Much of the history of sub-Saharan Africa, which provides a path or context for our perceptions of Africa, begins with the so-called Age of Discovery in the 15th Century, which was pioneered by the Portuguese as they established trade routes along the African coast.
Encounters with the Heart of Africa did not happen until the 19th Century, when Johannes Rebmann, Ludwig Krapf, John Speke, David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley made stunning discoveries of mountains and lakes and sources of rivers.
Early Europeans neither understood the continent nor wanted to. In his criticism of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the great Chinua Achebe argued that Conrad depicted Africa as the antithesis of Europe or civilisation.
British Historian and Oxford Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, famously said that there was no history in Africa. According to Trevor-Roper, there was only the history of Europeans in Africa, the rest was largely darkness. And darkness is not a subject of history.
But what about the ancient Kingdoms of Sudan and Egypt? What about the Aksumite Empire that covered what is now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, which existed between circa 100CE and 940CE? In West Africa iron was in use from 400BCE.
Founded in the year 1100 CE, Timbuktu grew into one of the most important trading and learning centres in the world.
The east coast cities of Gedi and Kilwa date back to 11th and 12th Century and were essentially medieval Swahili Coastal settlements, which traded with Arabs, Indians and the Chinese in ceramics, horses and cotton.
Africa’s civilisations, its history and the dignity of its people were eviscerated by the inhumanity of three centuries of slavery and decades of brutal colonial rule. At the peak of the slave trade about 70,000 Africans were brutally uprooted from the continent annually.
The departure of European colonists was neither orderly nor smooth. Institutions of governance, infrastructure, a sense of nation state were absent. Poverty, hunger, disease, debt, despotism and violent conflict quickly and easily became Africa’s post-independence characterisation.
Africa was not going in the same direction as Asia or Latin America. In the 1970s the average income in sub-Saharan Africa was twice that of both South and East Asia. In the 1980s the average income in Africa fell below half of that in East Asia. Economists called this the Great Divergence.
Today we are living through a big but hitherto unforeseen inflexion period. Even the omniscient Economist magazine did not see this coming when it declared Africa the Hopeless Continent in 2000. The foundations of what is now known as Africa Rising were laid, brick by brick, by Africans.
Democracy is making feeble but persistent steps, violent conflict is in retreat, economies are growing. Yes, there are and will always be setbacks but steps forward are determined.
The African renaissance is here. We have the requisite natural and human capital. Africa is poised to become a major mid-century power. But only if African governments, and we the people, create inclusive and durable prosperity.
Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University