The myth of the Noble Savage and some unconvenient thruths

When it comes to talking about Africa, there’s a familiar story doing the rounds almost everywhere in Italy. Stop it if you already know it and directly go to the second part of this post.

The African story.

You see, Africa could be the paradise of our world. Without the evil interferences of foreigners and the horrible acts of the multinational companies, our African friends will be free to use wisely their valuable resources and be finally free. The worst of the worst are the European countries, that never stop to crush every hope for the Africans.

Does it sound familiar? Well, this tale is spinning since the ’60s, so I guess that you have heard it before. The subtext is that the white European monsters are the true enemies of the African countries and that before the start of the European colonialism the tribes and the nations of the black continent were in peace, free and happy. Modern-day companies, according to this tale, are no more than another evil scheme to oppress Africans. It’s the old myth of the Noble Savage.

I know for sure that studying history is not the favorite pastime of many people in my country, not to mention the absence of the most fundamental notions of geography, but now and then I like to speak out about this dull notions. You see, I’m getting older and my patience is becoming scarce, think about Einstenium to get the picture.

A bit of African history (yes, this is the second part of this post).

Until the 7th century, the central and the southern part of the continent were free to develop on their own, with a succession of different empires and migration waves. They fought, trade, rise, and fall like every other population of the world. The civilizations of the Mediterranean area influenced the northern part of the continent and/or involved in one of the most successful early empires: Egypt. Guess what; there was a lot of slave trade back then.

The expansion of the early Arabic civilization set up the first wave of foreign influence, mainly for the likes of the Kanem Empire and the Bornu Empire. Islam was vital to ensure relations with the Persian Gulf nations, opening channels for the trade. The tribes, the kingdoms, and the empires battled fiercely for centuries, often employing foreign mercenaries. Slavery was widespread, with thousands upon thousands of Africans exported like cattle abroad.

Starting from the 15th century, European kingdoms and Empires expanded greatly outside the Old Continent. Due to superior technology and modern warfare, they gain the upper hand they were able to secure footholds in the coastal areas and to trade with the local tribes. African nations were independent, the rise and fall of the dominant groups went on without external pressures.

In the 18th century the Ottoman Empire controlled most of the northern part of Africa, and the European powers started their colonial phase in the continent. Most of the African Empires stand still, negotiating territorial concessions and less than fair agreements in the trade. It was also the beginning of the “military advisor” phenomenon, with soldiers from European countries employed for the training of local armies in the use of modern weapons.

At the end of the 19th century, it was all over. Most of the African Empires fell, and the independence of the Africans vanished under the colonial rule. That ended in the second part of the 20th century, with the rise of the modern-day African states. As you may see, no golden era and no Noble Savage around living in Arcadia.

Who controls Africa? (third and last part of the post)

The current geopolitical and economic situation in Africa is a riddle, put inside of puzzle, compiled by a madman in a bad day. With a few exceptions, each country gets its foreign partners, and one or more external players profoundly influence the most part. The bottom line, for the sake of this post, is that every country gets its internal power struggle, and every state gets its kind of leadership (more or less corrupt and/or more or less authoritarian).

So it’s true that there are external powers at work, but it’s also true that no one of them can act alone. There are plenty of affordable African leaders, available for sale. Each leader with its tribe, ready and willing, each tribe with its internal network of clans and alliances. With a handful of exceptions, there is no real democracy in the whole continent. Political parties are projections of the local tribes, means of tribal policy controls every institution in the country. It looks like that the one real moment of national communion in the recent history of this countries happened when they took arms against the foreigners.

As written above, there are exceptions to the rule. Think about Tanzania, for instance. Kenya and Cameroon are getting better, too. On the other side, think about what happened in South Africa and Zimbabwe in the last ten years.

That said, better think twice before spinning that old story. You see, no one can believe it. The worst part of it all, it’s the undertext of such a story. It’s the picture of a whole continent unable to choose its future, a depiction of Africans like people unable to express free will. To me, this is racism.

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