Today in Shit Donald Trump Said, we have his thoughts on “foreign policy”: “Take the oil, knock the hell out of them.”
I assumed Trump was talking about Iran. When I brought myself to click on the link to the article, well, even better: he was talking about the terror group ISIL. We all know nuance isn’t really Trump’s thing. Also apparently not his thing: history of anywhere, ever, that isn’t the (modern) U.S. or Europe. I say this because the history of anywhere, ever, is the history of colonialism and exploitation*. For simplicity, and my point, let’s stick to recent colonization by Europeans.
Oil. Gold. Diamonds. Humans.
These are things that we have marched in and taken, while knocking the hell out of the societies that already existed. It’s worked out really well for us, far removed from (most) of the consequences of the practice. Some of these places are still reeling; many colonized countries in Africa only gained their independence in the mid-1900s. Others, like Botswana and Ghana, have found their feet a bit faster. Colonialism leaves a nasty legacy, though.
Take, for instance, Zimbabwe. In the late 1800s, Cecil Rhodes ventured into what would come to be known as Rhodesia, and then Zimbabwe, and negotiated his way to the mineral rights to the gold and copper found in the region. He brought in settlers, many who became farmers, and defeated both the Shona and Ndebele tribes in two wars to take control of the territory.
Post independence, Robert Mugabe has ruled the country, first as Prime Minister in 1980, and then as President from 1987. Its economy is tanked, with GDP declining 40% since 2000, hyperinflation, and no national currency after the Zimbabwe Dollar was suspended 6 years ago. Trying to separate this reality for Zimbabweans from the actions of Cecil Rhodes and his acquisition of the mineral rights in former Rhodesia is absurd. That exploitation of the native peoples of the land south of the Zambezi, and north of the Tampopo has an inseparable effect on current Zimbabwe.
So what does this matter? It matters because so many of us hoped for a change in leadership in 2008, with the viable candidacy of Morgan Tsvansgirai. The eventual reelection of Mugabe was disheartening, to say the least. There were many of us who cared, and still care, about the people of Zimbabwe.
This is why I cared, and still care, deeply about the “taking” of Cecil the lion by the American-Dentist-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.
The Dentist is hardly the first person to march into Africa and take a big game trophy. He will hardly be the last. Hell, the word ‘safari’ itself was originated from Swahili to denote a game hunt. What is remarkable about Cecil and the Dentist is that the world is finally taking notice.
Cecil drew crowds of foreigners to Zimbabwe’s Hwange Park. Not insignificantly, Zimbabwe saw 1.8 million tourists in 2013, which amounts to a little over 10% of the country’s GDP. The Big 5 – Elephants, Lions, Leopards, Cape Buffalo, Rhino – are all found in Zimbabwe. But every poaching incident, from the lone killing of a lion, to the cyanide poisoning of a watering hole that kills over 80 elephants, that goes unnoticed, or passes without outrage, feels like an affront to the nation’s economy. If there are no elephants, a huge draw to Hwange park, who will come?
When the Dentist took Cecil, he put Cecil’s cubs in danger. If the second lion in the hierarchy killed those, the Dentist would therefore be responsible not only for one dead lion, but 3 or 4. Poaching (or trophy hunting) isn’t just about the singular dead animal. The hunters are also responsible for the collateral damage to the ecosystem.
This abuse of Zimbabwe’s resources – and these animals are indeed resources to the country’s economy, and by extension, its population – feels like a 21st century version of exploitation. “I paid my money, everything was legal!” is the refrain coming from the hunters. Cecil Rhodes also paid his money, and did things by the laws of the day. Not that the Dentist is a modern Cecil Rhodes, but the exploitation is no less real or impactful.
*I know it’s not the history of everywhere, per se, but close enough. That’s what empires do.