I got in an awful discussion at the beach today – why don’t I just stick to my blog and books? Some guy had visited South Africa and had claimed that Africans were always complaining about the whites and being downtrodden (I had to agree that many did) – victims (I did point out that whites were victims as wage-slaves including himself but he didn’t want to hear that). Here was how he concluded the blacks had been hunters-gatherers when the whites arrived to start the slave trade. Everything the blacks grew were imported crops – maize and wheat, so therefore he drew the logical implication that blacks were hunter-gatherers. I was horrified at the banality of his conclusion. I said that what he was seeing in the reactions of the blacks was colonialism, but whilst this guy had some understanding of the corporatocracy his racism would not allow him to extend this to exploitation of black people. I said the reason they wanted to enslave the blacks was because blacks were farmers and their expertise was needed in the US, so he kept asking me what did they grow? I didn’t know.
In truth I had forgotten most of what I had learnt when I had studied this in Brixton whilst teaching there. But I did have a clear overview. I told him you need to understand how the slave trade took the lifeblood out of Africa, and the best authority on this was Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”. And then I said there was an excellent programme by Basil Davidson on Africa. Sadly I only managed to find 5 of these:-
Africa 3 – Caravans of Gold (not full programme)
I then explained that traditional African agriculture was their lifeblood rather than being hunter-gatherers, that African civiilisations were in advance of European civilisation up until the point when the British used the gun during the slave trade to begun to de-civilise these erstwhile more advanced civilisations. All of this you can see in Basil Davidson’s “Africa”.
With regards to agriculture, I told him, you have to understand that western transnationals have forced the growth of cash crops as one dead African friend put it about the cacao plant “the life and deaths of my countrymen depends on the sweet tooth of western children”.
But I was still unable to answer his question “what did the Africans grow?” Another friend later suggested that Africans planted their plots. They did not have huge farms for export, they were subsistence farmers growing enough for their families, growing for export became the prerogative of the white men – the purpose of their colonisation (original meaning of the word colony is farm). This made sense to me. The ignorance this guy showed would have extended to observing the huge white farms in South Africa and seeing what they grew, and therefore concluding because there were no huge black farms with indigenous crops the Africans were not able to grow – as they were hunter-gatherers.
When I came home I discovered just how true some of his observations were. I had always talked about cash crops affecting African agriculture but I had never properly understood how much. When I was in Botswana I ate their staple of pap and mabele. He told me this was maize – imported crop. His observation was true, most that Africans now grew to eat was not indigenous crops. Then I found this paper Decolonising African Agricultural History which begins :-
In 1966, in an examination at an American university, a student failed when he said that there was an African history of agriculture. Africa was then still a continent where absolutely everything had to be brought in – even agriculture. My experiences at that university and my observations over the last 40 years of the many misperceptions about agriculture in Africa laid the foundation for this book.
At least I cound understand why I had been unable to answer the detail of his question – no excuse though, and in chapter 14 [p99] it begins:-
Africans of the Sahelian zone say that there is no plant more African than millet.
so apart from learning about this guy’s racism at least I learnt something from the conversation. To his eternal shame he will not be bothered to learn, to my shame I exhibited extreme anger.
In checking on the internet I sadly discovered that Basil Davidson had died a year ago. When I read his obituary he became even more the kind of caring eccentric Englishman I admired shut away in an idyllic part of England, Somerset. I imagine the Somerset of villages and cricket greens with this pocket revolutionary sitting in khakis supping away. Then every so often traipsing off to his beloved Africa where his compassion had been accepted by those Africans who did not accept they were victims and were fighting for their human rights.
It is more than a year now but a fitting tribute would be to make his 8 episode series “Africa” available somewhere on the web.