ALI A. MAZRUI The Africans: A Triple Heritage (1986)

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Yet strictly by the measurement of technology there seems to be little doubt that African societies which developed into states were often significantly more advanced in the use of sophisticated tools than African societies which were still primarily based on a pastoral or herding way of life. Some of the African states evolved into cultures of monuments, brick and mortar civilisations. At the pyramids of the Nile or the castles in Ethiopia, or at the awesome ruins of Great Zimbabwe, or at the remains of Gedi in Kenya, one is visually reminded of this monumental side of African history, the history of kingdoms and dynastic empires which also believed in using stone and brick to erect durable testimony to their life-styles. This is the theme of gloriana in African history.

But alongside these African societies of centralised complexity and gloriana have lived people who are either still hunters and gatherers primarily or, at a more advanced state of technology, have become societies which deal with domesticated animals. The hunters and gatherers include the Khoisan (“Bushmen”) of the Kalahari and, with even more complex skills, the BaMbuti (“Pygmies”) of Zaire. The pastoral and herding communities have included, as we indicated, the Somali and the Masai, and also a substantial section of the Fulani who are spread over much of west Africa (not to be confused with the Hausa-Fulani), the Tuareg of the southern Sahara and other pastoralists on the march. For centuries all these so-called “tribes without rulers,” illustrating civilisations of subtle simplicity rather than complex structures, have co-existed alongside the more elaborate states and monumental gloriana. Even the term “simplicity” underestimates the underlying intricacies of these pastoral and hunting societies, but there is little doubt that their technology has been significantly less developed than the technology either achieved indigenously or imported by African states and the makers of Africa’s monumental history.

The massive cultural arrogance of Europeans was later to influence the indigenous personality of the continent, and create at times schizophrenia among the Westernised Africans. Defending themselves against European contempt, one school of African thought emphasised that Africa before the European had had its own complex civilisations of the kind that Europeans regarded as valid and important civilisations which produced great kings, impressive empires and elaborate technological skills. This particular school of African thought looked especially to ancient Egypt as an African civilisation, and proceeded to emphasise Egypt’s contribution to the cultures and innovations of ancient Greece.

We may call this school of African assertion a school of romantic gloriana. It seeks to emphasise the glorious moments in Africa’s history defined in part by European measurements of skill and performance, including the measurements of material monuments.

In contrast to this tradition of romantic gloriana is what might be called romantic primitivism In this the idea is not to emphasise past grandeur, but to validate simplicity and non-technical traditions, Romantic primitivism does not counter European cultural arrogance by asserting civilisations comparable to that of ancient Greece. On the contrary, this school takes pride in precisely those traditions which European arrogance would seem to despise.

From THE AFRICANS: A TRIPLE HERITAGE by Ali A. Mazrui. Copyright (c) by Ali A. Mazrui; Copyright (c) 1986 by Greater Washington Educational Telecommunications Association. By permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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Prepared by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 © by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
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Updated:Thursday, April 24, 2003