The Hippie and the Noble Savage

I’d like to share with you all something that was shared on my Facebook wall recently, and which I think encapsulates a lot of the problems that the people I work with, among others, face when dealing with people from industrialised societies. It’s to do with representation.

Here’s the post:


I hate this hippy dippy bullshit.

“An anthropologist” Which one? When?

“African children” – Africa is huge. Soweto is in Africa. Cairo is also in Africa. Children in these two places have remarkably different cultures to grow up in. Are we supposed to believe they both think of “Ubuntu” simply because they were born on the same lump of land? It is one more to add to the tally of people thinking Africa is one big wild place full of mystical black people. It’s not. It’s a spot on the surface of the Earth. A damn big one.

Who are these people the story describes? Where are they? Are we expected to believe they have no concept of individualism? Give out sweets to kids on the field sites I have experience of and they clamour to be first. Like kids in many places. It may be a shock to the writer of this story but “African children” are not smiley examples of how the world is pretty. They are children. People.

“African concept of Ubuntu”. Does the article mean like the “European concept of dialectical materialism” or “European concept of capitalism”? What does that even mean? Do all Africans (the Pan African movement is interesting, and worth investigating, but is not entirely relevant to this) identify with Ubuntu? Are Africans more tuned into Ubuntu because they live on the same arbitrary lump of rock as the people who made this word and have this cultural concept? Am I more a Communist or a Capitalist because I’m European?

No. I’m more of those things (or less) because the culture I come from has shaped me towards or away from these things. There are so many cultures on the African continent and it is as meaningless to lump them together as it is to lump Japanese and Turkish people together as “Asians”.

It would be interesting to see a source for the story, if it exists at all. It sounds like something made up by a hippy to make the world seem like its full of sunshine and roses when it isn’t. Certainly not in Africa. If these “African children” are so full of Ubuntu where was it among the people of Rwanda in 1994? Where was it under Apartheid, committed by white people, yes, but white people who had been on this continent so long it would be meaningless to call them anything other than Africans.

Colonialism is one of the many reasons that the continent has many problems. Borders drawn by Europeans in Berlin in 1890, that bear no resemblance to tribal and ethnic lines. Violence, repression, genocide. Entire cultures sold into slavery in the Americas by my ancestors, the British. It’s not that “Africans” are too nice and full of Ubuntu to resist. This whitewashes the long and noble history of indigenous rebellion. I only know the Namibian history, but the resistance of the Hereros to German atrocities, the blood shed in the fight against apartheid, these were not nice people laying down and dying so that they could be picked over by “vultures”, as this story puts it. It is a “bless their noble savage hearts” attitude, the idea that people are not fit to engage with the modern world simply because they are African. It is disgusting, white supremacist, eurocentric bullshit, and moreover isn’t true.

The use of “vultures” as an image is doubly vile. It implies that Africa is a carcass, a dead thing, its people unwilling or unable to fight back, to resist, to make the world in their image as other cultures have done for centuries, and which people from Africa have done! Look at the pyramids, the magnificent Sudanese civilisations, who built monuments without writing a single word. The simple fact that almost all popular music is African in origin. The Symbolic Revolution, when we started making art, likely took place here. The rock art in Namibia is another example. Centuries of sophistication and deep culture. But to say that the entire continent is somehow dead, by using the metaphor of vultures, is thoughtless if unintended and racist if intended.

Ubuntu does in fact mean “I am because we are”. It is Swahili, though, a mixed-up language from many roots just like English, and is from Kenya, thousands of miles away from where !Xhosa (note the correct spelling, with a uvular click) is spoken, which is in South Africa. More evidence here, if it were needed, that the author of this piece just thinks Africa is one place full of smiling black kids.

“Ubuntu” does have another, rather amusing side, too. It roughly goes like this:

<Sitting in a shebeen after a long day>
Complete and utter stranger: Hey, man, buy me a beer!
Me, tired and crabby: What? Why?
CUS: I don’t have a beer.
Me: What makes you think I have the money?
CUS: *pointedly looks me up and down, and notes my foreign accent and whiteness* Come on man, we’re friends!
Me: Huh *buys beer out of exasperation*

I have no problem with this, but it’s not all smiles. You have, so I have. Fair enough, most of the time. If I claim to be a socialist, this is the reality of it.

Also what the hell is an “African website”!?

I’ve read this fake story before about a thousand times, and it makes me very angry. It’s because hippies don’t know that this holding up of a “Noble Savage” in this ideal “primitive” state is really really racist. They think they’re being nice, but they’re not. Also why are the children naked? This is symbolism. The Primitive, the Savage, the Undeveloped, the Human In His Primal State. Africa is not that! Africa is a continent, with people on it. People just like you, and me.

I think it’s important to debunk this stuff, even if I get really angry about it. I know it’s well-meaning, and I know it doesn’t come from a place of malice, but it’s harmful in a different way. If we are to engage with people from different cultures, and to focus on exploitation and one-sided geopolitical relations, we need to begin from a place of equality. We need to engage with people keeping the idea in mind that more than anything else the people we are talking to are people. It sounds so basic, but it’s not happening. These microaggressions and dehumanising representations add up, and actively work against the interests of the people they claim to want to learn from.

If debunking faulty or racist depictions of indigenous people that I come across is something that readers want to see, I might make a series of it. We shall see.