Listen to your ancestors By William Bowles

18 October 2015

I’m a big fan of history. Ever since I was a kid, history fascinated me and perhaps in another life I might well have become a historian. And in an age where history gets rewritten by the corporate media hour by hour, day by day, understanding where we come from and how we got here is a critical issue.

This essay was triggered by a play on the radio by Margaret Buzby about the Ashanti rebellion in what is now Ghana, at the turn of the 19th century, seen largely through the eyes of Queen Asentewas who led the rebellion. At the end, defeated and old, she is exiled to the Seychelles along with all the other leaders of the rebellion, where she spends her time telling the children all the tales of her struggle and that of her ancestors, so that the tradition and history of the Ashanti could be carried on.

It’s not so long ago when in 1957 Kwame Nkrumah came to power in Ghana, the first African country to achieve independence from the British. From then on, one after the other, by ballot or bullet, African countries achieved independence, at least nominally. And by 1975 with the exception of South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, Africa was no longer a colonised continent. All in one way of the other, were products of the changing fortunes of the principal former colonial empires of England, France, Portugal and the Cold War and the clash of ideologies and economics that mostly took place in the Third World.

When the Portugese vacated Mozambique following the overthrow of the dictator Salazar in 1975, they left behind a single railroad leading to a mine and destroyed everything else of value in a fit of ex-colonial pique. Within a short space of time, the Apartheid regime, fearful of the rise of a professed Marxist government right on its borders, financed the terrorist organisation Renamo that systematically destabilised and terrorised the country that led to a vicious ‘civil’ war that was to last until 1990. But its legacy lives on and the same can be said for many African countries.

Mozambique was pretty typical for post-independence Africa in broadly following with local variations, the socialist model in one form or another, either of the Russian, Chinese or Indian variety. All were underdeveloped with most of the population engaged in subsistence farming and little or no industrial infrastructure. Most of the post-independence governments believed in ‘modernism’ which translated into rapid industrialisation, land redistribution, education, health and housing and holding the major means of production and distribution in state hands.

All things being equal, which of course they are not, there is no reason to believe that independent Africa could not have, by now, achieved many of its goals. This was the optimistic feeling that permeated Africa of the 1960s and into the 70s in spite of all the obstacles, setbacks and mistakes.

But unlike Europe, that had built its fortunes on the slave trade, the wealth systematically stripped from its colonies and its domination of world trade, Africa struggled to build modern nation states either on the wreckage left behind by the departing colonisers or attempted to utilise systems of government built by the colonisers and with precious little else except the raw materials they possessed.

All had to submit to the reality of an international trading system that was skewed in favour of the West. Trading with the Soviet Union, China or India may well have been cheaper, but roubles were worthless on the international currency markets, the world traded in US$ or the pound. Most important of all, the prices of all the major commodities that Africa produced were determined in London, Chicago or New York. Caught between two fires, they were forced into taking sides and depending upon which side, depended the nature of the development process, or lack of it.

And whilst it was typical in the West to talk of Nkrumah’s corruption and his grandiose and ‘unrealistic’ modernisation schemes, they largely ignored the brutal dicatorships of Mobuto Sese Seko in the Congo and the like, many of whom were installed and supported by Western imperialism, depending on whether they possessed valuable natural resources or had some strategic value in the Cold War.

Starting in the 1980s with the rise of the so-called neo-liberal economic agenda, there has been a concerted attempt in the West to shift the blame for the ‘failure’ of African states back onto Africa itself. Predictably, most of the blame was laid at the doorstep of ‘aid’ and on the ‘inefficiency’ of state ownership. ‘Aid’ made them dependent, code word for lazy and ‘inefficiency’ carried two messages, one was ideological and the other was corruption, as if Western states are not also corrupt and inefficient? But of course, corruption in a poor country has a far greater impact than corruption in a rich one.

But perhaps even more insidious and racist messages underlay the counter-attack by Western imperialism on independent Africa, the most common of which are the labels ‘tribal’ and ‘ethnic’ both of which imply backwardness. Thus the racist pre-conceptions of the West are justified by the collapse of the central state in countries like Rwanda, Liberia or Somalia, predicated on the essentially ‘backward’ nature of the African that led, according to the West, to genocide and the rise of the ‘warlord’ and the current buzzword, ‘failed state.’

Laughable, if it wasn’t so tragic, the industrialisation of genocide carried out by German Fascism or that of the ‘ethnic’ war in Northern Ireland, now in its second century or indeed the on-going war against Black Americans, is conveniently forgotten. I could go on, but the point is we operate a double standard that Robert Cooper, British pro-consul to Afghanistan has unashamedly made into de facto official British foreign policy, the “double standard” theory.

And whilst not wanting to turn Africa into one giant, defenceless and helpless ‘victim’ aka the despicable ‘Live Aid’ phenomenom, the reality is that of a world with all the rules loaded in favour of the West.

But now the new imperium has reissued yet another invention from a previous age, the rehabilitation of the colonial empire, by promoting the works of historians such as Niall Ferguson, blue-eyed boy of the latest revision of British history. Coincidence? I think not, for it fits perfectly into the assault on the past that justifies the present and in doing so, ramps up the current onslaught on the poor of the world.

One of the most insidious aspects of this current rewriting of the past is that because it is so far in the past, the genocidal policies of colonialism are blunted and softened by time. Hence the current revisionist histories are able to implant the idea that we have changed but ‘they’ haven’t in spite of all our attempts to ‘civilise’ them. Hence the need to reimpose ‘our’ values on ‘them’ as they’ve proved incapable of doing so when supposedly left to their own devices.

And when we look at the words of Bush the smaller or Tony Blah, we see the transmission of the Ferguson version of history translated into the world of vox pop, where the struggle is that of “civilisation” against the “dark forces” reigned against us. The “virus” that will “infect” us unless we reimpose our control. The medical reference is interesting as it implies that invasion and occupation is in actuality, more like an ‘inoculation’, a preventive measure that neatly links up to the idea of ‘pre-emptive strikes’.

“[In] another part of the globe, there is shadow and darkness where not all the world is free, where many millions suffer under brutal dictatorship and poverty”


“Iraq; another act; and many further struggles will be set upon this stage before it is ov
er. We are bound together as never before.”

These are the words of Tony Blah to the joint houses of the US Congress in July of this year. Note that “we are bound together”, that is, the ‘civilised’ world as elsewhere it’s a world of “shadow and darkness”. These deeply racist images strike a chord in populations long raised on a diet of being citizens of empire and reinforce the idea that the ‘dark hordes’ are at the gates, hammering to get in, either to destroy us or take what is rightfully ours because it’s ours by right.

One of the things I learned during my time living in Africa, was the importance of acknowledging the existence of the ancestors, although for me it translated into being connected to the past rather than believing in them literally. For through the ancestors, the past becomes solid ground, rather than shifting sand. The ancestors are a transmission line to the past that remains stubbornly unbroken. Through it, a different history is preserved and carried down, not by education, books or TV. It’s both a private language and a collective memory, as in speaking to one’s ancestors you are also speaking to their time. For example, seeking out what that wisdom would have done under this or that circumstance today.

I know it’s a bit of cliché that history is written by the victors, and I know it sometimes seems like ‘pissing in the wind’ as the saying goes, but that’s no excuse for us not to take the victors to task. Language and through it, control of our collective and individual history, is the only weapon we have in the struggle that we can call our own. And I know we all make the mistake of reducing the ‘struggle’ to clichés, I suppose it’s an inevitable product of the nature of the struggle. All I can say is that I was raised by folks who carried with them a sense of the importance of their own history and their place in it and that thankfully, it was communicated to me.

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