The real indigenous people of Africa

Rising out of the grasslands of Migori, almost 200km south of Kisumu, Kenya, is a strange sight. Perched atop a little hill is a vast complex of human-built structures. The thick walls are made of undressed but tightly-packed rocks, the doors are narrow, and there is a watchtower with a commanding view of the countryside.

This is deep in Luo territory. But, being more than 500 years old, the complex is as foreign to the Luo people as it would be to anyone, African or otherwise, who still thinks Africa was just a land of mud huts before European colonialism brought civilization. It is called Thimlich Ohinga. The name means, in the local dialect, something like “the frightening fortress in the forest.”

It is not the only one. In the same region, there are 137 other sites like it, with more than 500 other similar stone structures. Though the Luo have spawned legends about the origins of the structures, gleaned some building skills from them, and used them for defense during pre-colonial wars, nobody really knows who built them.

But the structures point to a history of Africa that is less linear than what many of us have come to believe. That Africa was the cradle of mankind is now cliché. Everyone knows that, from this harsh plateau, having learnt the skills to tame nature, the now immensely successful hominid species ventured out to the rest of the world. Unfortunately however, this is, in many cases, all the credit Africa gets.

It is as if, after the mini-exodus, Africa hibernated as the rest of the world slogged ahead, to be awoken again when Europe knocked half a century ago. Yet not all human ancestors left. If anything, we are certain of the exit of only one woman, from whom all non Sub-Saharan people are descended (according to genetic mapping). Most humans remained in Africa and went on with their lives, and their descendants will constitute almost half the human race by the end of this century.

The purpose of the digression is to state that, before the current face of Africa set, a lot of things were happening. Therefore, the tendency to view Africa as, paradoxically, a young continent, has led to the obscuration of many things that took place before Vasco da Gama touched sand at Malindi and heralded the turning of Europe’s eye south.

Many of these things weren’t as savoury as many champions of Africanism would have us believe. Not all of Africa’s injustices were suffered at the hand of European colonialists. Many, perhaps more, were from Africans. Perhaps the most egregious among them arises from the simple fact that most African peoples, as we know them, are not indigenous per se to their current homelands.

Their degree of indigeneity is similar to that of Americans and Australasians of European origins. What is even more impressive, if the period of inhabitation in a place alone is the measure of indigeneity, then it is even possible that the white people of South Africa are actually more indigenous than some of their black counterparts.

The real indigenous people of most parts of the continent are different. From the pygmies of the Congo, to the Khoikhoi of Southern Africa, the Twa of Ruanda-Urundi, the almost extinct el-Molo and Ogiek of Kenya, and the mysterious builders of Thimlich Ohinga, among many others, there were other people before the current majority African language groups — the Bantus, Nilotes, Cushites and Semites etc. — overran the continent.

An aerial view of the Thimlich Ohinga complex. Google Earth.

Then, while native New World peoples were dying at the hands, and from the diseases of, their European conquerors, these native Africans shared their fate at the hand of their neo-African conquerors. While the former were forcefully relocated from their ancestral lands, the latter receded to the margins of the new communities that took over their homelands.

And, as the New World natives were looked at as inferior by their European masters, the native Africans became second-class citizens to their new subjugators. But, thanks to a truly remarkable twist of fate, the first case became recognized as an injustice while the second was not. In Africa, European colonialism turned the former conquerors, invaders and subjugators into the conquered, invaded and subjugated.

This way, the recognized injustice was that against the Bantus, Nilotes, Cushites and Semites of Africa, not theirs against their truly native counterparts. Racism became a case of white versus black, not black versus old black. And while the world clamoured for the rights and dignities of native Americans and Australians, the native Africans received no attention. Even the distinction of being native was taken from them. Their conquerors became the natives.

The situation has persisted to the present day.

This article is the first in a three part series on the prehistory of Africa, and its modern implications. The next two will be linked here once published.

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