Just for the record, Africa is not a country.
I know you know that. But the internet doesn’t. So in case you begin to doubt yourself, please let me validate you. Africa is a continent. It has fifty-four recognized nations in it. There are roughly 26 different ethnic groups with dozens more subgroups across those nations, speaking various dialects of approximately six major linguistic cultures.
What it isn’t, for sure, is a fucking monolith.
Every Monday, I share a new being out of myth from around the world. Sometimes (often) it’s a monster, and I explain what it does and how to avoid or stop it. Sometimes it’s a deity or a myth or an ongoing rite or celebration honoring the national or local beings. I am enamored of learning and sharing these stories, to see how monster families moved from nation to nation, continent to island, and the monstrous effects this international game of demon Telephone had on things like vampires and incubi and werewolves. It’s delightful to see what our ancestors feared in common, and the idiosyncrasies of local imagination.
Except in Africa. Ask the internet about myths, folklore, or monsters of the Central African Republic, for example, and Google will return hits on “5 Scariest Monsters You’ve Never Heard Of” (but you totally have) or “10 Cool African Myths.” The library is sure that the only cultural phenomenon in the area is related to practiced religions and holidays.
So then you say to yourself, okay, fine. Actually, the Central African Republic is fairly new, as nation-states go, and not at all homogeneous, so it’d make sense that the nation itself wouldn’t have a mythos. So, you look up the predominant ethnic groups, which have rich and diverse traditions, from whole roving packs of what sound like dinosaurs, to prayers to local deities, ancestor worship, mystic cults and shamanism…the whole works. Okay, great. You learn that they are predominantly comprised of the Gbaya, Banda, Mandja, and Sara groups. So then you start looking through these.
And turn up nothing.
“How is that possible?” I hear you asking it. How is it possible that the Almighty Google, knower of all things arcane and ridiculous can’t tell me any goddamn thing about what these people do and love and fear?
Let’s back up. Africa is a continent. Before Europeans and Asians found it, it was doing its own thing, with lines that look nothing like the world we see today.
And then, (mostly Europe, most recently) just obliterated it. Slavery, war, colonization, the forced acceptance of Christianity, the remaking of nations that had nothing to do with the people who called this place home and everything about the people who saw them as a commodity to be monetized. They came in, conquered, set flags, forced new invisible borders in the middle of ethnic cousins and redrew them to include enemies, people who couldn’t communicate together or pray together and then forced new cultures and languages on them. And eventually, one way or another, left the mess they’d created and wondered loftily why no one was getting along.
Why do I mention this? Everyone knows it (I hope) and I’m not providing any great detail.
Yes. You’re right. I’m telling the story of millions of people, of which I am not one, with horrific lack of detail. I apologize. This you can actually Google, and I heartily recommend everyone take a second to do so, but holy God choose carefully. Any that don’t mention slavery or the methods by which this land was forcibly taken is utter crap, in my opinion, and shouldn’t be trusted.
An example of a badly explained summary:
In the last two decades of the 19th century conflicts and rivalries in Europe began to affect people in Africa directly. In the 1880’s European powers divided Africa up amongst themselves without the consent of people living there, and with limited knowledge of the land they had taken. – The BBC
Holy Cats! Without their consent! It makes it sound like when you borrow your neighbor’s lawnmower, intending fully to return it before they get home! “Well, they would’ve let us if we’d asked. It was naughty, I know, but certainly nothing like press-ganging millions into the war efforts of their oppressors.”
I digress again. Why am I badly explaining the history of African colonization to you?
Because to find anything about the people that call the Central African Republic home, not just their numbers, but their hearts, I went through each group until I found one associated with a well-known (to white people) culture that created artistic idols and ritual masks. I then looked at the masks until I noticed name patterns, googled the names, found them on an auction website and from there was able to get enough information to query the rituals for this god and goddess, which led me to a research paper written in French sixty years ago that referenced more than the specs of the statuette and which auction house or museum possesses these shrine protectors.
I had to go back sixty years, through the “non-consensual” selling of a whole people’s art to find anything about what the Ngbaka people love and fear, what they think happens on this earth and what might happen next. The fundamental questions of what it means to be a small human in a vast, merciless universe had no answers that I could find since then.
And this is horrific. We are molded by our languages, our faiths and the traditions of our people. We speak in metaphor, the actions we take for safety also affirmations of love. The things we fear codes for disapproval. And they have been erased for millions upon millions of people. Sure, there are scholars and of course the people likely know. But how awful to look at a respected news source for the people who persecuted you for generations, and find your entire struggle, the lost grandfathers, the separated families across new state-lines, reduced to two sentences more sheepish than informative.
“Woops! We destroyed even the memory of these people! Haha! Just tell the world that all Africa is one big happy family so we can shake our heads when they get upset at us.”
It enrages me, friends. As the benefactor of most of this awfulness, I’m sickened. We need these stories. We need a world knit not by false boundaries but by a shared respect for the stories and truths of all citizens. We are more alike than we think. And when we bury one of our truths, we’ve killed some part of the greater truth that we all share.
So this week I have a request. Help me, please. Learn about these people. If you have any stories of any of the regions or ethno-groups of Africa–children’s stories, folk tales, legends, mythologies, particularly those not of Arabic or Yoruba traditions, please, please tell me about them! Share a link or a source or the whole story! I will publish it on my site so that maybe we can remember and honor some larger portion of the world than I can reach with my keywords.
Thanks in advance for sharing your stories!