The darkness we see in Africa lives deep within our hearts

Reactions to the Bwindi killings tell us more about ourselves than anything else, says Ken Wiwa

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Africa moves to its own rhythm - slow and mesmerising, with sudden, seismic shifts. You probably digested the news of the savage murder of eight tourists in Uganda like that. At first, you may have heard a murmuring of tourists taken hostage; then suddenly and without warning, you were aware that there had been shocking violence.

I was in Nairobi when news of the kidnapping broke. I'd just spent a week on Lamu island, which must be one of the safest parts of Africa. Then suddenly, without warning, came the violence.

Back in England I felt the reverberations much more than I would have had I still been in Kenya. I was able to access all the shocking details of a tragedy which, even as late as Wednesday, hadn't registered on the Africa-Online website which carries news from a cross-section of media in Uganda, Kenya, Congo and Tanzania.

By then the media here were searching under every stone. No angle went uncovered, from the plight of the gorillas to revelations of "bungled warnings" and even the "Fashoda Syndrome", which was one paper's explanation of why English-speaking tourists were killed and the French-speakers spared (a reference to the so-called Fashoda incident in the last century when Britain frustrated French hopes of controlling Sudan). The man from the Sun posed triumphantly in front of the jungle camp, boasting of having "walked the trail of death". Salman Rushdie's memorable phrase "journofantasists" sprang to mind.

My knee-jerk reaction was that the massacres at Bwindi proved the old maxim that 10,000 dead in Africa is not news whereas 10 Britons killed is.

But not so. Five years ago when machete-wielding psychopaths and murderous mobs butchered 800,000 Rwandans inside a week - the genocide was the fastest in history - the world did take notice, even if it was only after months of warnings had been ignored by the mainstream press and by the UN. Last week's killings in Bwindi were an uncomfortable but nevertheless poignant reminder of that genocide, which remains a brooding memory for millions of people in the region.

So what, if anything, do the events of the last week in Bwindi tell us?

For one thing, the rather bleak message is that in the New World Disorder tourists and innocent civilians will increasingly be seen as "legitimate" targets for rebel groups, balkanists, drug traffickers and all manner of causes worthy and evil, in much the same way that hostage-taking, hijacking and kidnapping were considered "legitimate" in the 1970s and 1980s. The fact that the Interahamwe militia meticulously planned and executed the killings at Bwindi to draw attention to their message leaves the media with familiar and uncomfortable dilemmas about oxygen and publicity.

I was surprised not to see "Heart of Darkness" headlines accompanying the story. Maybe the imagery was too obvious for the headline writers, but it could also be that they do not understand Conrad's story and how, in a way they might never imagine, it applies to their perception of Africa. It was never meant as a metaphor for Africa. Heart of Darkness first appeared in instalments in Blackwood's Magazine; the readership was conservative and imperialist. Conrad wrote the piece to provoke. For him the darkness was not in or of Africa, but was located in the hearts of the magazine's readers. In Conradian terms, therefore, the fact that the death of eight tourists should evoke such horror is, when you think of it, incongruous and, whisper it gently, disproportionate, reflecting deep-seated fears and prejudices.

I tread lightly here because I am wary of cheapening the tragedy. Given the execution of my father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, in Nigeria in 1995, I can empathise with what the families of the victims and survivors from Bwindi will be experiencing, but I have an uncomfortable feeling that the wider reaction was not so much to a human tragedy but a confirmation of a malaise in us.

Why is it that the coverage and the image of Africa evokes such a reaction? I have to admit I find it hard to defend my continent's honour when this kind of freakish violence breaks out. For all my anger at Keith B Richburg's infuriating but thought-provoking book Out of America, I have to admire him for daring to voice what, for a black man, was an unspeakable confession - that he was confused, traumatised and even ashamed of the endemic violence in Africa. His view of Africa was coloured by his experience in Somalia when four reporters were stoned to death by a frenzied mob in 1993.

One of the reporters killed was Dan Eldon, a brilliant 22-year-old photographer for Reuters who was full of life and love for Africa. I was staying with Mike Eldon, Dan's father, in Nairobi when I first heard the news of the Bwindi kidnapping. I asked him why it was that Africa proved so troubling for an outsider's psyche? After all, Asia, Latin America and Europe have all experienced random as well as systematic genocides in the last 50 years without exciting the kind of unfathomable terror that Africa provokes in many people's hearts.

Mike Eldon is a rare breed in Africa: a muzungu (as they call ex-pats in Kenya) who despite all the personal aggravations of living and working in Africa, is a man of the people, whose genuine affection for the continent is undiminished after 20 years. What he told me reminded me of something I had once known but had forgotten; it allowed me to digest last Monday's carnage without losing sight of the true Africa.

Two days later and while I was sitting at my desk in England listening to a debate about the Bwindi massacre on the radio, I got an e-mail from Mike that reinforced what he had told me in Nairobi.

"Be careful," he wrote, "about being too ambitious in your search for a loving relationship with the whole of this wretched continent. There is so much unambiguous awfulness here, perpetrated by such unambiguously awful people, that you have to focus on smaller, specific causes and projects. Then you can deepen your relationship with Africa, and spread out from a solid base."

I guess he was reiterating an ongoing dilemma for the western media, which, by consistently focusing on the negative, distorts the reality of Africa by reaffirming an image of the place that confirms our irrational prejudices. In other words, it is the darkness in our hearts that the media and now the likes of the Interahamwe militia are manipulating.

It is an uncomfortable and perhaps unpalatable lesson this, but perhaps like Mr Kurtz, the sickness is within us.

Ken Wiwa's book `The Shadow of a Saint', a memoir of his relationship with his father and his country, will be published later this year.

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