Africa' is a genuine and significant contribution to the understanding of one of the worst tragedies of this century, an indispensable resource for anyone wanting to know what the human costs of regional poverty and underdevelopment are today, and a much-needed voice for the actual victims of the tragedy.

By exploring the historical roots of Western medicine's abuses, by uncovering the unacknowledged presence of governmental and multinational experimentation on deadly pathogens in the Mano River Region, and by doggedly investigating the official origin and transmission narratives, Bah has written what will surely be one of the definitive accounts of the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak.

Joshua Lew McDermott is an editor with the Africanist Press and a Teaching Assistant at the Government Department of the New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

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