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A Review of Trudy Govier’s Victims and Victimhood

By Ronald Elly Wanda



Sunday, August 30, 2015.


What makes something good or bad, right or wrong? This is a philosophical question that communities across the world have discussed and argued about for thousands of years. They have come up with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different and conflicting answers. In a way suggesting, that the question is either very hard or perhaps even unsolvable. Many still think so. Dr W.E.B Du Bois, the first Black American to earn a PhD from Harvard in 1895, added his voice to this sociological matrix by further asking, “how does it feel to be a victim?” As if in response, Canadian philosopher Trudy Govier has written a new book Victims and Victimhood that offers a new and exciting look at the subject by bringing to light, through philosophical scrutiny, the definitional, moral, and public policy issues that arise from the discourse on victims and victimhood. 

 For communities across Eastern Africa - a region that has had its fair share of victims of genocidal ‘politicides’ (politically motivated mass killings), Professor Govier’s book injects a breath of fresh air.  According to recent figures released by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 60 million people have been driven from their homes by war and persecution. Compared to Britain and France, the UN report also noted that countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, in spite of their mere resources, take on more refugees. That said, Kenya still has nearly half a million of its own population internally displaced, made victims following the disputed general elections of late 2007. The recent political turmoil in Burundi and South Sudan as well as ongoing terror threats in Somalia continues to displace hundreds of thousands. However, drawing from the same UN report, these numbers are comparatively less than the 2.5 million victims in Darfur, or the staggering 7.5 million displaced by the ongoing Syrian conflict. 


Victims and Victimhood is not a book about East Africa. It is a philosophic vocation about humanization. It is a book that brings neatly into the philosophical foreground ideas about the victim who is often forgotten when statics are being compiled as well as the mores of victimhood. In Kenya’s postcolonial socioeconomic system for instance, the only way of learning about victims’ stories and struggles was in novels such as Son of Woman (1971) by Charles Mangua, After 4.30 (1974) by David Maillu, and Never Forgive Father (1972) by George Muruah. In all these novels, the female subject appears most often as the “victim”, the loser, or the underprivileged in the daily struggles for survival.

Away from hard statistics about poverty and percentages of economic growth, a slice into the works of East African writers such as Charles Mangua, David Maillu, Meja Mwangi, Okot p Bitek, and Grace Ogot, to mention but a few, are in my view, much more acute in their examination and representation of the social reality lived by the majority of East Africans in the postcolonial era than are predictions by economists, development experts, sociologists, policy planners, or the regional states. This is because these writers have highlighted the “lived experiences” of “mwananchi wa kawaida”— the ordinary citizens.

Govier’s book uses the same mwanainchi wa kawaida approach, and is full of telling examples and astute points. The chapters in her book are eclectically arranged from the problems of allowing victims their voices and properly hearing what they have to say (Chapters 4-7), to the hazards of cultivating "victim-identities," to the determination of what we owe to victims by way of respect, restitution, restorative justice, vindication of their dignity, and the need for "closure" (Chapters 8-10). Although, it is fair to observe that certain cognate notions such as those of wrong-doer, responsibility, and forgiveness, are subjects of vast literatures, Gorvier’s use of simple language in advancing these concepts unlike her peers who take pleasure in hiding their content through inaccessible ‘advanced’ language - makes the book an attractive read.

Govier‘s expansive use of normative and conceptual apparatus of victimhood extends the net of those affected by international crime. Virtually every Kenyan, except for the Al-Shabaab terrorists, for instance was a victim of the Westgate Mall attacks of September 2013 or more recently the Garissa University College massacre in April 2015 that left 148 mostly students dead. Govier is at the same time restrictive especially on the subject of compensation, as in the current controversy still surrounding the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi, for instance. That said, Govier takes a good stub at what she calls "four common attitudes to victims" - Silence, Blame, Deference and Agency.

East African countries, according to some Western observers, still remain; a roiling sea of stateless chaos (Somalia); genocidal (Rwanda and Sudan); mad dictators and child soldiers (Uganda); a decades-long civil war (South-Sudan); hotbed of terror (Kenya). Govier’s premise challenges these descriptive focuses on the savagery of the violence and the proffering of simplistic explanations that prevents serious discussion of the root causes of the violence such as Kenya’s post-election violence of early 2008. Western media coverage from the start reported of ‘mindless tribal violence perpetrated by machete-wielding young men’. Reporters found that they could easily make Kenya explicable by classifying it as a stereotypical African conflict. The Western press informed readers that Kenyan communities had "awakened ancient ethnic rivalries" and were "settling the score the old fashion way”. Yet the violence was not ancient and primordial. Nor was it the result of nothing more than a deeply flawed election. Govier argues that revenge is objectionable for practical and moral reasons. She explores the relationship between revenge and retribution, and the distinction between vindictiveness and a desire for vindication.

Crucially, Govier poses the question: Are some crimes unforgivable? She argues that forgiving does not require condoning, excusing or forgetting, using the political forgiveness of Nelson Mandela as an example. She also defends the idea that the notions of revenge and forgiveness can be applied to groups of people, not just individuals, and looks at the repercussions of this on the politics of peace and reconciliation. A case in point is the challenges facing the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) sponsored Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in South Sudan between Salvar Kiir’s government and Dr Riek Machar’s rebel faction. South Sudan’s war has brought underlying regional tensions to the fore. According to a recent report by the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, three major factors continue to limit IGAD’s mediation: 1) regional rivalries and power struggles; 2) centralisation of decision-making at the Head of State level and related lack of institutionalisation within IGAD; and 3) challenges in expanding the peace process beyond South Sudan’s political elites.

In summary, Gover’s contribution makes a good job in generating anxiety about the future of humanity and of victims, using serious restorative concepts which are very useful in Eastern Africa where there are consistent efforts to rethink the term ‘victim’.  Communities are shifting to a holistic and ecological vision of reality by closely reexamining their indigenous life philosophies as valuable starting points. This is in light of the contradictory phenomena of globalization, the information society and economic growth on the one hand, and the clearly intensifying poverty, widening inequalities and the demand for social justice on the other. Most of the women (and men) on the periphery of the socioeconomic structures and resource distribution networks are busy reinventing means and strategies of survival.

(Trudy Govier, Victims and Victimhood, Broadview, 2015, 232pp., USD 24.95 (pbk), ISBN 9781554810994).


Ronald Elly Wanda is the executive director of Grundtvig Africa House – a transdisciplinary research Institute based in Nairobi, Kenya.


Book Review: ‘Victims and Victimhood’ – An East African Perspective

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