Essays | The Black Africa Problem

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Abacha ti ku oooo – They Danced, and if my Memory Serves me Right, I Danced Too – I Say, Baloney! – The Placenta of Yoghurt – Of Ishango Bones and Nubian Antibiotics – The African Dream and the Black Problem – The Unknown-Knowns

General Sani Abacha, if you don’t know him (and I am sad to introduce him), was one of the most ruthless, unconscionable, corrupt Head of States ever produced on the continent of Africa in modern times. He imprisoned and executed political opponents at will; he siphoned – without much veneer – billions of dollars out of the central bank into some swiss account.

On a fateful day, like all who had lived before him, he died. I was around seven years old then, and I remember the events quite clearly. I was running some errands for my mum, and I happen to be stepping out of the kitchen. As I type these words, I can remember – see– very faint light due to low electrical current trying to avail itself in an electric bulb that had not been powered for days. My mum must have been cooking beans. I can see the steam-pot, the steam itself, the palm oil, and the salt in the dark-yellow container. I can still smell the savory, smoky, irresistible smell; and then a woman screamed, gleefully: “Abacha ti ku oooo.” Meaning Abacha is dead! with an intense stress and stretch that defies translation into the English language.

The very next second, the streets were littered with dancing civilians, congratulating themselves with pregnant laughs, heavy handshakes and delightful hugs. They danced and if my memory serves me right – I was tempted to join too.

And between me and you, that was the first and the last time I witnessed (physically, in presence, in-situ) so much merriment, so much felicity, so much exuberance, so much euphoria at the death of a human being. It was something else.

And here is the brutal, totally brutal (perhaps unsurprising) part, which I think I heard in town – General Abacha died on a pair of huge breasts and with a sumptuous apple in his mouth. If any apple can be said to be sumptuous, then it has to be Abacha’s. Again, I heard it in town, perhaps a friend whispered to me in class, perhaps I heard it over soccer, I can’t quite remember. But I am certain of the breast and apple part.

And so much for the celebration. After General Abacha’s death, the new civilian leaders demonstrated that they were more capable than Abacha, when they came on board, under the guise of democracy they stole the country blind; and almost, again I repeat, almost placed the entire country on eBay. They would have sold the country if permitted.

And if you have no idea what we are talking about here, it turned out the country has a name. We call her Nigeria. The most populous black nation on earth.

The Placenta of Yoghurt

Sometimes in 2017, I attended a talk by a former President Obama Employee, Jo Handelsman, at the University of Georgia. Dr. Handelsman worked with Obama as the Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. She gave an inspiring talk about the microbiome – these are the community of microbes in our environment, that surrounds, and live inside us.

As something rather tangential in her lecture, she mentioned the work of a 19th century uber-scientist, Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov. A Russian, heavy beards, and a large dose of popularity.

Mechnikov had some interesting theories about aging, and one of them is that aging is caused by the bacteria in our gut – the bacteria in the gut (stomach) produces toxic compounds that causes aging. Not all of them but most of them.

A young pediatrician Henri Tissier joined Mechnikov’s lab then to work on several projects. One was to determine why fermentation of milk led to a sour taste. It was known at the time that microbes caused fermentation through the work of Louis Pasteur. However, instead of causing the milk to rot, it otherwise became sour.

Soon it was discovered that fermentation of milk by certain genus (type) of bacteria called Lactobacilli, resulted in the production of lactic acid. And, to put it bluntly, this acid thing was no friends to the rotting bacteria. The rotting bacteria becomes paralyzed at low pH (high acidic conditions), to put it in another way, the rotting bacteria lose their limbs, and then their lives.

Mechnikov, being the genius that he was thought that perhaps if we ingest these acid-producing bacteria, one could counteract the rotting microbes in the gut that caused aging. Around the same time, he got an important intel from one Prof Leon Massol of the University of Geneva, who gave Mechnikov samples of yahourth, a Bulgarian sour milk, that had been known to contain another variant of Lactobacilli.  (In biology we call such variant, species.)

The intel was dope. A certain population of people who lived around Bulgaria had crap loads of old people, who had refused to die. And what more? They drink this same yahourth thing in wholesale.

All of these made sense to Mechnikov, he gave lectures about his latest theory, caused a few media circus; and friends, this was the birth of yoghurt. He himself, as always, put some skin into the game, he resorted to take sour milk containing lactic acid bacteria every day until he died in 1916. He was 71, Perhaps too young for the scientist who had been widely believed to solve the aging puzzle.

Even though he did not live to the year 2020, Mechnikov’s theories point us in the right directions. Modern Scientists had proved him right on certain grounds and these beneficial microbes are called probiotics. This is of course very appealing given the link between our gut microbiota and diseases like cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Now we know that such appeal has some major dents: apart from the inconclusive proof of effectiveness of probiotics, if you want these benefits, you must be taking probiotics every single day, since the good microbe don’t replace the bad ones in the gut. Pointing right at our lack of understanding of the complexity of the gut microbiome.

“Why aren’t they recolonizing?” Jo asked in the concluding session of her talk on that sunny, breezy afternoon.

But, why all these stories you ask. Friends, what interests me in Prof. Mechnikov story is the euphoria his ideas generated then. Article titles like OLD AGE DEFEATED, THE ELIXIR OF ETERNAL YOUTH, LONG LIVE LIFE, NONE OF US WILL DESPAIR TO SEE THE YEAR 2000!Were used to describe his works during the time.

Except that aging is immune to treatment by yoghurt. We now know that aging is influenced by both genetic and non-genetic factors; production of free radicals, mitochondrial diseases, DNA repair dependencies, insulin signaling pathways [15], and I can go on forever.

But what can I say, so much for sour milk.

To give the devil its due, Mechnikov was right on many fronts, he thought completely out of his times; but he got the complexity of aging and the gut microbiome soooooooo wrong. And the media didn’t help either.

And here is the important point. One could see exactly the deep ignorance of the problem (of aging) by the euphoria ‘sour milk’ generated. At least in hindsight.

Just drink yoghurt and then you solve aging. Duh!

What Obama and Mugabe Has in Common

I ate lunch with a Biochemistry Professor after the Handelsman lecture, and because I am from Africa, he mentioned Mugabe and what I had thought about his ouster and its appeal – this was in 2018 shortly after Mugabe was ousted.  Immediately the microbiome talk came to my mind. I said, my prediction is that whatever took place in Zimbabwe was largely pointless. It is akin to taking sour milk daily, hoping to solve the aging problem, but, unfortunately, we are not afforded the flexibility of taking such daily pills at that scale. It is also important to note that such enthusiastic appeal exposes our lack of understanding of Africa’s deepest problem.

In short, we are indulging ourselves in unnecessary euphoria. To improve a system – a complex system at that, one needs to understand its workings, and the removal of a ‘Mugabe’ will not change much, that’s if it doesn’t exacerbate current problems.

What am I saying here, I am saying that people like leaders are not the (main) problem of Africa. The problem is something much deeper, deceptively simple, and hence much nastier to deal with.

And how do we recognize this something? Fortunately, there is a heuristic: it is a thing, that when changed, will not lead to such euphoria that we get from events like the Mugabe removal or a Gaddafi’s death at the battle of Sirte. And certainly, you wouldn’t see people dancing like we all danced at Abacha’s death.

Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash

Needless to say, this problem of unnecessary euphoria is across board: such was the euphoria of the blacks when Obama took office, if anything happened, from my little understanding of American politics, the race problem probably got worse.

If we resort to solve problems like this effectively, the solutions are almost, always never attractive. Removing a ‘Mugabe’ is attractive, what is not, is de-cluttering the mindset of the men and women who watched him rule for 37 years in Zimbabwe, muted, suffering and smiling.

And here is the gist, it is not that there is something inherently bad with the removal of a Mugabe, death of Abacha (oh yes, he was a brutal dude), or the election of an Obama (for the blacks), no, it is the unnecessary, seductive euphoria that it generates, because it distracts us from the most important things.

I Say, Baloney!

For reasons that will become clear over the next few words – if not already clear by now – I am starting with this deep Yoruba proverb from West Africa:

The day the tall (iroko) tree loses its roots is the day the baby ant shits on its head

Even the blind can see, there is something faulty with the black race, there is a bug somewhere.

However, some folks continue to insist – either through their words or actions – that, say the African continent and the black race must have been cursed by a supernatural being (or by nature), to account for the perennial, incessant backwardness that they (we) continue to experience.

And what do I say? I say baloney!

As far as I am concerned, what we have on our hands is an illusion of inferiority, manifested by a recalcitrant psychological state, delivered by an adulterated history.

I will start with the psychological meditation on the black problem:

Here is what we know – our expectations of other people literally modulate their behavior. Take the Pygmalion effect, where behaviors are being positively modulated as shown in the famous Rosenthal-Jacobson study.[1] In the study, elementary school students were given an IQ test at the beginning of an academic year. Afterwards a few students were randomly picked as intellectual bloomers. Please take note that the choice of these bloomers was independent of the result of the IQ test. As such, the result of the IQ test was not divulged to the teachers; however, the names of the randomly selected bloomerswere disclosed to the teachers.

At the end of the academic year the same test was administered. Lo, and behold, the randomly picked bloomers – that is bloomers that aren’t actual bloomers – had statistically significant higher test scores compared to the rest of the cohort.

The author concluded that perhaps, the (teacher’s) expectation is everything. Which make sense if you just take the time to look around you. The negative corollary of this phenomenon is the Golem effect[2,3], which together forms the self-fulfilling prophecies.

So, what am I saying? I am saying that there is nothing wrong with black Africa except that, what we are witnessing today is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are inferior because we believe we are inferior, and not because we are inferior.

Friends, the maxim below will lead us to our next junction (which is history).

“What you do for yourself depends on what you think of yourself, and what you think of yourself depends on what you know of yourself, and what you know of yourself depends on what you have been told” [4]

Ultimately what you have been told (that is what you know about yourself) influences what you do for yourself.

Photo by Ian Macharia on Unsplash

And what is history if not what you know about yourself, whether it happened two minutes ago or five thousand years ago.

This, friends, summarizes the problem of the black race. The knowledge about ourselves, what we have been told for a long time is that we are inferior and sub-standard, hence the anti-Pygmalion effect, the Golem effect (this analysis is still not deep enough as I am not satisfied, but I promise, we will go deeper).

Perhaps the question to ask then is: has the black race been always backward? Unsurprisingly no. The problem is that as a group we have little knowledge of the great civilizations of the black race. Take for example the author who was born and lived in Nigeria for 21 years.

All he knew, taught, was the history of Africa, colonial and post-colonial – both of which are very terrible btw– as if the blacks did not exist pre-colonial.

It is to these historical meditations we turn to next.

Of Ishango Bones and Nubian Antibiotics

Katanga Harpoons: The oldest human culture, a fishing expedition is believed to have been organized first by black African in northeastern Zaire (now Congo) some 90,000 years ago. Sophisticated harpoons using bone technology were discovered onsite. [5]And what is left of Congo today? War, sorrow, tears and blood. [6]

Ngwenya Mine: The earliest record of mining was performed by Africans in Swaziland, where haematite was dug up for use in cosmetics and rituals. Thousands of stone made mining tools, tunnels, and adits were discovered. All these activities were dated to some 43,000 years ago. [7] And what is left of the mining industry in Swaziland today? I have no idea.

Ishango Bone: How about something more sophisticated like maths? Well, thanks for asking. The oldest mathematical artifacts (what you could effectively call a calculator) was unearth on the African continent (Ishango region of Zaire, now Congo) the Ishango bone, and it displays the knowledge of basic arithmetic, principles of base 60 (modern clocks), principles of base 10, prime numbers etc. Mind you we are talking some 25,000 years ago here. [8] How many young kids can do maths in Congo today? Perhaps not too much. War and education can be mutually exclusive. And indeed, that is the case, in some regions close to 50% of Congolese kids have not even stepped into a school compound, [9] they will rather do AK47.

Nubian Antibiotics: Who discovered antibiotics? I remembered answering this question in a biology class in high school. Alexander Fleming, Professor of Bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. May be not. Ancient Nubians (today Sudanese) were geeks, they laced their beers with antibiotics some 2000 years ago. [10] Today all sort of diseases is tearing apart the fabric of the nation.

Awdagost Cheque: Commerce was also sophisticated. Thanks to Ibn-Hawqal, the 10thcentury geographer, who discovered the use of cheque in Awdaghost (today Mauritiana, then Ancient Ghana). He reported a cheque of 42,000 dinars written to one merchant in town. Our well-travelled geographer, who was from the east confessed that this was a novel idea after checking with his friends back in the east. [11]

Nok sculpture of a sitted man

Nok Culture: In the early 20thcentury in Nigeria, the unearthing of some mouth jarring expressive work of arts by Benard Fagg and others lead to the discovery of the great Nok culture. This was during the time where the colonial ideology was at its deepest, and one of its important pieces was that an ancient African civilization was impossible. That was false. Subsequently, excavated stone axes, ceramics, terracotta sculptures, iron tools left everyone in awe. We are talking a complex society (with farming, manufacturing and arts) spanning approximately 2000 years from 1500 BC to 500 AD. [12]

What am I saying here? I am saying an African civilization that predates the founding of Rome by some 500 years. [13] And what is left of the culture today? Looting is one of them, even the Nok artefacts could not survive such looting – the spirits of the men and women of Nok that lived thousands of years ago had been tortured by the looting of modern Africans. [14]When a people don’t know who they are or what great things they are capable of, they act, rather sadly, ignobly.

African Philosophy and the Enlightenment: During my spare time in graduate school, the study of philosophy is an opium. Having discovered philosophy relatively late, I figured I have so many catching-up to do, so I took the study seriously. During this lofty spare time, often at night and weekends, I discovered Hume’s philosophy of miracles, John Locke’s ‘all men are equal’, Kant’s Categorical imperative, Hume’s fork, Popper’s falsifiability and confirmation and many more.

So, naturally I was shocked when I came across the 17thcentury African rationalist Zera Yacob, who lived in the kingdom of Aksum (today Ethiopia). Whose ideas predates that of Hume on the philosophy of miracles by some staggering 100 years; and Locke’s on the equality of men, as he argued incessantly against slavery and inimical hierarchies [17]; and yet today we are being taught Africans have no philosophy, and we believe it, we act it out.

Until we know who we are, sadly, we will remain inferior.

Finally, let’s see if we can finish this up with some mild epistemological meditations.

The Unknown Knowns

Not many people work passionately on a project (consciously) because someone who lived thousands or hundreds of years before them was a bad-ass, an iron manor aking-philosopher. The contrary is usually the case, we act with little, or sometimes, no conscious thoughts of this kind of motivation, as there is this invisible chain that locks us to long dead men and women, that looked like us; if permitted by the apt (re-)telling of history.

This will lead us to the pithiest theory (classification) of knowledge: 1) known knowns, things that you know that you know. For example, you know that you know that you are reading an essay at this moment (and hopefully you know that). 2) Known unknowns. Say, you know that you don’t know the number of the alphabet in this essay. 3) Unknown unknowns. This is a very brutal class. The things you don’t know that you don’t know. How about the knowledge of an iPhone to a prehistoric Egyptian? Notice that for me to give an example of this kind I went through a lot of stress by literally travelling to the past. I said it, it’s pretty brutal. In business this is called unfathomable uncertainty.

But something is missing, the classes so far is asymmetric, and I hate asymmetry. Look carefully. This possibly can’t be all, there is a missing link.

And here we go: The unknown knowns. This is exactly what we are interested in – to completely map this black problem ting.

Recall that I mentioned earlier that there is something wrong with the euphoria that comes from the toppling over of governmental heads like Abacha and Mugabe. To an average folk on the street of Lagos or Bulawayo, the notorious bad leader in Abuja or Harare is the problem of the nation, to them that is a known known. To put it more accurately, it is what they think is a known known, that is why you get so much euphoria when they get killed.

Anyways, my final argument is to be found in the missing link: there are certain things we don’t know that we know. I know, I know, this sound strange. But that is the point, we will work with it.

If I show you something that has to do with food, say a sandwich, and then I show you this SO_P and I told you to fill it up, you are more likely to complete it as follows: SOUP. However, if I give you a pamphlet that conspicuously contain the word WASH you will not be completing the words with a letter ‘U’, rather you are most likely to give me something like SOAP. This is an example of the Florida effect, one of the most powerful psychological priming effects documented.

In short, what we do know that we don’t know is out there, only because we act it out. This is the same way ideology works as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek pointed out in his works.

A lot of black Africans and her leaders act out inferiority, drips of inferiority (that I only have to be dishonest to not say it); and yet you tell an average bloke on the street of Lagos and he says f*** off. And that is all the evidence you need, the things we believe, and yet we are not aware that we believe them. Again, I repeat: the unknown knowns. And this is exactly what happens with those who have exhibited the Florida effects. What they don’t know that they know affects them.

This obviously complicate the problem of the black people even the more. And yet it has only one root, based on this historical hypothesis: the problem of self-knowledge. (Note:the historical argument presented in this essay should not be interpreted or view history as the one and all. But rather as a necessary catalyst.)

Because you have to wonder. Given all sorts of interventions in Africa, huge budgets for the war against poverty, war against this, war against that. One has to ask which of those wars have been won? The war against meta-physical (psychological) problems are impervious to conventional approaches like throwing money at the problem.

What need be treated is the cause, and not the symptom.

And yet the diagnosis of the problem is not far from our history books themselves, let’s take the following ifá verse:

Oko n lo s’oko, ok’oju sile, oko n t’oko bo, o k’oju s’oko. Eyin o mop e lodilodi loko n se. A dia fun won nilulodi Omo Aserubobatan. Ego, ego lo pa ara ilu lodi, omo aserbobatan.

Roughly translated as such:

“Any formerly colonized people who, in the march to a new civilization, turn their face against indigenous culture, behave stupidly. When such thinkers, at the same time, decide to rely entirely on the intellectual culture of their erstwhile enslavers, they act more stupidly. For rather than bring development, what they usher in is the destruction of their intellectual heritage” [16]

To put it more plainly, 1) no culture is perfect, 2) you don’t throw the baby with the bath water 3) disconnection with your culture only brings the loss of the self.

So, say if I were to become the education minister in Nigeria or Mali today, and I was allowed to do a few things. This is what I will do, for starters, I will gather African studies professors and we will start incorporating our history back into the curriculum, I will collaborate with the musicians and actors, we will start making seasonal movies and recreate music about the great African civilizations (I can’t count the number of western historical dramas I have seen on say, Netflix. That tell great, inspirational stories of the western world. And yet I can’t count black historical dramas, for completely different reasons.); I will talk to the herbalists (sometimes called the witch doctors), we will hold conferences, and we will get lost in the forest looking for herbs. Not so much to save Africans today, we are already in a mess; but to save those who are yet to be born.

Now, tell me, friends, how many civilians are going to litter the street dancing and singing in euphoria?

Thank you for reading.

© Olatomiwa Bifarin 2020

Picture Credits:

Obama: Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash

Kenyan Women: Photo by Ian Macharia on Unsplash

Nok Art: Wikipedia Commons

Bibliography and Notes

  1. Rosenthal, Robert; Jacobson, Lenore (1992). Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development (Newly expanded ed.). Bancyfelin, Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House Pub. ISBN 978-1904424062
  2. Babad, E. Y. (1977). “Pygmalion in reverse”. Journal of Special Education. 11 (1): 81–90. doi:10.1177/002246697701100112;
  3. Wikipedia, Golem Effect.
  4. Kwa David Whitaker (Citation unknown)
  5. JE Yellen, AS Brooks, E Cornelissen, MJ Mehlman, K Stewart (28 Apr 1995). A middle stone age worked bone industry from Katanda, Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire. Science: Vol. 268, Issue 5210, pp. 553-556 DOI: 10.1126/science.7725100
  6. The Economist (15 Feb 2018). Congo’s war was bloody. It may be about to start again.
  7. Dart, R. A.; Beaumont, P. (1969). “Evidence of Iron Ore Mining in Southern Africa in the Middle Stone Age”. Current Anthropology. 10 (1): 127–128. doi:10.1086/201014. JSTOR 2740688
  8. de Heinzelin, Jean (June 1962). “Ishango”, Scientific American, 206:6. 105—116; Brooks, A.S. and Smith, C.C. (1987): “Ishango revisited: new age determinations and cultural interpretations”, The African Archaeological Review, 5: 65-78.
  9. (2010). Education aid flows to conflict-affected countries. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 20-24; Wikipedia contributors. (2018, September 6). Education in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 09:24, December 18, 2018
  10. Mark L. Nelson, Andrew Dinardo, Jeffery Hochberg, George J. Armelagos (16 August 2010) Brief communication: Mass spectroscopic characterization of tetracycline in the skeletal remains of an ancient population from Sudanese Nubia 350–550 CE. American Journal of Physical Anthropology Volume 143, Issue 1
  11. Nehemia Levtzion. (1968) Ibn-Hawqal, the Cheque, and Awdaghost. The Journal of African History, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1968), pp. 223-233
  12. Breunig, Peter. 2014. Nok: African Sculpture in Archaeological Context: p. 21; Fagg, Bernard. 1969. Recent work in west Africa: New light on the Nok culture. World Archaeology 1(1): 41–50
  13. Alistair Boddy-Evans (01 Sep 2018). Nok Culture. ThoughtCo.
  14. Breunig, Peter (editor). 2014. Nok: African sculpture in archaeological context. Africa Magna Verlag, Germany, October 15
  15. Gerald Karp, Cell and Molecular Biology: Concepts and Experiments (2013) Page 647. John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
  16. Sophie Oluwole. Socrates and Orunmila Pp 113
  17. Philosophy Tube, African Philosophy & the Enlightenment: Link.
  18. Ìwórí Òyèkú

The Biography and works of Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov were summarized (partly) from The Man who Blamed Aging on His Intestines by Luba Vikhanski on May 16, 2016. And the Man Who Drank Cholera and Launched the Yogurt Craze by Lina Zeldovich on April 23, 2015.

For the African civilization’s facts stated specially in this section; the book, When We Ruled by Robin Walker was used as a secondary reference. A partial synopsis of the book can be found on this weblink.

The details of some Nok culture arts can be found on Yale University Art Gallery (Youtube Channel) titled The Nok Terracotta Enigma Published July 21, 2016. Link; also, the Wikipedia entry on Nok culture.

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2 thoughts on “Essays | The Black Africa Problem

  1. Adetutu says:

    Wow wow wow! This is a great piece. Educative, expository and adventurous. I felt like the journey to this memoir should not end on the last statement….’thank you for reading’. I found abachas dying on a pair of huge breast with apple in his mouth quiet hilarious. Not forgetting the man that discovered that yogurt can give long life, yet died in his early seventies. So much for discovery o….Great work Tomiwa!

    • Olatomiwa Bifarin says:

      The Abacha’s Apple episode was meant to be hilarious. I am glad I was able to deliver that. Thanks for the comment and feedback, Tutu!

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