Past

During a recent appearance on Irish television, controversy ensued after Emma Dabiri suggested that we don't need any more "white saviours" in Africa. To my great surprise, she was immediately met with a comment about "darkest Africa from a fellow panelist. Though this is a phrase with which we are all too familiar, I have not heard it employed with any degree of seriousness in years. Nonetheless, it is a stark reminder that many continue to perceive the continent thus.

As Hugh Trevor-Roper, the eminent Oxford professor of history, declared in 1962: "Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at the present there is none - there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness... and darkness is not a subject of history."

The fact remains that Africa's past has been almost entirely obscurred by an infrastructure that sought to - that seeks to - legitimise the damage that Europe did to it, and to its people: devastation that the forces of global capital continue to perpetuate through various means of exploitation and extraction.

Africa remains a prisoner of the lies told about its precolonial past, and of the legacy of its colonial history. The kidnapping of millions of able-bodied young people in their prime, the destruction of complex societal organisation, the decimation of often egalitarian and socially just spiritual belief systems and philosophies - all these paved the way for the creation of fictitious states. They allowed the engineering of narrow, fixed, nationalistic ethnic identiries to replace the far more fluid affiliations that existed previously, as well as the installation of despotic leaders supporting the interests of political and economic elites in the global north.

Any meaningful ackonowledgement of this remains a long way off. Instead it is far easier to continue the centuary-old trope of African barbarity, or at best incompetence, and the myth of "well-intentioned" intervention (though Africans, mysteriously, rarely seem to benefit from these interventions).

When you next hear the phrase "darkest Africa", or any of its multiple iterations, reflect on the words of Nigeria's first Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka: "The darkness so readily attributed to the 'Dark Continent' may yet prove to be nothing but the wilful cataract in the eye of the beholder."

Adapted from BBC, World Histories, Issue 4 June/July 2017