Timbuktu and back

2010-10-21 00:00

LAST week I had the privilege of attending an African Editors Forum in Bamako, Mali. The nice people of Mali arranged that at the end of our conference we would visit the ancient city of Timbuktu in the north of the country. So there you have it, Timbuktu does exist. I have been there and back.

Timbuktu is a pilgrimage site for those who refuse to accept the lie that time has always stood still in Africa. If someone like French president Nicolas Sarkozy can display a shocking grasp of African history, we can take it for granted that there are many others who still labour under the delusion that Africa is the dark continent.

Three years ago, Sakorzy infamously gave a speech at Cheikh Anta Diop University that was addressed not just to the Senegalese but to all “the youth of Africa” in which he spoke paternalistically of Africa as though he was addressing captured slaves in a plantation somewhere in the Americas.

He said: “The problem is that Africans have never really entered history. The African peasant who has lived with the rhythm of the seasons for millennia, whose ideal is to live in harmony with nature, knows only the eternal cycle of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this imaginary world where everything starts over and over again, there is no place for human adventure or the idea of progress.”

Sakorzy and other bigots have used the fact of Europe’s glory and dominance over the past 500 years or so and Africa’s arrested development as proof of their theories of Europeans being an inherently superior race.

To them colonialism is just another excuse that lazy Africans use for not having made the same great strides that Europe and the United States have made in the last century. Nobody can deny that Africa has stagnated over the past 50 years since liberation, while other countries that were also colonised have done much better.

But this is only a half-truth and the problem with half-truths is that the other half is almost invariably made up of lies. It is no great wonder that African anti-colonialism hero Amilcar Cabral exhorted his followers to “tell no lies; claim no easy victories”.

Only irredeemable bigots believe that Africans were a barbaric lot “swinging from tree to tree eating bananas when tired of killing each other” until the European colonialists came. Timbuktu is proof of Africa’s contribution to the body of world knowledge.

We know that some unbending bigots would rather believe that funny-looking men from outer space built Great Zimbabwe, the pyramids or produced the Timbuktu manuscripts than accept that they did this without aid from Europeans.

Timbuktu is reputed to have had the first university in the world and opened its doors for scholars from Europe and the rest of the Islamic world in the 13th century. Mathematics and astronomy was taught. Its manuscripts show that its scholars spoke of women’s rights long before the first bra was burnt.

They were a prosperous and learned people.

But as I said earlier, this is only half of the story.

The town of Timbuktu is in a sorry state today. All its historical glory means nothing for the poor who have to go through life as a human zoo satisfying the curiosity of foreigners who thought that their town was mere shorthand for a “faraway place that may or may not exist”.

Timbuktu speaks to one of the things that are wrong with our continent and offers cautionary tales for our country.

Merely flying from OR Tambo International and landing at the Malian capital, Bamako’s airport tells a story of how different a world South Africans live in from many African states.

In the same way that bigots would rather have their nails pulled out than accept that African scholarship preceded colonialism, there are many “revolutionaries” who would wish away the role that people like Jan Smuts and Ben Schoeman played in developing the infrastructure that South Africa boasts of today.

We do not have to love Smuts or Schoeman. In fact, neither do we have to pretend that they were men whose human-rights credentials were anything to speak of even though Smuts is credited with contributing to some of the most lofty of internationalist ideals.

Smuts wrote the preamble of the United Nations Charter and was the only person to sign the charters of both the League of Nations and the United Nations. Yet he was also a racist who opposed the unilateral enfranchisement of black South Africans, fearing that it would lead to the loss of white power.

Such is history. Full of more shades of grey than we care to appreciate. Nobody owns the copyright to civilisation. All of us, black or white, oppressors and the oppressed, have played a role. Imagine then where Africa would have been if instead of stupid prejudices, human beings had been allowed to fulfil their potential?

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