This may be just me, and perhaps I shop in the wrong bookstores, but why aren’t there more affordable, popular histories of African civilisations on the shelves? And I use ‘popular’ in the academic sense i.e. written for the interested laymen, not historians, rather than ‘outselling the Twilight novels’. Alas, as a history fan, I realise my deviant tastes are never going to be that sort of popular with the cool kids.
But that reinforces my point – even as a minority-interest weirdo, if I want to catch up on a bit of European history, I’m spoilt for choice. Second-hand bookshops are stuffed with it, whether you want something general like “Europe from the Renaissance to Waterloo”, or something deeply specific, like the uniform insignias of every regiment involved in World War II. You can imbibe European history in whatever-size doses you choose.
African histories, when you can find them, tend to involve the last 100 years – when it’s the two or three thousand years before that that I’d really like to know more about.
This may be just me, and perhaps I shop in the wrong bookstores, but why aren’t there more affordable, popular histories of African civilisations on the shelves? And I use
Or when you do find something that looks like a fascinating archive of pre-colonial material, it’s a massive tome at Expensive Books with a price-tag that would require the sale of a kidney, and you opt to buy groceries that month instead. You will find a bit of colonial material in the used bookshops, but they’re all 40 or more years old and you need several stiff pink gins just to get you through the innate superiority complex and unquestioned imperialist assumptions.
I only got into history as an adult; at school it was just a subject I took because I could pass it with less effort than accountancy. That may, of course, be a reaction to the way history was taught in the old South Africa; as a collection of names and dates arranged in some sort of quasi-logical order to prove that history is an uninterrupted progression towards the pinnacle of human civilisation: white Afrikaner nationalism in an English-style parliament. The idea of interrogating political economies or measuring ‘civilisations’ against the inequalities of their class structures wasn’t encouraged, as it was feared this might lead to thinking.
I was in my forties before I discovered that Boudicca (or Boadicea, as it was spelled back in 1975) wasn’t, strictly speaking, an ‘English’ heroine. By then, I was reading whatever I could find, finally understanding that history is actually the story of how societies try to organise themselves, and how beliefs and priorities affect that.
The history I was taught included the ‘empty land’ theory; the myth that when Van Riebeeck arrived, the whole country west of the Fish River was uninhabited, except for a few ‘nomads’ who moved around a lot and thus couldn’t be counted accurately. So my forebears weren’t land-grabbers, they were enterprising explorers. Four decades later, I got hold of New History of South Africa by Giliomee & Mbena, and finally got the facts I had needed back in the 70s, to argue with unpleasant drunk uncles around the braai.
But even though this history affirms the existence and extent of the Khoi and the San at the time the Europeans arrived, and even provides the tribal names of the distinct clans that the Dutch grouped together as ‘Hottentots’, their whole story is covered in an overview in the first chapter. So is the initial migration of the central and eastern peoples – and most of this is archaeological evidence, rather than a retelling of the history of these peoples as they told it themselves. We only start getting the history ‘stories’ once they’re recorded European-fashion – in writing.
Back in the day, I read a Wilbur Smith novel (it was the 70s! I was 12! Everything else was censored, okay?) called The Sunbird; which involved a legendary Phoenician city built on an ancient lake in northern Botswana, more than two thousand years ago. Of course, they’d enslaved the locals, and the novel climaxes with a brutal revolution, in which the enslaved wipe out the pale-skinned oppressors and their mixed-race collaborators. Yes, Wilbur was as paranoid as every other whitey in the 70s.
Then I went off to a decent liberal varsity in the 80s and got conscientised and was told by the BC okes that Wilbur was a colonialist apologist white supremacist who was just trying to explain away Great Zimbabwe and that African civilisation had no need to borrow from Mediterranean culture, thank you very much (as if borrowing were a crime; as if any great civilisation hadn’t learnt and stolen and assimilated), but nevertheless I re-educated myself.
Then I started reading history as a grown-up, and along comes Credo Mutwa and tells me that of course there were invasive Phoenicians back in the day, and they did sail up the Zambezi and conquer a colony, and they did oppress the people for decades, if not centuries. And they were overthrown in a bloody revolt, and then the leaders of that army set up a non-racial exploitative dictatorship on Phoenician principles, and that was the mighty African civilisation that built Great Zimbabwe. Then it all fell apart, as dictatorships do, and everybody moved around a bit. Now I don’t know whom to believe, although if the BC okes want to argue with Credo Mutwa, I’m not getting in the middle. Not my place, really.
So I’m thirsty for more info, I suppose. Not just about Phoenician colonies; about the whole fascinating continent. We all come from here originally; it stands to reason we have older stories than anywhere else. I want to know the story of Africa, as told by Africans. If I’m just looking in the wrong places, set me straight and send me suggestions. But if I have a point, we need to become fanatical about recording oral histories. When an old person dies, we lose a library. It’s time to copy all the files.