Book Review: Performing Trauma in Central Africa: Shadows of Empire by Laura Edmondson

There is a long history of cultural production in response to violent conflict, and more recently its manipulation by the state and international humanitarian agencies. Focused on Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda, in Performing Trauma in Central Africa: Shadows of Empire Laura Edmondson shows how empire today can infiltrate creative activities and build on the visualisation and performance of trauma through the aid industry. Reviewed by Kara Blackmore

This review was originally published on the Africa at LSE blog. 

Performing Trauma in Central Africa: Shadows of Empire. Laura Edmondson. Indiana University Press. 2018. 

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Laura Edmondson’s 2018 book, Performing Trauma in Central Africa: Shadows of Empire, is a reflexive critique on public expressions of trauma in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She foregrounds her analysis with statements of personal failures, rooted in naive outsider perspectives on how transformation can and should happen through creative arts.

Edmondson frames her own attempt at theatre intervention, in northern Uganda during 2004, within a larger global system of non-governmental organisations and humanitarian agencies, and their desires to employ art as a mechanism for expression. In doing so, Edmondson develops a series of case studies whereby the residues of colonialism, the visualisation of trauma through aid and the performance of trauma create an empire that moves towards celebrity advocacy.

In the introduction Edmondson writes: ‘Empire insists on consistent and simplistic narratives with clear-cut definitions of victim and perpetrator, sweeping aside nuance and complexity in its single-minded quest for spectacles and narratives of suffering’. The spectacles she chooses to engage with are the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Government of Uganda in northern Uganda, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and cases of sexual violence in eastern DRC. Edmondson views trauma as an inroad of narrative outcomes for those who seek to gain from the profits of empire or who are entangled in a political marketplace. She admits that the case examples ‘are caught between an authoritarian state and an imperial empire and thus are limited in their ability to offer subversion, contestation, and resistance’ (21).

Gulu in northern Uganda is the central point of departure for Edmondson. She explains that theatre, through the Gulu Save the Children Organisation (GUSCO), was a way to market trauma to gain access to aid and support. In the early 2000s, after the Lord’s Resistance Army had changed their base from Uganda to the DRC and Central African Republic, this positioning of theatre was used to catch the attention of the many aid organisations who flaunted their funds, in the form of new land cruisers and offices dedicated to resettlement and reconstruction. For organisations such as World Vision, arts therapy was at that time a tool to show their success. They would compare violent sketches drawn by children earlier on with the joyous landscapes created after several therapy sessions.

Examples of other interventions in Uganda, whereby performance was used to share information between citizens, were also subjected to evaluative measures based on these organisations’ capitalist gains. This was the case in Hope North where Euro-American sentimentalities of pain were used to show resonance or affect among the Acholi audiences of northern Uganda, in the area impacted by the war. That said, in the realm of dance, Edmondson observes a rupture in the proverbial scripts imposed by formal theatre or performance for narrative; the body, in particular the female body, when danced in a collective could destabilise the social stratigraphy imposed by the aid structure.

Image Credit: (clarencealford CC BY 2.0)

Rwanda is the second case study explored, rooted in a dialogue around guilt and intervention. Through the voice of Rwandan author Immaculle Ilibagiza, Edmondson shows how guilt and forgiveness are intertwined. Through memory, Ilibagiza is shown to recuse the foreign perpetrators or allies in the genocide, leaving only the Hutu perpetrators exposed to blame. However, Ilibagiza is entrenched in a global and deeply Christian (Catholic) trend of forgiveness which sees spirituality as the ideal path for healing the wounds of genocide. The town of Kibeho, known as a place where apparitions about the genocide were seen prior to the killings, serves as the anchor point for an uncritical look at the church.

Unlike the self-determined hybrid stylising of trauma outlined in the Rwanda case, when Edmondson turns to the DRC she invokes trauma’s deferential surrender to Western influence. In describing the DRC’s colonial history and the new-age celebrity activism of Eve Ensler and Johan Prendergast, the women of the DRC affected by sexual violence are described as agents of ‘US-led intervention’ (180). The projects of visibility and empowerment are critiqued as neoliberal programmes to encase Congolese women in an industry of conflict minerals, which results in mass violence and ultimately traumatic rape. Edmondson subsequently focuses on US playwright Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined, which seems to reinforce this focus on externalities. The reader is then left wondering how the subjects of the critique would respond, and what forms of drama and performance Congolese women and other creatives have developed themselves. This vacuum seems to dilute the argument against foreign interventions, especially in light of the preceding Ugandan and Rwandese examples.

The chapter ‘Gifted by Trauma’ is the text’s last and most synthesised section, whereby northern Uganda occupies a space to explore self-branding as well as the role of memory in the gaze of empire. Here, she explores the role of film, social media and performance paired with memorial processes to show how survivors emerge from conditions of violence as well as wake up from proverbial humanitarian hangovers. Edmondson puts in dialogue on a stage foreign aid do-gooders and aid beneficiaries with Ugandan government actors to perform trauma for each other as citizens, as well as outsider donors. The staging of the conversation does, however, gloss over the scale and form of trauma experienced in the region, opting for an analysis based on trauma’s commodification by the various international actors.

The book is written for Euro-Americans who, like Edmondson, might be considering an attempt at creative interventions. It is unfortunate that the work does not appear to be written for audiences in the countries she references, even though these are key individuals whose work and voices occupy the text. The Amerocentric turns-of-phrase, the sometimes flippant disregard for agency and the overemphasising of her journey makes one wonder whether the people being written about would agree with her critical stance. Her points of reference are all in a global dialectic and rooted in colonially imposed languages. Drama, theatre and encoded expressions in Kinyarwanda, Acholi or Lingala languages do not feature strongly in the arguments. For example, Edmonson writes: ‘Plays about the conflict in the eastern DRC are dominated by Ruined by US playwright Lynn Nottage’ (17). This is legitimised by pointing to its translation into French or its award for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Even the case selection of Immaculee Ilibagiza as ‘arguably the best-known Rwandan genocide survivor in the world’ (23) shows the specificity of this stance.

Furthermore, the book lacks a desire to create new terminologies beyond the phraseology of established empire references. Instead, it would have been valuable to see African scholars referenced as analytical tools and companions for evidence, or African creatives or those who lived through the violent conflict. There is an attempt in the Afterword, whereby Congolese dancer Faustin Linyekula’s practice is seen as a remedy for the failures of imposed engagements with theatre in conflict’s aftermath. Despite these limitations, the text offers a deeply descriptive and meaningful contribution to existing literature on art therapy and sits in good company with critics of foreign interventions.

Kara Blackmore is an anthropologist, curator and writer who works at the intersections of art, heritage and reconciliation in the aftermath of conflict. She is currently undertaking a PhD at LSE focusing on the relationships between memorialisation and transitional justice in Uganda. As part of the Politics of Return project, she curated Enduring Exile: Lived Realities of South Sudanese Women in Uganda.

This article gives the views of the author and not the position of the Africa at LSE blog, the LSE Review of Books blog, South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

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