@OwlAsylum and I had a convo a few weeks back on whether things were as idyllic in Africa as most Afrocentric literature makes it out to be. It turned out to be a valid question that changed my perspective on many of the great leaders that we tend to adore.
I had already explored some of the conflict going on in the country in my posts, Empire in Africa, as well as Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality. But specifically, I examined the stories behind Mansa Musa, Shaka Zulu, and Queen Nzinga.
Mansa Musa – The King of Bling
Called by historians Musa the Magnificent, Mansa Musa was was the tenth mansa, which translates as “king of kings” or “emperor”, of the Malian Empire and a supposedly very successful leader celebrated for his enlightenment, justice and piety. Inheriting a great empire, he extended its boundaries and made his country a world power.
No tale is more closely associated with Mansa Musa as his gold-laden voyage to Mecca. According to the Arab historian al-Umari, Mansa Musa took with him
“100 camel-loads of gold, each weighing 300 lbs.; 500 slaves, each carrying a 4 lb. gold staff; thousands of his subjects; as well as his senior wife and her 500 attendants.”
With his lavish spending and generosity in Cairo and Mecca, he ran out of money and had to borrow at usurious rates of interest for the return trip. Al-Umari also states that Mansa Musa and his entourage “gave out so much gold that they depressed its value in Egypt and caused its value to fall.”
His extravagant spending led to the collapse of the African gold market from Egypt to Central Africa, and almost caused the bankruptcy of his kingdom.It took twelve years before the gold market recovered, and Mansa Musa’s actions led to the most volatile period of inflation and currency devaluation in the history of the world.
Imagine if the President of the United States took 300 plane loads of American currency and gave it out all over the world, destroying the liquidity of American banks. Such was the effect of Mensa Musa’s actions.
Shaka Zulu – The Crushing
Legends portray Shaka Zulu as a noble and skilled tactician responsible for the rise of the Zulu Nation. He was portrayed in the groundbreaking 10 Part BBC television series and has been the subject of much reverence.
He is widely credited with uniting many of the Northern Nguni people, specifically the Mtetwa Paramountcy and bringing together the beginnings of a nation that held sway over the large portion of southern Africa. His so-called “statesmanship” and vigour marked him as one of the greatest Zulu chieftains.
Contemporary neighbors of Emperor Shaka Zulu would have a much less honorific reverent opinion of the man than we have today. Being a neighbor was a nightmare waiting to happen, for Shaka rose to power and developed the insignificant Zulu tribe into a rampaging war machine that swept down on their neighbors like haws upon prey. 80,000 highly trained warriors routinely launched raids against neighbors in what came to be called the Mfecane - the Crushing.
As a result of the Crushing, refugees from neighboring villages and states were forced to abandon their ancestral homelands, and were instead scavenged, looted, and pillaged wherever they went. They reduced the landscape in the Natal and much of the Orange Free State into a wasteland.
In the first English novel written by an African, Sol Tshekisho Plaatje wrote:
They continued their march very much like a swarm of locusts; scattering the Swazis, terrifying the Basuto and Bapedi on their outposts; they drove them back to the mountains at the point of the assegai; and, trekking through the heart of the Transvaal, they eventually invaded Bechuanaland where they reduced the Natives to submission.” – from Plaatje’s book Mhudi
Life as a Zulu wasnt too much better. Men were drafted into the military against their will, forced to run barefoot through mountain ranges, and required to work and fight into exhaustion and death in service to Shaka. All life was forfeited at the will of the umKosi, and after the death of his mother, he forced all his subjects to starve themselves for months in mourning.
Africans the world over revere Shaka Zulu as an archetype from the good old days of the pre-colonial motherland, but the Black men and women living anywhere near the bloodthirsty Zulu’s of that day would have vehemently disagreed.
Nzinga – The Black Widow and Partisan Politician
Nzinga Mbande, also known as Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande, was a 17th century queen (muchino a muhatu) of the Ndongo and Matamba Kingdoms of the Mbundu people in southwestern Africa.
Its no secret that most of Africa’s old cultures were matriarchal (woman centered), but Nzinga took it to a whole other level. In Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, it’s claimed that after Nzinga became queen she obtained a large, all male harem. Her men fought to the death just to spend the night with her and, after a single night of lovemaking they were put to death (earning her the title of Black Widow of West Africa).
In the political arena, Nzinga flip flopped between colonists and cultures on a daily basis. Imagine being one of her subjects and hearing one day she was a Christian and renamed herself Ann, then the next day she was a ritual practitioner of traditional child sacrifice, and the next day that she was joining a Jesuit convent!
Queen Nzinga’s name changed for every role she assumed. These names include (but are not limited to): Queen Nzinga, Nzinga I, Queen Nzinga Mdongo, Nzinga Mbandi, Nzinga Mbande, Jinga, Singa, Zhinga, Ginga, Njinga, Njingha, Ana Nzinga, Ngola Nzinga, Nzinga of Matamba, Queen Nzinga of Ndongo, Zinga, Zingua, Ann Nzinga, Nxingha, Mbande Ana Nzinga, Ann Nzinga, Anna de Sousa, and Dona Ana de Sousa.
Indeed, Nzinga lived up to her name, adapted from the Kimbundu verb kujinga means to twist or turn.
Ultimately, Nzingas kingdom fell to colonial influence and infighting, surely thanks in no small part to her mental, cultural, and political meandering.
Pre-colonial Africa was no utopia. There were, of course, periods of abundance, peace, prosperity, and intellectual novas. But these periods were also punctuated by depressions, plagues, pillaging, bloodshed, and ass-backwardness.
That is not to say that Africa, or Black America for that fact cannot be re-made into the paradise that we believe Africa used to be.
The only reason man has never had a utopia is that he has never tried to create one. Let us, as the Original People, undertake that effort.