Doing a little research about Africa, so far I’ve come across no less than 7 “guesstimates” about the origin of the continents name! Be it from the Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Asians, a Yemenite chief or perhaps the grandson of Abraham or companion of Hercules, however it received its name, present day scholars and scientists refer to Africa, particularly East Africa, as the “birthplace of humanity” which can only underscore her enormously vast and yet undisclosed antiquity. Fossils, human bones, tools, pottery, rock art, cave paintings, even the worlds earliest recorded mathematical notations… “discoveries” about Africa continue to systematically and irrefutably enlighten the “dark continent” of “savages” labels and misinformed assumptions of the past.
Shining her own light on Africa, in her very entertaining and inspiring book titled “Looking For Lovedu: Days And Nights In Africa” Ann Jones details her remarkable road trip from Morocco to Cape Town in search of Modjadji V, Queen of the Lovedu people. With her kind permission I reprint here a small portion of Ann’s informed and concise history of human beings in Africa…
“It was in Africa that what we call human life – Homo sapiens sapiens – first appeared not less than 150,000 years ago. It was out of Africa that “wise wise man” hiked into Eurasia and later – between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago – over the Bering land bridge into the Americas. Which means that African cultures are the oldest on earth and therefore more advanced, more “developed” than any other – at least in chronological terms. Nowadays, of course, “development” is a measure of industrialization, not the mere accretion of elapsed time, and it is commonly believed in the West to be the correct path, the only acceptable path, to the future. Other nations of both West and East have hurried along that trail, leaving the nations of the African cradle in the dust. But in prehistoric times, the inhabitants of Africa actually were further along the path of “development” than Native North Americans. The first stone tools – found at various sites in Africa – were made about two million years ago.
Historians say that African history properly begins with the spread of farming across the continent after about 6,000 B.C. Some date the Iron Age as early as 500 B.C., when Africans of the Sudan and the upper Nile Valley learned to mine, smelt, and forge metals. By the end of the fifth century of the Christian era, nearly all of Africa was occupied by Iron Age farmers. Farming made villages possible; settlement in villages made the accumulation of goods possible and stimulated trade. During the period Europeans still know as the Dark Ages, Africa’s Sudanic states carried on a vigorous trade – in gold, ivory, ostrich feathers and slaves derived from the hinterland to the south – while the prosperous East African coast developed commercial connections with Arabia and India. The old state of Benin sent ambassadors to Portugal years before Columbus sailed for the New World.
Eventually, many African cultures below the Sahara developed systems of self-government based on participatory democracy. The kings and chiefs who headed such cultures were not rulers but symbolic leaders, charged like Queen Modjadji with maintaining harmony and balance among the ancestors, the people, and the elements of the natural and spiritual worlds, and above all with doing the will of the people. A privy council and a council of elders advised the leader, and the voice of the people was heard in the village assembly, where everyone could speak until consensus was achieved. The chief was kept in hand by various institutional checks and balances, and for such grievous offenses as greediness and refusal to heed good advice, he could be removed from office, or “destooled”: lifted bodily from his stool of office and deposited on his rump on the ground. So devoted were Africans to freedom, and so distrustful of executive power, that many sub-Saharan peoples had no chiefs at all. Instead, the people of these stateless societies – people such as the Igbo and Fulani of Nigeria, the Mbeere of Kenya, the Konkomba of Togoland – ruled themselves through the council of elders and the village assembly, seeking, like the Lovedu, to resolve conflicts through compromise. Powerful states like Asante (Ashanti) that conquered their neighbors typically left them considerable autonomy, so that even an African empire might resemble a confederation of self-governing democratic states.
It’s not that the continent was some idyllic Eden – some carefree “merrie Africa” without despotism, warfare, slavery, or treachery – before the white man came along. It was inhabited by human beings, after all, and customs varied from place to place. But sub-Saharan Africans generally seem to have come down on the side of participatory democracy, free speech, and the rule of the law. And although wars were fought and people subjugated or forced to move, Africans on the whole must have been good at finding peaceable accommodation. How else could more than two thousand different ethnic groups speaking more than two thousand languages and dialects have survived as neighbors to the present day? Scholars say that the civilized art of living peaceably in small societies without establishing states is a distinctly African contribution to human history. Nevertheless, when Europeans arrived, it suited them to say that Africa had no history and no “civilization.”
In the second half of the fifteenth century, Portuguese navigators made their way along the African coast, followed by the English, the Dutch, the French. So began centuries of trade relations that came to focus on the single product for which Europeans and later North Americans raised the greatest demand: slaves. At the end of the eighteenth century, European explorers first braved the interior of Africa, and in the nineteenth, European military men, merchants, missionaries, and settlers ventured after them to conquer, kill, trade, Christianize, colonize and exploit. But Africa is an immense continent, the second largest after Asia. It’s 8,000 kilometers long and 7,400 kilometers wide – about three times the size of the United States. Covering twenty percent of the earth’s land surface, it is so vast and so daunting to outsiders that until late in the nineteenth century – little more than one hundred years ago – the European presence in Africa consisted merely of a few tenuous handholds around the edges, and Western influence was slight.
Then Leopold II, king of the Belgians, claimed as his personal property an enormous chunk of Central Africa, bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy combined, and more than seventy-six times the size of this own kingdom. Other European heads of state, worried that Leopold had skewed the delicate balance of power among them, gathered in Berlin in 1884 to discuss the matter. There the eminent white men, seated around a table at Bismarck’s house in the Wilhelmstrasse, resolved some conflicting claims to the African continent and affably began to parcel it out among themselves. What they wanted was natural resources. Leopold thought of Africa as a rich “unpeopled” treat – a “cake”. Everyone wanted a piece. Less than twenty-five years later, when the European scramble for Africa ended, only two pieces of Africa remained independent: Liberia, a small impoverished West African settlement of repatriated American slaves, and the empire of Ethiopia. The rest of the African cake had been sliced into more than thirty pieces, snatched by chicanery and force, and packaged in the flags of England, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Germany and Italy were to lose their colonies to England and France in the First World War, and Spain claimed only a small portion: so it was England, France and Portugal that came to hold the continent. They clutched it tight until the middle of the twentieth century, when it began to blow up in their hands.
As things played out, perhaps this history is not so very different from that of many other parts of the world: successive waves of invasion (“exploration”), conquest and genocide (“pacification”), theft of land (“settlement”), theft of resources (“trade”), economic exploitation (“development”), and obliteration of culture (“civilization” and “Christian conversion”). What makes Africa “dark” is our own ignorance of the place. We don’t know its history or much about its present condition either. We’ve forgotten that it is the homeland of us all.” (32-35)
Jones, Ann. “Looking For Lovedu: Days and Nights in Africa” New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2001
Thank you Ann!
I am also very thankful a great many appear to be remembering Africa, our collective homeland, more often and ever more reverently these days.
My experience with Africa has helped me to understand she not only possesses, but continues to offer an overwhelming treasure of wealth – her most precious resources – to us all… priceless jewels such as strength, incredible enduring strength, and humility, and authenticity, wisdom, simplicity, and forgiveness, acceptance, joy, generosity, and Love…
Personally, I think in some way we’re all on our way back to Africa, and her heart is wide open, waiting to embrace us when we finally and truly arrive back home.. in Love!
See you there!