‘African’ Doesn’t Have to Be a Synonym of ‘Crude’, ‘Primitive’, and ‘Unsophisticated’

Most non-Africans who have never been to Africa have a bizzare impression of Africa. Pay attention to international media outfits and you see how Africa is portrayed. They think here in Africa, we’re living in trees and walking around naked. As far as they’re concerned, the word ‘African’ is a synonym for ‘crude, primitive, and unsophisticated’.

I’m a fairly active user of Quora and I was shocked to my bones 2 months ago when I saw a user ask if there were ATMs in Nigeria. Yes. In June 2017, someone asked if we had ATMs in Nigeria. The question was suggested to me to answer and I did answer. My answer is the last one on the page. This shows how much the rest of the world think of Africa.

What many non-Africans think Africa is (above) and what they never think it is (bottom).

What many non-Africans think Africa is (above) and what they never think it is (bottom).

But really, I don’t have a problem with non-Africans thinking that we Africans live in trees. It’s a sign of their ignorance and they are entitled to it. Everybody is entitled to their ignorance. What I will never understand is how Africans themselves believe that the words ‘African’, ‘crude’, ‘primitive’, and ‘unsophisticated’ can be used interchangeably.

Sometime in 2015, the following picture trended on the internet. It’s a picture of an African boy riding a wooden bicycle. And Africans actually went round priding themselves in this picture, saying it’s a sign of the ingenuity of Africans. They thought this was the proud African version of the standard bicycle. They called it ‘African technology.’

A wooden-metallic contraption of a bicycle is crude, primitive, and unsophisticated and thus can not be synonymous with the word 'African.'

A wooden-metallic contraption of a bicycle is crude, primitive, and unsophisticated and thus can not be synonymous with the word ‘African.’

I begged to differ. Those people who thought that this guy had made an African version of a bicycle thought that the African version had to be the one with raw pieces of wood cobbled together in a very hopeless manner. But I need to ask: are we supposed to continue in the spirit of feeling inferior? And what exactly is ‘African’ about this? He’s used exactly the same shape of the regular bicycle utilizing even some parts of an old conventional bicycle, just like a poor person who can’t afford a conventional bicycle would do. And poverty should also be the epitome of what’s African? He must have used his innovation in a resource-limited setting to produce this but that’s what it is: a sign of resource limitation, not of Africanity.

Whenever folks like CNN want to portray the African culture and they show mud houses with primitive people living in the most unsanitary conditions in a rural setting, I shake my head in anger. If you applaud that and call it the African culture, you’re only giving credence to the lie of the white invaders centuries ago which stated that we were primitive and they needed to come and get us civilised. Well-built metropolis is the symbol of Europe and America but rural houses with thatched or rusty iron roofs are the symbol of Africa? Come off it! Have some racial dignity, at least!

Listen. Herbal concoctions aren’t the African equivalent of pills and intravenous infusions neither is the ọpọ́n Ifá (the Ifá divination board) the African equivalent of Google Search. The herbalist is not the African equivalent of a medical doctor. They are the rude equivalents, not the African equivalents. They’re our past, what we used to be and do. We’ve moved on and we need to behave as such.

There was a time, not even long ago, till 3 centuries ago, just before the Industrial Revolution, when Europeans lived in worse conditions — when it was only the rich people that bathed more than once a year, when so many of them lived in huts with thatched roofs, when they lived just a little bit better than animals. We’re talking about the time when Europeans didn’t have facilities for bathing and they used their own faeces and urine as decorative pavements for their streets.

If you search very well, there might still be some people in some distant jungle in that same Europe where folks still live like that or close to it. CNN and BBC don’t take their cameras there and parade those scenes as representative of the European culture. There are poor people all over America, folks who don’t have access to good housing or basic amenities. They won’t be shown as representatives of the American culture. Why Africa? If they’ve simply chosen to move on away from their past and sink it into oblivion, they shouldn’t keep stamping our past on our present. And we too shouldn’t also encourage them.

People should know the difference between culture and antiquity. Culture is the way of life of a people at a particular point in time. If they can’t show Central Area, Abuja as the Nigerian culture for instance, then they should leave us alone.

A regular Lagos scene on CNN is that filled with yellow, crazily stuffed-together danfos and keke Napeps. We know we’re very poor. We know lots of us are living below the poverty line. We know that Africans are have massive populations of rural dwellers and we know that most Africans whether rural or urban dwellers suffer low standards of living. However these are our struggles, not the things we want to be identified with as an icon of our cultural heritage.

I consider it an insult on my racial identity if anyone uses the gas cooker as the symbol of Europe and then uses the ààrò (the three stones on the ground with sticks and fire in-between) as the symbol of Africa. There’s nothing African about that: it’s just a sign of primitiveness and poverty. There’s a popular Yoruba song that says ‘Òyìnbó ń mu tíì, mo mù’kọ ‘gbóná, ṣebí omi ‘gbóná kanáàn la jọ ńmu’ meaning ‘When a white man drinks his tea, I drink my hot corn pap. After all, we’ve both just quaffed hot drinks.’ Well, even though the pap isn’t more primitive than tea this time around, they are actually not the same type of drink and shouldn’t be equated.

This reminds me of 2014 when the ebola epidemic struck Nigeria. There was panic basically because there was no cure. The news of a vaccine later broke but we didn’t have any hope of getting it. Then came the hoax of salt-water being an effective prophylactic way-out. People began bathing with it and encouraging others to do so. Some of us who are medically educated warned people to desist from such a harmful practice but we were resisted and called names. Why? They said we weren’t proud of African innovations and the medical schools where we were taught orthodox medicine was just another channel through which white colonialists had enslaved our minds. To them, totally opposing the salt-water contraption ‘invented’ by Africans and waiting for the ebola vaccine invented by Europeans was neocolonialism. They expected us to adopt the salt-water thing as the African equivalent of what the oyinbos had written in the textbooks we read in medical school. Well, events finally vindicated us.

Science and technology is not the sole property of Europe. The whole world (including Africa) contributed to what we call science and technology today. Mathematics largely didn’t start in Europe. All over history, there’s evidence of Europeans carting away technology and conventional wisdom from lots of other places including Africa. Roman emperors burgled libraries in Africa and carted away books on philosophy and science. How many of you even know that the Christianity you so much associate with modernity had existed long in Africa before the Romans imported it from here and Europeanized it? Now you know. Yes. Christianity existed in Africa even before Christ was born. I know you can’t wrap your head around what I’ve just said but that’s a story for another day. Meanwhile you can catch a glimpse of the gist here if you’re interested. Thus it will be wrong to think modernity belongs to Europeans while primitiveness belongs to Africa. What you call ‘European’ today is a collective work of the whole human race.

I know we have suffered stagnation in Africa. We had civilization long before we were invaded by Europeans. There is abundant evidence that Africa had science, engineering, medicine, that were developed enough for the standards of the times. In a previous article, I showed how brain surgery had existed in Africa before the Europeans came. But as expected, colonization stalled our development. With slavery and colonization, we could no longer progress on the developmental milestones at the same pace as our colonizers.

The mentality of Africans equating their culture with primitiveness must have started off with the culture clash that happened when the Europeans arrived here. Africans looked at whatever the Europeans had and picked whatever they considered the equivalent among what they too had. This must have given them some pride and self-esteem. However since they were told that any new thing developed henceforth belonged to Europeans, Africans of today, many centuries thereafter, are still stuck in the primitive equivalences their ancestors made. But don’t you think it’s time for us to move on?

Culture is dynamic. Some components are left behind, others get carried forward, and some others are imbibed from other cultures. What aspect of our culture should be carried forward? Our foods are great. Our greeting culture is fine. The names we give to our children are cool. Our dresses are lovely. Our languages should be preserved as much as we can. Our music (and that includes our version of the pop music popularly called ‘Afro-hiphop’) should be encouraged. Our arts (including Nollywood) should be encouraged. The list is endless.

But more importantly, we should work on progressive local content. We shouldn’t applaud retrogressive things like a wooden-metallic bicycle. Material science and engineering already tell us that such a bicycle is retrogressive. While Asia is working hard to boss the rest of the world in advanced science and technology (90% of the top manufacturers of electronics including smartphones are Asian for instance), why should Africa be priding itself in herbal concoctions and wooden bicycles? Our progress was slowed down. We were left behind in the Industrial Revolution but the solution is not to promote more backwardness in the name of patriotism and ‘cultural identity’. To conquer economic and industrial inferiority, the mental inferiority has to be conquered first of all.

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