Remediating Gorilla Girl: Rape Warfare and the Limits of Humanitarian Storytelling

By Whitlock, Gillian | Biography, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Remediating Gorilla Girl: Rape Warfare and the Limits of Humanitarian Storytelling


Whitlock, Gillian, Biography


For Jennifer Harold

We might conjure some of the sites that, in recent memory, have generated the most pressing debates and intense questioning of human rights.... [T]hese wars and conflicts, for good or ill, have helped shape and define the shifting grounds both of rights and of what it means to be human.

Ian Balfour and Eduardo Cadava (279)

Late in 2006 in Johannesburg, just by chance I met an aid worker from Goma, and heard a harrowing first person account of witnessing the traumatic suffering of women and children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She described a degeneration of society beyond ordinary imagining, and spoke of her own frustration that she was not eloquent enough to write and do justice to the traumatic gendered violence she witnessed. More generally, she raised the question of how networks of humanitarian witnessing might become engaged in the eastern DRC now, in the interests of victims of rape warfare. Then, most memorably, she spoke of a specific community that concerned her and her colleagues in World Vision: a small group of African women and children struggling to survive together near Lake Kivu, "just across the border from where Fossey watched the gorillas." The contrast is striking: Dian Fossey and the gorillas remain familiar figures in a global public sphere. But how do the testimonies of Congolese women find recognition beyond their immediate familial and communal networks? What follows unfolds from this conversation, and explores this implied adjacency of absence and legendary presence to consider the visibility of African people and creatures and the claims of animal and human rights in shaping a Congo "watch" from afar. Vivid memories of Dian Fossey and the mountain gorillas raise questions about how life narratives engage in representations of the Congo region, after genocide in Rwanda and the associated and ongoing suffering in the DRC. How does the Fossey life story relate to the ongoing presence of mourning and violence in central Africa now? How does it contribute to contemporary feminist engagements with "distant suffering" that are productive for the victims of trauma at this unique contact zone where species meet?

Ongoing remediation of life narrative renders both Fossey and the mountain gorillas associated with her familiar subjects of biographical representation. The "gorilla girl" celebrity persona survives long after the violent death of Fossey and the gorillas she originally recognized as creatures of unique and individual significance. Girl and gorilla are revived through ongoing auto/biographical adaptation and remediation in documentary, autobiography, biopic, and biography. By pursuing how various genres of life narrative arise and circulate, how they are produced and consumed, regenerated and remediated, and how they accrue value as truth, we can engage with these questions about the recognition of subjects and subjectivities through rights discourse in narrated lives, and consider how animal rights and human rights claims coincide, and on occasion contest, in humanitarian discourse. The gorilla girl corpus is a compelling narrative of cross-species engagement; it expands our recognition of humans and animals as companion species, and it extends the scope of humanitarian compassion across the species boundary. Yet concerned claims that animal rights prevail over human rights in representations of the region abound--most commonly in observations by journalists that their accounts of the genocide in Rwanda and its violent aftermath in the DRC now must include reports on the fate of the mountain gorillas to raise interest and compassion in the global public sphere (Melvern; Dawes). The implication that an empathic engagement with this endangered species overshadows the pursuit of human rights and social justice by and on behalf of African people suggests that the relationship between the force of the Fossey legend and the recognition of central African women's testimony is not just proximity--nearness in place--but propinquity: a deeper kinship that arises from their presence together in this location, historically a shared space of gendered and creaturely vulnerability. …

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