AFRICA &THE WEST: “Technology: An African Conception!”

Colonialism was only a forceful interruption of Africa’s own process of development).

                                                                                                                                                  – Prof. Wole Soyinka, 1976.

By Awah-Dzenyagha*

“Our great grand-parents whose strides in technological development were halted by colonialism were not a race of unthinkable peoples, lazy or unambitious, railing out at the world and believing in nothing. Rather, it is our generations which are simply betraying this spirit of theirs even when we know our enemies so well not to be mistaken.”

 Polemic Prelude
AwahThis will sound strange to some of our readers to talk of Africa as the origin of
technology plus self-reliance. It will startle many more to learn that “welfarism” practised today in Europe originated in Africa. Above all, that without the West African gold which became a staple export to Europe in the 12th century there would have been no general use of it as a medium of exchange in high mediaeval times when European monarchs struck their coins in the precious West African metal. And it would be needless to argue that most scholars now agree (even if only  grudgingly), that man started his history in Africa, and that the continent was not only the cradle of earthly cultures, it was above all the undisputed mother of tool-making man. (Read David Attenborough’s “Life on Earth”).

There were and are still many imperialist writers who contend that Africans have no “history”, no “civilisation” and, of course, no “culture”. According to them, Africans are savages and like animals have no institutions. It was the derisive and derogatory manner in which these untutored European writers had deliberately tried to tarnish the image of Africa and its people in the Continent and in Diaspora, that African intellectuals determined to halt the shell-burst from foreign cultures. They objected to the fact that much of African history should be imprisoned within European histories and frowned against dishonest historians like H.R. Trevor-Roper who surmised that Africa has no history. Sir Reginald Coupland pretentiously lamented that:

up to the middle of the 19th century, the main body of the African had no history, but had stayed for the untold generation, sunk in Barbarism; so that the heart of Africa was scarcely beating.

This was preposterous nonsense! In fact, Kenneth O. Dike and S. O. Biobaku in Nigeria, Kofi A. Busia and Nana Kobina Nketsia IV in Ghana, Cheikh Anta Diop and Abdoulaye Ly in Senegal, Engelbert Mveng and Martin Njeuma in Cameroon and Joseph Kizerbo in Burkina Faso, continuously broke down the myth of white superiority and their lying propaganda by revising African history. In Diop’s version of history, the Egyptians were black people; he interprets this to mean that European civilisation is only an extension of the African’ genius since Western culture has Egyptian origins.

As evidenced above, African scholars of various hues have since pounced on the likes of  Trevor-Roper and Sir Reginald Coupland’s remarks and took to the battlements in defence of Africa’s cultural heritage to the extent that the question does not arise about African philosophy, art, science and religion, which are all branches of culture.

Battlements in Defence of Africa’s Heritage

Poets like Wole Soyinka; Literature Nobel Prize winner (1986) contend that:

“History is a process of development … I have always been intrigued by the very word “history” mainly because there are still many historians trying to deny Africa of its own history. It is not just the former colonialists, but also those with whom we have otherwise strong ideological kinship. The denial of African history by the colonialists of course served the justification of the dehumanisation and general degradation of African peoples resulting in their virtual enslavement. This continued in external dictatorship and by attempts at directing African affairs even at present (Africa, No. 58, Art & Culture, 1976).

Prof. Wole Soyinka illustrates this fact by citing one of the most glaring examples of ignorance, arrogance and of total disregard for Africa’s own history. It was President Gerald Randolph Ford’s letter to certain West African Heads of State on Angola. Mr. Ford was telling them whose aid they should accept when trying to liberate Africa. If you trace it into the past you find out that it goes back to the 500 years old belief that Africans have on history of their own and therefore are unable to take the history in their hands and push it in whatever direction they want. This thought is not only pale but also at once preposterous and nonsensical.

Indeed, Dr Ikoku Emmanuel dismisses this notion as lacking in depth and content. Mansur Hoda points out that:

Development does not only mean increase in production of goods…also the development of people…the stimulation of their innate abilities giving them a feeling of self-determination and enthusiasm. Unless people are involved in the process of development and are given a chance to do something worthwhile, to grasp new ideas, acquire new skills and develop a sense of their own work, no society can move out of misery and poverty. Indeed development is almost a meaningless word when a large percentage of the population can neither contribute to the nation’s progress nor benefit from it.

Indeed, without the advent of colonialists into the African continent which was nothing but a forceful interruption of Africa’s own process of historical development, African development would have grown to unbeatable heights. Scientists and anthropologist have proven that the mental revolution which first introduced ferrous technology and generated a variety of monumental changes that were crucial and cumulative in their effects on mankind was of African origin. And, of course, we all accept the fact that necessity is the mother of invention. Dr. Emman Ikoku, (1980, FDA Enugu- Nigeria) writes:

Even the plough was developed in Africa as early as the 4th millennium B. C.

With this, it is therefore false that, the absence of all the concomitant aspects of the “intermediate technology” could have rendered Africa unable to match the developments in productivity and skill stratification and specialisation that marked the agrarian societies of the early medieval Europe. Why? Because the first step ever in man’s technological history was apparently taken in Africa and China.

From China, Joseph Needham in his remarkable study of China demonstrates
(1965) as he examines the classical Chinese contribution to science and technology and no one who is acquainted with his brilliant exposition can be left unimpressed by China’s development of technology in general and of the wheel in particular. For instance, history agrees that China was in fact ahead of Europe for centuries. Needham writes:

Long suspected to have been a Chinese invention which did not reach Europe until the late Middle Ages, this simple expedient (wheelbarrow) of replacing a pack-animal or one or two hod-carriers by a wheel will be seen to have originated in China, certainly by the 3rd  century and in all probability by the first.

It was in Europe rather than China that modern technology was applied to
economic development. And whether China had a  form of recording their history like Africa or not, this truth is undeniable.                  .

Yet conventional economic history, based on the accounts of the early birds of
European exploration, has most often presented Africa as a zone of immemorial stagnation and Africans as congenitally lazy, inferior, unfulfilled and tormented victims of a savage society, whose inhabitants were somehow bypassed by the laws of human growth due to some natural ordained failings.

No one today denies the fact that contemporary Africa accounts for even less than 1% of the world’s technological achievements, in terms of research and development. This is a paradox that evokes sadness, perplexion and challenge; yet this situation did not arise because the continent has had no past.

The truth is that most accounts of African economic history have been presented from two essentially similar but biased viewpoints. In one case they sink the real facts deep down the sea of scholarly indifference; merely emphasising how one generation of savages succeeded the other until a Prof. Basil Davidson comes around, to demolish their lies, or, they simply tell the world that Africa really has had no history. Why? Because to the
dishonest and prejudiced recorders it was unimaginable to have written records in that unique museum of barbarism.

Dr Ikoku Emmanuel (1980) argues

that even when one ignores the rich and growing evidence of the African. Written records; it would be pertinent to recall that most Africans belong to the rural areas, and those of us who are at least above the age of 45 can still remember those pre-bed time stories told by our elders and parents, as told by their parents, as told by their parents, as were told by their own…. This is and is still African history, and in this is one of our methods of presenting it, and we do not have to seek approval of anyone as to whether this method is acceptable or not.

Who questions the precision with which this “remembered history” is being
retold, again with a recounting of the inter-tribal wars to indigenous technological achievements…in all and all, only to assure continuity of cultural and historical growth, will be dishonest to disbelieve the fact that 500 years of history can be bridged by a simple single anecdote.

To some extent we accuse the absence of a philosophy of an historical personality in African societies to the acquisition of the ability to read and write of European languages, with all their cultures borne in all philosophical and psychological frameworks towards the development and creation of intellectual reflection and demonstration which when introduced in Africa ignored African culture.

However, the truth is that essentially it has been proven by research and history that Africa’s profound wealth and health of past indigenous development cannot be shelved off. That although Africa’s strangers decided to substitute Africa’s benign structures with theirs, she was basically self-sufficing socially and economically based on the extended family system in which the fundamentally prerequisites of an individual member’s life cycle were assured within the unit. This ideology of family life was based
on certain norms, values and attitudes, the sum total of which amounted to basic equality, security and solidarity. This is what has evolved to become the welfare system in contemporary Europe.

The aim here is to provide minimum living standards for all their citizenry and is no doubt a modernised and enlarged prototype of those very aims which the African extended family system initiated so long ago.

There is, however, a noticeable difference in the system, that whereas the African extended family is carefully knitted economically and social security-wise to ensure a feeling of belongingness and somebodiness, these very feelings have been phased-out in the nuclear families of European contemporary settings. And, indeed, the African family setting did not require class distinctions with the family, like the creation of specialised institutions, (homes 

for senior citizens, the disabled, old or destitute), because it is a sacred duty in-built in the African family system to look after their members incapable of looking after themselves. The concept of sharing was a strong characteristic of the community, and even though members might not get actual charities which were determined by need, they nevertheless had actual rights to their shares.

If by common understanding, an affluent society is one in which all the people’s basic needs are easily satisfied, then the Africa we are describing here was the original affluent society. They enjoyed an unparalleled material plenty, with a low standard of living (by our standards today) and the secret did not lie in producing much, but in desiring little but enough. By this is not to deny the fact that materialistic impulses existed, but they simply did not make an institution of these impulses. This can be called “commune-ism” but Europeanised scholars call it communism, indeed, “primitive communism”.

*Dr. Awah-Dzenyagha is a retired civil servant, Journalist, Political Scientist, Corporate Member of the prestigious Chartered Institute of Transport, London and an independent writer, poet and critic.  He is author of several articles and books and is based in Wum in Menchum Division, North West Region of Cameroon. Formerly, the Executive Director at the Foundation for Community Development, Wum. He is presently the Regional Coordinator of Commonwealth Gentlemen’s Club International Cameroon for the North West Region. The article is part of a four part series coming up on

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  1. I am TIRED of afrocentrics citing egypt/ethiopia as proof of ancient African relevance. That isnt even 1/6 of africa! For the sake of argument, focus on PREISLAMIC (none of these shapeless, ephemeral sahelian empires) Africa, and remove the Nile, red sea and Mediterranean parts of africa. what is left? What were africans doing in Roman times? NOT A RHEETORICAL QUESTION! Do you think I should be proud of my ancestors and their pathetic oral literature? How do you think it feels, knowing that British colonialism is the only reason that I am not wearing a loincloth of pounded bark RIGHT NOW??? I’m sure you won’t publish this comment, because afrocentrism is a feel-good ideology (I tried, but Anta Diop lost me with his Olmecs bs…don’t wanna take the legitimate heritage of Amerinds) but as a scholar, hasn’t the latin alphabet ALONE done more for your mental development than any African cultural artefact? Why are we the most despised race-racism is an anti black problem in the Middle East, Far East, Russia, and all the Imperial suspects. Why were we history’s slave pool, starting with the arabs, but had no history of our own? And look how islam eploded! I surely hope that reincarnation is false, because being black can be nothing less than a punishment for a douchey past life.

    Furthermore, Africans have a petty, clannish mentality. There is no concept of a grand nation state, nor is there any level of primacy given to the individual. The nation-state and freedom of conscience, emphasis on self-development, the questioning of received wisdom….ALL EUROPEAN! For an african to speak his own mind, go against ‘taboo’….I mean do you know how long it took people to wear clothes and adopt writing? All this contact with arabs, and Darfuris STILL refuse. It took my central kenyans 100 years of ‘white highlands’ before they stopped clitoridectomies! Pathetic, pathetic, pathetic. But we are to cherish our almighty ancestors, thier way of life is good enough for us! I a patron of the refined amusements (so far as my budget), and I am historically literate enough to know whereof all the good things in my life come; in whatever guise, the idea probably came from Europe. Our heritage is a wretched wreck, there is nothing to salvage. Look at the Japanese and robotics- ‘robot’ is a Czech woord, but the Japs are world beaters!! That is what we need to do with our ENTIRE culture. A retrofit. An overhaul. A clean break. We are already physically divergent enough that the extra burden of primitivity is merely injury added to insult.

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