Welcome back to Past to Paper everyone! I’ve been thinking long and hard about this month’s topic and I’m 97.4% sure we’re all going to get confused, but where’s the fun in things that are simple and easy? This is actually another topic I’ve been looking at at uni and for those of you even remotely familiar with the history of Sub-Saharan Africa you’re probably going and HOW is this going to be just one topic. Yes, that is a good question. Let’s say this is going to be a broad poke with a stick to introduce everyone to Southern Africa (NOT South Africa, that’s just one country) and maybe I’ll follow up in months to come with the specifics.
African representation, as a whole, is definitely something I’ve seen cropping up more commonly and loudly lately. And it’s fabulous. Finally! We’re getting some cracking novels stealing the limelight from some fantastic authors. I just hope this continues to grow and expand because the day someone gives me a YA sci-fi set somewhere in Africa I’m entirely unfamiliar with, in which I learn at least 10 new things, I will be a happy chappy. As a quick disclaimer, I don’t mean for this post to be a diversity shout out. Past to Paper is about looking at areas of history uncommon in certain genres in the popular market. HOWEVER – I think a lot of this is helped by readers actively seeking out the obscure.
What it is: Past to Paper is a monthly feature that I do here at Upside-Down Books. I am a student of History at university and I study modern history (which we can roughly say covers from almost the 16th century onwards). Each month I discuss a different topic, period, person, or society that I think is underused in literature. This means I poke a stick at something in the past that I think has so much to offer for writing stories with and look at how it could fit into different genres.
You Can Probably Point to Africa on a Map but . . .
I find one of the trickiest things about Africa as a continent to be people’s complete and utter ignorance of basically any information more than the fact that Egypt exists and has pyramids and those safaris people like to do in South Africa. Oh, and Madagascar of course (Mauritius anyone?). Anyway, the point being is that for people sharing a similar perspective as myself, you probably were taught shit all (pardon my French). Firstly, Africa is usually associated as being the place of human origin. It is the world’s oldest populated area (it was in Africa where the oldest human remains have been found).
I enjoy, I love, doing history at uni because I finally get to actually learn stuff about other places. But everyone seems to miss out Africa. Africa is an amazing place. Sure it’s got problems, big and small, but everywhere does. So today I’m going to introduce you to some history of Sub-Saharan Africa (because I think if anything, you’ll be familiar with the Mediterranean parts of Africa (that’s places like Libya and Egypt if you don’t know where the Mediterranean is)). And for those of you who don’t know exactly where the Sahara Desert is (you’ve heard of it though, right? *worried face*) here’s a map.
Despite having three major deserts, Australia still beats Africa as the driest continent in the world. Go figure. My guess is that for many of you, most of the countries in Africa are a mystery (and there are currently 54 countries . . . ish . . . this is quite literally debated). But just in case that map has completely terrified you with the immensity of the continent and planted seeds of doubt that this post is going to worth the effort – let me say one thing: I’m going to introduce you to cities such as Praia. Google it.
Right-ho. Let’s begin.
So, Africa is Poor, Right?
World Vision and all that? Yes, there are poor areas of Africa. Africa is both wealthy and poor. But PLEASE, stop ye thoughts of mud huts and spear wielding people RIGHT NOW. Because whilst both of those things exist and are perfectly normal, African cities are not just villages that many stereotypes on the news, or even charities, present. I present to you, Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
See? SPARKLY. This is the first thing that I find is misrepresented in the general knowledge for people who have no connection or reason to learn anything (literally) about Africa. I find the same thing happens to places such as Australia too – a stereotypical image of a basic and undeveloped place gets stuck in people’s minds, and no-one’s told any different. This be where literature needs to present its lovely foot and reconstruct our knowledge. So, your first lesson is that: Africa is beautiful and can easily look like any major city. Mostly because places like Nairobi are major cities.
Of course, there is a lot of poverty in Africa. Combinations of political instability, echoes of colonial powers, and tough environmental conditions make for some horrendously poor areas. There are estimates that in Sub-Saharan Africa over 40% of people live in absolute (or “extreme”) poverty. In fact, only recently have some states in Africa got their own independent government. I’m talking as late at the 1950s and 1960s. Poverty is a serious issue in Africa but I feel that for many poverty is a reality so far from our own that it’s hard to imagine, and therefore hard to act upon. There are a bunch of charities and volunteer projects that you can join to help people out which is awesome, but the issue of poverty is going to take a while to resolve it would seem. Some quick facts (source):
- In Sub-Saharan Africa, 589 million people live without electricity.
- Of 738 million people in the world who lack clean water, 37% are living in Sub-Saharan Africa.
- In Africa, over 500 million people are suffering from waterborne diseases.
- Fewer than 20% of African women have access to education.
- Women in Sub-Saharan Africa are over 230 times more likely to die during childbirth than women in North America.
- More than 1,000,000 people (mostly young children), die every year from malaria.
There is literally so much to learn about Africa as a whole. Did you know that the giraffe, zebra, gorilla, hippo, chimpanzee and wildebeest are unique to the continent? Another fun fact being that in Tanzania the world’s largest wildlife migration on Earth occurs with zebras and wildebeest? What about the fact that Africa has over 25% of the world’s bird species?
It really does break my heart when I’m studying and finding out all these things that I know I should know, but I guess there is only so much schools can teach you whilst you’re there. Things such as the World Wars and your own country’s history (plus that of countries yours has close relations with) take priority. But let’s begin this story just before Europeans jumped in with their slave ships and shook things up.
But First, Stereotypes
This is important: let’s break some stereotypes. Obviously I’ve already ticked a few things off the list but something that I had never specifically thought of before studying African history was just how ethnically diverse the continent is. Which seems silly, but when I really reflect on it, I guess I just had no idea. No-one ever told me anything about Africa, so all I had was nature documentaries and film representations (so yeah, nothing).
HOWEVER – the point of this feature is not to point out misrepresentations or nit-pick what people are doing wrong. I just want to bring to people’s attention what history has to offer and the ways that it could easily be incorporated into literature. So, if Africa has roughly 54 countries then I think from that alone we can see just how insanely diverse it’s going to be. Not knowing anything about any of these places in Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of one or two places, maybe) means it’s actually really hard to imagine this. A fun fact for you: one quarter of all languages in the world are only spoken in Africa.
So here’s an easy comparison that I personally find to be a good reference point for imagining the unknown: The United Kingdom. The UK has four different countries (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales . . . inside outside puppy dog tails- sorry. Ahem). Each has its own traditional language, each has its own traditions, and most have some sort of a problem with the others. For me, this is a good reference point for understand just how darn different places can be despite having so much in common. So times that by 13 and tahh-dahh.
The period often called pre-colonial Africa is about the 14th century (the 1300s) and earlier. At this point Africa did not look like it does today. The countries we know were boarders drawn up by colonial powers when they divided up the land for themselves. Africa was split, instead, but tribes/clans ruled by chiefs. People guesstimate that there were as many as 10,000 different states (states being either as small as tribes or as large as kingdoms) prior to colonisation.
Tribes varied in sizes and therefore had a varied amount of land ownership. And there was a lot of conflict and fighting. There were also Kingdoms – so the tribes/clans existed within the kingdoms all over Africa. It’s mostly confusing and difficult to understand especially since evidence is tricky and therefore putting together a pre-colonial narrative relies heavily on oral and archeological sources. But basically, Africa was sorted into its own ethnic groups and then Europeans arrived and started throwing spanners.
Something also to note, is that slavery was not a new concept when Europeans arrived. Africans, like almost all other people, participated in slavery. Prisoners of war, essentially, were captured from other tribes and put to use within their own as forced labour. Africa also participated in trade from the East coast with Arab and Asian traders. Due to naturally occurring currents that change seasonally, this meant that trade via ship was possible along this coast line.
Europeans and Slavery
Africa as a continent had a lot to offer by way of natural resources. Coming from Europe, the land “available” in Africa, it’s precious stones and the people themselves were a glistening opportunity. So naturally, Europeans enslaved, mistreated, exploited, and ruined the lives of basically everyone. Good ol’ history, ay? And that’s just putting it lightly. The period when the colonial powers split up Africa to take for their own is called “the scramble for Africa”. Main players were England, Spain, France, and Germany. Places like Italy sort of jumped in slightly inelegantly at the end.
As I said, slavery was not a new concept, but the damaging impact of the Atlantic slave trade (called so because from the West Coast of Africa slaves were taken across the Atlantic ocean to the Americas where they were worked to death on plantations) was firstly that the labour was removed from the continent and therefore no-one benefitted from the slaves but the colonists, and secondly, the way in which colonial powers began to sink their teeth into settlements and enforce power. At this time two main religions were also sweeping through the continent: Christianity (mostly in sub-saharan areas) and Islam.
Things get complicated and I’m not going to get in too deep here because you’ll still be reading this when you’re 98722 years old, otherwise. Slavery was awful, to say the least. The treatment of African people was horrendous. Colonial powers were brutal. Boundaries within Africa were decided at a conference over a map where different colonial powers literally ruled off different areas to take for their own. This meant different ethnic groups within Africa were torn apart or lumped together – causing tensions, conflict, and social isolation. Imagine someone who you don’t know deciding they’d take half of your home and someone else having the other and in the process splitting your family up.
There’s a lot of violence and a lot of lies for many years. And the story of the slaves taken to the Americas is a whole other story. It’s estimated, and this is a low estimation, that approximately 12,000,000 slaves were taken out of Africa between 1400-1800 (when roughly slavery was “officially” banned). That’s a lot of people. One top of that, within the continent the land divisions were messed up as colonial powers took what they wanted and disregarded the indigenous’ own land rights. These land issues are still relevant today in some places. There’s a lot of this history that is over simplified or flat out not talked about – because it’s not particularly nice to talk about for some. I mean, being British myself makes me feel horrible when I study this at uni, but you can’t ignore 12 million people, much less an entire continent.
Now, things progress in Africa very rockily. Things such as the Second Congo War (1998-2006) occurred and killed 5.4 million people, making it the deadliest worldwide conflict since WWII. Political struggles continue to this day and struggles for independence are difficult, bloody, and a headache to study. There is many a tyrant, many a massacre, and sometimes you wonder how on earth some people kept going. But there is so much to learn for so many countries. My advice is to pick a country and let yourself loose on the library. The real question, however, is why don’t I ever see any of these countries in books?
Sub-Saharan Africa and Literature
Perhaps the answer to my question is my own ignorance. I know there are a lot of serious, historical fiction and non-fiction books out there to find. What bothers me, is that I never walk into a bookstore and readily find a book set in such places. You have no idea how long it took me to find a book set in Burma (which is NOT in Africa, but still). It is a dream to see more people exploring what these places have on offer, through setting, characters, circumstances, and so much more – the good and the bad – and see it all portrayed in any of the following genres.
The YA market is definitely dominated by Western societies. If it’s not fantasy, it’s probably set in England or the USA. Which is fine, authors can do what they want and hey, if books weren’t written about these places then I probably wouldn’t know much about them. I just don’t get why more books don’t branch out into obscure areas. Please, someone be brave and do research. I mean, imagine the road trips guys – somewhere like Victoria Falls, or the second largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Victoria. Somebody please write a fantasy series set here. And just to have a quick mention here, Tarzan of the Apes is set in Africa – and that was pretty spectacular, am I right?
I want to see a YA fantasy novels set in Uganda where children attend magical schools and adults fight off dragons and goblins. I was to see a sci-fi novel set in Praia where most of the population lives underwater and maybe there’s even a mermaid or two. I was to hear about an alien invasion that either does or does not spark a dystopian setting in the Congo. I was to see a secret colony of elves living under Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I want a simple, delightful contemporary set in South Africa.
But these things are like gold dust. There’s literally so much potential. What I’ve shown you today is less than the tip of the iceberg. It’s droplet of water on the top of the iceberg. There are so many beautiful settings available, so many deeply politically based fantasies waiting to be written. What I’d love to see doesn’t have to be a commentary on current or past issues necessarily, but a well thought out representation of some aspect of some African country or its people that teaches the world – particularly young adults – something new about a place so often overlooked in history classes.
Do you know what would really make my day? If someone picked a fairy tale or something similar of Africa origin and retold it in whatever genre they wanted. The closest thing I could find to this is a book called Under the Udala Trees, which I’ve listed below. But for now, that’s enough information. Be sure to check back in if you want to learn more about particular places!
This was my brief introduction to sub-Saharan Africa. If you want me to write about a particular country in Africa next, let me know! Because we sure ain’t done with this magnificent continent.
Books Looking At Southern Africa
Here are a few historical fiction/general fiction novels I’ve seen popping up quite often lately:
by Chigozie Obioma
Set in: Nigeria
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Set in: Nigeria
by J. M. Coetzee
Set in: South Africa
Cutting for Stone
by Abraham Verghese
Set in: Ethiopia
Out of Africa
by Isak Dinesen
Set in: Kenya
by Yaa Gyasi
Set in: Ghana
Under the Udala Trees
Set in: Nigeria
Black Dove, White Raven
Set in: Ethiopia
Set in: Nigeria
Have you read any books set in Southern Africa?
Let me know below!
Missed last month’s feature? Well quick then! Go have a peek: