I got motivated to write this blog post after reading Gregg Dixon’s piece ‘Correcting a big lie about Gedi ruins’. In the article Gregg talks about his experience at Gedi Ruins in Kenya where the tour guides informed him that this historical city was established by Arabs and not by the Swahili people. According to Gregg “tour guides at Gedi even went so far as to tell me that the only influence black Kenyans had in the history of Gedi and other Swahili city-states were as slaves and that is because they, in his own words, “were not strong people. ” Shock and horror! You can read Gregg’s article here.
Unfortunately, this kind of thing is rife..RIFE!! at many historical sites in Africa. For example, I and a couple of African colleagues recently visited Melka Kunture, an archaeological site in Ethiopia. This is a site that demonstrates evidence of human habitation going back to 1.7 million years ago. Our tour guide took us through the exhibition on display in the information centre. I was struck by something. None of the exhibition panels had any pictures of Ethiopians in them. The only one picture of an Ethiopian was a hand on a stone. No faces were needed, I guess. None of the exhibition panels highlighted the contributions of Ethiopians in any archaeological excavation work at the site. In contrast, there were plenty of pictures of white archaeologists.
I later on raised the issue with some of my Ethiopian colleagues. One of them shared my concern. I wanted to bring it to the attention of everybody when were still on the site but that opportunity did not arise. I was incensed. I kept talking about it. Some of my colleagues did not seem to see what the big deal was. This in itself is a big problem. My issue was this – I was 100% sure that Ethiopians and more so, local communities around the site were involved in any archaeological research that had taken place at the site. Where were their contributions? Why was that not documented? Why do we not see their faces and “hear” their voices. One of my Ethiopian colleagues went as far as telling me “there were no Ethiopian archaeologists in the 60’s when the site was first excavated.” I told him that it was not just about archaeologists. It was about that person who did anything to help those who supposedly “discovered” the site. Side bar – if you raise any issue about oppression of Africans it is highly likely that you will find more than enough Africans opposing you. I have another example to illustrate this later on in this post.
We are told that the Melka Kunture was discovered by Gerard Dekker , a dutch hydrologist in 1963. My question is, did Gerard just arrive in Ethiopia, walked around all by himself and stumble across this incredible heritage. All by himself- no help from any community guides, no government officials, nobody- just Gerard? Highly unlikely. Read more about the “discovery” of the site here.
This kind of thing is quite common. It always made to appear that 1. Africans have never achieved anything and 2. they do not care about their heritage. These two myths are dangerous! and they have sadly, endured. That is why they must be challenged. We need more Greggs(author of the Gedi article). He went ahead an contacted the National Museums of Kenya. He later told me that the Gedi site management team had re-trained the guides. How many people have gone to Gedi or any other site and nodded along as the tour guides distort the history of the site? We all need to do something. But, it must be said that you cannot challenge that which you do not know. If a tour guide tells you Arabs built Gedi and you do not know otherwise then you will say, oh hail the Arabs! So, we must all educate ourselves, and luckily information is everywhere these days. We must question. The past is not just the past. It is the present and it is the future. All Africans should take an interest in it. You cannot fight for or defend that which you do not understand .
It is only through African heritage that Africans can reclaim their dignity as a people. If that heritage is presented in manner that continues to diminish their ancestors role in creation of the same, or their contributions in researching this heritage, we will continue to perpetuate the myths 1 and 2 outlined above. I later had a chance to speak about it when we had the closing ceremony of our workshop and my argument was that – if Africa’s story is not told properly in this day and age, then that is nobody else’s fault but our own. The minister for Tourism and the Director were in attendance. You can listen to my comment in the link below. Sorry about the quality of the video.
I also contacted a top Ethiopian archaeologist and shared my thoughts. He contacted Melka Kunture’s management , and they informed him that they had been working on a new exhibition for the site. I really hope that there will be some Ethiopians in those panels.
Now, to the example I said I would give.
I got into another discussion with African colleagues in the same group about the naming of landscapes. The issue of discussion here was what is known as “Victoria falls” in Zambia and Zimbabwe. These were allegedly “discovered ” by David Linginstone who named them after Queen Victoria. Yes, nothing exists until a white man casts his gaze upon it. Not even something as big as these majestic falls. The surrounding communities never saw them until D. Livingstone came by and started dislodging satan from their souls.
Anyway, my issue here was – why has this name persisted even after the end(?) of the colonial period. What has Queen Victoria ever done for Africa(ns), other than preside on their death, destruction, and exploitation of their resources? Some of my colleagues from Zambia were the first ones to get on the defensive! They told me how much they love Livingstone, how much they admire his legacy and how much he should still be revered. That, there was nothing wrong with referring to the falls as Victoria falls because it is was a way of honouring Livingstone’s legacy. To stress their point , one of them told me that I should stop wearing clothes because that too is a European invention. Gasp! Why don’t Africans see the irony of naming some of the most iconic African landscapes after their oppressors?
I would like to finish this by recalling a conversation I had with a Zambian rastafarian who I met on the streets of ..wait for it.. Livingstone, Zambia. He told me “Zambians are Christian fundamentalists. Can you believe that when somebody has a stomachache, they go to the pastor for prayers instead of taking medicine? Christianity has made them crazy.” Thanks Livingstone!