Getting know our African selves better.
Good Monday Afternoon everyone
It’s my pleasure to introduce The History Issue as this month’s content focus for my blog. The Hair Issue started the conversations that I hoped it would start when I launched it and I’ve had strangers and acquaintances comment on how they’ve been following ‘’My Hair Revolution’’. I’m hoping that The History Issue, taking some time to concentrate on the subject of mine, yours and our history, will result in an even better sense of who we are as individuals and as compatriots. The aim is always to restore a lost dignity, a lost sense of self but also to speak the truth, which has the ability to change the way you and I see the world. That’s why I’m doing this.
I always loved History as a subject at school. I always excelled at it because I was that annoying kid who would have the answer to everything because I would go home and spend hours reading up on whatever we were learning about as soon as we started the particular subject in class. This piqued an interest in my father, who would sit and have discussions with me about the conventional history we were studying, offering different takes on it. I would sit in his study reading volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica sets for fun (rolls eyes), quiz myself on the events of Chronicles of different years, watch VHS tapes of figures like Credo Mutwa over and over again and then naturally gloat to my sisters and my classmates about it yet have the nerve to wonder why I was a social pariah at home and why nobody asked me to any school dances.
These days I only become intolerable during 30 seconds but for the most part, I’m a shadow of that gloaty little girl. Random historical facts and anything to do with the past still turn me on although I faltered a bit on my reading while I was busy with fashion and the general adventures of my life in the last few years, I have spent the last 18 months revisiting South African History as an adult.
I can’t begin to explain how much this has affected my worldview. We all know (do we?) that the history that was part of the syllabus in in the 90s and even the 2000s was a hangover from an Apartheid approach to South African History. You know, the South African history that starts in 1652 with the arrival of Dutch East India Company Viceroy Jan van Riebeck? The ‘’history’’ that writes out (as in excludes from the books) the achievements of indigenous Africans, their art, religion and contribution to civilization.
The only histories that existed, according to our curriculum were those of the English, Portuguese, Spanish and the French, which we spent a great deal learning about. I remember studying Egypt, China and Japan and feeling like Africans have been left behind by all these other nations. The image I walked away with after studying Egyptian history was that they must have been Middle Eastern or ‘’Arab’’, which isn’t even a race. They were definitely not black even though they lived in Africa. To this day, despite 3000 year old evidence around them, it’s still a contentious issue among Egyptologists that the Egyptians included dark skinned African people. Anyway, we’ll get to that later.
Even when I studied History for 3 years at Rhodes and we did study South African history, the focus was always on Post-Colonial South Africa, leaving classes and classes of students ignorant about the existence of life in Africa before the colonists came. This was normal and unquestioned. African history was hidden and the silence about it wasn’t always sinister, it was because the teachers who taught us were ignorant of African history, just like the teachers who taught them because, well it was designed in this way so that African people have no sense of self, let alone pride in the achievement of their forbearers. Has it worked?
Why is it that we could reblockquote the names of the wives of Henry the Eighth and the order in which they were divorced and beheaded yet one has to scramble to find information on Xhosa, Pedi or Shona chiefs, kings and queens? Their names don’t roll off our tongues because the information isn’t easily available. Part of it is because of our own ignorance as victims of this historical exclusion and perpetual loser syndrome, and the other reason is because of the old adage history is told by the victor. To deprive someone of their own history is to deprive them of their power, knowledge. What can one do with an empty pot? One can fill that pot with ingredients that when cooked over time, become a bottomless soup of lies, elaborate lies and misunderstandings that for years and years and years keep entrenching themselves into the base of the pot until the lies become facts.
Two months ago, Nigeria expunged History as a subject in school. I repeat, History is no longer a subject in Nigerian schools. The education department says it’s because there are not enough teachers to teach it, not enough jobs that one can do with a Degree in History and lastly, ‘’the students shun it as a subject’’. So what would happen if the students also shunned Maths and Science as subjects? Could those also be struck off the register so easily? This is a shocking leap of ignorance that is going to deprive Nigerian children of a core part of themselves. I know that History is seen as one of those fuddy duddy subjects that bores most kids into undermining it but here’s a newsflash, undermining one’s history is undermining one’s self.
I believe that the reason Africans are perceived as the most inferior by the rest of the world, a view upheld by an economic system that literally takes from the richest continent in the world, Africa, and leaves its people the poorest: poor of food, poor of land, poor of resources and poor of knowledge – is because we have been successfully tricked into thinking that Africans were nothing before colonialism, not just African kids but all kids who have learned history in the last 100 years have been privy to that disinformation. It’s a system that’s been used to conquer North America, South America, Australia, some parts of Asia and all of Africa. Naturally, Africans had it the worst because our continent had and still has the most that European colonizers were after during the 19th Century scramble.
The culture in Pre-Colonial times from as early as the 1300s to the mid 1600s, was to trade with Southern African natives. Materials like beads, gold and ivory, silver and other precious metals were traded with the Portuguese, who in turn traded with North East Africans, Persians and Asians, and while there would be squabbles and molestations here and there, the general consensus was mutual respect meaning no taking over of other people’s land and livelihood, no forcing them to denounce their Gods, no raping their women and definitely no making their people slaves.
So how did it become that?
Where does the story or our current situation begin to take shape?
Was it simply about black versus white?
What role did our own forbearers play in our downfall?
Who built Great Zimbabwe and why?
Where was the Monomotapa Kingdom?
Who was Mbuye Nehanda?
Why don’t we know a lot about Mapungubwe?
Where did white Jesus come from and to whom were native southern Africans praying before that?
What happened to those gods?
What does the shape of 19th Century village houses have to do with the proselytization of native South Africans?
What happened to the Khoi Khoi and the Khoi San when they first encountered Europeans?
What role did fashion play in the colonization of native Southern Africans?
What did Nongqawuse look like and why was she such a controversial character? Why are Xhosa’s the only Nguni’s that make the click sounds?
How do I feel about taking pride in the fact that I attended a learning institution named after a man who said ‘’I don’t care about niggers, I’m more interested in their land’’?
Why cigarettes and alcohol, mirror’s and teapots were so instrumental in the interior advancement of Europeans in Southern Africa. Why Caucasians have long straight hair and narrow noses and why Negroid peoples have the hair and wider noses they have.
Why Ghandi was not a friend of ‘’Kaffirs’’.
The effects of Tshaka’s Mfecane on South Africa and how the nations of Swaziland and Lesotho came to be.
Who was Sir Lowry, Benjamin D’Urban, Harry Smith, Graham of Grahamstown, Henry Somerset, Beaufort and other British men who have towns named after them?
Who was Rharhabe and why did he hate his brother Gcaleka?
Who was Yese and why did she have power over her son Ngqika?
Who was present when Hintsa was killed and what type of man was he?
Where does the name for the fruit Spanspek come from?
Why was a Khoi San man Africa’s first revolutionary?
Why did the west love Mandela so much after he came out of prison?
Why did Apartheid really end?
Is it really dead?
As you can see I could go on forever. And this all went down in a short 700-year period. There’s a whole 800 years and the rest of the continent of West Africans who conquered and civilized Europe way before all of this went down – the Moors, whose story is known but somehow not taken as seriously as it should. There’s a sense of never wanting to attribute any genius to Africans nje in the world and it’s amazing how well it has worked. Why does it continue to work? It’s only because we don’t really know our history. For generations we have accepted a history that was taught in the schools of the victors.
I am not a historian so I don’t have the desire nor the capacity to make this into an in depth account of the stories above, but I do plan to tell what I know, what I have learned about South African history and where I as a Mfengu Xhosa fit into the story and hopefully where you, whoever you are and wherever your people come from, fit into the story. I will give nuggets of knowledge that I have learned and try to make it as interesting as possible since this is a funky blog on funky culture. I know that my life’s mission is to go back to school and actually break this history down into many set work books and historical novels like Marguerite Poland’s Shades. But for now, here’s to a month of looking at Southern African history and a little bit on African history that goes waaaaaay back when we Nguni were still in the caves of modern day Cameroon. My golden source, one of many, is a book called Frontiers: The Epic Creation of South Africa and the Tragedy of the Xhosa people written by Noel Mostert, who writes a brilliant story as if he was there as a native Africa who saw it all unfolding. If you can find it, buy it now. I didn’t buy it. It’s on a 2 year loan from my friend Michael because it’s almost 1500 pages of WHAT? HOW? WHO DID WHAT? It’s extremely rare and not something you can just walk into Exclusives and buy.
It might also be fun to really engage with this subject by sending me questions, comments, sharing more facts, reading material and bits of history in an effort for group learning which will ultimately lead to better understanding and tolerance of our differences and most importantly, a decolonizing of the mind.
Image: a young Xhosa man by Alice Merster and Joan Broster // African Elegance, 1973