Wednesday, January 11, 2012

98. Throne of Weapons (Mozambique, 2001)

Modern war and peace.
In the history of humanity, you could spend a lot of energy going on about the new weapons, the unprecedented violence of the twentieth century: systematic genocides in a Holocaust, nuclear bombs obliterating cities, biological and chemical warfare, etc. I’ve always been depressed to think how brutal and nasty people were in the 1500s, but the 1900s had bigger numbers and seem even more terrible. But MacGregor has chosen not to dwell on the violence in his history, probably because it’s so awful and it’s such a downer. In the field of eco-communications, for instance, although it’s really easy to fill people with grim despair, current prevailing winds would encourage us (interpreters of nature, makers of eco-documentaries, advocates for alternative transportation, etc.) to dwell on the positive and always present easy action-items, the ‘what can you do?’ lists, to empower people whom despair would otherwise crush into inaction. That’s my guess about the origin of this extremely moving podcast.

The object here, a work of art made in Mozambique by an artist named ‘Kester,’ is a throne made mostly from Kashelnikov rifles. The history behind it gives MacGregor a chance to talk about the post-Colonial world and the Cold War, because after the 19th century’s “Scramble for Africa” when all the empires were trying to set up colonies, in the 20th century all the empires went broke because of the World Wars, so they let their colonies go and govern themselves. The post-WWII Cold War set up became a second “Scramble for Africa” and lots of other places (Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan) that weren’t exactly under the influence of either side in the Cold War, and both blocs, the Eastern and the Western, desperately wanted to increase their influence and power—thus the bloody mess in so many of those places. MacGregor points out that people who are good at leading a revolution, at breaking a colony away from an imperial overlord, aren’t necessarily good at setting up a stable government or ruling in peace. George Washington was perhaps an exception (or perhaps he wasn’t very good at being either a soldier or a statesman or both!). That’s one way of looking at civil wars in places like Mozambique, which the Communists wanted as an ally given its proximity to western-dominated South Africa and Rhodesia/Zambia; that’s why they had so many Russian guns in Mozambique that (later on) they could use them as furniture.

The turn-around that led to the object here is a beautiful story, an endeavor led by a bishop starting in 1995 to convert all the weapons into other kinds of tools—swords into ploughshares, rifles into a chair. (A throne, actually, because most people in Mozambique don’t have or use chairs.) The wars had gotten so extreme that people’s brains were entirely wired around guns and weapons and aggression and killing; the peacemakers (Kofi Annan was MacGregor’s guest, and spoke beautifully) found it difficult to teach them any other way of being, because that was all they’d known. But changing the weapon into something else proved a transformative approach. The man who made this throne talked about several members of his family who had been maimed, and how when he saw what looked like a little eyes and a smile on the shoulder-butts of each of these rifles he had the idea of making this object to humanize, to transform the weapons into people, turning them away from destroyers of people. The more I say about it, the more I’ll ruin it, so let’s just end by saying—that bishop had a really wonderful idea, akin to the suffragette who figured out how to get the message onto the coin. Let’s celebrate those people, and encourage more of them in the years to come!

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