Africa’s light to the world

“Why has Africa historically never been technologically and militarily as developed as the rest of the world?”

It’s a frustrating question often raised – more as a rhetorical device than as an honest inquiry – and was asked in similar words yesterday in a casual conversation.

I confess the question itself disturbs me, not least because – in one form or another – it is has so often been asked by white people, and rarely from a genuine desire for an answer, but as a sort of “bias confirmation” about Africa, or worse, the perpetuation (willingly or through ignorance) of a racist narrative. This isn’t to accuse all who ask it of being bigots, but to see the question deeply embedded in a sort of pervasive blindness to history.

“Racism doesn’t have to mean you hate those who are different than yourself. It can mean the subtle, pernicious accumulation of unconscious prejudices against those who see the world differently.”

– Michael Fairbanks, Nothing Good Comes Out of Africa, HuffPost

Mention Egypt, Carthage or Kush and you may get a vague nod (‘But were they really African?’) – and right here you find race – a discredited social construct – at centre stage (and Egypt’s geography conveniently ignored). Afrocentrists and Eurocentrists will fight it out, “…recapitulating racial disagreements and viewpoints relevant to the American context, and projecting them back to the ancient world.” (Razib Khan, Ancient Egyptians: black or white? Gene Expression).

Ask about Axum, or the Songhai Empire, the Kingdoms of Ghana, Benin and Ethiopia, and you’ll often get blank faces: again, because of a eurocentric worldview, swathes of history remain terra incognito to many. Technology has never been the narrow preserve of Europe: few realize that, for instance, fractal mathematics was in use in Africa centuries before it was “discovered” by a German mathematician in the 20th century. The Haya of Tanzania and the lost sub-saharan Nok culture (900 BC to 200 AD) were forging steel with blast-furnaces 2000 years ago. (Incidentally, the Nok’s judicial system pre-dates the western judicial system). The medieval Ashanti empire – which stretched from central Ghana to the present-day Ivory Coast – is renowned for it’s military prowess, wealth, architecture, sophisticated hierarchy, legal system and culture; its gold work evidence of unsurpassed technical and aesthetic skill.

I could go on.

There’s a helpful debate running at present at Quora (which is where the introduction question came from):

What I enjoyed in reading the various responses was that the premise of the question itself is challenged: there’s considerable ignorance, conceit and a measure of racism in the way the question is phrased. I’d always rather thought Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel was a good book on the subject, but I realize he too comes at the problem from a eurocentric perspective (and why, pray tell me, should Africa offer a defense for herself, given Europe’s record of disastrous meddling on the continent for the last four hundred years?).

Once you understand that the question itself is flawed, it’s a whole lot more interesting to explore the history of Africa’s civilisations without the myopic lens of the so-called “first world” (itself an anachronistic Cold War term: who ever decided which the “first” world was anyway?). Of course there are volumes written on this subject, by academics and experts of all persuasions and perspectives (historical, archaeological, anthropological, political and so on). The Quora thread offers exciting insights about past African population densities, agricultural potential and climatic influences on civilizations, as well as exposing the hubris and fictions surrounding Europe as the centre of the world.

Before I left South Africa last month I had just read Ancient Civilizations of Africa, and Africa under Colonial domination 1880 to 1935 (both in the UNESCO General History of Africa series). Both offer an enlightening counter-narrative.

But for readability I rather liked Jeff Verkouille’s refreshing response below:

“Africa was indeed often as developed and often more developed than Europe throughout recorded history. The following is but a small selection of some of the many contributions Africans have brought to the surrounding world, in no particular order.

Much of Europe’s technological development was brought to Spain by black Africans during the time the Iberian peninsula was under Moorish control (711ce-1492ce).

In earlier times the Phoenicians, originally from the Middle East, established many wealthy and developed ports in north Africa. One of these, Carthage, battled Rome for control of the Mediterranean and almost won. Even today the exploits of Hannibal, an African general, are taught in military academies.

Aksum was another, more successful rival to the Roman Empire, halting its expansion into Africa just as Parthia blocked Rome’s eastward expansion. Many of its leaders were queens, holding power and respect few nations granted women in any time or place.

The Medieval churches of Ethiopia, carved out of solid bedrock, rival any of Europe’s cathedrals of the same time (or later for that matter).

The relics of libraries, mosques, and fortresses on the Swahili coast remain impressive to those who visit today, and reflect a centuries long cultural trade connecting Africa with Arabia, Persia, India, and even China, at a time when European peasants were huddling in huts, burning women who knew herbal medicines as witches, and shitting in pots which they threw out their windows, not knowing how to build the sewers present in much of the rest of the world, including (you guessed it!) parts of Africa.

The language east Africans created to converse with their far flung trading partners is still spoken today: Swahili.

The Great Zimbabwe is as worthy an ancient ruin as Angkor Wat or other fortresses found across the globe and quite far south of the equator.

Many commercial crops, from bananas, sugar cane, palm oil, yams, and peanuts, came to the attention of the wider world after cultivation in Africa. It is true some of these crops began yet further back in history and location: sugar cane originates in Papua New Guinea and bananas were a product transported by the Indonesians who settled Madagascar, part of the vast international trade Africans held a central and valuable place in nurturing. Coffee comes from Ethiopia, as does the unique grain teff, still cultivated today. Millet is a popular grain also from the African continent and present in much of the beer I drink these days. These and other crops represent an agricultural contribution that should not be ignored.

Independent iron forging, a rare technological invention, was part of the Bantu culture of West Africa, and their bronze work remains unsurpassed. Meroe and other east African civilizations exported this technology to Arabia and other neighboring territories, where it was greatly esteemed for its quality.

The wealthiest person in history was an African, Mansa Musa. His pilgrimage of Haj is still talked about today.

Another African Muslim traveled over three times as far as Marco Polo and his accounts remain read today: Ibn Batutta. Like Mansa Musa, he was a central African.

The library at Timbuktu in the midst of the continent was one of the great centers of learning in world history, as was the library at Alexandria centuries earlier during the classical era two thousands years ago.

Egyptian construction techniques are admired by engineers world wide even today, in some cases four thousands years after the architects died.

The real question here, far too often asked on Quora, is why such blatant ignorance is so common. To that there is unfortunately a simple answer: racism.

People don’t believe in their hearts black Africans have accomplished their astounding contributions to humanity across the centuries, so they deny the existence of such accomplishments and pose foolish queries.

Those who study history know that until five or so centuries ago Europe, away from the shores of the Mediterranean, connecting its inhabitants with the knowledge and civilization of the Middle East and Africa, was among the most primitive lands found on our planet.

Roughly 500 hundred years ago naval technology (much of it learned from African Muslims in Al-Andulus) and gun powder (a Chinese invention brought to Europe via Asian and African trade routes) used in cannons, coupled with a certain amount of ruthlessness and brutality, led to the modern world, for good, and all too often, ill.

I find myself reminded of the words of a wise brown man, who started his career defending people of color against the oppression of people of European heritage in Africa a century ago. Asked what he thought of western civilization, Gandhi replied, “It would be a good idea.”

Following Verkouille’s post there’s a good deal of debate, all worth a read.

See also:

“Modern scholarship views racial categories as socially constructed, that is, race is not intrinsic to human beings but rather an identity created, often by socially dominant groups, to establish meaning in a social context. This often involves the subjugation of groups defined as racially inferior, as in the onedrop rule used in the 19th-century United States to exclude those with any amount of African ancestry from the dominant racial grouping, defined as “white”. Such racial identities reflect the cultural attitudes of imperial powers dominant during the age of European colonial expansion. This view rejects the notion that race is biologically defined.”






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