Being born again in the postcolony: Africa and the zombie apocalypse

Jason Bruner
Dec 13, 2018 · 5 min read

“Africa is never seen as possessing things and attributes properly part of ‘human nature’” (Mbembe 2001). This basic insight from Achille Mbembe, when focused upon through the lens of zombie theory, makes clear two ways that mass violence and suffering in post-colonial Africa have been represented. Representations of perpetrators of violence across the African continent have drawn from Western notions of the zombie, while African victims of war or catastrophe frequently appear as an undifferentiated mass of emaciated sub-humans. In these senses, for many Westerners, Africa continues to serve the function of distinguishing civilized from un-civilized, and human flourishing from bare life (Stratton 2017).

I. Perpetrator-as-Zombie

With respect to the perpetrators of mass violence, the figure of a zombified African paramilitary child soldier has emerged as a ubiquitous trope among NGOs and Western media. Whether in the eastern Congo, the civil wars in Sierra Leone or Liberia, or the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Sudan, the narrative of who perpetrates mass violence in Africa has become remarkably similar: opportunistic and nefarious warlords and statesmen have fomented unrest through the sustained conscription of youth by traumatizing them into stunned submission and then maintaining them in that state by regularly exposing them to brutality, while inebriating them with drugs and alcohol — thereby transforming them into mindless mobs of living death.

Take, for example, a 2012 documentary from Vice News. It opens on a young Liberian warlord, General Butt Naked as he confesses: “Yeah, most of my boys, they would drain the blood from an innocent child and drink it.” It cuts to a scene of teenaged boys as they close in chaotically around the camera, one of them holding a bloody body part: “I will eat it. It’s a Liberian general’s heart,” he proclaims sharply. Then, other teenagers parade a human skull across a ravished landscape before another cut to a young man whose bright red beret and gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses reflect his gravitas: “If I grab you, I will eat you raw.” Why is it, to echo Chinua Achebe’s review of Heart of Darkness, that we are so blatantly given these words in order to “glimpse the unspeakable craving in their hearts” (Achebe 1977)?

II. Victim-as-Zombie

We are frequently confronted with images of Africa as the abode of a meandering swarm of beleaguered beings, perpetually teetering on the edge of an abyss and often tumbling into it. In such images we are asked to imagine the dangers of an unredeemable disintegration into non-existence.

Consider the original 22 minutes of BBC’s footage of the 1973 Ethiopian famine, in which we see vast hoards of the living dead whose chance of return to full humanity is slim-to-none. The British reporter voices over a slow-panned shot of seemingly endless food lines, commenting that they are “kept alive, nothing more.” At no point does an Ethiopian famine refugee speak, and we are left wondering by the end of the film not only whether they can speak, but whether they even remain human enough to think. It is only from such a premise — of their inability to think — that one might ask members of a society that has been Christianized for 1700 years, Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?, as did Band Aid, which was formed in response to similar footage aired in 1984.

It feels as if Balaji Murali’s evocative description was intended to illuminate either of these documentary sequences when he writes: “They are incapable of thought and so cannot be reasoned with. … As they are already dead, they have no fear of death. …They can never be mollified … They do not so much violate taboos about cannibalism as they are beyond their affective reach and utterly indifferent to them. They are … only a perfectly dehumanized mass unburdened by either individuality or collectivity … They are, in short, the antithesis of all that characterizes human life” (Murali 2013, 20). Murali, of course, wasn’t talking about Africa at all, but zombies.

These representations of Africa serve as a means for Westerners to measure civilization by juxtaposing it against those who are perceived as living dead. The fundamental challenge in both cases, then, is how to bring the un-dead back to life. With this challenge in mind, I want to suggest that the recent appeal of Pentecostal Christianity across the nations I’ve mentioned above owes much to the way that it primes the New Testament theme of being “a new creation”, which insists upon a stark contrast between “old” and “new” (Meyer 1998).

Anthropologist Ben Jones observed of the popularity of Pentecostal churches in eastern Uganda in the early 21st century: “Moving on from this history [of a violent insurgency] was significant, and those institutions that made moving on a possibility mattered. Drawing a distinction between the present and the past was a defining feature of the way institutions organised themselves and of the way people talked about life” (Jones 2013, 76). In such a view of one’s self and society, the past isn’t something that can be built upon, but rather something that one must be freed from, resulting in a conversion narrative something along the lines of “I once was a zombie, but now am human.” This is a path that has been taken by both victims and perpetrators, who can re-claim humanity by jointly breaking with their pasts and being spiritually born again.

It is telling that the Vice News documentary ends with the conversion of former General Butt Naked, who now goes by Joshua. The American journalist voices over a Liberian Pentecostal service at which Joshua preaches, observing that another soldier had told him “the generals are ready to fight — they have the soldiers, they have the guns, and they are living in abject poverty. And I wondered if that happened, would Joshua stay with God, or would he return to being General Butt Naked?” It breaks into Joshua preaching in full voice: “You can deliver your generation! You can deliver this nation! You can deliver your community! You can deliver your tribe! You can deliver this continent! …Let us pray!”

Here the zombie is not representative of an inevitable descent into non-existence, or part of a past that has been broken with, but rather becomes part of a cycle — an apocalypse that must keep coming. For redemption requires something to be redeemed, just as resurrection first requires death.

(Paper presented at the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Meeting, Arizona State University, Oct. 2018. Thanks to T.J. Tallie, Volker Benkert, and Chouki El Hamel for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.)

Bibliography

Achebe, Chinua. 1977. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” Massachusetts Review. 18. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251–261.

Jones, Ben. 2013. “The making of meaning: churches, development projects and violence in eastern Uganda.” Journal of Religion in Africa xliii.

Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the Postcolony. University of California Press.

Meyer, Birgit. 1998. “‘Make a complete break with the past’: memory and post-colonial modernity in Ghanaian discourse.” Journal of Religion in Africa xxviii, 316–349.

Murali, Balaji. 2013. “Thinking Dead: Our Obsession with the Undead and Its Implications.” In Thinking Dead: What the Zombie Apocalypse Means, ed. Balaji Murali. Lexington Books.

Stratton, Jon. 2017. “Trouble with Zombies: Muselmanner, Bare Life, and Displaced People.” In Zombie Theory: A Reader, ed. Sarah Juliet Lauro. University of Minnesota Press.

Jason Bruner

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Assistant Prof. of Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Historian, ethnographer, writer, and, occasionally, photographer.