The conventional narrative projected by Western worldviews that Africa was a barbaric and dark continent before colonization demands perpetual opposition. The organic intricacies of African civilizations prior colonial invasion are viewed as worthless historical mishaps.
Pre-colonial African civilizations should not be romanticized as the proverbial utopia. It had its inherent faults/contradictions just like every other society on Earth. These include class struggles, gender inequities, tribal and ethnic animosities, political conflicts, and natural misfortunes.
But that does not mean African civilizations were inferior to Western ones as asserted by imperialist and racialist tropes of superiority complexes and ‘white savior mentalities’. Africa was never a ‘dark continent full of ‘superstitions’. Neocolonialism upholds this imperialist lie through divisive propaganda via corporate mass media and social media.
It is disingenuous to ignore the link between the scarce and distorted history of pre-colonial Africa and the present poverty, displacement, inferiority, and identity crises in Africa. And it is remiss to say all African ethnicities are homogenous – they share a plethora of commonalities.
Respectfully, Africa Is Not A Dark Continent!
The colonial domination superimposed on Africa by the settlers was premised on three racially-clogged dogmas – ‘Commerce, Civilization, and Christianity’. These dogmas deemed all aspects of African civilizations irredeemably backward and in need of ‘saving’, yet African people had their own ways of life that defined their inherent identity.
Material realities – the good and the bad – were influenced by the spiritual realm. This link was deleted by the colonial imposition of capitalism. Eurocentric political and economic ideas, behaviors, manners, and cultures totally overhauled African civilizations with a new order and an alienating political economy.
Presently, formal education across much of Africa diminishes the history of African civilizations in favour of Western history. Life in Africa before colonization teemed with altruistic cultural and moral togetherness, identity, meaning, and purpose. Africa is not a dark continent.
Counter-Hegemonies for Defending Pre-Colonial African Civilizations
Well-balanced and holistic society existed in Africa before the advent of colonization. The epistemological structure of society spiritedly aimed for objectivity.
Africa had its own knowledge systems and skills; intellectual dispositions; spiritual beliefs, ritual practices, and divine customs; medicinal practices; environmental conservation practices; architectural systems; and political and economic structures that could not be separated from the mundane.
Such wealth of indigenous/traditional knowledge systems and spiritual identity was destroyed by the invasive Judeo-Christian and Islamic colonization of Africa.
Indigenous knowledge remains alive – asserting its relevance where Islam and Christianity have unfettered dominance and following. Demand for traditional medicines is steadily rising and more Western scholars and scientists are now paying attention. Terms such as “witchcraft, backwardness, superstition, dark continent”, denoting an “uncivilized” Africa failed to totally erase the existential vitality of pre-colonial African societies.
This piece will thus focus on three key pillars that shaped and guided African people before they were demonized by Arabic and Judeo-Christian (Western) colonization. These are indigenous African knowledge systems, spirituality, and medicine.
African Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Skills
The hegemonic lie by Western global perceptions that African knowledge synergies were evil and backward reveals shameless moral bankruptcy. Pre-colonial societies had reservoirs of priceless knowledge systems that venerated the divine link between individual [physical and spiritual] wellness and social cohesion.
Africans harnessed strands of knowledge production that were organic and collectively worked to make it non-elitist. This is a stark contrast of colonial education and the ‘colonization of the mind’.
Colonial education coerced Africans to accept that European education, industrialization, religions, and philosophies were the universal way of existing and progressing in life.
African literary and philosophical knowledge systems were not written or codified as those of the colonizers – they were passed from generation to generation through oral tradition. African civilizations progressively boasted of contextual strands of intellectualism that was sensitive to the holistic development and nourishment of the society as a whole.
African Education and Communal Solidarity
African knowledge systems and skills were produced in daily practices via traditional medicine (healing via spiritualism and herbalism); agricultural work and the sanctity of nature; spiritual beliefs and rituals; initiation ceremonies: music and dance; architectural designs; folklore/oral storytelling; games; and the moral significance of the family.
The home, rivers, fields, and forests were conducive settings for indigenous education, which emphasised the human relationship with the [sacred] natural environment.
African indigenous education envisioned the humane objective of creating individuals who viewed themselves with a higher vision for the betterment of everyone.
Traditional knowledge production combined theoretical and practical explanations of how the world functioned, predicated on community engagement.
African indigenous literary and philosophical traditions were not primitive – rather, they cultivated a spiritual sense of harmony between communities and their environments. These were holistic and strove for each person’s wholeness and humaneness.
The Spirituality of Africa
Colonial invasion immediately ruled out indigenous religious systems as pagan indulgences. But African civilizations were centred around religion – but not in Western and Islamic defined by codification i.e., Christianity’s Holy Bible and Islam’s Holy Quran, respectively. Indigenous African religions are not confined to the dictates of a written text – they are fluid, accommodative, and receptive to other religious dogmas.
Religion in Africa meant an acknowledgement that beliefs and practices impacts every dimension of human life – it is the everyday way of living. Pre-colonial traditional religion informed and molded politics, art, economics, dressing, marriage, health, wealth, and death – just as religion has an omnipresent hold on people in today’s world.
African spirituality promoted societal balance through harmony between the physical and spiritual worlds – for instance, sickness mirrored an imbalance in one’s body and social life. It could be through strained family relations or awful relationships with one’s ancestors.
African spirituality was not the same for every group but showed common elements portraying a reverence for the public sphere. Africans’ spirituality acknowledged the “subtle invisible energies” in their natural environments. This is because Africans learned that such energies are spiritually amenable for healing purposes when rituals are done.
Rituals form a crucial aspect of African traditional religious beliefs – a ritual is an art that organically creates and radiates symbols that restore the vitality and liveliness of participants. Rituals were credited with liberating the body, mind, and soul from the ego that hinders “growth and experiences. This paves way for healing through the avowed substantiation of an individual’s life purpose.
Ancestors or ancestral spirits occupy central places in African indigenous religions in ethnically varying degrees. Ancestors are viewed as the links between the living and the Supreme Creator/God since the living cannot communicate directly with the supreme deity out of deep reverence.
In some traditional societies ancestors were equal with deities while in others they were the actual deities. Ancestors command deep reverence – they give “advice, bestow good fortune, honor living dependents … and also make demands such as insisting that their shrines be properly maintained and propitiated”. Deviating from what the ancestors say attracts misfortunes such as illness and droughts.
Before colonization, African spirituality and medicine/healing were inseparable. They were intrinsically tied to each other such that public health (divine healing) was inspired by spirituality and the use of plants – a highly sacred medicinal custom that was trashed by Eurocentric ideas of academic science. But this sacred custom was perfectly compatible with pre-colonial Africa.
Traditional medicine practices undertaken by Africa’s divine healers drew its authority from the fountain of traditional spirituality – this emancipated Africans in the pre-colonial era with the goal of empowerment. The implication from such empowerment was that where optimism conquers, depression is dissolved and people achieve harmony with the self, with others, and with nature. This is what then precisely enabled healers to be unparalleled and respected experts regarding herbs, trees, roots, animal-based medicines, and their medicinal benefits.
This form of sacred, mysterious medicinal knowledge system inspired confidence, safety, and ease of access. This is because African ancestors “paid attention” to the link between sickness of the body and mind and spiritual emptiness. And this urgently invited healing treatments and intercession. Plant-based medicines still prevail in rural areas and are also dominating urban areas, signifying the immortality of what Africa had before colonization.
The fact that Uganda, Tanzania, and the DRC already had a history of caesarian section surgeries by healers and midwives before they were standardized and written down in Western medicinal education shows the truth about what African civilizations had before colonial invasion.
In the contemporary, there is need to link all this precolonial knowledge with modernized higher education in Africa. African scholars and intellectuals should work hard to bridge the gap between precolonial knowledge systems and practices of African civilizations so that they address the material realities and developmental concerns pressing Africans.
There is now need to put ample research into traditional medicine for its standardization and regulation – there is no need for expensive Western pharmaceutical products that are inaccessible to many and come with many side-effects. African traditional knowledge systems must complement tertiary education. Because in the final analysis, it is clear that the truth about African civilizations before colonial domination was hidden. But it survives forever.