10 Things Out of Africa

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Last week I read an article in The Guardian: 10 things Africa has given the world. It was disappointing. I appreciate that the list doesn’t claim to be the top 10 things Africa has given the world, but it’s hard to escape the idea that any list of items like this must be chosen for their significance. Anyway, the 10 things the article identifies include two vegetable products (shea butter and coffee), a dish (jollof rice), a word (ubuntu), a fast food chain (Nando’s), penis transplants (yes, really), jazz, modern art (because African art inspired Picasso), mathematics (because of two disputed archaeological discoveries) and mobile telephones (apparently because some of the rare earths used in mobile phones are mined in Africa).


Here instead is my own top 10 of things I think Africa has given the world. Let’s start with…

1. The Human Race
The most fascinating discovery to come out of human genetic research, in my opinion, is the evidence in our mitochondrial DNA that almost all people on the planet today, outside of Africa, are descended from one or two small groups of people who migrated from Africa around 60,000 years ago. That’s got to be top of anyone’s list of things out of Africa, surely?
2. Civilisation
The River Nile was the cradle of a series of ancient civilisations (Upper and Lower Egypt, the Nubian kingdoms) that together form one of the foundations of the world civilisation we have today. Ancient Egypt’s trade, interaction and friction with the other ancient civilisations in Mesopotamia and around the Mediterranean coastline all contributed to the development of the modern world.
3. Resources
From ancient times, through to today and into the future Africa has been and looks set to continue as a significant source of resources used throughout the world. Whether those resources are the oil, natural gas and coal fields currently being eyed by China, or the conflict minerals niobium and tantalium being mined today as coltan in Congo (for mobile phones), or diamonds from across Africa, or land for cash crops, or more anciently gold, ivory, slaves or salt, these resources have always had an influence on both Africa and the rest of the world beyond their contemporary material value. Africa’s tragedy is that so many of its resources, especially in more recent centuries, have more often benefited the rest of the world at Africa’s expense – though that is changing.
4. The Scatterlings of Africa
The most tragic example in this list of resources is, of course, the trade in slaves. Between the 8th and 20th centuries of the modern era Moslem Arab traders may have exported between 8 and 17 million Africans as slaves from Africa while the Christian Europeans’ Atlantic slave trade (16th-19th centuries) removed a further 11 to 20 million people (depending on whose figures you choose to trust). But the descendents of those Africans stolen from the continent have contributed to an African diaspora that has influenced the development and direction of the societies of which they form a part, perhaps especially in the Americas. (A hat tip to Johnny Clegg for the title of this section.)
5. Food and drink
Coffee – of course – originating in the highlands of eastern Africa, probably in modern Ethiopia, it was taken up as a drink by the Arabs of Egypt and the Yemen and then spread throughout the Moslem world and beyond. But also the kola nut, which is (or was originally) used to supply the “cola” element of certain popular drinks. (You know the ones I mean!) Another drink of African origin that has become internationally popular is rooibos tea which is made from the leaves of the rooibos bush, originally from southern Africa. The watermelon, also originally from southern Africa, is evidence of ancient trans-Saharan trade – it was cultivated in ancient Egypt 4000 years ago. Apart from these, I could also mention yams, some types of millet, sorghum and African rice (possibly the original rice used in making Jollof rice), which have also travelled far from Africa. Oh yes, and the nut of the shea tree that can be pressed for oil to make shea cream, used in food preparation as well as cosmetics.
6. Swahili
Swahili is both a native tongue and a lingua franca across a wide swathe of eastern and central Africa. Although it is in origin a native African language it has been flexible enough to adopt vocabulary from other languages (notably Arabic, but also English, Portuguese, Hindi, French and German). In this it reflects English which is also a language that has borrowed widely from others. And if you want some words, how about hakuna matata (no worries) or uhuru (freedom) – both terms have, I submit, a higher recognition factor than “ubuntu” (at least, for the first one, with any child who has seen The Lion King and, for the second, all Star Trek nerds).
7. Inspiration
Africa has been a source of inspiration to people outside of the continent for centuries. In the Middle Ages in Europe, when Christianity seemed under threat from Arabs, Turks and Mongols, stories of the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, ruled by the good Prester John were told to keep spirits up. At more or less the same time, in the Moslem world, stories of the fabulously wealthy western African Kingdom of Mali also circulated (with rather more of a basis in truth). By the time of the European Renaissance and world exploration the undoubted wealth of the Americas stole attention from Africa, but as “The Dark Continent” Africa reappeared in the western consciousness in the 19th century to inspire explorers (Mungo Park), missionaries (Livingstone), journalists (Stanley), fiction writers (from H. Rider Haggard, via Edgar Rice Burroughs to Joseph Conrad), artists (Matisse and Picasso among others), biographers (Karen Blixen) and film makers (from Jean Rouch to John Huston). And music, because the rhythms and melodies of Africa – especially western Africa – carried to the Americas by the slaves, inspired and informed jazz, but also gospel, reggae, samba, salsa and a dozen other music styles, and ultimately rock and pop.
8. Beyond inspiration
Africa has also given the world a literature – written in half a dozen different languages (at least) – but to pick from just the authors working in English, starting with Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer and moving on to Ben Okri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Doreen Baingana – to name but eight. (And here are a few more.)

Besides literature we have to come back to music and mention at least Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Youssou N’Dour, Mory Kanté, Amakye Dede and Idir.

Cinema is less well developed in some African countries, more in others. South African cinema in particular has given us a number of impressive films – and not just tackling South Africa’s own recent history. Gavin Hood’s 2005 film Tsotsi won the Oscar for best foreign language film, and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Film. Elsewhere: Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck directed Sometimes in April (2005) set in Rwanda and about coming to terms with the Rwandan genocide; Nigerian Newton Aduaka directed Ezra (2007) about a child soldier in Sierra Leon; Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto directed Sisters in Law (2005) a documentary film about Camaroon lawyers Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba and their working lives. (Yes, I’ve seen them all!)

And I can’t leave this section without at least mentioning the Benin bronzes. Not (I think) examples of the art of Africa that inspired the modernists – that seems more to have been wooden sculpture – but fantastic works of art, comparable with anything from the European Renaissance.

9. Medicine
No doubt a penis transplant is very important for the person who is getting the new penis, and I can imagine that the work involved is a huge test of a surgeon’s ability, but I’m old enough to remember the news reports of Dr Christiaan Barnard’s first successful heart transplant operation. Given that the revolutionary surgery involved then has now become a commonplace internationally I can’t help feeling it is a more appropriate example of something medically world-shattering coming out of Africa.

It would be really nice to include something here about how Africa was overcoming some of the really serious, endemic diseases the people of the continent struggle with – malaria and HIV/AIDS, diarrhoea and tuberculosis (not to mention ebola which despite it’s prominence in the international media isn’t a significant disease in Africa). Sadly that isn’t happening – although there are straws in the wind. As Africa as a continent becomes richer (as is happening) and as education levels rise (as they are doing), we can expect to see more Africans with the education and resources to work on these diseases, and perhaps there will be a local breakthrough that will come to benefit sufferers not only across the continent, but also across the world.

Which brings me neatly to my last “thing” out of Africa.

10. Hope

Africa is the second largest of the world’s continents, and the second most populous. It is also the oldest home for the human race (see 1 above). More things have happened in Africa and come out of Africa over time than anywhere else, though we often forget it because Africa has not been as dynamic as other continents in recent history. But there is every reason to believe that will change – in fact the change is already happening. Africa will be the last of the world’s continents to reach population equilibrium. The population of the continent is still growing, but the rate of growth is already slowing down. Just as in Asia, the Americas and Europe, with increasing wealth, increasing education and increasing health most African families will end up with 1 or 2 children. This will probably happen by the middle of this century.

There are huge problems ahead. Feeding the increasing population and making sure everyone has access to clean water is going to be difficult in an age of significant climate change, but the resources Africa has – including the intellectual capacity, enterprise and innovative drive of its people – will be invaluable. Already Africans are using the advantages of modern technology to run businesses, farm, build, transport, communicate and co-operate across the huge distances and natural barriers of the continent. That will continue.

Political, religious and ethnic divisions exist and may act as drags on development. They may make life and living more difficult and dangerous in some parts of the continent for some periods. But because there is anarchy in (for example) Somalia and Libya, it does not mean there is anarchy across the continent. Even in Nigeria where the government is struggling with the Boko Haram, most of the country is untouched and most Nigerians carry on living their lives.

There are 55 states in Africa and most of them are stable. On the current Fragile States Index (2015) Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Gabon, and Ghana all rank higher (less fragile and more stable) than Turkey, Indonesia, Ecuador and even China and India. It’s true that the bottom six countries on the list are all African, but you could find something similar for every continent. For example, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are all low ranking (below Ghana), while the Scandinavian countries are at the top of the list – and yet they are all in Europe.

I know the Internet likes articles that list things: “The 20 cutest faces cats pull”, “5 ways to know you’re a jerk”, “10 things Africa has given the world”. I know this article doesn’t really fit the mold. Writing it has taken a lot longer than I expected. Writing it has also given me – I have to admit – more respect for people who do write those sort of articles. (Not a lot more respect, but some.)

I’m sure you could come up with another list, perhaps a better list. Feel challenged? Got to it!

Africa in the world - satelite image of the world globe showing Africa

This took me far too long to research and write!

The illustration – a satelite image of Africa from NASA – is reproduced from the creative commons stock at Wikimedia. “Africa is front and center in this image of Earth taken by a NASA camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite. The image, taken July 6 2015 from a vantage point one million miles from Earth, was one of the first taken by NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC). Central Europe is toward the top of the image with the Sahara Desert to the south, showing the Nile River flowing to the Mediterranean Sea through Egypt.”

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

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3 thoughts on “10 Things Out of Africa”

  1. Your list is far better than the list from The Guardian!

    Shea butter might be splendid but the very first thing one would expect on such a list is that we all come from Africa. What use would the shea butter do if we vere not here??

    • Thanks Eva,

      It’s that old philosophical question: If there is no one around to make butter from the shea nut, does it then contribute to the cosmetics industry? (I think I got that right. 😉 )

      Mitochondrial Eve does seem to be a key African export, doesn’t she.


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