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The Poisoned Country’

In response to:

The Poisoned Country from the June 6, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

Philip Gourevitch’s review essay, “The Poisoned Country” [NYR, June 6], contains a number of very basic misunderstandings and misrepresentations of my book, Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania.

Gourevitch first complains that I neglected the role of the political party, Palipehutu, which he claims was “a potent political force” in “shaping the narratives” that I collected in the Mishamo camp in 1985-1986. He offers no evidence at all for this proposition, but claims that it “calls into question the authority of [my] reporting.”

In fact, the forms of historical consciousness that I documented in the camp were much more widespread than any specifically Palipehutu ideological programs. The people I interviewed included both party members and people not associated with that or any other party. In any case, even if it could be shown that people’s beliefs had been shaped by a party, surely this would not make those beliefs any less important—still less “call into question the authority” of those who report on those beliefs. But Gourevitch naively supposes that ideologies take root through the simple agency of “activists” (like those “outside agitators” who haunt the imaginations of so many governments) who “feed propaganda” to unwitting dupes who then forever after go about mouthing it.

Gourevitch’s larger complaint is that my approach to what I called the “mytho-history” of the Hutu refugees in Mishamo is not sufficiently devoted to “the challenge of sorting out those portions of her informants’ stories which must reflect actual events from the larger web of historical falsehoods.” Gourevitch wonders if some of the refugees’ tales are really true, and accuses me of dismissing such a question. “Don’t wonder, [Malkki] says.” Thus I am held guilty of seeking “to reduce history to the status of legend, and to elevate legend to the status of history.”

Gourevitch here willfully misrepresents what I clearly stated in the very passage to which he refers. On the possibility of evaluating the truth claims of different aspects of the mythico-history, I did not say “don’t wonder.” On the contrary, I explicitly argued: “Certainly, particular claims might be investigated and corroborated or refuted—indeed, this is an essential task for human rights workers, even if it is not my purpose here” (pp. 103-104; cf. p. 55). My point was not that such a project of assessing the truth value of mythico-historical narratives was impossible or pointless, but only that it was not the best way to understand the meaning and social uses of the mythico-history, or the way that it informed the lives and actions of those who passionately believed in it. Like the Bible stories to which both I and my informants likened it, the Hutu historical chronicle that I documented was a powerful device for the creation of cosmological and moral order. Its social significance is misunderstood—and its meaning trivialized—if it is seen only as a (more or less imperfect) record of literal events.

But this is precisely how Gourevitch would have me interpret the Hutu mythico-history—leaving it not as a complex cultural text to be understood, but as a mere “web of falsehoods” to be dismissed as so much “propaganda.” So simple is Gourevitch’s conception of history that he is bewildered that such structures of meaning as my research revealed should exist at all. The Hutu refugees had endured “real” suffering, he reasons, so why would they need myth? “They did not need to mythologize their victimization; the simple facts would have done quite as well in most cases.” On such reasoning does Gourevitch’s simple-minded distinction between “history” and “legend” rest. But what people engaged in nationalist struggles have ever contented themselves with “the simple facts” (whatever that might mean)? And when has history ever failed to be concerned with the establishment and legitimation of basic social categories and moral trajectories?

Gourevitch’s misunderstandings are especially unfortunate because he uses them to recycle the old colonial stereotype of an Africa fundamentally irrational, violent, and unknowable. Hutu and Tutsi may have their myths, he concedes, but “it is hard to imagine how a recipe for political sanity can be sought in such madness.” Burundians’ own understandings of their lives and histories are blithely dismissed as unfathomable “madness,” and an essential irrationality is invoked to account for the violence of what is (and presumably must remain) simply “a poisoned land.”

A better understanding is possible, one that would provide both more room for hope and a better guide to action. But such an understanding requires a more sophisticated understanding of history, and a more serious and respectful approach to Africans as the authors of that history, than Philip Gourevitch’s unfortunate review can provide.

Liisa H. Malkki
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
University of California, Irvine

Philip Gourevitch replies:

Liisa Malkki does not dispute that she failed to examine, much less explain, the possible influence of the militant Hutu nationalist party, Palipehutu, on the narratives of the refugees at the Mishamo camp. Since she asks for “evidence” why she should concern herself with such matters, I can refer her again to Rene Lemarchand’s Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide, a book she cites frequently and which I reviewed with her own. After showing the striking similarity between portions of Malkki’s “mythico-history” and official Palipehutu propaganda, Lemarchand observes that “a more dispassionate scrutiny of the historical record reveals a strikingly different state of affairs,” and his book goes on to confirm this. It is just such historical scrutiny that Malkki asks her readers not to worry about. Instead she compares her “mythico-history” to stories in the Bible, as if that rendered the distinction between myth and history moot. Never mind that her narratives have no standard text except the one she has invented, and that they are concerned with human rather than divine agency. Scholars have long recognized that historical evidence can be crucial to our understanding of Biblical stories. When people believe a story regardless of its truth, that needs pointing out, not to discredit their belief but to understand it. And if people believe a story because it is, in fact, true, that too must be factored into any consideration of what Malkki calls its “social significance.” When I say that Hitler had most of European Jewry exterminated, it would be absurd—and insulting—to ask why I think so without considering the historical evidence. Surely refugees of Burundi’s massacres merit the same consideration.

The stories Malkki has constructed in her “mythico-history” are used by Burundians not only as accounts of the past, but also as justifications for the ongoing ethnic slaughter which has destroyed their country. It is not Africa, but the poisonous ideology of extermination, in both the official discourse of the Tutsi army and the discourse of Malkki’s Hutu refugees, which I characterize as “madness,” and from which I see no way to extract a “recipe for political sanity.” The danger is not unfathomable” or “unknowable,” it is all too obvious. And it cannot be wished away by Malkki’s slogan calling for a “respectful approach to Africans as the authors of [their] history.” If I didn’t respect such authorship, I wouldn’t hold Burundians responsible for their own fates, or say that the country must discover an account of itself which both Hutus and Tutsis can inhabit without terror.

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