Africa: How Did We Get Here?

I have been asking myself the question “how did we get here”?  Emphasis on we, as the African continent and as Africans. I am obviously not too amused at the here. Africa remains a continent plagued by poverty, irrationality, and underdevelopment. I also wonder if...

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Africa Giraffe Tree

I have been asking myself the question “how did we get here”?  Emphasis on we, as the African continent and as Africans. I am obviously not too amused at the here. Africa remains a continent plagued by poverty, irrationality, and underdevelopment. I also wonder if there is any chance that we can hold out hope for the future. I do not expect to see significant changes in my lifetime, but hopefully future generations can get to. I think that for them to have a chance at a different Africa or life, then we must take a deep hard look at ourselves and be honest about what we see. Only then could we perhaps begin to deviate from the path.

I acknowledge that the gist of what I am reflecting on has been widely discussed. We can rely on printed works on Sub Saharan Africa (SSA)’s underdevelopment. (Thinking Greg Mills “Why Africa is Poor”, Mahmood Mamdani “Citizens and Subject and Walter Rodney “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” among many more).  We debate amongst ourselves and we can also google answers to why Africa is poor. I however wanted to jot down my own reflections. Some may reflect what is out there in many respects while others could be dissimilar. I am still motivated to spell out my thoughts if anything just to have them written down in one place. I have thought about a few issues which become very central to it all.

I will begin with complacency, which was detrimental to Africans centuries ago as it continues to be now. The fact of the matter is, back in the 15th century various  factors led to Europeans braving the shores to find out what was beyond.  Amongst them key ones I see are ambition and curiosity, as well as technological advances and trade.  I ask myself what else is needed to begin social transformation and progress in any society? It seems to me that those who began to set off on those journeys, were simply not merely accepting of factors as they stood and were either curious to see what else was there or wanted to challenge certain aspects of their life, as the history of Europe is also one of oppression and inequality. The ambition behind it for some was a search for freedom or a better life. While for others the prospect of a better life combined with orientation from European rulers who were ambitious and wanted glory, economic gains, scientific discoveries, and geopolitical +advantages. Religion was also a motivating factor as European rulers and global travellers sought to evangelise the world as part of the culture of the day. Culture is dynamic however and recently the religious aspect of European culture has begun to have less and less influence. On the other hand, those factors were seemingly absent in present day SSA.

Complacency means that people readily accept their world as it is and in doing so will not challenge either themselves, others, or their overall circumstances for the better. It denies us the ability to be self-critical, ask questions about how things have been done and struggle to achieve the best outcome, devoid of emotive reasons. Complacency for me is embedded in cultural variants.  The customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society (culture) are dynamic. Therefore, culture usually adapts as societies move forward. What is interesting to me is the stagnant nature of what is perceived to be African culture and related lack of progression. The human factor is key and in Africa I see that people are quite happy to remain stagnant in certain cultural attitudes and even make a case for not moving forward.  A common term used in defence of remaining stagnant is “this is our culture”. We should not question the current state of things. “Un- African” is a proud term to throw about.  I am not sure what that really means. However, what is deemed as culture and related attitudes is what keeps us where we started with no progress no  end in sight. In a speech by Former United States President Barack Obama, in Nairobi Kenya in July 2015, he advised Africans that the future of Africans was up to Africans, stating that “every country and every culture has traditions that are unique and help make the country what it is – but just because something is part of your past doesn’t make it right”. This is fundamental to what we should be telling ourselves. For example, when  one tries to raise their voice regarding harmful gender practices that are  normalised in African homes, villages, townships, middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods , denialism  in the name of our culture is used.  In fact, in Africa we are shunned from raising our voices and speaking the truth.

I used the example of gender because it plays a central role in the lack of advancement. As someone who has worked for many years in the health sector, I know the negative outcomes on the health of a population that are linked to detrimental gender issues. For example,  Mozambique’s fertility rate remain very high at approximately 5 (4.9) (UNDP 2019), child marriage i.e women married under the age of 18 stands at 53% (UNDP 2019), 46% of the population are under 14 years old and 45% are under 45 years old (Mozambique Ministry of Health 2020[1]) the latter figures mean that over 90% of the Mozambican population is under 49 years old. An alarming rate of 72.5 % of the Mozambican population lives in multidimensional poverty (UNDP 2019[2]). Multidimensional poverty  refers to various deprivations experienced by poor people in their daily lives- such as poor health, lack of quality education, inadequate living standards, disempowerment, poor quality of work, the threat of violence and living in environmentally hazardous areas, among others. Having a sizeable number of children is perceived as culturally positive to our African way of life as are early unions, particularly in a Mozambican cultural setting. Raising fertility levels and family planning in the context of development sector work is often seen as contentious by stakeholders. However high fertility rates and a noticeably young structure of the population poses a significant burden on the already weakened social services in underdeveloped countries, including in health service provision. Furthermore, there is a correlation between high fertility rates and high rates of maternal mortality (MMR).  Mozambique’s MMR is 489/100,000 (UNDP 2019). Adolescent rates birth in Mozambique are high, 148,6 births[3] (UNDP2019), contributing further to high MMR as adolescent women contribute to two thirds of maternal mortality rates. While I am addressing the overall picture of human development in SSA, there are of course outliers including Botswana, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Namibia, and Rwanda that have either progressed to middle or high levels of human development. I would therefore like to contrast the human development indicators mentioned above for Mozambique to those of Botswana. For example, Botswana’s fertility rate is 2.81 births (UNDP 2019[4]), MMR is 129/100,00 (UNDP2019) and adolescent birth rate is 46.1 births (UNDP 2019).  The UNDP Human Development Report reports practically none if not 0% for the rate of the population of Botswana living in multidimensional poverty.  Although the Government of Botswana reports a population of 19.3 % of  living below the national poverty line (UNDP 2019), that is dissimilar to multidimensional poverty. The difference in human development indicators between the two, one a low-income country in Southern Africa with low human development and the other a middle-income country in Southern Africa is staggering.

While we are on the subject of health, let us consider a key factor in underdeveloped countries which is chronic malnutrition (stunting) amongst children. Mozambique for example has a high rate of stunting, at 42.9 %.  Stunting not only affects a child’s health, making them more susceptible to disease and infection, but also impairs their mental and physical development. Children who suffer from stunting are less likely to achieve their intellectual potential as adults. The World Bank stated in 2014 that “Action on reducing child stunting across Africa is imperative for driving economic growth and reducing poverty. When malnutrition strikes children in the first years of their lives, it permanently stunts their bodies, their minds, and their potential to fully contribute to their country’s economy”  This is significant as impaired development will mean less ability for critical and strategic thinking in the  future.

Education services are also overburdened by high population growth and a young population. Without the ability to improve quality education and introduce critical thinking SSA continues to stagnate, which remains one of the   main stumbling blocks to progress in Africa.  Africans refuse to ask pertinent questions, Africans accept mediocrity from “leadership”, Africans accept improper service provision and settle down to seeing this as our way of life. Complacency gives way to irrationality and illogicality. Africans are happy to denounce colonialism and slavery, some arguing that those factors stripped us of our dignity and underdeveloped us. However, although religion (Christianity in this case) was introduced to Africa by European missionaries  Africans are largely in favour of religion; Christianity is held in high esteem. Lack of critical thinking make us complacent and complacency is an enemy of innovation and the robust and critical thinking necessary for science and innovation to thrive. We can have as many debates about the industrialisation of Africa and how we can harness our potential, but if we don’t start with a more critical analysis, reflection, and aiming to improve on key factors  whilst taking the advantage of readily available technology we will continue to swim in the same small circles, that keep us trapped in a vicious cycle of  mental, social and economic deprivation

So, let us question the static way of thinking. We should consider that static ways of thinking and dogmas rely on faith as no evidence is needed to support them. Let us stop fearing what is perceived to be different to “our ways”. Let us invest in critical thinking. We could start by being self-critical and refuse to feel offended by the self-criticism, or external criticism when it is factual. We could instead use the reproach to pave a way for improvement.  I see no need for Africans to scratch heads trying to come up with great African inventions. Instead we could focus on what we could build with what we now know. This would mean holding ourselves up to the greatest expectations, the greatest values and results and expect the same from those in powerful and or leadership positions. Can we begin to challenge senior government officials and other Africans to the greatest expectations?  We do not have to follow the crowd but acknowledge our responsibility in electing capable ruling officials.

We should invest in responsible voting. For example, Mozambique has been independent for forty four years, even if we factor in the  civil war and deduct fifteen years, we can still consider all the investments that were made by donors immediately after the end of the war.   Large amounts of external funding were channelled, and Mozambique became known as a “donor darling”. Should some gains not have been made thirty years later? Instead, the human development indicators have been shockingly on reversal over the past two decades.  Like in many SSA countries there is no shortage of resources for economic and social development. On the contrary Mozambique has it all to tap every sector for investment and use the returns on social transformation, in this case we should consider that the ruling party to lack the capacity for upward development or social transformation. If transformation was possible under visionary leadership within a span of two decades in a fellow SSA country like Rwanda (notwithstanding the undeniable human rights issues), then I see no justification for the rest of our countries that fail to move forward.  In Mozambique I also fail to see a credible opposition with any leadership capacity to make a difference, either in parliament or in the dreary event that they should ever come to power. The country would either remain in the same downward spiral or fast forward quickly into mayhem.  With the current options, it does not seem as though the conditions are in place for responsible voting. In this case, I would say the responsible action would be to opt out until credible visionary candidates emerge. The focus should be on building civil society and private sector initiatives that could thrust the country in the right direction. With better education and more critical thinking, maybe better options could emerge, and they should be allowed to enter the political sphere. This premise should go for most SSA countries in difficult situations.

For critical thought and innovation to materialise, I would say to the young population in SSA: “educate yourselves”.  The barriers to self-grow and learn in the global technological world that we live in are few. The internet and all that is on offer, from literary works, podcasts, videos, social media, and many other tools is our ocean to explore and benefit from. We should continue to use social media to our advantage. However, I do get appalled by the simplicity of some of the discussions which aim to perpetuate a lack of critical thinking and try to shun those who express a different viewpoint. I say for those who choose to swim against the tide say it loud and clear. Try to associate and create a strong influential voice that others can participate in and draw some encouragement and inspiration from. We should stop shunning opinion but listen to the evidence in all spheres of life. We are under no obligation to praise a district, province, country, region because we were born there. We should begin to be vocal about what is unacceptable and instead acknowledge our shortfalls. Only then could we have strong institutions, strong visionary leadership, and healthy balanced societies. It is complacency, a lack of critical analysis, lack of strong, focused, and dynamic leadership that brings us to where we are.

[1] Mozambique, Ministry of Health, 2020. Statistical Annual Report 2019.

[2] UNDP, Mozambique HDR, 2019

[3] Adolescent birth rate refers to births /1000 women between 15 and 19 years of age

[4] UNDP, Botswana HDR,2019

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  1. Rory Short Reply

    If it was recognised that the fertilisation of a human egg is the start of a life long development process for any human being. It is NOT the culmination of the process. That development process demands a significant investment initially by both parents and in due course by the person themselves.

    The demands of the development investment mean that two child families is the preferred family size in any healthy society.

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