Africa & Ideas



Of all the negative notions and misapprehensions entertained by the outside world about Africa and Africans, none actually is more damaging than that which portrays African societies as essentially bereft of ideas of any significance and sees them as basically consumers rather than producers of the commodity, so to speak, with little, if anything, to contribute to the global stock. In other words, and put rather bluntly, when it comes to ideas, Africa barely counts.

It is interesting that one rarely sees any African in any international panel of experts, say, on CNN or BBC or other influential outlet, discussing any global issue that is not directly related to Africa, or encounters any important idea that is attributed to an African. As one American lady commented some years back, justifying the unanimous rejection by members of her elite social club of a suggestion to visit a museum of African art, “Nothing of interest or importance came out of Africa. Our civilization gained from Greece, from Rome, from Europe and the Mediterranean, even from China. It gained from Egypt, nothing south of the Sudan”. (See Stephen Birmingham, CERTAIN PEOPLE, America’s Black Elite, Little, Brown & Company (1977), p.129) (emphasis supplied). Now, granted that, for a variety of reasons, one is unlikely to hear such sentiments so openly expressed these days, the troubling question remains, however, of the extent to which this underlying perception persists about Africa(ns). It is in this context, then, that one must view with anxiety then President Sarkozy of France’s well intentioned, but nonetheless misleading and rather jarring, observation a few years ago to the effect that “the African man has not fully entered into history….has never really launched himself into the future.” (Speech at the Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar, Senegal, in 2007).

Actually, Africa and the people of immediate African descent deserve some “respect” when it comes to this matter of ideas and human achievement. To begin with, since Africa is the cradle of humanity (and, arguably, of human civilization), then it quite literally is the case that the first ideas were in Africa! More than that, an objective overview of human history will reveal that we owe to Africa the most transformational of human achievements, and the ones most expressive of his genius as Homo sapiens. These include learning to communicate by speech (language); learning to make tools (the first inventions); discovering and mastering the production and use of fire (key factor in human civilization and brain development); the idea of deliberately growing crops for food (agriculture); the idea of domesticating and keeping animals (pastoralism), etc. Now, even if, as some have suggested, the last two activities, for example, developed independently in a number of places around the world, the fact still remains that the African societies concerned “invented” these on their own, including the requisite techniques and technology, under local conditions and without help from out- side. The question thus becomes for the “Africa Doubters”, as one might call them, “Where, and indeed what, would humanity be without all or any of the above transformational achievements pioneered in Africa?” On top of all this, there is scientific research that postulates an African origin for the “know how” underpinning the earliest acknowledged human civilizations – the ancient Sumerian and the Egyptian, the latter rightfully considered as African, anyway. (See Johan Heine and Michael Tellinger, ADAM’S CALENDAR (Zulu Planet Publishers, 2008) and Michael Tellinger, TEMPLES OF THE AFRICAN GODS (Associated Pub. Group, 2010).

As for past great civilizations south of the Sahara, it makes sense to conclude that the civilization that produced the Great Zimbabwe ruins smack in the middle of Africa could not possibly be a unique and discrete one-off thing, that there must have been others in that vast expanse of continent that is Africa. The example of the Americas, where later discoveries of other civilizations showed that the earliest discovered Aztec civilization was by no means a stand-alone phenomenon, suggests the same probability for the Great Zimbabwe civilization of Southern Africa.

The unfortunate thing, however, is that, faced with such overwhelming negativity of image and perception, many-an-African has himself, perhaps even without knowing it, bought into this dangerous myth about our continent and people. The upshot has been a loss in such persons of intellectual self-confidence and self-belief, and, with it, a resulting case of ideas-dependency not dissimilar to the dependency situation that has arisen in other areas, be it food supply, budgetary support, or health care provision. Consider the following example from the area of malaria eradication. Here we encounter the saga of DDT, the powerful and effective pesticide that by all accounts is credited with eliminating malaria as an endemic disease in America and Europe by eliminating the malaria-transmitting mosquito. First, there was the successful use in the West, then a ban denying Africa and other developing regions of its use on grounds of environmental protection.

A few years ago, after unquantifiable economic and social loss, after the death from malaria of millions of people, particularly millions of African children, the World Health Organization finally proposed lifting the embargo on use of DDT for combating malaria. This was promptly opposed by another donor-supported global institution, the United Nations Environment Programme, leading to the current stalemate between two powerful donor-backed interest groups – the anti-malaria campaign and the environmental protection lobby. Meanwhile, regardless of the merits of the case – to use or not to use DDT – a notable fact here is that us Africans, for whom the debate literally is a matter of life and death, remain out of it, seemingly confined, as it were, to a passive but interested observer role, while waiting to fall in line with whichever position comes out on top. No room allowed even for us to argue that, given the terrible toll exacted by malaria on the continent (an African child dies every 45 seconds!) a limited use of DDT might, on a cost-benefit analysis, possibly make sense for us! Nothing, one would say, more clearly illustrates our ideas-dependency and our exclusion from the global “policy ideas” debate.

It becomes clear, then, that what the continent needs is a bold and assertive intellectualism, and not a passive and compliant one, to help end its current marginalization. It certainly is the case that ideas, some of them great ones, abound in African societies, just as in other societies: what now is needed is the articulation of these ideas in a systematic, durable and, therefore, cumulative form, and with the requisite publicity. This will help to end the current exclusion and marginalization of the continent. A major objective of OSIFA’s is precisely to encourage this articulation of ideas, not only by the originators of such ideas, but by other witnesses and participants in events – much the same way that the world got to know about the wisdom of Socrates mainly from the accounts of this in the works of others, especially his students, Plato and Xenophon, and his critic, the playwright Aristophanes. Actually, then, stripped of their disparaging con- notations, the negative statements about Africa and the world of ideas cited above do carry one important message: the need to intensify the presence and participation of Africa in today’s world of ideas, this being the only effective way to dispel the ignorance and counter the misapprehensions behind such negative thinking about the continent.

Striving to meet this need is the mission of The Okali Seminal Ideas Foundation for Africa (OSIFA).