Setting Out for Lost Empires

Photo by falco500

I had dinner with a friend from Niger, West Africa last night (not Nigeria—ooh, don't let her catch you making that mistake). Earlier I had lent her a couple of Tarzan books, with a warning to steel herself against the enthusiastic use of stereotypes, which filled the top drawer in the toolbox of every popular writer of the era.

There's a practical reason why Tarzan grew up in Africa rather than, say, India (like the Jungle Book's Mowgli, who was one of the literary inspirations for Tarzan). Africa's vast size and difficulties of transportation and communication meant that early Western maps of Africa left the interior as mostly a blank void, room for the imagination to populate with all kinds of lost empires and exotic races (of which the Tarzan series has dozens).

I have remarked elsewhere on my nostalgia for the days when the map had plenty of blank spaces holding the promise of the exciting and new.

But back to last night's conversation... we were discussing the pervasive state of ignorance of non-Africans about Africa—not just ordinary ignorant people like myself, but people you would expect to know better—people whose job it is to know better—people who somehow combine their state of ignorance with the confidence that they know all about it.

And it occurred to me that for most of the non-African world, the map of Africa is still a huge blank space—not the honest blank void that admits we don't know what's there, but a broad sweep of uniform color that says we know all about it, and it's all the same.

So you have, for example, the phenomenon of "So, you're from Africa? What's Desmond Tutu really like?" Or let's consider a less stupid version: "So, you're from Africa? I hear the surfing off Capetown is terrific."

This comment elides the fact that the distance from Niamey, Niger to Pretoria is roughly the same as that from London to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan—or from Juneau, Alaska to Tampa, Florida—or from Los Angeles to Bogota (as I checked this morning using my globe and a piece of string). Geographic distance of course does not directly translate into cultural diversity. I have the depressing feeling that at this very moment young people in both Juneau and Tampa are watching gorgeous wan twenty-somethings on TV and fantasizing about sex with vampires. But both these cities were settled relatively recently (within a few hundred years) by immigrant stock from the same country. The longer a population is in place, the longer they have to develop not only their own unique customs, but mutually alien ways of thinking.

But no place has been settled longer than Africa. The physiological side of this coin is genetic diversity—the indigenous African population has as much genetic diversity as the rest of the world combined.  Other measures of diversity run much the same way: Wikipedia counts 2100-3000 different languages in six different families. Different families are really different—more different than, say, English and Sanskrit.

I did visit Africa once, but it was a long time ago and literally just scratching the surface. I never got more than a hundred miles from the extreme northwest corner. It's a comforting thought today that there are still plenty of blank spaces on the map to explore.

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