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Review of Amulets and Dreams: War, Youth and Change in Africa


By Mahmood Messkoub

Amulets & Dreams: War, Youth and Change in Africa. Omar Badsha (ed.). South African History Online (in cooperation with Unisa Press and the Institute for Social Security Studies), Pretoria, 2002. Pp. 161. ISBN 1-86888-230-6 (hb). 34.95 pounds, $57.95. (Photos by Guy Tillim and Omar Badsha, text by Julia Maxted)

Photographs are born, may be in 1/1000 of a second or even faster like stars in the galaxy. They are not just taken. Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Decisive Moment’ gave a new meaning to the concept of being ‘at the right time, at the right place’ to which we should add ‘with the right vision’! That is what this book of photographs chronicling life of youths in wars in Sierra Leone (2001), Angola (2001/2002), Mozambique (2001), Eritrea (2000), Ethiopia (2001/2002), Brundi (2002), is about.

This is a story of lost youth, wasted lives and at times hope in a continent that was first ravaged by slavery that drained its population literally as well in terms of skills and physical ability. Global capital played its decisive and destructive part, without any creativity (‘creative destruction’ of capitalism, a la Schumpeter, came later) by encouraging and playing on local competition and conflict over resources. This story continues to the present day and lies at the heart of most wars in Africa.

Wars in Africa have tried to destroy more than buildings, roads, and even lives; they have tried to destroy hope by destroying its youth and their aspirations. Yet wars have not been able to destroy dreams, dreams that engender hope and creation. This book is about such dreams. The ‘authors’ or should say photo essayists of this book bring us the world of children through war torn regions, cities and villages of Africa through a sets of black and white photos. They try to bring out humanity of the people who have been facing the most inhumane conditions in war and peace. Each section opens with an excellent overview (by Julia Maxted) of the country giving a context to the photos that follow.

Children in war is the central theme of the book. Images of teenage boys carrying light- weight AK47s and M16s (a very ‘enabling’ technological development that has been ‘transeffered’ to Africa successfully!) and amulets (to protect them from evil or a bullet) pinned on their rag clothes dominate the pages. Blank looks and conspicuous absence of smiles or emotions when posing for the photographs either on the move or in demobilistaion camps reveal the deep trauma that has soiled these young souls that had gone literally through hell at a most tender age. Or may be there is another story, as warlords want us to believe, a story of courage and determination of volunteers who march in defense of their communities and even god. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Evidence of recruiting these boy and sometimes girl soldiers reveal a cruel story of kidnapping, coercion as well as abject poverty and collapsing social and family structures in combat zones that have created the material conditions for the children who may sometime ‘seek’ new ‘homes’ and find friendship and comradery in various war-lord armies. There are also images of children in urban and more peaceful settings such as make shift camps and schools that would help them to put their lives together.

Much is made of the children bravery but I shudder when I hear that parents boast about the courage of their children. Children are not courageous because in the main their dare do activities are based on a lack of understanding of danger. Without fear of danger and risk one cannot have courage, one is simply being stupid! Sadly adults have used children’s ignorance of danger to push them into highly risky combat situations. In this African warlords are not alone, the Nazi Germany in its dying days enlisted teenagers to defend Berlin once its pool of adults were exhausted.

Some of the other images are haunting like that of a man naked waist-up trying to write on a wall with a stone. It is taken with a slight angle to reveal that he is chained to a rusty engine block (‘Refuge for Psychological Patients in Luanda’). Or a blurred view from a window that has two small sharp images of white flying pigeons (‘Police Station in Luanda’). Sparkles of hope shine through some of the most depressing images, like that of two war veterans with amputed right and left hands holding hands in Mozambique.

These images are closer to an artistic take on tragedies of life than documentary photos. It is apt to quote Charlotte Mullins (review of Tate Modern’s Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth Photograph) that what makes a documentary photo an art photo is because ‘it questions as it reveals even when it appears straightforward. It takes everyday life as its subject matter and transforms it into something extraordinary. At its best it challenges us to question what we see, think and believe.’ A documentary photo ‘merely offers an objective analytical take on the world around us, an anthropological or geographic record of the present for the future.’ (Financial Times 4 June 2003)

Buy this book and savour the photos and use them and the commentaries for your courses on conflict and war. It is worth every penny or cent!


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 67 (2005), pp. 99-101]

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