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Beasts of burden

One of the books I read this week was Peter Godwin's excellent memoir of growing up in and then returning to Zimbabwe, When Crocodile Eats the Sun. A searing, beautifully written, raw book. Chock in the middle were a few answers to questions I didn't exactly know how to answer.

When I returned last year, I was invited to Christmas dinner at the home of a colleague. A generous, generous invitation, and a very nice family. Her cardiologist husband, though, went on a little tangent about how it was quite possible that the people of sub-saharan africa were genetically inferior -- why had they never accomplished any of the signs of civilization? Where were their pyramids? Why had they never progressed beyond subsistence agriculture?

I was flushed and angry, but aware of the hospitality and politeness of the home I was a guest in, over the heritage china I made some assertions about cultural relativism, about judging people by western standards. The daughter of the household argued with her father that living in a subsistence way could be perceived to be more civilized, less damaging to the environment. I talked about colonialism and the slave trade but felt like I was unhappily grasping for answers.

Godwin alludes to this familiar argument, beginning with "It is sometimes said that the worst thing to happen to Africa was the arrival of the white man. And the second worst was his departure. Colonialism lasted just long enough to destroy much of Africa's indigenous cultures and traditions, but not long enough to leave behind a durable replacement."

Useful, but in keeping with my own argument. What I found most interesting was what he writes about Jared Diamond's work. That it's the environment itself that reinforced historical ways of living, prevented the establishment of cities, which are the single most relevant historical force for innovation and invention. That you need a food surplus to establish cities, and Africa's "uniquely hostile environment conspired against this." He notes that the limits of Islamic conversion in Africa "tally roughly with the range of the dreaded tsetse fly, which wiped out the horse-borne northerners in the west and limited Arab traders to the coast in the east."

Fascinatingly, he also explains that Africa has no indigenous beasts of burden, and that for a wild animal to be domesticated, it needs to have a social structure with a leader, "a nice disposition and a tendency not to panic." Diamond apparently indulges in a flight of fancy about what might have been achieved for africa if the people had been able to tame rhinos -- "the zulus would have ridden into Europe on their rhinos and just plunged through the ranks of European calvalry with their wretched little horses."

Parts of Ethiopia are an exception to the persistence of subsistence agriculture, which are free of malaria and sleeping sickness -- which is the place that an ancient stone city of Aksum arose, where an indigenous form of writing was invented, and a strong centralized govt evolved. Godwin notes that Ethiopia was the one african country that largely resisted European colonization.

Clearly, I need to read Diamond's book. As does the irritatingly smug cardiologist.

Posted by CateinTO 06:12

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Thank you for sharing these insights, Cate. I must read BOTH books you mention. Another theory (although one that doesn't apply here I think, for the very reasons you cite) is that adaptation--to whatever, be it cities, or whatever--only happens if it needs to. If a particular area has agreeable geography, climate, food supply, freedom from disease, etc., then there simply is no reason to "move" in every sense of the word. This "uncivilized" argument is one First Nations hear all the time. "Where's your Shakespeare?" "Why didn't you build central heating?" blah blah blah. Because it wasn't vitally necessary is just one answer among many possible ones (including cultural relativism). I'm glad the smug doctor's daughter challenged him!

by Janice

Clearly! Very interesting stuff.

by CindyV

Also adding those books to my "to read" list. The smug cardiologist has a very small understanding of the world, it seems to me.

by Loretta

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