Remembering the dismembered continent; on the 125th anniversary of the Berlin conference of 1884-85 that fragmented Africa, Ayi Kwei Armah looks at where African society is today and where we could take it tomorrow.

Author:Armah, Ayi Kwei

THe ACCIDENTS OF HISTORY MAKE US WHAT WE ARE TODAY; we can work to shape the course of our future if we give ourselves the trouble to know what it takes. The argument of this article is that in our historical behaviour, we, the people of Africa, have tended to regard the continent--all of it--as our home; that regimes imposed by invaders from Europe and Arabia, have attempted to configure African space and time in ways beneficial to themselves, cutting off important portions of our space and time, in the expectation that only a residual portion could be acknowledged as ours; that under the European fragmentation of African space and time formalised in Berlin in 1885, the residual fragment was further subdivided into separate plantation-style colonies, the same truncated units we are now invited to identify with, rebranded as our nation-states.


That these divisive units, the colonial states, based on the dismemberment of Africa, serve purposes that invariably degrade African life while enhancing European well-being; and that the completion of the unfinished business of our political, social, economic and cultural emancipation depends on our scrapping the Berlin design in favour of a unitary African design; that this task is complicated because the physical, military and administrative dismemberment of Africa was consolidated by a colonial culture that programmed our ruling elite to recognise the divisive con-figuration of African space and time as its sole reality, with the result that we identify with our divisions in our actual behaviour, even while proclaiming in rhetoric our undying attachment to Pan-African unity.

That this behaviour is deeply anchored in a lethal indoctrination (alias formal education) that hooks African intellectuals on the false but incessantly repeated notion that Africa has no intelligent history, no rational philosophical culture, and that therefore, to progress into modernity, Africa must keep stroking the psychic strings tying us to Europe by borrowing something called Western rationality; that this colonial ideology, quite apart from being demonstrably false, is also soporific, lethal and mentally sedative.

That if we are to wake up from its spell and remake our society and our continent, Africans will have to retrieve our suppressed ability to conceive of our wholeness in both spatial and temporal terms; that we can begin doing this by rearticulating our dismembered society and remembering our suppressed history, philosophy, culture, science and arts; that for this awakening, all necessary intellectual information exists here and now, though in scattered form; that it requires the work of groups of determined researchers to bring it together, to process it, and to make it widely available in forms accessible to all--these being the requisite preparations for Africa's intellectual awakening.

Any such awakening, it should be needless to point out, will ultimately take practical political and social forms. However, our recent history reminds us that no matter how huge the energy that goes into it, any attempted political awakening will be abortive unless it is preceded by a preparatory process of cultural rebirth, the kind of renewed self-awareness that enables a people long and relentlessly misrepresented--as essentially childish, stupid, incapable of management, averse to challenging intellectual undertakings, with an aptitude only for the easier occupations of rhythmic work, music and dance, seeing life only as eternal entertainment--to reevaluate and re-imagine itself as fully human, fully intelligent, and therefore capable of facing and solving the problems now blocking our path to a future of our own.

Such a cultural awakening, the prelude to great political and social improvements, shall be imminent when significant numbers of our population have enough real information of our history, philosophy and culture to understand our potential, so that we no longer labour under debilitating, cretinising psychosocial caricatures, but see accurately what our past was made of, why that past has brought us to the present situation, and how, if we have the courage to seize the knowledge available to us and to use it, we can create a better world.

A rebirth

For any society to teach such a level of cultural awareness, it needs to nourish itself from the work of small groups of intellectuals committed to the search for real, accurate data, however long suppressed or deeply buried, and willing to devote time and intelligence to the slow, steady research needed to unearth the buried data for presentation to an awakening universe. it is work that can only be done by committed intellectuals finding each other and meeting in dedicated study groups to share the skills, talents, equipment, insights, support and work needed to prepare for the desired rebirth.

In a little-known book published by Lawrence Hill, New Haven, Connecticut, Black Africa: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federal State, the best treatise on African economics written to date, the late Egyptologist and physicist Cheikh Anta Diop laid out a scenario of economic, social and cultural improvements in African life that could be made immediately possible through the rational organisation and use of resources available on the continent today.

Brief as the text is, it presents a thorough overview of Africa's inventory of energy (fossil, geothermal, solar, wind, tidal, nuclear, hydroelectric and biological), mineral, water, agricultural and human resources. It surveys distribution patterns of these resources, and suggests adjustments that could be made in order to organise them to create a series of regional industrial, agricultural and energy bases serving the people of the whole continent.

The book then makes it clear that given such an intelligent understanding, control and...

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