I first heard of the film Darwin’s Nightmare while conducting research last year amongst market-sellers in Mwanza, a fishing city located on the bay of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. Market-sellers were afraid to talk in case foreigners like myself were producing another exposé documentary. They spoke of white men having come here to ‘take a picture of a fish’. These men had taken pictures of the dirtiest fish they could find, the market-sellers said, and now sales were down. This was something I did not understand until I chanced upon a viewing of the film in Oxford.
Darwin’s Nightmare is an Oscar-nominated documentary that explores how the forces of globalization have affected the lake-side city of Mwanza. It caused a storm amongst Tanzania’s political elite. According to the film, the poverty that permeates the city has been exacerbated by the furious export of the Nile perch, a fish dropped into the lake as an experiment of western scientists in the late 1950s. The fish took over the lake and has since become a popular dish within the European Union. The documentary shows Indian-run factories preparing the Nile perch for export while local Africans fight over the leftovers. The street children of Mwanza beat each other over scraps of food and sniff melted plastic at night to forget their unhappiness. Only the Russian pilots, who fly cargo in and out of Tanzania, enjoy the industry. They are, it is strongly implied, trading weapons in exchange for the fish and spend much of their time in Tanzania indulging in local prostitutes.
The film was produced in 2004 and I have visited Mwanza twice, in 2009 and 2010 for a few months at a time, conducting research with market-sellers and street children, and teaching in a local primary school. The film bends over backwards to make its claims and its suggestive portrayal of the lake-side city is not accurate. Whilst critics acclaim the film as ‘not to be missed’ and full of ‘jaw-dropping revelations’, Tanzanian politicians see malice behind its production. They are right to take offence.
In Darwin’s Nightmare, poverty is made out to be animalistic and humiliating. But it is not. Poverty is a lack of material wealth and is not dealt with better when it is exaggerated. In Darwin’s Nightmare, a child is dressed up as a pilot and speaks into the camera saying he wishes to become a pilot when he is older. At the same time, shots are filtered through to the viewer of the supposed transport of arms to the region by plane, a prostitute flirting in the pilots’ cafe the evening before she is murdered, and the nightmarish words of an old priest who refuses to promote condoms as the solution. Everything is portrayed as working together to dig Africa deeper into a hellish pit.
Hope is needed in international development, not despair. The postmodernist portrayal of the global south has room only for pessimism and does not show the real Africa. Such artists should steer clear of the continent unless they want to embarrass themselves.
Africa is a land of hope and human solidarity. To give an example: this year I held an interview with one child of 13 years who works as a plastic bag seller in Soko Kuu, Mwanza’s main market, every day of the week. He has no parents but three younger siblings and a grandmother whom he also needs to look after. The boy is ‘in poverty’, whether one measures this by income per day or access to sanitation, food, healthcare or education. His three siblings do attend state-run schools but it is through the income he and they earn through selling plastic bags that they achieve this. Each night he returns home with a bit of food. He cooks it and then wakes his siblings up so that they eat. He then goes to sleep and wakes up early the next day to continue his work. He is hoping that when they finish school they will also, in their turn, help him out.
In the midst of hardship, virtue rises to the fore. People are determined to strive higher, to punch above their weight. For some of the Tanzanians of Mwanza, hardship is borne daily. But not without cheer, not without happiness. This inner strength has to be recognised in the fight against poverty; doomsaying will not get us anywhere.
Hardships bring people together—a power just as important in dealing with poverty as it is in dealing with natural disasters or epidemics. The solution to people’s problems lies in people themselves. Portraying poverty as humiliating and debilitating is so damaging because it says precisely the opposite. People are displayed as victims of something that cannot be changed. But the first step in solving poverty is realising its limit.
The article can be found in the December 2010 edition of Netherhall News: