Western poison

Visiting journalist, humanitarian decries Western influence around the world

Independent journalist, war correspondent and humanitarian Keith Harmon Snow speaks at Butte College's Black Box Theatre on Tuesday, May 12. The African family pictured in the background was killed in 1996, during the First Congo War.

Independent journalist, war correspondent and humanitarian Keith Harmon Snow speaks at Butte College's Black Box Theatre on Tuesday, May 12. The African family pictured in the background was killed in 1996, during the First Congo War.


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Back in 1990, Keith Harmon Snow crossed the border of Uganda into what was then eastern Zaire—now the Democratic Republic of the Congo—on his mountain bike. Snow was a young man on what he calls now his “big white adventure,” immersing himself in central Africa with the comfort of knowing that he had a passport and could leave whenever he felt like it.

Snow stopped in a rural village because he’d been bitten by something on the back of his neck. He’d hoped the bite would subside by itself, but it “blew up like a tennis ball,” so he asked a villager for help. It turned out an unidentified insect had laid eggs under Snow’s skin, which the villager, the patriarch of a family of more than two dozen, cut out with a knife. The family then nursed Snow as he recovered, and his stay with them was marked by a seminal moment.

He recounted sitting outside one of the family’s huts when some of the women announced the discovery of a black mamba, one of the world’s most poisonous snakes, by screaming hysterically. Once the women had the snake cornered, the patriarch cut off its head, and Snow, thinking the whole thing “was so just so exotic and interesting,” grabbed the dead black mamba by its tail.

And then the headless body of the snake reflexively wrapped around his arm. “Everybody runs and screams bloody murder,” he said, “and I just think it’s the funniest thing.”

Snow told this story at Butte College’s Black Box Theatre on Tuesday (May 12) during a lecture on his experiences as an independent and international journalist, war correspondent and humanitarian. The point was that, after the snake incident, he suddenly saw himself as an arrogant intruder. For the villagers, it was a big thing to find a black mamba—they’d been known to kill children, Snow said. But he’d biked up, demonstrated his ignorance of a deadly animal the people of central Africa live with daily, and then laughed off his encounter.

And by Snow’s account, many Westerners are much more harmfully blundering around the world’s developing countries, even when they mean well.

“White people go in all the time to places like Colombia, Indonesia, Nepal or the Congo, and we dictate the lives of these people through policies or through big funds revolving around human rights or wildlife organizations,” he said. “We really don’t know much about these places. Nobody knows more about your home and your community than yourself. Think of somebody coming in from another country and presuming to create policy that affects the lives of your entire village or region based on their superficial immersion into your culture.”

Snow provided a timely example—the exploitation and destruction of Mongolia’s steppe at the hands of Western mining corporations and the subsequent involvement of Western humanitarian and wildlife organizations, all battling over countryside to which they have no true rights. (The issue has flown under the mass media’s radar; a Google search on the subject mostly turns up stories authored by Snow.)

“This incredibly vast, beautiful place is under assault by Western civilization at this very moment,” Snow said.

Western influence as a global toxin was the dominant theme in Snow’s hour-long presentation, which tackled subjects including genocide, the ills of capitalistic materialism, cultural assimilation, subversive messages in Disney films, the instant but fleeting gratification offered by smartphones, what it means to be a conscious being, the purpose of humans’ existence on the planet, and the mass media’s whitewashing of U.S. involvement in violent military actions throughout the world.

Snow, who curates two investigative journalism websites, got his start as a journalist and humanitarian by documenting the atrocities he witnessed in central Africa in the early to mid-1990s. Particularly influential was the foreign invasion of Zaire in 1996 that replaced dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko; among those slaughtered in that conflict, the First Congo War, was the entire family that helped nurse Snow back to health as he cycled through Zaire. While the common narrative is that the invasion was led by Rwanda, Snow maintains otherwise.

“The U.S. military invaded the Congo in 1996,” he said, “and almost every single academic publication on the wars in the Congo that have been produced since 1996 completely whitewashes, ignores or dismisses the involvement of the U.S. military.”