Africa's Meaning to You

Reality Versus Myth Making



Africa’s Meaning to Non-Africans


Chapurukha M. Kusimba

Bennet Bronson

Anthropology Department, The Field Museum


Striking contradictions exist in the way we see Africa’s role in the past and present world.  Few people still question that eastern and southern Africa were the birthplace of the modern human lineage, and were indeed the only home known to our ancestors until about a million years ago.  Most specialists accept that when modern humans first left Africa for other continents, they carried a good deal of culture with them when .   But in spite of this, non-Africans tend to devalue both ancient and recent African contributions to the world.

Down through about 10,000 BC, the greatest of known African contributions was its advanced stone tool technologies.  Most innovations in the making of stone knives and spears either first occurred in Africa and spread to Eurasia or occurred at more or less the same time in Africa as in the rest of the Old World.

After 10,000 BC, when humans began to experiment with raising food plants and animals, and hence with settled village life and everything that followed from that, the technological links between Africa and Eurasia continued to be close.  This was especially true in the realm of agriculture.  While the Egyptians and other north Africans were taming a wide range of animals and borrowing food plants from West Asia, Africans further south were domesticating numerous crops, including sorghum, one kind of rice, two kinds of millet, several legumes, several kinds of yams, coffee, oil palm and possibly watermelon.  They sent several of these, including sorghum and both Eleusine and Pennisetum millet, to Eurasia, and in turn received domesticated animals, wheat, barley, bananas and more kinds of yams.  The movement of food species into and out of Africa, even before the development of cities or metal technology, testifies to the great antiquity of economic links between Africa and the rest of the world. 

Peoples too continued to move into and out of Africa.  Genetic and linguistic evidence shows that there was a constant flow of population between East and Northeast Africa on the one hand, and the Middle East, India, and southern Europe on the other hand.  Historical linguists maintain that the Semitic languages – the ancestors of Arabic, Hebrew, Assyrian, etc.– originated in central Africa.  So did the language of ancient Egypt.

Egypt, of course, was centrally involved with many famous achievements of the ancient world.  Most of us are aware that ancient Egyptian civilization is now thought to be as old as Middle Eastern civilization with regard to such key “inventions” as writing, monumental architecture, kings, written laws,  and bureaucrats.  We may be less aware, however, that ancient Egypt was in close and almost constant contact with regions farther south.  Extremists on both sides of the “Black Cleopatra” controversy have tended to ignore the fact that throughout Egyptian history, the vast southern watershed of the Nile routinely supplied Egypt not only with fertility-bringing floods but also with manpower – workers, entertainers, soldiers and ruling dynasties.  Much of what went south from Egypt in return has vanished.  One important export to the south, however, survives: Coptic Christianity with its Egyptian/Middle Eastern-inspired art, writing, and architecture. The rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia bear witness to the intensity of early cultural interchange between the northern Nile Valley and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Trade relationships between the Sub-Saharan region and the rest of the world became routine at least two thousand years ago.  The Egyptians and Carthaginians conducted overland trade in the early and middle first millennium B.C. As early as the first century A.D., Africa’s trade relationships with Eurasia began to be controlled by growing state societies and significantly contributed to bi-directional biological and technical transfers in the Old World.  Improvements in ships and the introduction of the camel make it possible to trade across the Indian ocean with East Africa and across the Sahara with West Africa.  Gold, salt, ivory, hides, and spices were typical commodities in this commerce between North and South.

In Northeast Africa, important urban centers including the kingdoms of Kush and Axum came into being at this period, which culminated during the fifth century AD with Ethiopia’s colonization of South Arabia.  In eastern and southern Africa, long-distance trade stimulated the growth of cities along the East African coast and in the interior, centered around the Shona kingdoms of Dzimbahwe.  In West Africa, the trans-Saharan caravan trade led to the rise of a series of large, highly centralized kingdoms, including Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.  One sub-Saharan African group, the Almoravids of the upper Niger area, expanded their power northward beyond the desert in the twelfth century.  Conquering first Morocco and then Spain, they established one of the most brilliant dynasties of the Islamic Middle Ages. 

Turning to modern times, many important cultural impacts of Africa have been made by Africans in the diaspora.  Innovations made by New World Africans in music, the sciences, medicine, and architecture are now recognized as major elements in our present world cultural heritage.  Non- diaspora Africans continue making contributions in music, literature, and sculpture.

But then why did a negative image of African culture emerge and persist even in parts of the world where there has been little or no direct contact with African peoples? 

We think there are several reasons. 

First, slavery.  Because some parts of Africa were populous, poor, and militarily weak, they became major suppliers of slaves to other continents. In Christian Europe and the Americas, though not necessarily in Islamic countries, slaves were low in status and  some of this low status rubbed off on Africans who were by no means slaves.

A second reason for negative images of Africa: its enforced role as a supplier only of raw materials.  As European imperialism developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, Africa shifted from being an equal trading partner to being a continent of mines and exploitable forests and plains, yielding much of the world’s ivory, gold, platinum, diamonds, chromium, manganese, bauxite, uranium, and so forth.  With these being exported in raw, unprocessed form, the profits and prestige of manufacturing went to peoples of other continents.  In the eyes of Europeans, North Americans and East Asians for whom factories were close to the essence of civilization, Africa lost prestige because it was seen as manufacturing nothing from its own resources.  Few of those observers took into account the fact that neither the colonial nor post-colonial systems allowed Africans to set up plants for converting raw materials into consumer products.

A third reason: climatological chauvinism on the part of East Asians and Westerners.  Both groups lived in chilly places, had light-colored skins, and wore lots of clothes.  So it was quite natural for them to conclude that partial nudity was immoral, that dark-skinned people were inferior, and that warm climates encouraged laziness, messiness, and generally undisciplined attitudes.   In the opinion of Europeans, Africa and other tropical regions shared another “uncivilized” trait: their peoples took too many baths.  Europeans, by contrast, bathed infrequently and tended to regard this along with their heavy clothes as symbols of their more civilized status.

A fourth reason: ignorance.  Outsiders of the colonial period consistently failed to recognize the remarkable qualities of  traditional African technologies and to appreciate their suitability for sustainable development.  Western agricultural specialists, for instance, tried hard to introduce European-style methods, crops and breeds in spite of the fact that traditional African farming methods were often as productive as those of Europe and far better suited to tropical environments.

None of these reasons -- former slavery, persisting colonial production patterns, climatological prejudice, or simple ignorance -- fully account for Africa’s negative image, especially in regions like the Far East which had little historical contact with Africa.  And yet that negativism persists, and has serious consequences.

One such consequence has been an irrational disinterest in traditional African agriculture and stockbreeding. Western agricultural experts have spent more than a century trying to persuade Africans to raise European and American breeds of cattle, even though these tend to do poorly under African conditions.  It is only quite recently that modern breeders have begun looking at African cattle not as primitive but as the products of hundreds of generations of carefully controlled, patient and intelligent selection for desirable qualities.  One of the first results of this new attitude has been the introduction of the Tuli breed, originally from Zimbabwe, into the United States.  With meat quality as good as Angus steers, an exceptionally docile nature, and the ability to thrive in spite of extreme heat and drought, the Tuli may replace many of the breeds that are currently popular with American cattle ranchers.

Another consequence is the disappearance of much of the well-adapted material culture of traditional Africa.  For instance, African communities had for several millennia excellent earthenware industries that were well adapted to the functional and symbolic requirements of those communities, and most of which are still relevant to present day populations.  Yet, today many African nations import, at great expense, ceramics of a far less relevant range of shapes at far higher expenses while the indigenous industry has collapsed.  The negative effects are not only economic but cultural, leading to a dilution of tradition and a loss of design skills on the level of the individual craftsperson. 

Yet another consequence is the loss of what has been learned over the centuries about environmentally adapted architecture and settlement planning.  Beautiful and elegant old houses constructed of indigenous materials are being allowed to decay and collapse centuries before their working life is over.  Some are converted to new uses, but their fabric is remolded with an insensitivity to the ecological and climatic setting.  On the other hand, modern structures constructed with imported materials are problematic.  Filthy walls, poor designs, bad sewage systems, overgrown grounds, leaking roofs, and other appalling facilities contribute to the overall impression that mega-slums are indeed in the making in Africa.

We could cite many more unfortunate effects of negative attitudes toward Africa and African achievement.  But the point is made.  While many communities around the world may be aware of Africa’s important contributions to their cultural and historical heritage in the distant past,  they ignore the potential of those contributions in the present and future.  The solution, we think, is education, and that has to be done not only by non-Africans and Americans and Europeans of African ancestry but by Africans themselves.  When Africans can confidently and knowledgeably offer their heritage as solutions to the problems of other continents, Africa’s historical place in the modern world community will become a reality.