History That Is Worth a Tinker’s Damn

I love me a good spirited conversation. I think it might be in my genes. My dad loves a good spirited conversation and so do my brothers. My uncles and cousins love spirited conversations and quite number of them are lawyers by profession. It might have something to do with our strong opinions—which we tend believe aren’t opinions at all: they are facts.

Recently I had one of those conversation with my cousin. It was after he had watched the National Geographic documentary on Jared Diamond’s acclaimed work, Guns, Germs, and Steel. I was the one who gave him the DVD after I had watched it. Just to make things clear, I’m not the scrap-the-book-and-get-the-movie type of guy. I HAD started reading the book, but I came to realize as a full time graduate student you don’t get to decide what you want to read. But I was enjoying it so much that I decided I’d make a rare compromise and get the documentary.

Needless to say, I loved it. I thought it was a documentary that every African need to watch (or book to read if they had the time). It was liberating! It answered some of the biggest questions I had on why the world is the way it is.

So the first person I gave it to was my cousin, to watch and join in my liberation. I gave him the DVD and then I went shopping. When I got back, I eagerly asked him what he thought about it: “It pissed me off.”

That took me by surprised and I was confused. When I asked why, a two-hour long spirited discussion ensued. But I didn’t enjoy this one at all. I found it rather disappointing. I was disappointed and confused to why what I had found liberating, he had found insulting. The more I tried to show him what I saw, the more insulted he got. I finally realized why.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel Professor Diamond wasn’t on a morality mission to condemn the West for imperialism. He was simply trying to discover why there was such huge disparity between the developed and the underdeveloped parts of the world. It was an objective quest for an ultimate cause, nothing more. My cousin had found that insulting, because to him it ended up looking like a justification to the history of what happened in Africa. It turned out we were both disappointed—he was disappointed in me for embracing this explanation.

But the last thing I’d ever want to do is justify the atrocities that West has committed against Africa. My own life is a constant reminder of their cruel effectiveness: the clothes I wear, the language I speak, the food I eat often say nothing about my African heritage. I know that I live in a world where the West writes the rules, and the rest of the world follows or get cut to the side. I have experienced and observed all too well, that even when we give our all, we are treated at best as second-class citizens. That is the sad reality that history has handed to us.

However inasmuch as I understand that, I don’t see what we can gain from dwelling on that history.  Nothing we can ever say can change the past. No amount of foreign aid and apologies can ever undo its effects.

On the other hand, if we understand why history turned out as it did, we can learn to rise above our current predicament. I must say the explanations are actually quite empowering.

Professor Diamond demonstrates very effectively how the people who settled in Western Europe and the Middle East had immense environmental advantages because on their geography. That tells me that we aren’t stupid or genetically inferior. In fact genetics show that Sub-Saharan Africans are the most genetically diverse people group on the planet. The genetic makeup of all other groups is only a subset of the African genome.  If the Out of Africa theory is true (as the majority of Anthropologist believe), then there is a really blurry line between who is “black” and who isn’t—which only gets blurrier with history. Egyptians were descendants of humans from Africa, as were the Greeks, as were the Norse, as were the Incas.

How then was geography such a huge factor is the uneven development of human societies? Well, I’ll leave that to Professor Diamond to explain in his book (or documentary). But his explanation doesn’t justify anything. Instead it helps us realizing that our situation has nothing to do with the color of our skin. It tells me that we Africans have inherent the capabilities that have allowed humanity to rise above the limitations of environment.  We are genius, we are industrious and we are innovative enough to break off the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. The future is too crucial for us to waste time mulling over the past. What happens next is up to us.

Henry Ford once said, and I paraphrase: “The only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.” I couldn’t have said it better.