Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Darwin’s Nightmare


Oh, Africa. What in the world is to become of you? For hundreds of years the white man fought over you and plundered you for everything from slaves to ivory to diamonds. Europeans drew lines on maps with total disregard to tribal enmities, either unable to understand that Africans can be as different as Italians and Lapps, or Portuguese and Bulgarians, and can hate each other as much as Sunni and Shiite … or just not caring. Then they buggered off—they called it giving you “independence”—and left you to sort out the mess. Mostly you’ve done a terrible job of it, and that should come as no surprise to anyone. Most of your leaders are worse crooks than the white imperialists, and when the situation becomes intolerable you spawn “revolutions” that almost always replace the rascals you had with an even worse set of rascals. The wars in the region of the Congo have claimed more than 4 million lives, and every year that passes brings a new horror, from Biafra to Somalia to Rwanda to Darfur. I, frankly, don’t have much hope that things can ever be reversed.

This movie caused some controversy that I’m not knowledgeable enough to resolve. Here’s what I know: In the 1950s somebody introduced Nile perch into Lake Victoria. (Why? Dunno. Just for the heck of it, I guess.) When I hear the word “perch” I think of the little fish my grandmother and I used to pull out of the lake in Corsicana, Texas, fishing from the old boathouse. A big one would be eight inches long. Put that picture out of your mind. These monsters grow to be six feet long and weigh 200 pounds. Other than sturgeon, you pretty much have to go to the ocean to find another fish that big. They promptly ate everything in sight, virtually destroying over 20 species of native cichlids that the locals in Tanzania and other states bordering the lake had relied on for generations of subsistence fishing.

Ah, but Nile perch are very tasty, and one fish can feed an awful lot of people … in Europe. That’s right. Tons and tons of frozen fish filets are shipped out every day on fleets of aging cargo planes that often drop into the lake because the greedy owners have overloaded them, or they haven’t been maintained well. These planes may (or may not) be carrying arms to Sudan and Congo and other hellholes on the way in, so as to not fly empty.

They are fishing the lake so heavily now that, ironically, the perch may soon be extinct there. Good news, right? Well … not much happens in Africa that can be seen as unqualified good news. The perch industry is Tanzania’s main source of export income. What happens when they’re gone? I don’t know. There was much passionate argument about this film when it came out. Still is, I gather. Some say the director, Hubert Sauper, shaded the facts, some say he outright lied about some stuff. Sort of a Dutch Michael Moore. I can’t comment on that; I don’t know enough.

There was famine in the hinterlands of Tanzania while the movie was being filmed. It truly was a disgusting spectacle seeing all that frozen fish being shipped to restaurants and markets in Europe while not far away people were starving … and yet, what good would a truckload of frozen fish do to those people? There isn’t enough infrastructure to get the fish to them; what they needed was air drops of longer-lasting foods, like grains.

In the meantime, those not in the famine area are surviving by eating offal. Yes. You filet a fish, what you have left is the head and the backbones. Tons and tons and tons of this maggot-infested garbage, which the locals put on racks to dry out a little (you can’t dry Nile Perch like they used to dry native fish, it’s too fatty), then boiled in cauldrons that look to have been imported direct from Hell, and then … you eat it. I can’t imagine what it smells like, and don’t want to think what it tastes like. Not only do you eat it, you are glad to have it, and to have a job wading in the white man’s rotting garbage.

And human ingenuity seems to know no bounds. The swarms of street children (all too many with only one leg, from landmines) have figured out how to distill something from the fish heads that seems to work pretty much like airplane glue. You huff this stuff and feel no pain at all, which is no small thing if both your parents are dead from “the virus” and you’re sleeping on concrete. Meanwhile, a Christian preacher tells his flock not to use condoms because it’s a sin. Meanwhile, the wars go on …

Oh, Africa.