Monday, 18 October 2010

Project African History

I've just finished reading a fascinating book: Congo Wars by Thomas Turner. It explores the conflict in the DRC from an historical and ethnographic perspective. I loved reading it and am ever grateful to Rich for passing it on to me. But I found myself frustrated, too. Frustrated that, as an African educated in Africa, I am reading a book by a non-African academic to get a proper sense of the history of this continent. I even majored in history. But, of course, I am a South African and we have a terribly complicated, not always happy relationship with the continent and our belonging to it.

When I studied history (at a very good South African institution), the department attempted to cram into a few courses the fascinating and hugely complex history of an entire continent. African history has some overarching themes but it is so big and so much is (and was) going on at any given time that it's really hard to cover it in broad brush-strokes. The history of Africa really needs detailed analysis of each country or, at the very least, each region. Trying to do this at a university level for kids with absolutely no foundational knowledge is near-on impossible.

That is how things stood when I entered university. I think there may have been mention of other African countries in the very little bit of struggle history we did (in the sense that some of the struggle organisations had training camps there rather than looking at these countries' own history) but beyond that the closest I'd ever come to doing history outside of a South African state was the Great Trek. And because that was the only taste of African history I'd had, I had no real desire to learn more. It wasn't the only thing that education system failed to teach me – we didn't learn a single thing about Asia. Not even in relation to South Africa. I didn't even know that South African had been involved in the Korean war until I tripped over the information at a war memorial in Daegu. The international history we studied strongly favoured the idea of Europe (with the possible exception of Britain) as the home and heart of all progress and civilization. I am ideally placed to talk about the politicization of education by oppressive regimes. It is the reason some what what I know is skewed, missing or just plain wrong. I am frustrated because the Apartheid government's manipulation of the school history curriculum means that I know nearly nothing about my continent.

The consequence is that I potentially walk into Africa far more culturally comfortable than some of my European or American (or Asian) peers but with paradoxically less understanding about the social and political histories of the places I am visiting. I feel somehow cheated of the history of my own continent. I find myself wondering how much impact this lack of knowledge about the place we are from, the history we share with the rest of Africa, might have and have had on the formation of an identity apart. What common identity as South Africans exists, really does seem to be an identity apart – as evidenced when frustration at lack of service delivery and food price pressure turned to anti-African xenophobia in poorer pockets across South Africa.

I am an African and when I walk into Africa to help deal with the aftermath of conflicts and natural disasters, I am helping my fellow Africans. What I need to work on, to ensure, is that I'm also walking in understanding how our different histories have shaped who we are and affected the similarities and the differences between us, to avoid the disrespect of assuming that everyone is either just like us (South Africans) or completely, irreconcilably different. So new project: Project African History.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah. This is bugging me ahead of Uganda too. I am more 'african' (whatever that means) than my European counterparts, but a lack of history means there is a real danger of falling into the same traps of representation that most foreign journalists in Africa do. I have no idea what my more 'honest' (is that the right word) reportage would/will do differently.

    And a large part of that is because I lack the historical background to frame much of the stuff differently from how an overseas peer with equally little background might.