African Social Evolution

As my colleague Chris Lovell points out, hunting is not so much a way of life as a way of gaining sustenance.  Hunters in Ghana have become farmers of bushmeat, but whether this change is truly more sustainable is a dubious claim.

Civilization's infringement on traditional hunting lands have provided new jobs for some, but abject poverty for too many.

African Social Evolution

Ghana International Airways provided a complimentary October 2006 copy of the New African Magazine, the front page of which proclaimed boldly ‘Africa’s Glorious Heritage.’ My pre-African introduction to Africa was to be a 27-page, multi-authored expose on one of the most prevalent myths about the continent: that before Europeans arrived there it was a massive, sprawling backwater devoid of civilized people.

As American writer Adam Hochschild wrote in his 1999 bestseller, ‘King Leopold’s Ghost,’ this myth is rooted in the racist perceptions of the colonialists themselves, who failed to see the complex societies abounding around them through their pre-conceived romantic notions of savagery. Hochschild writes:

To see Africa instead as a continent of coherent societies, each with its own culture and history, took a leap of empathy, a leap that few, if any, of the early European or American visitors to the Congo were able to make. To do so would have meant seeing Leopold’s [King of Belgium] regime not as progress, not as civilization, but as a theft of land and freedom.

From this perspective, it is plain why Africans want to make it clear that Africa already had numerous complex societies in place by the time Europeans found their way there in the 15th century, particularly the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa, places we now know as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania. The New African magazine was making this point abundantly clear as a follow-up to Black History Month, and they were doing so to restore a most precious resource in Africa: pride.

African pride has been much maligned by the experience of colonialism and the unprecedented scale of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Nigerian writer Chinweizu described this phenomenon in his seminal work ‘Decolonising the African Mind.’ Colonizing the mind describes a centuries-long form of psychological warfare aimed to separate the colonized from their cultures and convincing them of their own cultures’ inferiority to that of the colonizer.

This practice is commonly used by colonizers and often leaves the colonized to love their oppressor. In 1964 Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah observed this love of the white oppressor in his classic novel ‘The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born’ as follows: “That is all anyone here struggles for: to be closer to the white man. All the shouting against the white men was not hate. It was love. Twisted, but love all the same.”

Unfortunately, this mindset remains present among many of the Ghanaians I met during my time working there as a journalist, many of whom were desperate to leave their home and travel to the West for riches and glory. To live among the colonizers.

In order to decolonise the mind, African scholars, activists and writers are determined to re-write history, this time as told by the colonized, to create African pride in African history, while at the same time elucidating the great injustice that was done.

Scholars draw on archaeological, anthropological, historically recorded, and orally traditional evidence to distance Africa from the ‘primitive’ ways of living. One journalist writing for the New African, when writing of Yoruba artworks (found in modern Nigeria) wrote that “uncivilised people cannot produce artwork of this high quality and sophistication” as one means of proof that the continent was indeed rife with civilizations by the time the Europeans arrived.

This fact of history is beyond reasonable academic debate. The evidence is overwhelming, and the Yoruba empire itself, complete with a large capital city, goes back to the 11th century. In many cases African civilizations pre-date European ones, and their knowledge of the lunar cycle was well developed before it occurred to any European to think about it. Many scientific and artistic firsts can be traced to Africa.

These truths are important, and I wholeheartedly support the effort to erase racist mythologies, but I lament that the source of African pride, or anyone’s pride, should be linked to civilization. Civilization, defined by large, centralized, hierarchical societies usually surviving from the toil of the few, is the most oppressive, unjust, cancerous system of human organization in all of history. Those ‘pre-civil’ societies that Africans (and most other people too) are distancing themselves from never committed genocide, never extinguished so many species, never destroyed their own environments to the extent that ‘civil’ised people do.

It is ironic that African scholars’ efforts to create African pride are so linked to the very system of living that created colonialism. In a sense this latest effort brings Africans one step closer to the oppressors that have become so beloved by so many who are oppressed.

Read on: Civilized Oppression

1 comment for “African Social Evolution

  1. December 16, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    This is great. This is precisely what we need to learn: the true history of civilisation and the true nature of the uncivilised.

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