‘So geographers in Africa maps,
With savage pictures fill the gaps
And over uninhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.’
- Jonathan Swift, author of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’
I was surprised and a little amused as I listened to a BBC Radio programme on Africa earlier this year by a field reporter on assignment in China seeking locals’ knowledge of the African continent.
Reactions barely scratched the surface as answers came intermixed with laughter suggesting the world’s second-largest continent is composed of lions, elephants and bushes. There were mentions of Mandela, South Africa and the film ‘Out of Africa’ but some said the continent doesn’t have any towns to speak of.
But what shocked me the most was the suggestion that Africa is a single country, so profound was the belief that the field reporter missed 54 countries and gave 14, at most.
50 years after the scramble for Africa by European colonialists that gave the current borders, the answers amused me.
In fact all attempts to marry up all the countries – to create a United States of Africa – have been futile with diversion being created like Eritrea moving from Ethiopia, Somalia being divided to Somaliland and Puntland. While Zanzibar is itching to cut off her umbilical cord from mainland Tanzania.
And here are more facts about the continent: former Sudan, before South seceded was the largest country. Lying just above Uganda on the map it’s nearly 1-million-square-mile makes it spread towards north to rub shoulders with Libya and Sudan.
While Nigerian in West Africa is the giant in population size with over 100 million people apart from a huge number of people in diaspora strutting US, Europe, Asia and other African countries.
South Africa, apart from giving the continent icons like Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba is the king in development. From the southern tip of the continent the country is the home of minerals, Castle Lager, De Beers, DSTV and ‘Cry the Beloved Country’.
In social life aspect, the continent is based described in tribal line. Even in the 21st century tribes are ties that bind to define marriage, voting and conflicts like the infamous 1994 Rwandan genocide between the Hutus and the Tutsis.
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 which are over 2,000.
Even though all Negroid (Blacks) originated from Africa not all Africans are Negroes. In northern part of the continent (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco) Semites (Arab-Jew heritage) are dominant. Here is the home of our sons Muammar Gaddafi and Bhoutros-Bhoutros Ghali. Others are found further south in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somali, Sudan and along Indian ocean coasts.
Further south of Sahara Negroid, like me, dominate like former UN SecGen Kofi Annan from Ghana. Further south we find the race with lighter complexions and hooded eyes (Nelson Mandela and musician Usher Raymond have Capoid features).
The continent also has Caucasians (Whites) and other non-Black people like Asians not to be confused with tourists and other visitors as they are descendants of settlers, missionaries and traders who are as African as the marula tree. In fact some are 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”).
Eastern Africa is widely believed to be the cradle of human life with the earliest human remains, 4.2 million years old found here. According to history a great trek north from Tanzania and Kenya through Egypt to cross over to other continents.
But this history poses some hard-hitting questions. If Africans were the original owners of the world, how come only missionaries woke the continent to advance academically and otherwise? 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 as the continent still supports the widest varieties of plant and animal life.
And even though Africa is wealthy the reeking poverty is what i can’t get a ready answer for especially the ever widening gap between the rich and poor. While the super rich command customized cars and even private planes the poor majority die from curable diseases like cholera and malaria, and their children walk for kilometres on bare foot for schools and water.
Kenyan 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai (RIP) captured this when she said as a kid the were so poor growing up that she and her friends used to play with frog eggs! (Did Wangari has to say everything? Wonder is I’ll be able to show my face in public when I tour Europe to promote my books)
Across the globe, diamonds, gold and silver gleaming in jewellery shops and boutiques around the world come from Africa. Even the aroma of coffee, tea and flowers come from Africa.
Sadly were these raw materials and wealth are produced the most are under intense conflict fuelled by colonisation and scramble for Africa mentality. These are places like Liberia (diamonds), the DRC (assorted minerals), Nigeria (oil) and Somalia (heaven knows).
What Does It Mean To Be African?
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 (like best-selling author Wilbur Smith) is born, lives in, and loves Africa does that make him a certifiable African? Here’s my circuitous and open-ended answer:
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.
Like an American tourist once said during a recent interview in a Kenyan TV, people should make a Mecca-like pilgrimage to Kenya at least once in their lives because it is our mutual ‘home’ after the Leakeys discovered the cradle of human kind in lake Turkana.
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!
Alexander Nderitu (www.alexandernderitu.com) is a Kenyan-born novelist and entertainer. He has also expressed interest in fashion design, music production and sports entertainment. This article was first written in 2006.