This year, I found out I knew very little about Africa

This has been a year full of disappointments, shocks, and surprises. But also, of learning. On the strangely happy side, there is perhaps no time in the past 30 years that I found out I knew so little about a subject I thought I knew a lot about — Africa.

I have read nearly every important book on this fair continent, have covered it as a journalist for years, and obsessed about it daily for decades.

And then, boom! I discovered that that was only the start of my Africa knowledge, not the middle or near-end. And I have never been more glad to find out I am ignorant.

And it was all accidental. Sometime back, someone asked if there was a new way the story of the Kenya-Uganda railway could be retold and “immortalised for a digital generation”.

The search for the answer led to research on African museums, especially of African history, and story exhibitions. The findings were deeply disappointing. There is no significant museum of African history in Africa.

In the end, there was a lot of information, and instead of keeping it in a database, it seemed a good idea to put it on Facebook and keep it rolling, and so it became “The Wall of Great Africans”.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the story of Africa if you look at it through the unsanitised and uncensored lives of its actors.

Paying price

There is a lot, but let us take women in African history. We all know that women, not just in Africa, but also all over the world, have been written out of history. But what is surprising — and harrowing — is the price that those who succeeded have had to pay.

Almost 90 per cent of the leading women in African history — the arts, politics, name it — that I have researched, had to divorce, some three or four times. Today, you are still told that “divorce is unAfrican”, but as early as the 16th century, women who succeeded as traders and warriors had to rebel against or confront patriarchy to move on, and divorce was their weapon.

Some took it to extremes. Aminatu, the great Hausa warrior queen of Zazzau (now in northwest Nigeria), decided not to marry. She was said to have taken a lover from among the conquered people after each battle, and to have killed or castrated him in the morning following their night together. This was in the late 1500s and early 1600s.

The other side of this is that “traditional” Africa was not as conservative as it is made out to be. Many courts and chieftains took a view about gender equality 220 years ago that would be considered extreme feminism today.

Usman dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, and who reigned between 1803-1815, had a line on the education and worldliness of his daughters and women that would get him a fatwa from many Islamic authorities in the world today.

Un-African thing

But these battles sometimes take their toll. In African societies suicide is a very difficult and taboo subject. It is one of those “unAfrican” things.

However, of the over 200 breakthrough African women I have researched, nearly 25 per cent committed suicide. This goes back centuries. I did not imagine that suicide would have been common so far back. And there are regional patterns. Pioneering women writers, actors, and activists from Arab North Africa tended mostly to jump to their deaths from tall buildings. And in southern Africa, they invariably took an overdose of something. But my God, they were brave.

The kings and generals were notoriously polygamous, not surprisingly. Guezo, king of Dahomey, took the biscuit. He had an army of 3,000 women, to each of whom he was married, having sold all the menfolk as slaves.

That said, there was no powerful king, chief, or military house where real power did not lie in a queen mother, queen, or princess.

And, of course, what have fallen out of currency today are the all-female armies, some numbering over 10,000. There were more women generals in Africa between 1600 and 1900 leading armies into battle than there are in 2016!

These were one hell of a bunch. You cannot read the material without it going to your head. I now understand why colonial education and school textbooks today edited them out. It is subversive stuff.

The author is publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site

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