The Saddest Part: Africa, Lost History, and the Sense of Inferiority

Posted on June 13, 2011

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And so it is that I have had my first experience at a Kenyan bar. Not an expat bar, but an actual bar at that—upscale, but still nary a tourist or aid worker in sight. To preempt: no, I’ve not renounced my vows or given up my faith. I still consume no intoxicants, but nightlife being such a large part of Nairobi life, and Nairobi being unique among Kenyan cities for its nightlife, it would be a crime not to dip my toes in. And, to roughly butcher some Rumi, enlightenment may be found within the tavern as well.

To preface, I’ve finally found permanent lodging for the next eight weeks—with a man named Ben. He’s attached, tangentially, to the organization I’m working with and, I think, has taken me in mainly because he’s lonely. His wife, a career woman, has taken a job in another nation these past two years. And she’s taken her two children with her.

Saturday night, over a meal of chicken and rice (I still prefer my halal cart food), Ben casually mentioned that a band plays modern African music at his local bar every weekend. Would I like to go? Naturally.

The place was in Westlands (fittingly one of the neighborhoods most desperate to emulate Western culture), just down the road. But as we pulled off the road, I was a little confused to find that it was housed within an office park, a few squat, two-story concrete and cinder block buildings. There, under an awning in the courtyard, within sight of drab and barred office doors, a full bar, several tables, and a stage for a band had been set up. Younger men and women sat at tables while older, lonely, slightly tubby, slightly schlossed men sat at the bar—all of us watched the stage.

The band, “Basi Tu,” was far from the cleanest or most professional of numbers—a couple of old pros team up every week, I am told, with an engineer, an accountant, and a grandfather to put on a little show for the locals. A cab driver, still in his hat and windbreaker, wound his way through the tables, tugging on the sleeves of young women, smiling widely, while twisting his body in near-robotic jerks and spasms. The rest, when they rose occasionally to dance, were only slightly less epileptic. One fine Santa Claus of a man named Lee (the proprietor of the bar, I later learned), jostled about like a bobble head doll, bobbing at every limb with equal grace. Finally, a culture whose dance style I can fully and wholeheartedly embrace.

As another song started, Ben tore my attention away from the dancers and pointed at the band. “This song is not Kenyan. From Tanzania,” he would say. Or form Ghana, or from South Africa. Ten songs in I noticed a trend.

“So many of these songs are from the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s odd, isn’t it? Is that unusual?”

Ben shook his head, no. Apparently for all its bloodshed and hard trials, DRC has always been and continues to be a most musical nation, a huge exporter of songs and singers—the man on stage was himself from Kinshasa. I remarked to be how pleased I was to see that the nation still had one export stronger than bad news.

Ben nodded solemnly, sipped at his beer (I at my Coke) and then remarked that it was only to be expected. After all, the great historical empire of Central Africa was in the modern DRC. The Kingdom of Kongo, a vibrant empire of different sizes and under different ruling houses over time, existed in some steady form from 1390 to 1914. Yet Ben admitted he had never heard the name until a few years ago when he bought a book on the history of Africa. In America I can understand not knowing the history of Mali or Ghana or Abyssinia or the Cush or the Songhai or the Zulu or the many, many African empires. But, as Ben was ashamed to admit, and many others have owned to more frequently, few in Africa know these histories. The book Ben read, the clearest account he has ever seen, was written by an African American, not an African.

Not knowing the history of one’s nation is understandable, though it does pain my heart. Yet all of us know something of the contours of Western Civilization. That so few Africans know the history of their own country or continent is in a way saddening. Many of the Kenyans I spoke to knew, for instance, that the slave trade existed, but never knew how it worked, its extent, or how it played into Kenya. They have seen the Arab settlements and the Arab culture on the coast, but don’t know much of the history of Lamu or Zanzibar or the other Arab towns, didn’t realize there was slaving and colonization here. And they are shocked, almost universally, to learn of the strength of Mansa Musa, of the ferocity of the Akan resistance, of the remnants of civilizations as near by as Sofala.

That would not be so bad if it didn’t lead to the following:

When I was to lunch with Valerie not long ago, she admitted she did not know much of the history of Africa. We chatted for a time and when I told her what I knew, of the history of colonization, of the domination by the Arabs and the Indians, of the existence of some small kingdoms, but never a great empire—even when we talked of larger African history—she sat silent and looked for a moment at her fries. Half-laughing, but more sad than anything else, she said, “Well, we Africans must really be stupid to have been conquered so often, to have been colonized and to never have been so advanced as the Europeans.”

It’s much like Yali’s Question from Guns, Germs and Steel, and it’s a sentiment I’ve heard in one form or another from many, many Kenyans. And Ghanaians as well, the last time I was in Africa—reading an article on some great advancement, they will ask me, “Why are white people so much smarter than us? How does it happen?” Again and again and again, sadder and sadder and sadder until I am sure it is not some jest.

And this is what is so sad about the lack of history here. Not the old adage that they are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, not some nationalist tale about the importance of knowing the roots of one’s people. It’s the sense that, because they only know of the proud story of the west, because no one has explained how this history could have happened through anything but innate superiority, there is a feeling of inferiority. A sense that there is a reason for their place in the third world, for the history of subjugation, some justification for the implicit and explicit racism and pride of whites. And that sense of inferiority, that rationalization of the ills of history, leads to a sense of resignation to a lowly fate. A sense that their inferiority must persist, that they will accept hardship as necessary and just given who they are. It’s a stifling and sad state for them.

Some escape it; some embrace their own ability. That that so many feel this at some level is heartbreaking.

It’s born naturally, of the exposure to a vague and western history, of the attitudes of the western governments and individuals they encounter. But it’s sad all the same.

Perhaps the saddest thing you’ll see in Africa.

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