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Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Media: Boating Magazine: Boating for Eternity

Boating Magazine: Boating for Eternity
We know boating is your life - obviously - so spend the hereafter in a coffin built to resemble your boat. Morbid? Yes. Better than anything your family will pick out for you? Absolutely.

In the tradition of the Ga people of Ghana, who are buried in a coffin that reflects how they lived, eShopAfrica.com will build you a specially carved coffin for $1,000. Just send the company a picture of your boat and your final resting place will be completed in four to six weeks. If you're the consummate angler, you can choose one of the many fish styles from the eShopAfrica.com's current roster of 22 decorated coffins and chests or send them a picture of your 1,000 pound trophy blue marlin and they will carve to order. Now you can truly sleep with the fishes.

Oct 2003

Order your own Ga chest from the eShopAfrica.com online shop:

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Being positive about Africa…

Marymount International School, Rome, Italy
Social Awareness Week, October 2003

How do you see Africa now?

Whenever Africa is on the news it’s almost always something bad… a drought, a famine, genocide, rebel war, corruption… Think back to the last time you heard a good news story from Africa? No wonder the world thinks of Africa as a negative place. But these snapshots are misleading… yes they do happen and are very real to those involved but there is more to the picture.

There are also millions of people struggling against grinding day to day poverty. Their poverty may not be so shocking or new to make it to the news headlines but it’s real enough for them. Feeding a family on less than a dollar a day is not easy. Many children your age will never have had the opportunity to go to school, may never have owned a pair of shoes – let a long a pair of new shoes – and quite likely have spent a lot of their time hungry and ill.

I know what you’re thinking… How can I be positive about all that? It’s not easy… but the first step to being positive is to understand how these situations of chronic poverty arose. They didn’t just happen overnight… they have been in the pipeline for many, many years and what we see are the tragic end results. Whenever you’re looking for answers, history is always a good place to start…

The Real History of Africa

Africa is an incredibly rich continent – and perhaps that has been its downfall. Although most modern Africans are poor the mineral resources beneath their feet are fabulous. All over the continent there are diamonds, gold, silver, bauxite, rutile, copper, oil… all mineral resources greatly valued by our western cultures.

You probably remember studying the kingdom of Ancient Egypt – one of the few pieces of African history that get a mention in school textbooks. However, it’s often treated as though it was an anomaly – a one off happening in an otherwise bare continent. Nothing could be further from the truth… the kingdoms of ancient Egypt were only one of the many ancient splendid kingdoms of Africa.

Beneath Egypt were the ancient kingdoms of Kush at Meroe in present day Sudan. For a while the Kingdom of Kush ruled over the Egyptians to the North. Next door in Ethiopia was the Axum empire – there is one of their stellae here in Rome – which again rivalled the Egyptian and Kushite empires in strength and power. Along the Rift Valley coast of East Africa there are the great Swahili empires who traded across the Indian Ocean connecting Africa with Asia and China since the mists of pre-history. These Swahili kingdoms also traded with Central, West and Southern Africa as well as the Middle East and Europe.

Nowadays the Sahara Desert is thought of as a dry, barren place with no life. Again this is not true – the climate of Africa is cyclical and the Sahara is sometimes desert and sometimes green. It dried out from a green phase just prior to the rise of Ancient Egypt – many historians believe that the founders of the Ancient Egyptian empire were the remnants of the civilisations that had been living in the Sahara as it dried out.

West Africa has its share of great kingdoms too – the Nok culture in present day Nigeria is dated at around 500BC and like another more famous ancient kingdom, the Nok also buried terracotta statues with their dead that showed remarkable creativity and sophistication. They were one of the first cultures on earth to smelt iron.

During the spread of Islam the Sahara also went through a slightly wetter phase which allowed for the proliferation of trade routes from East to West and the North to South. This trade gave rise to many other great kingdoms such as Ancient Ghana (where Mali is today), Kanem Bonu (now in Nigeria), Mali, Songhay and many more.

In 1324 the renowned emperor of the Empire of Mali, Mansa Kankan Musa travelled to Mecca overland. He and his entourage stopped off in Cairo where he gave out gold in such quantities that its price on the open market fell drastically. Twelve years later it was still depressed – this is an early example of the effect of supply and demand on exchange rate mechanisms

When the Portuguese set off from Europe around 1400, they weren’t vaguely hoping to discover something… they knew about the fabulous wealth and power of trade with Africa and wanted a share. They stopped off at various points around the west, southern and eastern coasts to see what trade they could find. This part of history is often misrepresented in European history books – Africans weren’t living in some kind of primitive state before the arrival of the Europeans around the coast. They had been trading with Europe for thousands of years overland. Although there may have been some novelty in the use of the sea route for trade - the actual idea of trade with Europe was nothing new. Nothing more exciting than a new factory outlet.

The Portuguese burned down most of the trading ports along the eastern seaboard of Africa and now only a few remnants remain at places like Lamu in Kenya and Suakin in Sudan. The Swahili traders along the coast lost their traditional supply chains and were forced to deal with Europeans who had other agendas… more of that later.

But these glory days cannot be forgotten… Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia is now known as one of the most lawless places on earth. But Mogadishu was once the home of a powerful trading empire that was so stable that it had its own mint and produced its own currency.

So, as you can see, it’s very easy to be positive about African history. But what’s the connection between these fabulous tales of ancient civilisations and wealth and the depressing pictures we see on the news today?

First slavery

The mass transportation of Africans as slaves across the Atlantic ocean marks one of the darkest moments of European history. It’s hard to comprehend both the cruelty against individuals and the deliberate destruction of societies. Or is it? As you learn about human nature you will find that greed is one of the most powerful forces on earth.

There’s an argument that says that Africans are just as responsible for the trans Atlantic slave trade because without their cooperation it couldn’t have happened. To qualify that you should look at the conditions prevailing at the time and the effect of market forces.

Firstly domestic slavery was equally common in Europe as in Africa at that time. Slaves were purchased for incorporation into households or family run businesses. However, in African societies slaves were integrated into the households and often brought up equally with the children of the household. They often rose to hold high office and even marry into the royal lineage. Customs differed but in Africa a leader was usually judged partly by their wealth and partly by their generosity. A great African leader would be expected to look after his whole tribe – including the slaves who were part of it – and would be personally criticised for cruelty or depravation.

Traditionally slaves came about either as a result of a war where captives were taken or as a result of the paying of a penalty to settle a dispute. However, the Europeans had other ideas. They desired to cultivate huge tracts of land in the Americas that they had newly occupied. Being from Northern Europe they had no idea how to grow the tropical crops they wanted such as cotton and sugar. Africans were experienced tropical cultivators and were very useful to them.

By introducing a culture of violence into Africa in the shape of modern weaponry European traders were able to upset the traditional balance of society and reap the benefit. They would give away or sell for a cheap price guns and bullets to one tribe. The traditional enemies of that tribe would suddenly become very vulnerable as they only had African made weapons such as spears or knives. To survive they too would need to get guns but the Europeans would demand their price… gold… ivory… and worst of all slaves. Through these mechanisms African societies were thrown into chaos… guns and other western style ‘luxury’ goods were used as ways to overturn power structures and bleed Africa dry.

Does this paint a shameful picture of a time gone by? Are things so very different today? It’s greed that makes today’s trading moguls use slave and child labour to bring us those low prices we demand for our consumer goods. It’s quite clear that we’re still living in that same materialistic world that gives greed the upper hand over morals and ethics.

Then colonialism

Eventually the trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished – but note that it was abolished by the same people who had started it. But the Europeans now had a problem… they still desired all that fabulous wealth in Africa - gold, diamonds, copper…. Many historians feel that this is the point where modern day racism was ‘invented’. Prior to this point, despite the horrors of the trans Atlantic slave trade, ordinary people felt no racial divide and in European societies Africans were seen as no different than anyone else. The port cities of England had high populations of Africans who lived amongst the other people – there was no concept of racial ghettos.

But the Europeans needed a reason to get their hands on the riches of Africa and so invented the theory that Africans were somehow backward and needed ‘civilising’. It was at this point that the ancient kingdoms of Kush, Axum, Nok, and others were put in the shredder and the ‘clean slate’ version of African history began. This is the history that I was taught at school and it is still held as common knowledge today. Sadly it’s still taught in schools in Africa to Africans – that there was nothing much in Africa until the Europeans arrived.

Between them the European nations decided who was going to ‘civilise’ which parts of Africa and then occupied the areas they had chosen. They put some icing on the cake – they built a few schools and hospitals in the places where they chose to put large towns or capitals. They built roads and railways to help them get the minerals they desired to the ports that they built for themselves. This was about the sum total of their ‘civilising’.

And then independence

At last… something good to report. Independence!!! While it is a big, big improvement on both slavery and colonialism, in fact it was more of a continuation of colonialism than a true independence. “Nation states” were created out of the regional agreements between the Europeans. Africans had no say in the new borders and those who understood Africa warned against the peril of the nation state borders. They were not listened to.

Thus, many of the wars that you see today were given birth to at independence. The “Anglo-Egyptian Condominium of Sudan”, as it was known during colonialism, was turned into one country called “The Sudan”. The make up of this newly formed country was a recipe for disaster – a Moslem north where the capital and seat of government was located and a traditional, pastoralist African south. Neither culture had anything in common with each other but suddenly found themselves one nation. Naturally it was an unliveable situation and soon a civil war started that continues until today. An already delicate balance was further upset by the subsequent discovery of oil in the southern part of the country so now greed has become a factor in what was already a war of identity.

The Tutsis and Hutus are now world famous for genocide but it didn’t come out of nowhere. Due to the complex relationship between land use and seasons in Africa it’s not uncommon for one piece of land to have different owners at different times of the year. For centuries the Hutus and Tutsis cohabited the plains between what is now Rwanda and Burundi. Like all neighbours, they had disagreements but had sophisticated power balance agreements that coped with them. Then a western style international border was drawn right through those plains and the centuries of multiple land use was abruptly halted. Both sides were sold sophisticated arms that replaced their spears and knives. The violence of the genocide can easily be traced back to the frustrations of trying to live with unliveable borders.

Much of the poverty in the rural areas of Africa can be explained by the design of the new nation states. Most of Africa is rural – remote areas where there is no infrastructure. Europeans didn’t like those places – they liked to be near the ports and any centres of trade that already existed. Quite understandably the Europeans placed the capital cities – and with it the seats of government and ministries – where they wanted them to be. They gave the best jobs to the tribes and inhabitants who lived near to their chosen capitals. These favoured Africans were the ones who were given the reigns of power at independence and it’s these structures that are still in place today.

But are they democratic? No way – nor were they ever supposed to be. They were, once again, designed by Europeans to keep ‘their’ African countries loyal to them. Those who were loyal to the Europeans received favours – contracts, bribes, kickbacks… there are many forms some legitimate, some not. Naturally these people who have been cooperating with the Europeans have themselves made a lot of money… market forces again. But the fact remains that until now the majority of rural Africans have no meaningful voice in the nation state power structures.

Post independence greed for African wealth expressed itself in other ways. The super powers, as they were then known, used Africa as a stage to fight out their differences and sell massive amounts of modern weaponry. In a repeat of the arming of African peoples during slavery, the superpowers poured arms into Africa. Countries were labelled pro or anti communist according to how much they spent on arms – not on how well off their people were. The arms dealers are still peddling their wares in Africa as much as ever – if there ever was a vehicle of mass destruction it’s the arms trade to Africa.

Ignorance is the enemy…

Africa’s biggest problem is that nobody understands it. Make sure you’re not part of that problem. As you can see from what I’ve said Africa’s history has been written by outsiders in such a way as to paint it black. Do you own research and you’ll find a completely different story. The next time you see one of those depressing pictures resolve to get to the bottom of how it came about. And who knows… when you understand you may find yourself in a position to make some changes for the better. But staying ignorant will keep the situation as it is.

If you get a chance visit Africa or, even better, live there for a while. You will see what you can’t see in those depressing pictures. You will find people who are full of energy, life, creativity and optimism – despite circumstances that we would find overwhelmingly depressing. Their day-to-day struggle – fetching water, walking 20 kilometres to school, eating only once a day – would be too much for us. But they have an inner joy that we have lost. Although, like us, they also want material goods, they place their value in other things such as family, tradition and companionship. In their own eyes they aren’t poor – they’re only poor in money but not in life.

And we have much to learn from African societies… For example, in African societies there are none of the traumas of adolescents and teenagers. As you grow you are given responsibilities that match your stage in life – the systems differ widely across the continent but the message is clear to all. We all have a place in our family structure and we all have duties and responsibilities to each other. The reward we get will be their support and companionship in a hostile world.

Many western societies are searching for something that is now being called ‘family values’ that we have lost. Africans weren’t so careless – despite their hardship and suffering their family ties are as strong as ever. Without their family, Africans would feel themselves truly poor.

Recommended Reading

Any or all books by the noted historian Basil Davidson in particular the following:

Africa in History

African Civilization Revisited

African Genius

The Interesting Narrative by Olaudah Equiano

This is the first hand experience of a young boy who was captured at the height of the slave trade. He regained his freedom, got an education and eventually settled in England.

The Scramble for Africa

Find out how the borders of modern Africa came about – and how Africans had nothing to do with them!

Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Finalist in the SMME Awards

eShopAfrica.com was chosen as a finalist in the Information and Technology sector of the 2003 SMME Awards organised by the Africa Centre for Investment Analysis in partnership with the University of Stellenbosch Business School in South Africa. The competition is designed to showcase the best of African small and medium sized business entrepreneurs.