SABA Episode #3 — Africa’s Secret History

This episode of SEE AFRICA BREATHE AFRICA might surprise those who thought we would be a podcast preoccupied with conventional travel questions. We are literally open to any question about Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo, and when a distinguished member wants to know how history is taught at schools, we go full blast!

Traditional section of King’s Palace Museum Nyanza, Rwanda

But the origins of the culture and history episode are actually in the visit my cohost paid to Nyanza a week ago. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Rwanda, this is probably the most important cultural site of the country. It’s like stepping right into a history book! You find a reconstruction of the grass-thatched traditional royal palace just next to the actual colonial-era home of King Mutara III Rudahigwa. An architecturally comparable combination in Uganda would be Kasubi Tombs, a royal burial ground of the Buganda Kingdom, and the king’s Mengo Palace — only the scale is smaller here and the two buildings are next to one another.

Colonial-era section of King’s Palace Museum Nyanza, Rwanda

As you can hear in the podcast, this set us on a trail with a question: Why aren’t such attractions of our region promoted as much as gorillas, chimpanzees and the like? Is it that the world wouldn’t be interested, or is it that we make so little of it?

Ceiling of the traditional section of King’s Palace Museum Nyanza, Rwanda

My personal journey through the Ugandan education curriculum demonstrates that, short of tales and fables, there was hardly any pre-colonial African history taught or referred to in our classes. My podcast buddies Enoch Ikiriza, Joshua Luyonza and Ramadhan Sindayigaya agreed that European history was the real focus of their schooling. Luyonza seemed to be the only panel member who feels he got proper formal education in African history. Maybe it was his school, maybe there was a passionate teacher, who knows. My experience does not match his.

Centre of the traditional section of King’s Palace Museum Nyanza, Rwanda

Moreover, what I found is that the history taught wasn’t written by African scholars whose existence I was later surprised to learn about. So the entire perspective of African history I encountered in school was very European. This is important because the perspective affects wording and vice versa. So healers, doctors and medical practitioners are called shamans and witches. Revolutionaries are called rebels, nations are called tribes.

Skin to protect the royal bed from sexual fluids at King’s Palace Museum Nyanza, Rwanda

What about you? If I was to say to you that Africa’s history is full of stories of great civilizations, mighty empires, scientific advancements and magnificent art, you would most likely laugh and ask me what I am smoking, right? And yet a very little navigating of the internet could tell you that whatever it is I am on today, it is the good stuff!

Second hut in the traditional section of King’s Palace Museum Nyanza, Rwanda

There’s an article by the BBC that says one of Africa’s best kept secrets is her history, and I couldn’t agree more. To most people with a Western education (which includes almost all Subsaharan Africans!), there wasn’t much going on in Africa before the colonialists showed up. The Western world’s view of African history can almost be summed up by the words of Hugh Trevor-Roper, who is widely regarded as one of Britain’s foremost historians.

In 1965 he said: “Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.”

Milk utensils at the traditional section of King’s Palace Museum Nyanza, Rwanda

And yet way before the advent of colonialism in Africa, great empires and civilizations rose and fell. A lot of the evidence still stands, albeit having been tampered with and destroyed. Confused by what he saw, the famous or notorious explorer Henry Morton Stanley had a theory of the great white tribe of Africa to whom he ascribed the various great establishments that he encountered on his African expeditions. This imaginary caucasian Kingdom of Atlantis, hiding somewhere in Africa, had built these great civilizations and then for mysterious reasons had vanished. Stanley simply could not fathom that dark-skinned peoples could have done anything grand!

While European explorers wrote books, the history of my people, the Bakiga of southwestern Uganda, had been passed on differently. You could listen to it being spoken or sung, accompanied by the traditional trough zither, enanga. (Watch our The Bakiga documentary for more on the music and culture, or enjoy the Rwandan equivalent called inanga below.)

It was not from written sources, it was from generations of women in my family that I learned about Nyabingi, the spirit that seems to be the real star of this podcast episode. Much later on I would come across the Nyabinghi religion practiced by the Rastafarians in Jamaica, and it struck me as odd because I recognized that word. A little research confirmed my suspicions as to the origin of the word. It traces right back to the Gorilla Highlands region, and it is astounding that the oppressed African peoples in the Caribbean began to call upon Nyabingi to come and power up their fight for freedom!

At the end of the episode Miha calls for any information on Ian Cantwell, an Irish historian who has been missing for months. It was Ian himself who wrote in impressive detail — and with commendable restraint — about Nyabingi in the award-winning Gorilla Highlands ebook. Moreover, it was Ian who found the photo of Muhumuza, the Nyabingi warrior queen who features in the story the Voice reads in this episode. Make sure you click for more, get the full Muhumuza story and receive an update in Ian’s later comment.

But let us move back to the continental level … My humble opinion is that an objective history of Africa would not have supported the narrative that justified colonialism or that enables exploitation of the African continent and peoples today. Our continent has been viewed as a raw, savage, undeveloped zone and many actions have been taken on that basis to then “civilise” Africa. This perspective supports the payment of hefty colonial tax by African countries to France to this day, and the meddling and intervention by countries like Britain, China and the USA in continental affairs continues.

Let’s take a different vantage point. If I told you that the Roman Empire suffered defeat at the hands of an ancient African kingdom of Meroe you’d say I am crazy, right? However, archeologists discovered evidence to this in the Meroetic ruins — paintings of foreign prisoners, fair haired and light skinned bound and in chains adorn the walls in the ruins. The bronze head of Emperor Augustus’s statue captured from Egypt was also discovered buried at the step of the temple in Ancient Meroe. People stepped over it as a symbol of having the Romans under their feet.

A great many African civilizations and empires are hardly mentioned anywhere in common world history. One would need to dig to find it, and much more research is needed.

What, for example, really happened at Bigo bya Mugenyi that my colleague Enock describes in the podcast? Does it need to remain a footnote buried under Irish potatoes? Who were the Bachwezi? Any country with more historical pride than mine would have done much more about this!

Finally, can I blow your mind? May I mention that in the 1800s the only place in the world that successfully carried out a Caesarean birth that would keep both mother and baby safe was the ancient Kingdom of Bunyoro? They are also known for their wrought iron work and for medical advancements like immunization. This area is western and central Uganda now, but it used to be an independent hub of scientific study and military might. Unhappy with being colonised, they fought the British for nine long years, instead of collaborating with them like the Kingdom of Buganda. The rest is, as they say, history …

OTHER SHOW NOTES

Tendeko lyrics: Tendeko Mawe / Tendeko Eibunu / Kati kabisi / Akagwa omunyanja / Naza kukenda naterera naga
(Mother mother, I have a story to tell you! I got a fresh little branch from the black wattle. It fell into the lake, I tried to fetch it, I slipped and fell.)

Kigezi = old colonial district comprising southwestern Uganda

Kingdom of Ankole

Batwa “Pygmies”

photos by Miha Logar

Responses

  1. One wonders whether acquiring Inca, Aztec or African gold, was the primary motivation for the European colonial powers. Or was it religion, saving human souls. While some religious motives in Africa, as they were for the Spanish in the New World, may have been less materialistic, it was likely international status and profitable exploitation (trade monopolies, minerals, and eventually slaves) that were still the primary colonial objectives from India to Africa to the Americas.

    1. I concur with you Jon. Whatever the goal was, the actions and results of the actions spoke very loudly. My theory is that those with a material motive saw advantage in the Noble front of religion and used it to their advantage, as still seems to be the case in the religious movements of today. But it could also have been one well orchestrated plan, who knows

  2. This particular podcast and article is opening a very deep discourse. Existentially and spiritually deep. In both directions it brings to surface the fact that the nature (quality) of questions we ask ourselves translates into the nature (quality) of answers we get. In this case, it shapes the quality of life we lead as a people. What kind of questions is our education (especially the schooling bit) asking its consumers? What questions are we the consumers of that education programmed to ask ourselves? I am perpetually disturbed by Africa’s paradox of “poverty amidst plenty”. I personally think it’s a function of our sense of who we are, since this shapes how we see and respond to our environment in its totality. Thank you Miha, Kahiri and your great team for prompting this discourse.

    1. I can’t wait to have you on our show tomorrow, to dig deeper into “poverty amidst plenty”. You were the one who introduced me to these matters 20 years ago at Uganda Martyrs University — you and Prof. Kanyandago had the biggest impact on me as a student, and thus on Edirisa and the Gorilla Highlands Initiative!

    2. Ambrose I like that. The quality of questions we ask ourselves=the quality of answers we get. I think this is the very heart of the SABA podcast. Finding quality answers to quality questions.

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