The UN has declared or warned of the impending potential for famine in several African countries, once more refocusing – if only temporarily – the attention of the international community on its most impoverished continent.
In most of the countries at risk of starvation, civil war and communal unrest are exacerbating the dire situation. In Somalia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and parts of Nigeria, brutal violence and associated population displacement are decimating society and destroying the means of production. This in turn is having a spillover affect in neighbouring countries, forced as they are to cope with a massive influx of desperate refugees.
As has so often been the case, the international alarm bells have been rung far too late to allow an effective response to the famines. Instead of prevention, the best that can now be hoped for is an alleviation of the worst ailments. Sadly global political capital to help appears limited at best in this new nationalistic era, as the Trump administration’s stance on international aid epitomises.
At the heart of the conflicts rupturing many African states are tribal and ethnic quarrels that have existed since the days of colonialism. This relates not just to external hostilities – the hatred of the ‘other’ – but also to intra-ethnic/tribal conflict.
Power-sharing agreements between the political affiliations of different ‘tribes’ and ‘ethnic groups’ is a laudable idea, yet is seldom practicable in Africa. The disintegration of the world’s newest state, South Sudan, despite an attempt at dual governance between members of the rival Dinka and Nuer tribes, is testament to this sorry state of affairs.
Untouched by the outside world for centuries, these communal complexities were deeply embedded in African culture and society by the time of the European arrival, whose colonial administrators either could not or would not acknowledge them.
The European imperialists amalgamated masses of disparate groups together within fabricated borders. With other groups they implemented divide-and-rule, whereby rival tribes were played off against one another, weakening any unified challenge to European predominance.
Nowhere are the complexities of the longstanding African power systems more evident than in the writings of the Victorian explorers of the mid-19th century, those whose travels predated the colonial era.
For the dozens of intrepid adventurers who lost their lives in the African interior – whether because of illness, starvation or an untimely meeting with an unwelcoming chieftain – there were a handful of more skillful (perhaps luckier) navigators whose names live long in history.
All of them commented on the intricacies of African society; of the rival clans and chiefdoms, of the similar yet distinct languages, of the curiosity and hostility towards the ‘bwana’. Bartering their passage into the ‘heart of darkness’ with the help of local guides and porters, not to mention Arab slave traders, they stumbled forth in search of scientific and geographical wonders.
Jack Speke – who had already failed to make headway in Somaliland due to a hostile reception on Richard Burton’s exploratory mission of 1854-55 – rendered with the utmost clarity the impossibilities for Europeans to understand the African political system of the time.
Working his way towards the Victoria Nyanza (Lake Victoria) at the head of his own mission in the early 1860s, Speke recorded in his journal not only the harsh climatic challenges of African travel, but the myriad complexities of understanding, and winning passivity, from local polities.
Every district through which he passed was seemingly home to innumerable tribes, each with its own loyalties to other, more powerful kingdoms further inland. Far from being the primitive subsistence, hunter-gatherers of contemporary literature, many of these African societies were inherently complex, stable, rich and, importantly, culturally and ethnically distinct from their neighbours.
Having painstakingly reached the formidable Kingdom of Buganda, during which time he had been delayed and outwitted on numerous occasions by opportunistic chieftains, Speke’s luck began to change. Winning favour with the King’s mother, Speke was ‘given’ two Wahuma girls for his possession:
Speke believed that the paler-skinned and straighter-nosed Wahuma (Hima) originally came from Ethiopia, and that many centuries before his arrival at the Nyanza, they had risen to power over the darker Bantu already settled in Buganda, Karagwe and Rwanda. Although it was true that the Hima had come from the north, they were members of a Luwo clan originally from southern Sudan, rather than from Ethiopia. But after moving south, they had indeed formed ruling dynasties around the Nyanza in the centuries after AD 1200. Thereafter, they adopted Bantu speech and were culturally absorbed by them. (Jeal, P. 156)
Despite his experience of the African interior, and his sympathy towards African people and their customs, Speke was still somewhat unaware of the nature of the societies through he which he trod and in which spent so much time.
Speke and his explorer brethren would of course be followed by the more rapacious imperialists whose thoughts seldom strayed beyond commercial endeavour and native subjugation.
As such, tribal enmities were contained within fixed, fabricated borders as the violence and hatred bred by colonial institutions served to destroy the heart of Africa.
This sad reality has been perpetuated into the post-colonial period, with Africa and the Africans still largely viewed as unmanageable and unknowable, a lost cause to be overlooked and brushed aside.
Misunderstood, mistrusted and mistreated; we seem to have little idea about the extent of the miseries in the African interior today, lives dissipating and extinguishing before our averted eyes.
Do we really care?
Jeal, T. Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (2011)