Short Reads: The Malawian — the Postcolony — as “Nothing”
I move and live in this colonially confected demarcated world as nothing: a nothing that thinks, feels and dreams; a nothing that wrestles with deeply existential matters in between standing vocabularies on the one side, and problems which are not congruent for them, on the other: vocabularies about things imported to express, by violent force from within by Fanon’s epidermal internalization and from without by racial exotification, this nothing.
This nothing that I am which moves, thinks, feels, hurts, loves and dreams has a character: it is a widening absence extending inwards into me, my relationships, social interconnections, my past and present, and physical location. It is like a dark room into which a peering candle’s light repeatedly stretches so as to force aspects of its own florescence or its uninvited glow onto the absence. The candle marshals a glowing instrument — a burning light — onto this dark room, this nothingness, so that it might better know itself both as an instrument of illumination and as a method by which nothings yet undiscovered or unverified first appear, take conceivable form and shape, and receive attribute bequeathing vocabularies. These nothings first appear as articulations of the candle light’s own intensity as they unwillingly reflect back the light’s own characteristics to its source: This is all about the light and its characteristics, and never about the objects which are by this intrusion cast into a manner of nothingness or non-existence.
Thus the room (representing me and all who are and which is mine) is experienced as darkness because its prober is the candle — because the candle is self-described, it only seeks darkness, only defines darkness, and only knows itself by penetrating said darkness: wherever the candle goes it must and will find only the nothingness of darkness. How the room (me and mine) becomes availed before this prober is only by the “vocabulary” of this prober’s design. The room can have no character of its own in so far as this prober is concerned — the prober organizes all, defines all, illuminates all and keeps within the shadows all. That which does not reflect this light does not exist, and that which exists only does so by the manner in which the reflected appears to the candle’s holder: thus there are always two conditions governing me and mine before this candle. One, I am nothing to the extent that I reflect the probing light for the prober’s own self-discovery — and two, there is always my definitive non-existence to the extent that my darkness is unable to glow back the candle’s prescriptive glow. In both cases: I am nothing or I am non-existent entirely and exclusively on the terms intrusively set into place by the prober. We are never in dialogue, and I am never visible. His light is not for seeing but for finding his own reflection.
“I do not know you personally, but I do know you historically” — James Baldwin
Malawi and Malawianness is precisely both: the nothingness and the non-existence, which together produce the generalized zone of postcolonial western actualisation. It is where self-referential notions of westerners’ enlightenment are brought for testing — like candle lights in a room designated colonially and racially as dark — so that such notions might be experienced, elaborated, explored and confirmed upon a Malawian darkness pliable to the probing lights of western curiosities. Yes, mistakes will be made: that is, harms inflicted; communities and personhoods invaded, penetrated and cut open; wealth expropriated and externalised — but all for the highest ideals of an altruism that wants to affirm itself through its imbuing illuminations of its colonised and racialized non-other. The center must impose differentiations among its peripheries so that the center might understand and consolidate itself in thought, in space and in time. In this sense, the narrowness of westernism is as the result of an ongoing deliberate truncation by the global north to establish or retain difference exclusively through the saturation of definitions about itself. The other — the colonial racialized other — exists not even as a corpse or a dead thing — but as a non-thing oscillating between nothingness and non-existence, ever available to the northerner’s probes, only so that the northerner might affirm himself. To put it differently, it is like pouring a bucket of water on an other primarily to understand the properties of the bucket and the water as it splashes against an unacknowledged object: the other in this scenario does not even rise to the level of a thing, nor to any meaningful level of existence. The other is either nothing or non-existent: they are not something!
Stories too are extracted, translated into extant narrative structures, vocabularies and genres — extracted into formulations of a horizontal past where projected notions about “tribes and primitiveness” persist conveniently just 6 to 12 hours away by plane into the permanent Global Southern past, against which the northerner is guarded by high walls, militarized borders, perennial wars, and racist Visa issuing practices. The candle light of time as a probing instrument into Malawian darkness obscures the hard structural interconnections between the Global Southerner as the site of exploitation, and the northerner as the beneficiary. It obscures the fundamental present-time connection between the two rooted in a conception of an arbitrary center which can only continue its existence through the multiplication of specialized probing candle lights which pluralize African — Malawian — nothingness and non-existence. The volumes in western libraries fill up from endless probes into various tribal and primitive lands, and along with them, woke… woker…. wokest racisms.
Hugh Trevor-Roper, former holder of Oxford University’s most prestigious history chair, pronounced in the 1960s that there was no African history, “only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness.”
Passport privilege furthers this time obfuscation because the Southerner dares not probe the northerner: the northerner always already knows himself — however, the northerner must find “the certainty about the certainty” of himself by repeatedly penetrating tribal and primitive lands where he might insert and assert his instruments of probing so as to return assured — and only assured — of the self-sufficiency of his systems: He genders the Global South “non-female” which is to render colonised peoples and lands sites for the experiencing of forbidden pleasures by forms of self-degradation: a means to unlock the many projected fevers – colonial racial repressions, really – of the Black African jungle. The northerner must have all the primitive and tribal lands beyond his western world available to him, at all times, so that he can go probe and self-actualize; so that he can go experience the limits of his frugality, discover his endurance in the face of Malaria, fawn over his own generosity when asked for money and things (as if he himself is not positioned there historically to continuously extract), and document the extent of his practical ethics when he allows a Malawian medical officer whom he considers far less adept at medical science than himself touch his western white body with anti-malaria “treatments”: even in dire primitiveness, his generous donations to Bush Clinics bear fruit – look, they are barely good enough for his sacrificial life when he experiences Malaria.
This is what makes him and his world ethically superior, and this is why we must also accept that his coming to our “lands” is always beneficial while our coming to his are always pathological. The northerner travels to the South — this tribal and primitive horizontal past — as sacrifice. He is not going there to learn anything: he is only there to discover himself, to experience himself and to affirm his systems. He is there to figure himself out so that he might fit himself discursively within conversations already underway among other probers – that is westerners – who have also discovered themselves on this trips to the primitive horizontal southern Black past.
This is why the Malawian — me — must always only be darkness, because northerners’ probing instruments are self-referential candles and a burning lights. Resolute, unrelenting gazes keen on theorising my resistance into convoluted complexes of my repressed consent rather than accepting my resistance for what it is: that I do not wish to be studied by you, nor coopted by your “self-centring” righteousness which demands that when you appear to look at me, you are really trying to only see and affirm yourself.
I cannot — in fact, I dare not — insist that I am something else other than this specific nothing through which he looks because this would be to call his infallible instruments which he superimposes to discover me and name me into question; it would be to call his very personality and the pillars of its self-referential ethics into question; it would be to de-center him, to position both I and him at the same moment in time interconnected by his exploitation and violence; it would be to widen — if not destroy — his narrow worldview in which non-Western humanity is the outside material for the construction of a Western identity – of functional, everyday Whitenormativity; it would be to position us face-to-face as human beings; it would be to insist that my brain, my liver, my heart and intestines do exactly the same biological work inside my body as do his, because up to this moment, my interior organs have served as proxies for his probes to investigate illness, death and decomposition — my organs have serviced his need to understand his own mortality by casting a gaze without an historical conscience upon my exploited body as it withers, dies and decays. Which organs failed first, which organs caused the most suffering, which organs resisted treatment? Oh and what a pity, look how it dies —he wonders. And then, how might I prevent my own suffering having deployed these autopsies on this Nothing flesh? This is why lynching too is one of many forms of social autopsy – it is among many institutions which inquire into white mortality through transference or externalisation, in which Black bodies are subject to a myriad of gruesome genres of dying and death of white “non-immortality” – that is, a form of mortality which does not and must not experience death in the manner that Black bodies do. There are forms of death for Black bodies, Black enclaves, Black nations – a Black continent.
Moreover, there are no questions that a Global Southerner might ask that have not already been considered far more systematically and rigorously by the northerner. In any case, the Global Southerners cannot even attend to their own material needs, are yet to discover how to feed themselves, how to build sustainable living environments, and even how to respect nature: the Safari itself was constructed in Africa, in Malawi, to protect wildlife and nature from Black tribal barbarity and primitiveness. Nature is something and so it has a certain innocence, but Blackness is nothing and thus beyond the bounds of Western morality. The probing light of western ethics into my darkness – my Malawian darkness – does not produce an ethical binarism: it always produces a self-referential ethics as a reflected glow, and a nothingness which precludes African and Black ethical possibility.
Black African bodies are thus godless bodies and ethics-less bodies; they are apolitical bodies and non-ecological; they are nothings devoid of interiors – they are abiological, aphysiological, non-anatomical bodies; they are primitivities and tribes. And so, even the wild animals in our land needed defending from me and mine by the Westerner.
I am told that me and mine do not keep records, so our history is a distortion by tribal excesses manifesting as memories. However, the probing candle lights of western research wade into my darkness to systematize and record the accurate truth about me, once and for all. Should I seek a place at this table where such things about me are organised and written down, I will be directed to consult the literature already established by them, invited to situate myself within what has already been declared about me, or else what I say about myself will be dismissed as unacademic, lacking rigor and unfit for scholarship. Probing instruments of research are in this way all too reminiscent of the probing instruments of past extractions which displaced my culture, demonized my spirituality, racialized and tribalised my existence, criminalised my body – while harvesting ivory, diamond, gold and copper at a rate that made wild beasts and the rest of nature weep. Land for nutrition not already reserved for the Safaris became land for displaced tenancy and for cash-crops for exportation to England and Scotland, and for the fattening of white bodies and the lacing of intergenerational northern pockets. It is how scarcity as a form of economics and politics, as a framework of constructing and reconstructing nativity, tribalism and primitivity was introduced into the colonies so that years later this construct would become the foundation of northern and Southern difference; the basis of postcolonial politics.
No wonder today, I am often introduced ahistorically as follows: He is from Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. But look at what he has made of himself despite, so we granted him a Visa.
I was nothing then, and I am nothing now, as the northerner discovers himself even through the illumination, extraction and ownership of my stories, when he boards the time machine to fly 6 to 12 hours back into the horizontal future to retell them as his latest self-discoveries. So many of me and mine cannot come along to verify what shall be said and written about our conjured darkness, nor examine the extent to which our Nothingness and non-existence printed on CVs as expertise will afford those who write about us careers as experts: I mean the Africanists – the White expert custodians and gatekeepers of Black nations and their Africans.
The things I have described are deeply personal and extremely painful, and the aloofness — the inability to see such obvious contradictions and exploitations by so-called Afrophile allies — is particularly illustrative of the ways in which colonial-racist legacies continue to depend on contemporary so-called corroborations including research to reproduce colonial violence and non-being.
In 2021, me and mine still are not things yet – We are still either Nothing or are non-existent: constructs of colonialist ways of looking and classifying through the maintenance of Black absence.