The continuous erasure of African history and the contributions that Africans have made to the world is disappointing. It hints at an agenda to uphold the idea that Africa as a continent is primitive, backwards and as Henry Stanley once said “The Dark Continent”.
A video clip I recently saw reminded me of this. The contestants were tasked with guessing what country had ‘the largest single man made structure on the planet’. They suggested every single continent including Antarctica before finally answering Africa, then immediately proceeded with certainty, it was Egypt. What truly left me disappointed was, after discovering it was ‘The Great Wall of Benin”, they proceeded to laugh about its destruction by the British during the start of the colonial period, followed by an attempt to downplay its size by comparing it to the Eurasian road network. To them it was somewhat unfathomable that a country in Africa could have achieved such a feat and more importantly it wasn’t an North African country.
In those two minutes, I saw the legacy of the continuous erasure of African history. Selective pride and acknowledgement when it comes to the destruction and damage they’ve done in Africa. Finally, Stephen Fry’s last comment summed their thoughts nicely – If the Africans have done it, we have something similar and arguably better.
The Western world plays a large part in the erasure and obscurity surrounding African History but more-so in regards to how people view the historical trajectory and development of African countries. They have successfully managed to do an abstraction of history that surrounds violence, genocide & theft and create theories that reinforce the sole narrative that Africa is primitive, reliant on the generosity of their once colonisers and is subservient to the Western world as opposed to presenting thorough historical analysis. This in turn causes many think that the colonial period was helpful and not a violent conquest resulting in destruction, displacement and servitude.
A majority of information about Africa from the West often starts from the carving up of the African continent following the Berlin conference 1884, the colonial period and how it was the age of enlightenment for ‘poor Africans’. The fact is, unless you have a general interest to dig further, you would never be the wiser. It is never discussed that Africa is not poor – even with the prevalent corruption, mismanagement and nepotism. Africa is an economic superpower in its own right despite many countries within the continent failing to successfully diversify their economies. What gives the perception that countries in Africa are nothing but poor is the powerful imagery of dirty water, malnourished children and victims of warfare – these are all important and need to be addressed. But why isn’t there the same amount of noise regarding Neo-Liberal relationships that African countries are forced to enter with Western powers which are largely asymmetrical? Or the fact that a majority of former French colonies weren’t able to establish their own currencies so are reliant on using currencies (CFA Franc) supported by the French treasury which requires them to maintain a balance of €20BN in France? The CFA Franc is undoubtedly a barrier to structural transformation, a modern form of colonialism but again we do not hear about this as they wax on about Comic Relief and The Red Cross. Why don’t we discuss the exploitation of millions of universally ignored Black African soldiers dragged into the World Wars that were killed or displaced and what that meant for their families and their countries? Better yet why don’t we talk about the visible legacy of colonialism – the destruction and reassembling of traditional structures and systems to create barely functional infrastructures that allowed the exploitation of our resources which many African countries are still dealing with or have had to dedicate a massive amount of resources to turn around. Do the colonists acknowledge the legacy of making their language the national language due to arbitrary states being made with little regard to ethnic and geographical differences – the underlying stigma in speaking your native language in an office or the amount of young people who can’t speak or understand their native languages as English was forced upon them?
A majority of information from the core can be described as having wilful amnesia that blocks perspectives from the periphery and consequently justifies social, economics and political ‘Western dominance” over the other. Individuals aren’t aware that Africa wasn’t grouped in the Copper Age not because they were primitive but because they had wielded such tools centuries before. How many know that some of the oldest churches in the world are in Africa and that the early years of Modern Art and Avant-Garde dominated by Artists such as Picasso in the early 1900s were influenced by traditional African sculptures. Jazz – its distinct polyrhythmic nature spread by Africans. The grand structures of palaces, mosques and universities in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Timbuktu. The civilisations of Nok and Bura? The Empires of Mali, Songhai and Ghana or notable figures in history such as Mansa Musa I, the richest man to have ever lived.
Even recently, I had to listen to an associates shock at what they saw of my holiday in Nigeria – maybe they assumed I lived in a hut and walked everywhere. I think individuals need to try and educate themselves. Do I think this will happen on a state or global level? No. A change like that would not be welcome, it requires a decolonisation of the Western narrative and a keen focus of the imperialist nature of the West but what you can do is educate yourself and those in your proximity.
“Benin City, originally known as Edo, was once the capital of a pre-colonial African empire located in what is now southern Nigeria. The Benin empire was one of the oldest and most highly developed states in west Africa, dating back to the 11th century. With its mathematical layout and earthworks longer than the Great Wall of China, Benin City was one of the best planned cities in the world when London was a place of ‘thievery and murder’. So why is nothing left?”