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Africa's Guilt and the Slave Trade




I am confused about how to apportion guilt over the slave trade accurately so I do not let myself off the hook when I should be on it or hang myself when I shouldn’t.


I lived in the United States for a dozen years and in that time was closest to black folks in terms of my politics and my social life. Every once in a while the slavery question would come up emotionally: why had Africans such as my ancestors sold our brothers to plantation hell?


It is obviously an issue that even today evokes pain in some descendents of slaves so let me try delicately offering some thoughts that I have.


My family hails from central Kenya, most of it is Gikuyu and a few are Maasai. As best as I know, neither of these two groups participated in the slave trade, either as captives or capturers. Of course ethnic groups were never the isolated, static groupings that we think them today so it is well possible some Gikuyus or Maasais did participate.


But we do know that the peoples living in the Mt. Kenya region could not be compared to the Kingdom of Dahomey – in present-day Benin – which aggressively captured and sold neighbouring people to slavers. Among the Gikuyu-speaking people, slavery was rare; it was unlike parts of Sudan or Angola or the Congo where slavery, both for internal exploitation and export, was widely practiced.


What are we to do about those peoples that did not raid others for slaves or even those whose sole addition to the trade were as victims? Are their descendents also guilty of slavery since they are African? This is the reason that the words Africa and African have become increasingly confusing to me.


During the period of the slave trade, the only people who constantly referred to the African were Europeans – they were also the ones that had invented the word. Few people on the continent at that time had the notion of belonging to such a political or cultural community. Yet the debate over guilt revolves around questions such as, "should Africans apologise for their role in the slave trade?"


What confuses further is that the people who were captured – to use our all-encompassing language –were themselves Africans. For every soldier acting on the orders of Dahomey’s kings to capture slaves, there was a family that lost a son, a father or a mother. There were those who died during the raid, on the march, in the holds of a ship plying the Middle Passage and on the plantations of the Americas, Middle Eastern homes and European farms. Victims of a brutality whose painful echo still reverberates not only in the Americas, but also in the vast stretches of the Congo and Angola that remain depopulated to this day.


How exactly should this debate over guilt proceed? What would help bring closure to the descendents of slaves who demand a reckoning?


I do not know. But I suggest that one of the actions that the present day people in Africa (I think we are stuck with this word at least in my lifetime) can do is to ensure that the slavery that is still alive and well across some of the Sahel zone countries like Mauritania is done away with. Surely there are few ways of demonstrating our opposition to this evil better than ensuring that it is wiped out in our time.


For better or worse, nationalists and anticolonialists adopted the African label from the very people that they were struggling against. In their desire for a unity that would further their cause, they took up the word European imperialists used to simplify the enormous diversity of the continent into a few useful stereotypes (the Romans came first, saying of the continent: Ex Africa semper aliquid novi - there is always something new out of Africa.)


The African to the European of the slave trade was stupid, childlike, savage or docile, and lacked a soul. He could not be counted a member of the human race, and was due none of its civilised considerations or the grace of the Christian God. By the way, the anti slavery movement in Britain acquired momentum only after its lobby argued that Africans had souls too.


The Africans to the Pan-Africanists were also a single community with a few positive stereotypes that allowed them to wage a struggle against colonial notions of European superiority.


Yet since Europeans surrendered the reins of government, the idea of African exceptionalism has had power-crazed autocrats as its self-appointed guardians. Removed from the needs of an anti-colonial struggle, the idea has been used to promote a bloody-minded vision of nationhood at odds with its citizens. I refer here to the Mobutus, the later Nkrumah and the beat-them-and-truck-them Nyerere, not to mention the present ‘African revolution’ of Mugabe which involves destroying the homes of poor folks in Harare and torturing the ones who dare protest.


So, how do we reconcile these contradictory Africas of the mind (to paraphrase Lonsdale’s ‘Mau Maus of the mind’.) Which Africa was guilty of the slave trade? Is it possible that there were communities in Africa that did not participate in the trade? What position should their descendents adopt in the present debate?


Do Africans think they are Africans when they are away from the microphone and the page or when they are not speaking to Europe or in reference to it? Can you create a pan-nation united by its past and present oppression and deprivation?


Does being chained in Benin by the kings of Dahomey; whipped in apartheid South Africa by Afrikaners; shot at in Darfur by Janjaweed militias; enjoying Fela Kuti’s music; patronised by Tony ’scar of humanity’ Blair’s Commission for Africa; and being governed by a dictator who attends African Union meetings make you an African? Is there a moral dimension to African citizenship when it is not protesting European action?


As we mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, we should look for the common moral and memory thread that will allow us to consider the tragedy of the slave trade from a moral perspective that offers answers to the descendents of slaves and slavers.


MMK is a UK-based writer and academic. He blogs as African Bullets and Honey.


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