A brisk reading of K. Ingham’s 1953 book ‘Europe and Africa’ shows little difference in how we tell the African story.
The book, developed for a certificate course, reads almost word for word the same as what the current curriculum teaching in history has as content. It places emphasis on what European conquerors thought or did, and what motivated them to lie, trick, kill and play Africans against each other. Since its author was European, and writing for an audience he hoped would accept such values of racial supremacy, his perspective is acceptable. Ours isn’t.
Five decades after attaining self-independence, and a little more than a century since a myriad of reasons catapulted us from ‘savage life’ to what we have now, our continued ignorance can no longer be defended. Our references, in text and conversation, to our forefathers as ‘natives’ displays our influences and shows how we are still shackled to our pasts. The way we have been exposed to history so far has been through the eyes of outsiders, whose missions were dressed in the garb of religion and morality but was really always about money. Such has become our story, viewing the beliefs of our ancestors, for example, as wholly evil and backward. Just as a missionary in 1899, writing to his mother church in England, would. Without proper interrogation of what we actually know to be true about being African, we declare a rising continent. But it is a continent without a keen knowledge of itself.
The truth is that we were part of a bigger game, one that was driven by men who had once been colonized themselves. That history, distilled into their governments, social structures, and education, defined and described their values. It implored upon otherwise comfortable men the desire for adventure. Consider sailing away into the sea at a time when the world was thought to be flat. To be curious was almost assuredly to invite death. Yet that is the beauty of time. That empires of men are built and they eventually fall. Evolution, even amongst the species, demands new and fresh ideas, derived from lessons of history, to get the best it can. The empires they were part of died, and they built their own partly out of necessity and partly out of the shameless desire for glory. They got wealth and glory, but even their empires, in which our modern nation emerged, collapsed.
The truth is that in our 21st century cushioned pads, the lives that our forefathers lived a century ago look bizarrely primitive. While the rest of the world was fighting with rifles and gunships, and engaging in transcontinental trade, we seemed stuck in time. We had little contact with the world, and the only ones who had extensive contact ended up working in the rubber fields of Malaya, or on the North American continent or the fields of South America for whatever short, miserable lives they managed to get. Some got thrown overboard, into the raging waters of the seas. For us, our ancestors are what Europeans see their ancestors who lived more than millennia ago.
That perspective is exactly why we need to write our history. African communities might not have been fighting to control Indian trade posts, but they had systems of their own. Like all other communities of men and women, there were governments and courtrooms. Sometimes there were kings, and at times elders. There was religion, almost always in some form, and hierarchies. In most, everything was communally owned, and such a system worked to survive, as all systems should. It was not primitive, it was different. The men who were tricked to sign off their communities lands were not foolish or ignorant. They were just ignorant of Western ideals, and that was their undoing. They had personalities and ideas.
Who cares who the first European to see a mountain was, or the first white person to reach a certain lake. It is of no consequence to us a continent which European discovered the source of the River Nile. Perhaps the only story of a mountain we should tell is that of the eccentric man who thought he bought Mount Kenya for four goats, and sought to declare a kingdom among a people where such a concept was foreign. All these knowledge of ‘discovering’ things that had been seen by many generations before is proof that we are seeing our past through the eyes of outsiders, a century later. It is shameful that we would consider such things factual, and even examinable. It is an utter waste of time because it does not inspire among us explorers, adventurers, and dreamers.
Even during the decades of colonial domination, there were still men and women who made sacrifices, and enterprises, to which we can dedicate entire chapters and books. There are many stories, many heroes to exalt, and many decisions to discuss. There are arguments to be had, about whether the Mau Mau won any freedom for anyone. Arguments about the follies of independence governments, about how greed has eaten into the seeds of what might have become the greatest nations on earth. Because the greatest nations on earth have oft emerged from colonial domination as small chicks from shattered eggs, struggling to find their way in a cruel world of greed and blood.
Our history has been written by our conquerors. Our historians, trained by the same conquerors, have done little to correct that. We have used all the knowledge we have absorbed over a century to do nothing but parrot what should be our launching pad to a destiny of our choice. Governments have survived by inheriting and perfecting the colonial systems, and subverting any critical assessment of history that might set our nations on the course to become empires themselves.
By telling us about foreigners who saw mountains, our histories have so far undermined our ability to see our own ancestors as human beings like everyone else. They have downplayed their successes, their politics, and whether they loved or cried. What we know is what is in our blood, what we feel when we get angry or we fall in love, and even that is fading. The African Dream, wrapped in a century of deliberate packaging aimed at praising the role of colonial domination and downplaying the will and work of the African, is not African at all. It is time to start retelling the African story.