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HIDDEN HISTORY

Africa was civilised long before it was colonised — Prof Kusimba

Top Kenyan American scholar Prof Chapurukha Kusimba was part of a study that debunked the myth of a Dark Continent, finding inventions and innovations dating back 10,000 years

In Summary

• The prevailing notion is that Africa was a barbaric before the arrival of white men

• Anthropological archaeologist found long history of cities and chiefdoms, global trade

Chapurukha Kusimba at his Kimilili home in Bungoma county
Chapurukha Kusimba at his Kimilili home in Bungoma county
Image: COURTESY

Kenyan-born distinguished American scholar Prof Chapurukha Kusimba was inducted as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2018.

Prof Kusimba, 58, hails from Bungoma county. He is currently Professor of Anthropology, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and Environment, at the University of South Florida, Tampa.

He undertook archaeological digs at the East African Coast in the 1980s, and his findings painted a picture of an untold history of African civilisation.

 
 

Here are excerpts from an interview with him at his Kimilili home prior to his departure for the US.

 

What makes you tick?

Humility. This I learnt from an early age and have over time found it to be the cornerstone for one’s success. Plus the zeal to explore and question a topic, coupled with teamwork and patience during exploratory studies in collaboration with colleagues. I have tried to live by it and respect individual differences.

 

At what point did you generate interest in archaeology? How does its study impact on societies around the globe?

Very early on as a young boy growing up on the slopes of Mt Elgon, while exploring caves with my siblings and agemates while looking after cattle. I got curious about the origin of our ancestors, particularly so when I later learnt that the east African region was the cradle of mankind.

Archaeology lifts the lid on what it means to be human: who we are, our survival, savage inequalities that abound within human societies as well as state and government collaborations from ancient times to date.

This study highlights the role of trade, technology transfer and innovation in transforming culture and the environment from the Bronze age to contemporary times. It offers insight into technology and climate, technology transfer, trade and innovation, technology and new forms of work, money and payment, new monetary technologies and the impact of digital payment systems in Africa and China as well as implications of new forms of money for everyday use and relationships, the platforms and gig economies.

 
 

Who was the most influential person in your formative years?

My paternal grandfather, Jesse Khwituta Kusimba, without doubt, as my dad was working in town away from home to earn cash that catered for school fees. He was hugely influential not only to me but my siblings as well, who have kept his name alive although he died in 1982.

It is from him I learnt humility, honesty, simplicity, generosity, respect and hard work. Being a Quaker church leader, our granddad instilled in us discipline and the love for education very early on in life.

You have undertaken archaeological digs at the East African Coast, Madagascar, India and China in the past. What profound findings did you unearth there and what has been their impact?

Prior to 1986, when we began excavations at the East African Coast, few people recognised that Africans had a history before activities of colonising Europeans in the region, which is littered with many ancient archaeological sites.

Upon studying artifacts found, we came to the realisation that many African chiefdoms and states there preceded the arrival of Islam. We neutered the prevailing notion that Africa was a barbaric place and established for a fact that the East African Coast and Inland Africa, with its many cities and chiefdoms dating back 10,000 years, was home to inventions and innovations, trading with foreign merchants from the Middle East, Europe, China and India long before the arrival of white men.

We established that coffee, drank all over the world as a beverage, was an African domesticate from Ethiopia and that the continent had given birth to human life.

Without doubt, you are now scaling the peak of your chosen career. How are you managing to stay at the top now and in the next decade prior to exiting the stage?

My present post is primarily a research position. Like in the past, besides teaching, I will immerse myself in research, and through collaboration with other scholars, focus on understanding the collapse of civilisation; pursue collaboration with geneticists at Harvard University Medical School to isolate the genetic codes of many viruses and understand what they were; study the impact of pandemics and how communities have dealt with them in the past.

I want to investigate evolution of disease, particularly with hindsight that earlier on, when humans began domesticating animals, they later brought vectors that unleashed diseases, some of which morphed into pandemics with deadly impacts on societies. I want to examine the impact of the Black Death, as well as Covid 19, which has caused the postponement of my planned research at Gede.

The National Geographic Society had issued a grant to my colleagues and I to investigate the real factors that led to the collapse and total abandonment of Gede City state at the Kenyan Coast 500 years ago. Gede was established around 900-1,000 AD, thriving to become a rich and spectacular city sprawling over a 50ha expanse, but it was suddenly abandoned.

We wish to find out why and use it as an example and establish the relationship between climate change and population growth, trade interactions, migrations, disease, movement, congregation, use of water sources and pollutants. I am sure we shall undertake the project alongside other research programmes along the East African Coast, South Central Africa, Great Zimbabwe and Madagascar.

I have travelled to many places all over the globe, but the reason I keep coming back to Kenya after more than 30 years’ stay in the United States is because this is the promised land
Prof Chapurukha Kusimba

Your take on the aspirations of young people intent on pursuing the once-famed American dream? What must they do?

Paradise is here in Kenya, my homeland, fatherland and motherland. I have travelled to many places all over the globe, but the reason I keep coming back to Kenya after more than 30 years’ stay in the United States is because this is the promised land.

Eden is not very far from here. Africa is the cradle of mankind, and anthropological research by the Leakeys has shown that indeed, East Africa is where mankind first evolved. I have bad news for young men and women in Kenya because the so-called American dream no longer exists because it is now dead.

Many crises, the latest being Covid 19, have exposed the underbelly of America, Europe and the whole world; our underbelly and how vulnerable we all are. Our young people need to have the ambition to excel here at home and help build Kenya. If we build our country, people will come.

Thirty years ago, China was a basket case; no one wanted to go there. But now everybody wants to go to China, yet the Chinese who leave China never wish to return! The American dream existed because Americans worked hard to build America.

Kenyans ought to take a bus ride to Rwanda, now a prime example of a well-run African nation fertilised by the blood of Rwandese ancestors, who annihilated each other in hate and greed inspired by the 1994 genocide, in which more than one million people died, but has now turned the corner. 

Kenya is 50 times richer than Rwanda, and what it needs is a bold leadership with a willingness to work together to  create wealth and share. Kenyans do not need to go to America; America is here, so let us build Kenya. In Kenya, one is comfortable; able to afford basic needs and can actually borrow a matchstick or salt from a neighbour.

Going forward, what do you propose to do when you finally hang up your archaeological shovel?

Cooking and feeding my friends, visitors and people from a simple shed or shack here at Kimilili in Bungoma, from where they may enjoy juice, which I make from fruit trees I grow.

I have no intention of retiring since I wish to sit and reminisce about the past and also write about my life’s journey. I love tending to trees from seed to maturity, so I will continue planting trees on my modest farm in Trans Nzoia county because I love listening to birds chirping in the mornings and evenings.

Growing up, I never knew Mt Elgon was rocky because it was under dense forest cover. It is only now that I see its rocks as its forest cover has been destroyed, and rivers from which we would drink water from back then are drying. I wish to recreate what I saw and knew while growing up.

SCOURGE OF SLAVERY

The institution of slavery was the beginning of underdevelopment of Africa, with the harvesting of young men and women and raw materials to create wealth for others elsewhere.

What are your major milestone achievements that you would write home about during your 33 years of labour in the field of anthropology?

My research essentially opened many eyes to early globalisation and international trade between Africans and the rest of the world. My work among the Swahili at the Kenyan Coast stands out as a clear case study to the profession of anthropology in understanding that globalisation begins in the past, long before European colonisation.

It makes it clear that the historical processes we study matter today and that the institution of slavery was the beginning of underdevelopment of Africa, with the harvesting of young men and women and raw materials to create wealth for others elsewhere. The scorched-earth policy of destroying and looting was the root cause of the continent’s decline.

Africans were not inferior to others; they created wealth that benefited others, trading with China 6,000 years, India 5,000 years, the Muslim world 5,000 years and Europe 500 years. This interaction was among equal partners, but something changed when external forces interlocked on a process that had already began to occasion the rot.

I presently have ongoing collaborative research programmes with Minzu University of China and the National Museums of Kenya and India. Previously I have directed research programmes in anthropological archaeology and museology in East Africa and the Indian Ocean. I maintain a robust research in the field, with artifact and museum collections and laboratory-based analysis, besides which I have more than 100 publications in African archaeology, anthropology, history and museum studies.

As an African American with Kenyan roots, what challenges have you overcome on your way to the pinnacle in the field of Anthropology in the US?

I have been very fortunate throughout my life, actually one of the luckiest people alive, as I was raised by a God-fearing family that instilled in me the power of prayer plus strong grounding in hard work, honesty and loving thy neighbours, while dad was away in work-enforced exile to generate money for school fees.

I left a male-dominated society in Kenya and went to the US with an open mind, with no pre-conceived notions, and joined a liberal university dominated by women to study alongside some of the smartest minds I have ever met. Having fought against discrimination and the right to vote, the American women I studied with shielded me from racism.

I, therefore, escaped savage racism that Americans — black, white, and brown —are exposed to, because of scholarly company. Nevertheless, I have experienced racism outside the campus: on the train when sitting alone, as people wish not to share a compartment with me, which leaves me more comfortable, and when shopping, as people follow me around, which I do not let weigh me down at all.

Race relations are a hot, controversial topic in the US, UK, Europe and indeed the world at large. Comment.

Covid-19 pandemic has brought closer home the savage inequalities resulting from centuries of discrimination. On average, 60 per cent of those dying from this disease in the US are either black or brown, as well as poor white folks, exposing the moral fabric of American society.

We now must confront the beast of these existing inequalities caused by long-standing discrimination that is pure and simple brought about by human greed. None of us is safe from this social, cultural and economic pandemic unless we learn to share what we have. Refusal to share can only hasten our end.

What is your parting shot, Professor?

I just love life! I am extremely fortunate to have been raised by God-fearing parents and grandparents. We grew up loving one another and when I went to the US, I met a beautiful, loving, generous woman, Sibel, with whom we have built our careers. If I had not met her in the fall of 1997, I would not have learnt about American society, teamwork, and Economic Anthropology. I owe everything I am today to my wife and her family that offered me support and continue to do so to date.

Edited by T Jalio