The Dutch National Archives / Wikimedia Jomo Kenyatta in 1978.

Man and Myth in Political Africa

It is the privilege of the famous and the infamous to be little known: their myths are often so much more convincing than the men themselves. Africa, a fruitful field for detractors and apologists, has produced myths about people and events that fiction would disown. The gilding and blackening of characters have disregarded widely known and widely reported facts. And the great open book of African history, where our ignorance still exceeds our knowledge, has been used with impunity to justify different sentimental attitudes.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is in history that the professional mythologists appear to have done their most successful work. Faced with Africa's understandable irritation at colonial versions of pre-colonial history, some historians and other writers offered to give Africa in general-and Black Africa in particular-a "brand new past." Academe produced a figure to fit the age-the "history cosmetician," who repairs the ravages of time. Perhaps because few historians deal with Africa at all, others have cashed in on this academic pop market: a Welsh journalist won a measure of fame for having found that the Americas had not been discovered by the Chinese, the Vikings or the Spanish crew of a Genoese navigator, but by an armada of two thousand Mandingo dugout canoes. Africa's Tamerlane- type empires of yesteryear have been given an Athenian gloss.

It is African historians like Professor K. Onwuka Dike, the former head of Ibadan University, and Dr. Amadou Hampâté Bâ of Mali who have finally imposed a view of events which is African without being basely flattering. Men like them and France's eminent Professor Vincent Monteil in effect have stressed the accomplishments of the contemporary African generation by depicting, unemotionally, the secular inertia of pre-colonial Africa, which helped make colonial domination inevitable. They have written dispassionately of the sanguine warlords, some of revolting cruelty, who crushed conquered peoples under the burden of tribute and looted vast quantities of gold and slaves to build their empires.

Some of the myths of Africa's

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