‘So geographers in Afric maps,
With savage pictures fill the gaps
And over uninhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.’
– Jonathan Swift, author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’
‘…all on a supernatural scale and under such an immense sky that when you are first exposed to it, you may be seized with both vertigo – from the sheer speed and height of the clouds – and “folie de grandeur”. Such grandiose surroundings were irresistible to English settlers…’ – James Fox, ‘White Mischief’
‘For millions of years, in millions of homes
A man loved a woman, a child it was born’
– David Byrne, ‘Like Humans Do’ (song)
I was surprised, and more than a little amused as I listened to a BBC Radio programme on Africa earlier this year. A field reporter on assignment in mammoth China wanted to know how deep the locals’ knowledge of the African continent went. The results: It barely scratched the surface. Intermixed with laughter were suggestions that the world’s second-largest continent is composed of lions, elephants and bush. There were mentions of Mandela, South Africa and the film ‘Out of Africa’. No, they didn’t think there were any towns to speak of. Yes, there were plenty of wild animals. But most shocking of all was the suggestion that Africa is a single country. Even an interviewee who had actually been to Africa guessed that there were at most 14 different countries in all.
Africa is not, nor has it ever been, one vast country. It is a mosaic of 54 autonomous countries, most of them designated by European colonialists during the historical ‘Scramble for Africa.’ All attempts to marry up all the countries – to create a United States of Africa – have so far failed. In fact, some individual countries are having the devil of a time staying in one piece as it is: Eritrea was once a province of Ethiopia, Somaliland was once a part of the larger, war-prone, republic of Somalia. Zanzibar wants to cut the umbilical cord from mainland Tanzania.
In terms of acreage, the Sudan is the largest country. From above tiny Uganda in the equatorial regions, the (nearly) 1-million-square-mile Sudan spreads to the North where it rubs shoulders with Libya and the ancient land of Egypt. In terms of population, Nigeria is Africa’s giant. Over 100 million people call this oil-rich West African country home and there are so many Nigerians in the US, Europe and Asia that when most non-Africans think of Africans, they’re actually thinking of Nigerians. In terms of development, the sprawling republic of South Africa takes the cake. Located in, well, the south of Africa, the mineral-rich home of Castle Lager, De Beers, ‘Cry the Beloved Country’, Nelson Mandela, Miriam Makeba, the Afrikaners and the Zulu tribe needs no introduction.
You can’t analyze African social life without bringing in the aspect of tribe. Even in the 21st century, tribal relations are the ties that bind. Most marriages take place between people of the same tribe and, for the most part, voters vote along tribal lines. Conflicts also commonly arise from tribal animosity. The infamous 1994 Rwandan genocide between the Hutus and the Tutsis was the ultimate extension of tribal passion and arguably the darkest chapter in Africa’s history. You can often tell an African’s tribe from his indigenous name. My surname, Nderitu (pronounced “Day-ri-to”) is a dead giveaway that I come from the Kikuyu tribe of central Kenya. At first sight, all Africans may look the same but in reality most tribes have distinct features that set them apart – height, skin tone, build, dialects, hair, teeth and even talents. Most have their own language and some languages, like Swahili, are understood by different languages. Altogether, there are over 2,000 different languages.
A common misconception is that all Africans are Negroid (Black). All Negroes may come from Africa but not all Africans are Negroes. The northern rim of the continent (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco) is predominated by Semites (the Arab-Jew persuasion). Think Muammar Gaddafi or Bhoutros-Bhoutros Ghali. Coming down, we find the Negroes who mostly live in what is known as sub-Saharan Africa. In Eritrea and Ethiopia, we again encounter the ubiquitous Semites. Moving towards the southern end of the continent, we find the race with lighter complexions and hooded eyes (Nelson Mandela and musician Usher Raymond have Capoid features, UN boss Kofi Annan is pure Negroid.) Also in evidence all across the land is a sizeable population of Caucasians and other non-Black people. Not to be confused with tourists and other visitors, these descendants of ancient European settlers, missionaries and Asian traders are as African as the Marula tree. Some are even more African than the original Africans. South Africa has the biggest ‘jambalaya’ of races – Blacks, Whites (including Boers), Browns, Yellows and, for all we know, green people from Mars (that’s why it’s sometimes referred to as “the Rainbow Nation”). Despite the spectrum of skin colour, it is safe to say that most of Mother Africa’s children are Black like me.
Eastern Africa is widely believed to be the cradle of human life. We’re told that, eons ago, early humans embarked on an epic journey northwards (called “the Great Trek”). From Tanzania and Kenya, they walked slowly up to Ethiopia, traversed the Sudan, gained Egypt and crossed over to the contested area now covering Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. From there, routes diverged with some pioneers venturing further into Asia, others legging it to Eastern Europe and some (probably due to confusion) returning to North Africa. Facts are sketchy but whichever way you slice it, the earliest human remains were found in East Africa (some as old as 4.2 million years). But this history poses some hard-hitting questions. If Africans were the original owners of the land, then how come they had to wait for the missionaries before they could advance academically and otherwise? Where were the Oprahs, the Michael Jacksons, the Bill Cosbys, the Michael Jordans, the Condolezzas, the Mohammed Alis, the Naomi Campbells, Ben Carsons? Why did the African giant have to be awoken? And why, oh why, is the second-largest continent still the poorest? The question of non-development, of Africans’ seeming lethargy, is easily answered by Prof. Ali Mazrui’s famous documentary, ‘The Africans’, in which he narrates: ‘If necessity is the mother of invention, then bounty must be the mother of inertia.’ In a land where you spit out a seed and return to find a fruit tree sprouting, the early Africans were under no pressure to advance technologically. Africa supports, by a mile, the widest VARIETY of plant and animal life – a tribute to her fertility.
Modern clothes were another superfluous commodity to early Africans, especially in the tropics (as the missionaries soon found out). The blazing African sun has played havoc with many a foreigner and even though the locals never suffer from ‘sunburn’ (whatever that is) the temperatures sometimes soar to uncomfortable heights – even for Africans. On the question of poverty, I have no ready answer because the continent itself is imbued with wealth. Most of the diamonds you see gleaming in jewellery boutiques around the world come from Africa. And much of the gold. And the coffee and tea and cut flowers and the cocoa and many other “raw materials”, hence “the scramble for Africa” which led to jealously-guarded colonization. In fact, most of the conflicts and political turmoil that you see in the press are all about controlling mineral and other wealth – Liberia (diamonds), the DRC (assorted minerals), Nigeria (oil), Somalia (Heaven knows!)
At any rate, a good many Africans are well off, but the gap between the rich and the poor is the biggest without going as far as the sub-continent of India. While the super-rich command customized cars and even private planes, others are so poor they die from curable diseases like Malaria and their children walk several kilometres to school every day – on bare feet. Also on the subject of poverty, we must not lose sight of the fact that the majority of Africans still live in the rural areas (‘the country’ if you’re American, ‘the sticks’ if you’re British.) In Kenya, for example, more than half the population lives in abject poverty (on less than a dollar a day). You may have heard 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai saying that she was so poor growing up that she and her friends used to play with frog eggs! (Wangari, do you have to tell them EVERYTHING? I want to be able to show my face in public when I tour Europe to promote my books!)
But what does it MEAN to be African? If a Negro was born and lives in the US, can he still claim to be an African? What if a Caucasian (I give you best-selling author Wilbur Smith as an example) is born, lives in, and loves Africa? Does that make him a certifiable African? Here’s my circuitous and open-ended answer (and my conclusion to this x-ray of the land of my ancestors):
A long, long, time ago (way before the first man loved the first woman and a child was born) all the continents were stuck together. Various disturbances on the earth’s crust coupled with the spinning of the earth (which makes it bulge out at the sides) caused cracks and, ultimately, separation. You may take it that all continents and islands are jigsaw pieces and all humankind is one large, chequered, family. As I said earlier, the first people lived in the tectonic fragment now known as Africa. Speaking on KTN TV recently, an American tourist ventured that all people should make a Mecca-like pilgrimage to Kenya at least once in their lives because it is our mutual ‘home’ (See the Leakey family’s work on human origins). This is the reason the lack of interest in Africa expressed in the BBC Radio programme amused me so much. Chinese, American, French, German, Russian, British or whatever our nationality, we might all be Africans in diaspora!
Note: This article was originally written in 2006