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Africa Vera
Brian MacGarry
Gesuita dello Zimbabwe
Not a tabula rasa
One of the greatest errors of colonial Europe was to assume that any society that didn't have political, economic and class structures recognisably similar to the latest European style didn't have any at all, or only very primitive forms. They could recognise absolute monarchy in China, and Japan after the Meiji restoration, or flourishing mercantile capitalism in India, but even the centralised autocracies of the Aztecs and Incas didn't rate as “civilised”, probably because they didn't have guns.

How could they have recognised a better political organisation than their own in the village democracies that existed throughout the rest of the world, and had proved their worth by surviving in Africa since before an African diaspora began to populate the rest of the world somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago? Their bottom line, put into the mouth of a caricatured colonialist by Hilaire Belloc, was “We have got the Maxim gun, and they have not.”

Now we see imperial America repeating Europe's mistakes and creating havoc in societies they never took the trouble to understand, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Libya.

Africa was not all village democracies. The medieval kingdoms of West Africa were at least the equals of their European counterparts in military might, scholarship and wealth. When Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali (ruling a larger area than the present state of that name) made the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, he distributed gifts of gold so generously along his route that he inadvertently undermined the economy of Egypt.

Further south, Portuguese 15th century explorers seem to have treated the Kongo kindom, in modern Angola, as an equal of their own. Gunpowder from China and the commercial opportunities of plantation slavery put an end to that, as Portuguese disruption of the Indian Ocean trade networks may have contributed to the decline of the Great Zimbabwe kingdom, itself a successor to two earlier states whose rise occurred in the darkest of Europe's Dark Ages.

Although Africa's early democracies might have fallen short of the most enlightened modern forms, they gave a voice to every adult male, which the Greek and Roman versions never did. Africa's kingdoms were less than absolute monarchies, as were many in other parts of the world. Modern Nigerian films, available on satellite TV, when they venture into historical or cultural themes, give a feel of how popular opinion and advice of the elders helped to keep kings in their place, as they did in some of the “less enlightened” parts of Europe.