The uniqueness of the African Man

Scientific techniques ranging from fossil identification, radio-carbon dating and analysis of DNA – the genetic blueprint passed down from one generation to the next – all support the notion that Africa, in particular, the eastern and southern regions, is the cradle of human civilization.

For those thinking this is a scientific exaggeration, I quote Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa, on the contribution of the continent towards the development of humanity:

“It is in Africa that the oldest fossils of the early ancestors of humankind have been found and it is the only continent that shows evidence of humans through the key stages of evolution.”

As humans began to multiply, the need for culture, values, religion, politics, kingship, law and civilizations became eminent albeit in primitive form.

This suggests that nationalism is not a new discovery in Africa, so it baffled me when a highly educated lecturer from the Philippines asked me the following questions: Is it true that Africans live mostly on trees? What is the capital of Africa?

If not for the cultural value propagated by the African continent, I would have asked him to go back to senior high school or get a television set if there was none in the Philippines. That was why I was enthusiastic when asked to write on the topic. Because it serves as a medium to educate a considerable number of people about the African Man. – his enormously rich values and cultures which spreads throughout a vast mass like sand on the seashore. The rich cultural heritage which they have protected until the intervention of western civilization and how as custodians of their culture have protected it irrespective of the deprivation from the so-called western good (civilization).

Where do I begin? This is an important question because to write all about the African Man, man’s existence is not enough. Let us start somewhere for simplicity sake. Over two thousand years ago, there were two important developments in western Africa: long-distance trade and the ability to manipulate clay, stone and metals to a sophisticated degree (early civilisation). During this era, there arose a number of kingdoms and empires from the 6th to the 15th Century. Common to each of these great empires were extensive trans-Saharan trade with the north, effective and productive system of taxation and a large standing army. From the 17th Century, some parts of West Africa were a patchwork of city-states and kingdoms; in the early 19th Century, Muslim reformers changed the political ideology of large parts of West Africa, most notably what is now northern Nigeria, under the leadership of Usman dan Fodio.

The geographical landscape in Africa is a blessing. The River Nile at 6,695 kilometres is the longest river in the world, stretching from its source at Uganda to its delta where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. The Nile has for centuries provided work and sustenance to millions of Africans. In regions with unreliable rainfall and poor soils, its waters have offered people an opportunity to build great societies like those of Egypt and its environs. The rich soils of Africa enabled large-scale farming and sustenance agriculture – animal husbandry, nomadic, fisheries and others that are part and parcel of community sustenance and trade.

Central Africa is a fertile area rich in mineral deposits. A number of states have emerged with sophisticated metalworking techniques in what is referred to as the ‘late iron age’. To the East between the rivers Zambezi and Limpopo, the grassland zone was rich in cattle and gold. A distinctive and unique form of pottery was made. The Portuguese appeared around this same time, attracted by the gold and slaves. By the 18th century, the slave trade was sufficiently lucrative.

 Religion has always been central to people’s lives in Africa. Although the majority of Africans are now Muslims or Christians, traditional religions have endured and continue to play a significant role. Religion runs like a thread through daily life, marked by prayers of supplication in times of need, conforming identity on the individual and the group. Throughout the history of the continent, religion has exerted a powerful influence on political change: spirit mediums have led revolts against European and African rulers; ancestral spirits have commanded acts of destruction and called for the overthrow of rulers and chiefs; people have sought the help of priests and medicine men to achieve power and wealth.

Slavery has been practised all over the world for thousands of years but never before had so many people from one continent been transported to another against their will. Within the space of 400 years, millions of people went to America although many were taken to the Middle East and North Africa. However, with the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807, conflicts and rivalries in Europe began to directly affect people in Africa. Around the 1880s, European power divided Africa up amongst themselves without the consent of the natives, and with limited knowledge of the land, they had taken.

In 1914, conflict in Europe came to a head and the First World War broke out. The contribution of African people to the war effort was crucial. The support from Africa, its leaders and chiefs cannot be overemphasized even when most of them had only the vaguest understanding of what the First World War was about. Without the cooperation of local leaders and chiefs, European powers would not have been able to raise troops and carriers needed. For instance, in Nigeria, there was a general rallying around urban educated Nigerians. Speeches were made and money collected to support European colonies.

After this was the Second World War which was sparked off by the territorial ambitions in Europe and Africa of Germany’s Chancellor Adolph Hitler. As in the First World, the colonial powers needed African manpower. This time, African troops were to play a much more combatant role within and outside Africa. Half a million Africans fought for the French and British during the war.

When the war ended, people felt that having fought for freedom in Europe; they were entitled to it for themselves. That was not as easy as the colonialists were still enjoying colonialism. But when India gained independence in 1947, the movement towards self-rule became unstoppable. Within a period of over 70 years, Britain and France had built up and dismantled the huge machinery of colonial rule; and imperialism was a fleeting episode in African history but had left an indelible mark on the continent, both economically and socially. Attaining economic independence proved harder than gaining political independence. In some areas drought and famine destroyed agricultural production, elsewhere war brought economic activity to a halt.
In some areas, the Englishmen led the initiative to exploit the natural resources of their colonies. In Southern Africa, they exploited countries with mining resources. Their long-term goal was to colonise the whole continent with white settlers. Wherever they set up a community, they pursued a policy of racial segregation based on a belief in the racial superiority of Europeans. This reached its most organised form in the system of apartheid created by the National Party of South Africa, which ultimately led to political instability and a slow down of economic growth.
In South Africa, political instability had been the result and cause of economic difficulties. The cost of living spiralled, hitting a fast-growing urban population. These negative trends called for the intervention of Western economic institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. Consequently, there was a steady migration of people from the continent to Europe and America, looking for a better and more stable quality of life.

when all has been said and done, the continent of Africa remains. culture still plays a dominant role despite the influence of western civilization. Colonization has dealt us a blow but the blood of our ancestors still flow in our veins. Our cultural heritage cannot be forgotten. We know where we come from, and that is why an African will always be proud of being one. Depicting African Man as violent, arrogant and unintelligent and a lesser being is subversive. The history of politics, sports, education and cultural values has proved otherwise.

I hope that I have successfully directed my lecturer and those with the same perspective to the truth about the uniqueness of the African Man.

The article was first published in 2005

Anthony-Claret Onwutalobi
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