Elsewhere (Part Two): Africa
Most of us admit that Africa housed the dawn of humanity. Those people who refuse to acknowledge this can be discarded as fools. Africa, after all, is the biological Garden of Eden, the place where all life springs from. In many ways, for all of the terrible things that have happened over the past several thousand years on this great continent, Africa remains the last paradise on earth.
Oh sure, we can look upon some beautiful tourist island and disagree. We can rave about the gorgeous white sands, or the crystal blue water, as well as all those glorious concoctions made from rum we drink from a coconut on a tranquil beach, and we can defy this reality, disdaining Africa on the basis of race or genocide or endless civil wars. It is a fair argument, but is still historically false. Africa–mother Africa!–it is the proof that all of us are in some way or another members of the same family.
Yes, humanity springs from incest (even our bibles declare this! Eve, after all, is the product of Adam’s rib, perhaps more of a masturbation metaphor than a father and daughter coupling), but this is not what part two here is going to be about. When celebrating elsewhere in the world, Africa, to me, is about hypocrisy, its political consequence, and the subsequent meaning of hope.
It is unfortunate that one cannot discuss the many glories of the African continent without eventually drowning in the horror of racism. There have been arguments made regarding the glory of this birthplace of humanity that attempt to prove the primitive nature of black people–“hey! Okay, fine! We all come from there! But the blacks haven’t evolved! They’re still the same!”–and other such nonsense. And yet if we look at the deep history of the many African kingdoms, perhaps we can discover the basis for racial animus between all of humanity.
Africa has been known for tribalism–for tribal warfare. Since warrior civilizations would mark their champions with the symbols and scars of whichever tribe they represented, it became very easy to identify your enemies. When the enemies were captured they were treated like the lowest of the low. They were enslaved. In later years they may even have been sold to the shadowy pale figures who arrived in massive boats, a cruel laugh from the king, who did not care if the white man liberated or devoured their property.
African kings have rarely gotten beyond this barbaric practice, still slaughtering their own as the whim strikes them. And, since one tribe has been oppressed for so long by a ruling power, should a revolution finally come, once the other tribe takes over, it will remain business as usual, only in reverse. Such endless terror cannot help but sink down into the rooted souls of the people throughout the land, making them tense, paranoid, unwilling to trust anyone.
On top of this, in the modern world, we find in Africa also the most striking examples of climate change impacting the lives of already desperate people (other than, perhaps, in lands surrounded by melting glaciers). The vicious diseases seemingly borne out of jungle deforestation, the constant ring of starving civilizations–we see these pictures on TV and are helpless not to send something to help a sick, dried out child being consumed by flies. We hear about plagues, like Ebola, dengue fever–even cholera and the return of Bubonic Plague!–and shudder about the fate of the world. We wonder what other dark horrors lurk in the shrinking rain forests, and reconsider our western indifference, then choose to visit elsewhere instead of on safari. All of those great beasts we once wanted to see are nearly extinct by now anyway.
I do not wish to keep harping in such a bleak tone, but there is an urgency to our human motherland that cannot help but impact everyone on earth. But I will still narrow the focus of this discussion to two nations, those more impacted by the wider world, mostly due to colonization and democracy. We will look more deeply into South Africa and Nigeria.
Now I have never visited either of these nations. In fact, I’ve never been to Africa at all. This has not consciously been by choice, as there certainly is reason for me to go. For the purpose of this discussion we will discount northern African nations such as Egypt, Libya, Somalia, and other horrendously chaotic nations, whose complexion more represents their southern Asian borders than the heart of Africa (although who, really, has no interest in visiting Egypt?) But Africa has been a great mystery to the west since we crawled out of the slime and sailed away to strange netherworlds, lands of ice and cold, fading ourselves into opposing races, having the waters sink and re-shape our eyes and nose and mouth. Even in early America (which could just as easily be thought of as what became of Mexico during the Aztec era), the changes of body type and form proves, in and of itself, the accuracy of theories of evolution. Since we all come from the same spot, our diversity has far more to do with travel and settlement, with changes in diet and the requirements of survival in different climates, like the altered beak of a finch, than with any presumed inherent purity.
And yet the modern history of South Africa thoroughly contradicts this fundamental human truth. The vicious practice of racial segregation, there called apartheid, finally ended in 1991. 1991! Less than thirty years ago today, meaning that those who were children at the time of disillusion are still young today. And of course the aftermath of the end of the practice led to radicalism and terrorist attacks. There was one group in particular, which splintered away from the African National Congress (the famously non-violent political party of Nelson Mandela, which led boycotts against paying rent, on the purchase of white-owned goods, and avoidance of public transportation, among other economic attacks; this political party was outlawed, along with most other anti-apartheid movements, in 1960. This followed the “Sharpsville Massacre,” a protest on a South African police station, one that got a little rowdy, which led to police officers firing randomly into the crowd, killing 69 people, and injuring close to 200 more.) The group in question renamed themselves the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, a Communist inspired gang of radicals who took it upon themselves to rob banks, randomly murder white families in their homes, and make insane demands for the complete reformation of society. They even shot down three Iranian tourists for ‘being white.’ They claimed “The men were shot to show there is no role in the new South Africa for any one of the race that invented apartheid or suppressed the black masses.” By 1994 whatever remained of this radical faction disappeared, absorbed into the new South African Defense Force, which is the armed wing of the African National Congress, the party which still controls the nation today.
South Africa has the second largest economy on the continent (behind only Nigeria), yet this does not exclude the nation from some serious financial problems. The unemployment rate within South Africa is over 27%, which of course leads to quite a bit of crime. There are angry, jobless people standing around with nothing to do and no money to distract them. They glare at cars going by. Their historic resentments have seeped into their very biology, and the occasional outbursts of violence against anyone deemed weaker creates several neighborhoods that are downright terrifying.
Education is a problem too, with not enough schools or room in the classroom to accommodate all children. The lack of money to supply the schools with updated textbooks and classroom supplies makes most of the schools barely legible at best, no matter how hard some of the truly dedicated teachers might try. And while the nation has a high literacy rate (over 94%), these numbers are stagnating, and even dropping in some spots. The schools, particularly in the poor black areas (Americans can certainly relate to this) are notoriously sub-par. Half educated young adults emerge, unskilled, many of them joining the lost group of the unemployed blindly awaiting opportunity as they watch their future go by.
Health care is a problem too, the best doctors seeming to be the representatives of occasionally visiting international health organizations. Plus, with the brutality of some of the diseases, those unknown in much of the western world, these doctors find themselves unprepared to treat the afflicted, and sometimes even return home infected with contagions that threaten to overtake the world. Sick people get sicker and many of them die of illnesses that are otherwise simple to treat. There is a grim reality to this imposed helplessness, the racial animus still present and an easy idea to blame for the tragedy.
And that’s just it: South Africa remains to this day a divided society, the still recent sins of the past enraging the first generation to grow up post-apartheid. They now look back on their parents and wonder how they could have ever been so weak. And as with every subsequent generation, they refuse to acknowledge the deeper history, the study of colonialism, or the heroic strides of their elders to liberate these young people who seem only capable of resenting the past.
With all of this, however, South Africa remains a remarkable nation, powerful and influential. It seems to have evolved in its own right beyond most of the sins of its past. There are celebrated national heroes who have inspired people everywhere in the world. There is a dense and complicated Democratic structure to government that has overtaken the tyranny of the past which, of course, has led to the massive corruption that all Democracies seem to inspire, but it has also led to a genuine sense of freedom, or at least the idea of what that might possibly mean.
Nigeria is a whole other complication. Nigeria has been a settled civilization since at least 1100 BC. It existed as a powerful tribal nation, controlled by many kings, both great and wicked, who inspired many of their myths, and some of the greatest world fairy tales (some stolen and revised by Rudyard Kipling (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780192822765&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used).
Islam came to Nigeria long before Christianity reached its shores. For 400 years the society slowly transformed from polytheistic druidism into a truly Islamic state. And then the Christian missionaries showed up, offering the narrative of their faith of salvation, while torturing and murdering many of those who refused to see the light. Nigeria is much more a nation of holy wars than racial struggle.
It wasn’t until 1963 that Nigeria truly became a republic, shaking off the barbarity of its tribal communes. Of course, three years later, a military junta overthrew the government, murdering the Prime Minister, many prominent politicians and soldiers, as well as their families. The overtaking generals, as all leaders of bloody coups, broadcast lies to the terrified nation about how the political leaders had agreed to a “voluntary” hand over of all government powers to the military.
Thirty or so years of on and off civil wars erupted after this, hard-minded radicals seeing the success of the coup d’etat as an inspiration for their own ambitions. A seemingly endless series of bloodbaths was the consequence. Even today, with the nervous, yet peaceful transfers of power between elections, there remains a divide between the nationalistic military and the radical elements, who continue their war of words, decimating public trust in any of them.
Nigeria is consumed by many social problems, the most significant being an ongoing struggle for national identity, different social and ethnic groups contrasting with one another, sometimes violently. In a nation that is almost singularly of one race, it becomes necessary for the bigoted to have targets, and so people are divided into presumed superior and inferior groups, such latent racism based upon some barely discernible trace.
Of course, like every Democracy, Nigeria is also rife with poverty, corruption and social inequality. These are issues the crop up everywhere, certainly not exclusive to Africa. There are also angry terrorist groups who see this corruption of what they dream of as a pure civilization, and try their best to reshape the world in their singular image. The best known of these groups is the notorious Boko Haram (which translates as “Western Influence is Sin.) This group is the one responsible for the mass kidnapping of young girls, who were then forced to submit, eventually converted to their extreme ideology, and repeatedly raped in order to produce more soldiers for their army of radicals. Their history of violence is immense, including bombings, prison breaks, machete massacres and mass shootings. Several of their uprisings have led to the deaths of hundreds of people in a matter of hours.
Due to areas of extreme poverty, not just poor, but literally no educational opportunities, high unemployment, and illiteracy, there is a very high infant and child mortality rate, children starving to death or, sometimes, Hansel and Gretel-like, being abandoned to fight for themselves, often recruited into militaristic armies, or sent out of the country to die in diamond mines. Sometimes the children are simply beaten to death by their fathers or mothers. Domestic abuse is another major problem that afflicts the poor and desperate, the helpless seeking to feel dominate over something.
And yet, again, Nigeria is far from all bad. In fact, since its foundation as an independent nation, much of its efforts have been building a path to the nation’s greatness. There is a great deal to admire about the strength, conviction and outright decency of most of the population. Most of the Nigerians I have met (and I will admit that this is a limited number, all of them immigrants to America, or those on educational visas. I had a few Nigerians as students, and several were among my favorites in the history of my career) have been very friendly, helpful and sincere. There is no discernible misery or hatred in their eyes, and every movement seems filled with a smiling sense of hope.
We can pick apart any nation and point a dark finger at its incredible and tremendous historical flaws, and paint the whole world as a forbidding and evil place. But there is always another side to this pessimism, based, as it is, in reality. There remains a lingering hope to nations and people who have been historically oppressed. There is hope behind the social conflagrations that so often consume the news and our public discourse. We can see it in the eyes of the people, in the smiles of those who have learned to accept some of the horrors that life flings at us with a blind will. In Africa so many people have learned how to move past their justified, simmering rage at some group, or some faith, or at the entire world, and see the joy in their family, in the very fact that they are alive. And so even in the darkest night, under the stress of Rwandan violence, somehow we find hope.