Friday, August 29, 2008


The Africa that I am building has a golden platter in front of it that will never be empty and has the ability not only to feed its own people but to feed the nations of the world.

Because this is getting too long, I’ll mention this next time. No I’ll go ahead and mention it now, but I’ll be short. Different guests and friends have come through town at one time or another. And I remember one saying something that sounded offensive (though he did not mean it as such). He said that the people are very luck to have benefitted from the development brought by the Europeans who both came and stayed in the country through today. Being one who is studying African history, I’ve had to relearn or correctly learn about the amazing civil and civic potentials of African societies and nation-states past and the truth of the history of this continent. And being someone who works in development whenever I can, I began to question what is development.

Sometimes I feel like development means Western-style sociotechnological advances. The problem is that you can actually be “advanced” without having such technological advances. And it’s not a question of stupidity or inferiority but one of choice if that makes sense or even comfort (lack of necessity). Even today we have some tribes that still live a Stone Age type of existence in the Kalahari, for instance (pygmies). It has nothing to do with intellect.

And when you study African history from the Iron Age on (500 BC - ), even before you arrive in the “middle ages” you come across great civilizations—the Egyptian civilizations (north, south, the unified kingdom, etc.), Ancient Ghana (Ghana is a Soninke word for “war chief” and the Ancient Ghanaian empire reached its peak at the same time as the Franks were growing their empire in Europe) and Kanem-Bornu (Idris Alooma was the most “successful” West African monarch of his day, a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, and having diplomats in Cairo and Tripoli while exchanging gifts with the Ottoman empire), Ancient Mali (rose to power after Ghana) and Songhay, etc. Egypt tops the list and in previous e-mail updates you’ve seen me talk about how Egypt was a truly African venture that would not have existed without its African-ness or African base though there was outside Arabic influence.

It’s definitely true that parts of Africa developed differently due to various factors (Check out Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel”) like the plough which developed in the north as early as the 4000 BC (around then) but whose development in the south and central was troubled by the tsetse fly pest which has been around since earliest human habitation. So, as Professor Basil Davidson says, if mining materials proved useful to some parts of Africa, other parts had no such opportunity, and if kings and monarchies proved advantageous to some, it was useless to other societies.

So in the Iron Age period on, some Africans accumulated wealth especially due to position along desired trade routes (for instance with the high demand for West African gold and North African salt; that’s a good potential for trade just with those two commodities placed in different locations not to mention international trade routes). But for others it was undesirable or impossible.

The Dinka are an example. Some would have labeled them primitive (“undeveloped”). They lived in the Upper Nile where south of them were swamp wastelands of the early Nile and to the north dry, thirsty land called Kordofan. They themselves lived in plains of grasslands and forests that were flooded yearly by river and rain. So permanent homes could only be housed on little pieces of higher ground here and there. There’s no t—well little timber, no stone, no minerals (or lets say nothing of worth). Davidson notes Lienhardt as saying that “these people produce nothing of importance that lasts past their lifetime. One generation, by its labor, does not lay up a foundation for the next generation, that must then again take up the same work by the same process to make food with the same lack of materials under the same cruel environment with nothing changing” (my paraphrase). So as is common in inherently racist histories (thankfully have been rewritten) of Africa, these people were regarded as retarded or stunted in growth, little children who never grew. But we now know that the only way that people “living in nudity on the brink of starvation every year, manufacturing nothing that endures, and accumulating for inheritance only a few cattle and a few tools and ornaments” are actually an advanced people. It takes a lot to adapt to such harsh living circumstances without being wiped out as a people. It is an achievement in itself.

Even subconsciously attaching a notion of size in the definition of development is questionable. The size of a polity or administration does not relate to its efficacy or its ability to adhere a people and govern well. The village governments of Igbo in Nigeria showed great efficiency and economic adaptation and ideological identity. And a lot of the change and momentum in African development has started in the small groupings and small governments and small villages. It was the small villages that connected and solidified the duties of the individual with the rights of the community and “produced the specific forms of African egalitarian democracy.”

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