“Get up out them slave ships/ build your own pyramids/ write your own hieroglyphs”-Kendrick Lamar.
A lot has been written about the genius of Kendrick Lamar. He’s one of the few darlings of rap who is equally accepted by the masses and the people who listen to underground. He has a song that in four minutes tells about a beggar asking him for cash. It warps and wefts between what he and the beggar feel , the anger and the fear, the resentment and curiosity, the sense of entitlement and the beginnings of empathy on both sides. One person wondering why he’s not being helped and the other wondering how help can be demanded. It ends with the beggar declaring himself god. A throwback to another great storyteller telling us “whatever you did to the smallest amongst us i say unto you you did to me.”
Everywhere you look people are writing their own hieroglyphs. There is a proliferation of black writers and movie makers, there are numerous comic books, countless blogs. For the first time in the history of the world even those who would be considered oppressed are telling their stories or having their stories told for them. And, stories are important. Who tells stories is also important. This was one of the points that Chimamanda Adichie made with what I still consider her best book: Half of a Yellow Sun. Before I read that book I had no idea what Biafra was. At the end I was shaken by the war that split Nigeria. I read more and more about it. It was surprising to find out that Chinua Achebe considered himself Biafran that he ascribed to a nationality that split him from the Nigerian one that his popular persona identified itself as.
Let’s make no mistake nationality ascribes a sense of identity. Just as living together on this rock called Africa does. Recently I finished a book called the Fortunes of Africa: a 5,000 year history of wealth, greed and endeavour. The author, Martin Meredtih, had set himself a herculean task. To somehow condense the history of a whole continent into a book. An impossible task that surely called for tough editorial choices as more and more things were culled. It’s impressive that he weaves a coherent story that is almost straight chronological. He takes us from the west to the east and the south to the north and ever forward. Years advance here and there and then he goes back to a region we haven’t visited in a while. He manages to do it in prose so deft that the book never at one time feels like a drag or a text book.
My uncle works for a German television company and I asked if he would be covering the IEBC demos and I was told that they don’t stir themselves unless the death toll reaches 200 people. It’s cold but when reporting on a whole continent there has to be a threshold for the news. You can’t go for every riot. You can’t begin explaining what IEBC is and positioning the major players before the evening news. Context is hard to set because Africa is a vast place and when reporting on it you must make decisions such as wait until 200 people die. This is when reporting on the present of Africa when writing a book on its history hundreds, thousands of small conflicts will fall by the wayside. There are countries that don’t feature because of the examples of peace they are. Botswana is mentioned as a place that successfully flirted with multiparty democracies from the beginning of its independence and because nothing happened there (by the standards of the book) we never check in.
The history of Africa as the history of any place is a history of bloodshed. It is a history of warfare and greed. It is a history of profit and the blackness of the human soul. It is a history of slavery and lost lives. It is history as history usually is. Even the pax romana depended on a ruthless and abhorrent policy of warfare and slavery and punishment for those who were not roman citizens in order to exist and the History of our continent is not an exception. It is admirable what he manages to do in the book. Piecing together as he does what he does here is no easy task.
There’s a reason I put that quote by Kendrick Lamar at the beginning. Martin Meredith is not an African. He’s a Briton and though he seems to write dispassionately about the role of his country’s empire in the suffering of Africa there are parts that seem biased. For a long time he writes in a way to suggest that Britain wanted nothing more than to end slavery in Africa. That it pressed for laws of equality in South African. That it was thwarted by rogue agents. I read this and i was wondering what became of such a benevolent empire that it would eventually go on to have such a brutal reign here. Here in Kenya. A place that saw the heavy hand of the British Empire clamped down on it again and again. There are the King’s African Rifles, Kenyans forced to fight in laws for his majesty. Shipped to die for a country that wasn’t theirs and later in the Second World War to die ostensibly for the freedom from oppression that was represented by concentration camps. Concentration camps that were recreated right here as tens maybe hundreds of thousands of our Kikuyu and Meru and Embu brothers and sisters were denied their freedom, tortured and many killed because of Britain’s imperial ambitions. But perhaps there is not enough space in a 5,000 year history of the continent to include this or to properly explore Britain’s intentions beyond a sentence where Queen Victoria seems very pleased to be reported to a further expansion of her empire. Though that would seem to be contradicted by the number of times we hear about the British Empire fighting the Arabs, Africans, other Europeans to end the slave trade.
All empires are evil though. There’s no question of this. As I read through the book this was the lesson that presented itself to me over and over. All empires are evil. An empire after all is not a nation or a state or a tribe or a village. It is a collection of all of these. It is an ever expanding collection of political units brought in by strength or show of strength or need of strength. Borders are expanded by blood and money. At the end of every war there were slaves taken and sold. If you look at the pyramids of Sudan and Egypt you can be sure that they were built with slave labour. The huge numbers of African shipped out of the continent especially in the last thousand years could not have been possible without local collaboration.
The history of Africa is also the history of eradication of its religions. It becomes a plausible theory that all gods can be killed by the chance at better weapons. At a better life. At more money. At more power. This is what chiefs and kings were offered. This is what they took in order to convert. The promise that you could pack a bigger punch.
Every once in a while the history would be slowed down to examine the actions of an individual and the effects of his life. These were the most touching parts of the books to me. The stories of Africans changing their destiny for whatever reason. An emperor of Abyssinia Mendes Susenyo declared that the state’s religions would no longer be under the Patriarchy of Alexandria but the Papacy of Rome. His brother , Malka Christos, put together a huge army because of what he perceived as this betrayal of their ancient ways and they clashed. The emperor won and walked the battlefield with his son Fasilidas who said to him:
“The men you see lying dead here were neither pagans nor Muslims over whose deaths we would rejoice, but Christians, your subjects and fellow countrymen, and some of them your own kin. It is not victory that we have gained for we have driven our swords into our own bodies….”
The emperor abdicated the throne and lived his life in depression and repentance for what he had done.
There is another story about the Akan state of Asante. For a long time Akan chiefs had used wooden stools to represent the collective soul of their chiefdoms. In the 1690s a chief called Osei Tutu introduced a Golden Stool in a feat of nation building and public relations that politicians now should pay attention to. He said that this was superior to all the other stools and that it held the souls of all the Akan people. With that symbol of national unity he created an empire where there was so much gold that gold dust was the medium of exchange, “this much dust for a bunch of bananas please”. And here is a gripe i had with the book that i admit may be a function of my bias- it seemed that these great Africans and their kingdoms were only introduced to show how they would eventually be thwarted by the invaders. The story of the golden stool is not a story of who Osei Tutu was or how he got to the point where he did this. It is not a story of how the empire was organised we are just assured it is. It is instead a story of the war of the golden stool as the British demanded it for their queen. It is a story filled with instances of humiliation at the hands of British governors and soldiers, a story of the futility of resistance. This is the end of the story and i wouldn’t’ advocate for the end of the story to be cut out but the end is not the whole story. The beginning and the middle is not a foreword even though it is a prelude to European interference which seems to be the major focus of the book.
We visited South Africa a lot. And i could never get myself to care about what was happening down there. The conflicts and struggles of the Boers were never going to evoke any emotional involvement. Especially since the book did not shy away from showing that the Boer’s independence seemed motivated by a desire to oppress the Africans whose land they had stolen. South Africa was declared independent before almost anywhere else in Africa and yet I find it impossible to think of it as other than a country that gained its independence in 1994. This is true for most Kenyans. We cannot think of a time with apartheid as a time when there was independence. The story of the Boers and the British and their wars with each other did not feel to me like a history of Africa, more a history of Africa’s colonialists. This may not be true and it may not be fair but my book about 5,000 years of African history would have spend very little time down there.
Or maybe it wouldn’t but the lens of the book would have been focused more, much more on the proud history of what happened before colonialism. The proud rebellions during colonialism. All the European interferers would have played a tiny part. Nothing pivotal. Their lives would never have been studied, not until they came back to Africa and their actions back home would not have warranted numerous paragraphs. I know i would have been interested in a different story and strived to give a different portrayal. Perhaps that’s just it that maybe if I was sure enough of myself I wouldn’t have been struggling to give a portrayal of Africa, I would have been struggling to understand it in order to explain it to myself and to anyone reading it. This is what Martin Meredith was trying to do, to understand our continent by looking at its history. It’s a noble effort but when not carried out by a person born on this little rock there is something missing.
There is something that an African writer would bring to such a project that it is impossible for anybody else to. The innate knowledge that for all our lives we have been Africans. The frustrations of this place was not something that was happening over there but something taking place in our souls and at our feet. Something that has been happening to us. The fact that this is not a place we developed a passion for in high school or university but one from whom we have been bequeathed vast cultural and institutional memory. The things we would see are very different than those anyone else would. The book ends on a very pessimistic note. The last chapters speak about our new wars. The ones a person my age would remember. The rise of Boko Haram, Post election violence in Kenya, the mess in Libya, Egypt’s inability to move past its pharaohs. Yet this is the tone that pervades most of the book. Sadness and fatigue. The quest for the fortunes of Africa corrupting everybody who was born on the continent or happened to come into contact with it.
This is a legitimate take on Africa. Exhaustion and wondering if we will ever shed our history of bloodshed. Our history of dependence as the final chapter points to a growing dependence on China. Our history of dependence on people not from here to attempt the epic tasks of writing down 5,000 years of Africa.
It’s a book I would recommend anyone to read. Thoroughly researched, well-written, eye-opening. Good. Really good. But here I am hoping that someone like Owaah will undertake such an endeavour one day.