Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2013
Mimesis as a faculty to imitate and to explore difference played a central role in the encounters and interactions between Africans and white men in the second half of the 19th century and also later. In these encounters, Africans and Europeans folded into the assumed otherness of each other. What was taken to be an African practice met with what was taken as a European one; here assumed meanings met with assumed meanings to form strange mutual dependencies that bound African understandings of European understandings of Africans to European understandings of African understandings of Europeans (Taussig 1987:109).
Parts of central and east Africa emerged as a cross-cultural space in which terror was one of the means that helped to shape it. The figure of the cannibal became one of the main protagonists. Cannibals summed up all that was perceived as grotesquely different about Africans and Europeans as well as providing for the future colonists the allegory of colonization itself: cannibalizing Africa. Cannibalism became a metaphor for colonialism and the ‘savagery’ which colonialism promised to replace. Allegations of cannibalism served not only to enslave Africans; they also served to flesh out the repertoire of violence in the colonial imagination (ibid.:105). The fantastic stories about cannibals that Africans and Europeans told each other produced very real effects.
Africans and Europeans coexisted in these zones of terror through activating their mimetic faculties. Although it was rare that either side understood its other on that other's own terms, they managed somehow to carry on their business of the day (Roberts 1993).