Of Bodies, Violence, and Time
Yolande Bouka, PhD
Political Studies Department, Queen’s University
In December 2019, I visited the small coastal town of Bagamoyo, which lies less than 100 kilometers north of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. This cultural heritage site was once one of the most important trading ports in the region, and during the colonial era, it was the capital of German East Africa. For hundreds of years, Bagamoyo was a major intersection for the trade of ivory and enslaved Africans captured in the hinterlands. The journey from their place of abduction to the coastal town was long and perilous as slaves, chained to one another, suffered all manners of ill-treatments and indignities. While reaching Bagamoyo offered a temporary stay from their difficult journey, it also marked the beginning of their final crossing towards a life of servitude. No sooner than they were able to rest their feet and lay down their suffering from the forced marches, than these enslaved men, women, and children were violently ripped from their native continent. In doing so, they left permanently behind them their hopes, dreams, and hearts to be shipped to Zanzibari slave-markets. It is no wonder that the city holds its name from “Bwaga Moyo,” which, in Swahili, means “lay down your heart.”
That day, as I have done while visiting other slave-trading ports, I walked the streets, carrying sadness. It was as if I could feel the anguish, pain, and terror of all those who were once brought here against their will. As if, for a brief moment, I could see the trajectory of thousands of lives forever altered. As if the ancestors were whispering to me the names of loved ones they had left behind and of the children they would never have (castration was often used on East African male slaves sent to Arabian trade markets). Today in Bagamoyo, among tourists, newcomers, and people from surrounding areas, descendent of slaves, slave traders, and slave owners live together. While its violence is not the only thread that connects them, slavery has left an imprint that can be felt over a hundred years after it was abolished in East Africa.
Like other types of extraordinary violence, slavery requires that we reckon with and understand it through analyzing lived experiences. In the footsteps of Fanon and DuBois, I too appreciate lived experiences as productive of knowledge claims about oppression. Yet, I am reminded to create an ethical distance (thank you Katherine McKittrick) between the subject of inquiry and me, lest I would fool myself and others into thinking that I fully grasp these experiences.
As someone originally from Togo, I feel a strange connection with and rupture from Bagamoyo’s history. Togo was once part the West African “Slave Coast” from which so many black bodies were taken during the transatlantic slave trade. What is today known as the coastal town of Aného, Little Popo was once one of the Slave Coast’s main slave trading centers. Additionally, between 1884 and 1914, Togo was also under German control. And yet, despite these connections through space and time, my relationship to Bagamoyo, Little Popo, and slavery, remains that of a distant relative, a time traveler, re-membering through complex geographies and temporalities.
During my walk through the streets of Bagamoyo, I reflected on how the town’s landscape was altered for violent purposes. One of Bagamoyo’s most prominent and impressive features is the Old Boma. Originally built by the Germans in 1895, it served as colonial administrative headquarters. After the treaty of Versailles in 1919, the British took over the building. As I visited the imposing white u-shaped building and took in the mid-day light through dozens of naked windows, I wondered how many colonial administrative meetings were held within these walls. In which rooms did colonial officers design strategies to suppress the Wahehe and Maji Maji rebellions? Was there a corner of this building where the violent domination of African bodies was a favorite topic of conversation? As the clacking of German and later British boots resounded through the Old Boma, how many African men and women serving in the house shivered in fear? Today, the decaying building is empty. But, the scar remains. Where it stands, no trees were allowed to grow. Where it stands, no schools were built. Where it stands, no fields were nurtured to feed families.
The Old Boma of Bagamoyo is but one example of how violence and its byproducts alter landscapes, soil composition, and the path of water streams around the world. In places where the ground was rocked by shelling and bombs, people move through and navigate conflict-affected geographies. Indeed, in Cambodia, decades after the end of the war, land mines continue to maim people. Favorite shortcuts, young lovers’ secret places, and large patches of land where children could have played carelessly remain tainted by the echoes of war.
Near the end of my walk through Bagamoyo, I stopped by the port, which was buzzing with activity. Young men were busy hauling merchandise back to the shore. The backbreaking physical labor, so essential to the local economy, brought to mind the body as a site of violence. The physical impact of deep trauma is often felt decades and generations after the occurrence of the violent act. In Bagamoyo, how many backs were caned? How many iron shackles cut through flesh? How many slaves were tortured? How long did such scars take to heal, if at all? We often forget how long physical wounds take to heal and re-heal amidst setbacks and reinjury. For the bodies and the landscapes still in Bagamoyo, I wonder how slavery and colonial wounds have healed over time.
In some cases, the injury never heals and the body never recovers. For example, a recent exposé documenting the lives of mass shooting survivors revealed the long-term physical ramifications of gun violence in America. While media reports focus on perpetrators, the immediate aftermath of mass shootings, and politicians’ failure to enact policies to prevent such tragedies, we pay little attention to perpetual colostomy bags, years of surgery, chronic pain, and permanent disabilities often caused by a single bullet fired in a millisecond. Even under the best conditions, the body cannot be put back together. These open wounds stay as a testament of the deliberate infliction of what Elaine Scarry calls “inexpressible pain.” And while many pains are inexpressible and unknowable, they still connect us.
James Baldwin once said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
As a researcher, it is only through reading and listening to experiences of war that I learned that even when the body heals, we do not always comprehend the devastation of the visible and invisible scars left by war and political violence. When I studied the violence that gripped Rwanda during the 1990s, from the civil war, the genocide, and the insurgency, I saw firsthand the physical marks of violence. Men and women bore the scars of unimaginable and intimate violence. In Rwanda, beyond the injuries of the flesh, the pain that also took root in the soul was foreign but palpable to me. Even people who were not pierced by bullets or cut by machete struggled to take stock of the aftermath of the war and the genocide. When Dr. Jennie Burnet inquired about women’s roles and experiences in post-genocide Rwanda, one of her research participants said one of the most illuminating, and yet devasting truths of surviving such violence. She said: “The genocide lives in us.” The reality of such horrors lives in them through every minute of every day.
The saddest part of the long-term emotional and physical consequences of violence and war is that trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next. If you ask many people who were raised by Vietnam war veterans, many will tell you of physically and emotionally violent childhood, as traumatized soldiers returned home, inadequately equipped to cope with the aftermath of a gruesome war. Children who never saw combat still bore the burden of the violence inflicted by and on their fathers. It is difficult to say what passes through and what is passed down, but we know that childhood trauma and toxic stress have harmful effects on health later on in life. We also know that extraordinary violence in cases as historically and geographically different as the Holocaust, slavery, and the American Civil War, cause trauma that can alter the DNA of survivors and shorten the life expectancy of their descendants. This forces us to ponder on the impacts of extraordinary violence on children in war zones and dangerous contexts as distinct as Aleppo, the US border with Mexico, Rakhine, and Beni. The corollaries will surely reverberate long after the silencing of the guns and the removal of cages. I cannot help but wonder what passed through and what was passed down in Bagamoyo.
We are making a mistake by continuing to explore war in terms of formal periods of peace, war, and post-war periods. War stays with us long after the cessation of hostilities, even when we consider ourselves at peace. Maybe if we spent more time studying war as experience,we would measure the cost of war beyond battle deaths and military equipment and expenditures. Maybe if we studied war as a continuum and took the long-term consequences of war and political violence seriously, we would be able to consider the United States, like Congo, as a conflict-affected society. Maybe we would truly understand the meaning of violence begets violence.