Saturday, December 29, 2012

Africa (Re)invented:Africa's Innovative Past

Maker Faire Africa: Ghana 2009
Maker Faire Africa: African Invenmtion fair in Ghana 2009 (Photo credit: whiteafrican)
I can’t recall the number of times I have heard people say ‘nothing’ was invented in Africa or that Africa never contributed anything to modern civilization. Naturally, this statement is far from the truth but is still a popular lingering stereotype about Africa. Although ‘western’ centered (Eurocentric) history has taught us that Africa was a dark continent that was underdeveloped until the European man ‘civilized’ it, this is not the case.

Africans had a different way of living that was not understood or valued during the period of renewed foreign contact with Africa. Africans were just as creative and innovative as any other civilization. Assessing the continent’s history provides insight as to why there is little knowledge of Africa’s innovative past,  why there have been periods  in Africa’s history where few inventions occurred, and why their hasn’t been much recognition for African inventions where they did occur. The idea that Africa was a place where no innovation occurred though needs to be debunked and reassessed.

Africa was a continent where the earliest human beings lived. Therefore many of the inventions made during the earliest moments in human history were made by Africans. This includes the discovery of: 
  • ·         Fire in Southern Africa;
  • ·         Palm oil in West Africa which is used in cooking and as a lubricant;
  • ·         Yam cultivation (and hence, modern farming methods) in West Africa;
  • ·         Shaving tools made from glass around the Njoro River;
  • ·         Water pipes (bong) for smoking hashish in Ethiopia; and
  • ·         Iron smelting methods in Nigeria that enabled tool shaping.

There are many other such types of early innovations by Africans throughout the continent. Egyptians for example, were the inventors of papyrus, embalming and medicines. During the same time, Africans outside of Egypt (Ehiopia, Sudan), were also making their own advances in paper technology and medicine. Africa was also home to architectural super structures like the Pyramids in Egypt and Sudan, the trading center at Great Zimbabwe, and ancient mosques. In addition, some of the world’s earliest universities were in Mali and were the precursors to contemporary educational institutions. Africa was a center of knowledge in ancient and pre-colonial times and information was regularly traded between ancient Greece, Egypt, Ethiopia, Italy and the rest of North Africa. Some of this history has been forgotten or lost due to historical processes like slavery, colonization or war. Many will recall the famous incident where a significant amount of history and knowledge was burned in Egypt by Alexander.

Slavery Museum
Slavery Museum (Photo credit: timbrauhn)
There is evidence that many advancements in Africa occurred in early human history and Africa’s pre-colonial history. Much of this advancement faced challenges as foreign contact with the continent began in earnest. The Indian Ocean (Arab) slave trade and the Trans Atlantic slave trade that began in the early15 century made it challenging for Africans to continue their progression or continue to innovate. The slave trade led to the forced removal of Africa’s talent and labor that would have otherwise been contributing to African advancements in technologies.  This means that many of the continents innovators and knowledge were transferred outside the continent by enslaved Africans. This includes foods, vaccines, and other methods that they brought from the continent. African slaves were not taught to read write and were made to work much of the day. This provided little time for innovation. In the case of the enslaved in the Atlantic, their own struggle for recognition of their contributions and inventions in their new countries began. It was not fashionable or popular to give slaves recognition for being smart because this threatened the slavery system. Some of the few inventions that were made by enslaved Africans were to become credited to their owners or to the new world but not to Africa.

The Trans Atlantic slave and the removal of Africa’s labor and innovators left a void on the continent. This trade continued through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries – roughly, a period of 350 years and involved an estimated 12 million enslaved people that made it to the new continents. Many others did not make the journey. Slavery disrupted the way of life for Africa and affected its knowledge base. There was the routine looting of Africa’s artistic treasures, items and artifacts that remain in foreign museums today. Many of the structures, trade routes, villages, and support systems that were responsible for passing on the knowledge were abandoned or destroyed. It meant those left on the continent would need to concentrate on meeting daily needs and on avoiding becoming enslaved themselves. During this time, the remaining young children on the continent had to fill much of this labor void. This situation affected the type and quantity of inventions coming from the continent for nearly 400 years.

The colonial era further placed Africa in a state of arrested development in terms of innovation. For a period ranging from just prior to the 1884 Berlin Conference through the 1960s Independence movements, Africans were under foreign domination.  The colonial system was inefficient for African development. The educational system that was introduced in Africa was largely centered on Biblical knowledge or on domestic sciences. The educational system also only catered to a very small percentage of the African population. In addition, many of the prohibitive taxes under the colonial system meant that Africans were forced to work for little money. There was little time to explore formal education in literature, math, science or philosophy. Much of the knowledge was passed on orally. Many of the innovations that did occur were not given significant international recognition in order to help sustain the colonial system of subjugation. Although there were some innovations that were made during the colonial era, 350 years of slavery followed by nearly 100 years of colonization took a toll on the continent’s ability to invent and be innovative. 

Maker Faire Africa: Buglabs
Maker Faire Africa: Buglabs (Photo credit: whiteafrican)
Although there have been some low-tech and high tech inventions in recent years these are not well known. Africans continue not to receive full recognition or acknowledgment for their innovations. This is a part of its historical legacy. During the post-colonial era, Africa has also been plagued with the brain drain. Many of Africa’s innovators are living in the African Diaspora and contributing to the technological advancement in countries that they have moved to voluntarily. Therefore some of the greatest inventions in contemporary times may be coming from Africans in the Diaspora. Africans on the continent have began to contribute greater numbers of low-tech and high tech-inventions. They are also more likely to receive recognition for their inventions. In recent years there have been attempts to chronicle Africa’s former innovative past and its current contributions. Information about African inventions can be found on sites like Afrigadget , International African Inventors Museum, Kumatoo , and South African Info. There are many innovations that have occurred and continue to occur on the continent. The idea that Africa is a place that has no inventions of its own needs a (re)invention. Africa, like any other continent, has contributed to modern civilization.

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