State of the African nation, Part II
In my last column, I put the current state of the African nation in perspective by observing the creation of the modern world 500 years ago with European military conquest which spread across the planet, leaving hundreds of millions dead. Those imperial invasions entrenched a system of apartheid of white over brown over black, all over the world. Native Americans and Africans are meant to be permanently at the bottom of this caste pyramid because both their motherlands—the Americas and Africa—are indispensable to Western civilisation.
Unpaid African labour also constructed the New World for 300 years under the brutal system of plantation slavery, whose purpose was to take a civilised people and reduce them to animals and machines. This context enables us to zoom in on the progress of African people over time. This is not to say that all African populations are the same—ethnically or in terms of history—but in the same way we can analyse the path of Jews, Native Americans or Chinese peoples—despite complexities—so can we Africans. The solutions to many of our contemporary problems are in the pathways of the past.
How is it even possible to sum up the oldest people on earth in 800 words? Africa is the oldest inhabited territory on Earth, with the human species originating on the continent. Pre-colonial Africa possessed the most culturally diverse land mass in the world with perhaps as many as 10,000 different states—from hunter-gatherer societies to massive complex kingdoms and urban centres. There is literally an infinity of stories that can be told of the continent. The retelling and reclaiming of that history is an essential part of repairing the damage of the last 500 years.
Because the dominant racist narrative of the last 500 years has been to slander Africa and her people as “savages”, it is necessary to compile a few civilisational notes. From the black African origin of Egypt to the Egyptian origin of the system of the alphabet; to sub-Saharan pioneering of copper and Iron technology; an encyclopaedic herbal remedial tradition; to sophisticated cultural bronze casting; to the existence of sophisticated surgery and medical procedures; to innovative political and administrative systems—ancient Africa was a seat of technological and human innovation.
This sophistication extended into agricultural innovations—the World Bank has called traditional plantain and banana production in West Africa, which utilises no chemical fertilisers, pesticides, or herbicides, “one of the most productive food production systems known”. Many of the cultural, educational, political, and technological innovations that would enlighten other parts of the world—like Greece and the Middle East—began in Africa.
So kingdoms, technology, heroes, schools, brilliant communities—Africa and its 10,000 nations had it all.
This was the world that Europe entered in the 15th century at the beginning of its imperial expansion. Most of the Africans in the New World come from a cluster of nations on the Western coast. We are descended mostly from the kingdoms of Yorubaland, Ashanti, Congo, Igbo, Akan, and Fon. Other ancestral nations included the Wolof, Mandingo, Malinke, Bambara, the Temne, Mende, Ewe, Ga, Fante, BaKongo, MaLimbo, Ndungo, BaMbo, BaLimbe, BaDongo, Fulani, Tuareg, Dialonke, Massina, Dogon, Songhay—and a host of others. At the time of the European slave trade these kingdoms were in the process of centralising city states politically and spiritually—but others were at war. These city states had irrigation systems, complex governments, priesthoods, religious texts, armies, etc.
Europe entered Africa with the idea of plunder—first in capturing resources and land—and then the people as labour. So there are two impacts to Africans we must follow. One is to a significant population of kidnapped people—the citizens who were taken across the Atlantic to be enslaved—who are effectively still prisoners of war… And the second is the invasion and destabilisation of an ancestral motherland.
The European destablisation of West, Central and North Africa began in the 15th century through slave raids on the West Coast—but also by dividing and exacerbating local conflicts. This tactic of playing local enemies against one another with the threat of attack hanging over negotiations was used by European invaders in Native America, Asia, and even against one another. In West Africa the tactic morally corrupted a handful of African kingdoms who became complicit in the slave trade by selling Europeans their prisoners of war. Parts of West Africa was plunged into civil war with European powers providing guns and resources in exchange for prisoners. The European infection of Africa had begun…
Unbeknownst to the individual kingdoms, the result of these conflicts would be a transatlantic slave trade that would deplete the continent of millions of lives. All over the world different ethnicities would be simultaneously going through their own meetings with the white West. To understand the world today (Laventille, the East-West Corridor, Brooklyn, and Darfur) and the place of different ethnicities in it, we need to follow both trajectories of African people’s engagement with the white West-in Africa and in the New World.