Theorizing the Disfigured Body


Theorizing the Disfigured Body: Mutilation, Amputation, and Disability Culture in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone is the product of 4 years of research with amputees in two resettlement camps in Sierra Leone: Jui and Hastings Amputee camps. Published by Africa World Press in 2014, I argued in this monograph for a rethinking of punitive amputation and a reconfiguration of the disfigured body within a new culture of disability in order to reclaim identities and promote agency. I argued that while the scarred or amputated body could be read as text of power, domination, and control, the amputee also has the power to deconstruct that message on the disfigured body and to read it as motivation rather than handicap. I concluded that such a rethinking of disability paves the way for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Here is the opening section of the book:

It would certainly not be an exaggeration to say that on the night of 3rd February 2000 every Sierra Leonean who had access to a TV set, sat glued to their chairs grimly waiting for the clock to strike 9:00pm. On that day, CNN was slated to broadcast a documentary on the Sierra Leone civil war. The raw footage filmed by Sorious Samura, by then an amateur photojournalist in Freetown, documented the brutal carnage that characterized the January 6 1999 invasion of Freetown by the RUF rebels and the resulting battle with Nigerian peacekeepers for control of the city…

As I sat beside my wife gloomy staring at the TV screen, I reflected on two major incidents in the documentary. The first is the opening scene in which a Nigerian peacekeeper summarily executed a teenage boy by shooting him from the back for allegedly being a rebel. The officer’s claim was that the marks on the boy’s body whose presence he could not convincingly explain, and which clearly indicate to the soldier that they were sustained in the bush, ultimately confirmed his identity as member of the RUF.

My interest in the body as witness or evidence of crime was ignited. I was struck by how the body could literally be read as text and marker of identity or perhaps mis-identity. I was stunned by the fact that the teenage boy could die because his own body seemingly gave evidence against his words of innocence. It was both alarming and fascinating to me. The image of the teenage boy as he stumbled to his death from the barrage of bullets discharged from the peacekeepers submachine gun has never left my mind. 

I must say that Theorizing the Disfigured Body is the product of an angry mind — one that is still struggling to make sense of the carnage in the 10 year civil war in Sierra Leone. From my interviews with amputees, the war wounded and survivors of the war, I was struck by the sense of apocalypse that engulfed my native land. It was beyond expectations. In my estimate, carnage could never get worse than this.

However, and strangely enough, Theorizing is an optimistic book. While pointing out the ravages of the civl war, human and material, it also prescribes hope for the future in the creation of a new culture of disability where the disabled and survivors of the mayhem could reclaim new identities and agency. The book sells for $24.95.

Theorizing the Disfigured Body has received a number of favorable reviews. One such review is by Professor Esme Cleall of Sheffield University published in H-Disability in November 2015 (H-Net Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences).

Here are the details and link to the review: Ernest Cole. Theorizing the Disfigured Body: Mutilation, Amputation, and Disability in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone. Trenton: Africa Research and Publications, 2014. 196 pp. Reviewed by Esme Cleall (University of She eld) Published on H-Disability (November, 2015) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison.

Professor Mary Kenny at Eastern Connecticut State University who uses Theorizing the Disfigured Body in her Anthropology class also has this to say about the monograph in an email to me:

“Hi Professor Cole,

My name is Mary Kenny and I am a professor of anthropology at a state university in Eastern Connecticut. I just wanted to send a note to let you know that I read your wonderful, informative (and very disturbing) book about punitive amputation. 

I teach a course on Violence (in various manifestations), and also a course in Medical Anthropology.  One of the issues we address in the Medical Anthro class the ways in which the body is used to communicate (as you say, a canvas or text).  We examine how Russia prisoners use tattoos to tell their ‘story’, as well as Venezuelan prisoners who sew their mouths shut as a form of resistance, to self-cutters and voluntary amputees (bodily integrity issues). 

In reading your book, I was reminded me of one of the articles we read by Rachel Bloui, “Ain’t I a Woman” Female Landmine Survivors’ beauty pageants and the ethics of staring” (against the dominate narrative discourse on beauty). 

Thank you for sharing your important work.

Dr. Mary Kenny

Professor of Anthropology

Eastern Connecticut State University

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