Redefining the African Identity
Third World, Undeveloped — Graham Knight argues it’s time to challenge the way we talk about Africa.
Language and ideas are powerful. They can shape the way we see the world and ourselves. The way Africans see themselves and the outside world is determined to a large extent by the language of non-Africans. This language is familiar to us all. It is almost impossible to think about the world outside of the terms of this language. The language I’m referring to is Third World, Undeveloped, Primitive, Poor, HIPC and Un-advanced.
A function of these words is to make Africans feel ashamed. It robs a people of their confidence and blinds them to what is valuable and unique in their societies. They become embarrassed by their traditions and strive in vain to become like the ‘developed’ world.
The success of this language is that Africans not only see themselves in these terms but also use the same language to describe themselves? What does this language do to the minds of a people? What does it do to the confidence of a country?
A sense of perspective
It is important to remember that traditional and tribal societies have existed for more than 95% of mankind’s existence on this planet. They are the original First World (the word Primitive comes from the Latin Primus meaning ‘first’). This is the way of life in which we evolved. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss believed that a species removed from the environment in which it evolved to live will become pathological. When we look at the levels of drug misuse, alcoholism, depression and other mental illnesses and suicides in the ‘developed’ world, we can see the results of people living in an unnatural environment. Some people in the ‘developed’ world are recognising the strengths of tribal societies, particularly in their ability to care for people in a way that modern society has failed to do.
The idea that Africa is poor, and that it’s poor because it’s underdeveloped, are relatively new ideas. The notion of development, as it is currently understood, was invented by President Truman in 1944. Once you call a country ‘underdeveloped’ the only solution is to ‘develop’ it. The language itself is loaded.
In fact, travelers who first came to Africa were impressed by the health and nutrition of the people. Mungo Park, wrote that the Gambia River abounds with fish and that nature “with a liberal hand” has bestowed on the inhabitants of the area “the blessings of fertility and abundance”.
Two 18th century French travellers , Poncet and Brevedent, noted that the Gezira area of the Sudan was once covered in forests and “fruitful and well-cultivated plains”, and that it was called God’s Country “by reason of its great plenty”.
We might wonder where this natural wealth has gone. People such as Edward Goldsmith blame ‘development’ itself. Is it actually a poison that masquerades as medicine?
The Story That Shaped Our World
The view of Africa as an inferior version of the West, has been made possible by the story we have been told about the world. It goes like this:
Once upon a time humans were hunter-gatherers. They were very poor and spent all their time looking for food. They died young from lots of diseases because of their poor diet and lack of proper medicines (all this is untrue). One day they discovered farming and they became agriculturalists and their lives improved. Then humans fulfilled their real destiny and became developed. This was the final stage in the evolution of Man.
This is the story that dominates our thinking and determines government policies.
Developed suggests you have already reached your goal and you have no where else to go. But we know this is not true. Are traditional cultures really immature societies waiting to grow up?
There is another way of telling this story. This alternative way sees two different societies running side by side in the world. Each is already complete in its own way. They represent two different and opposed ways of seeing and understanding the world. An obvious example is our relationship with the natural world.
Traditional man lived in harmony with his environment. He took only what he needed and understood that he lived according to the laws of nature, like every other animal. He believed that he lived in the hands of the gods.
In opposition to this, modern man does not live in harmony with his environment. He attempts to dominate it. He believes the world was created imperfect so that he needs to improve it with science and technology. He takes more than he needs from the earth as evidenced by the mountains of food that are destroyed every year. To use a Christian analogy; he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and now believes he has the power of the gods to create and destroy. The result? Global warming, the devastation of our environment and the death of around 200 species every day due to our continual expansion.
In this view of the world, the ‘developed’ world seems rather foolhardy. They are like the man who put paper wings on his arms and then jumped off the top of a high mountain expecting to defy the laws of nature and fly. All he was aware of was the fact that he was still in the air. He thought himself very clever and advanced. He was so dazzled by the feeling of flying that he didn’t notice the ground was getting closer.
Let’s start looking critically at the language we have been given to describe Africa. Let’s find new words based on true African perspectives. In doing so we will redefine the power relationship between Africa and the rest of the world and help to create a new sense of pride in being African.