Professor Shadrack B. O. Gutto reviews Magashe Titus Mafolo’s book, African Odyssey – Volume One, which is published by Ssali Publishing House
The book, African Odyssey – Volume One, is a first part of a three volumes set of books by the author, Magashe Titus Mafolo. The second and third parts that follow in this trilogy will be reviewed immediately after this review of the first part. It is indeed an ambitious effort by the author. The author has undertaken a monumental task; it amounts to a precedence and raises the bar for present, former and future intellectuals in public or civil service. The few landmark writings and publishing of books by former, post 1994 state functionaries are those by Vusi Pikoli, former National Director of Public Prosecutions, Rev. Frank Chikane, former Director General in the Presidency, and former Deputy Chief Justice and Judge of the Constitutional Court, Dikgang Moseneke. I deliberately point out to these Black South African luminaries because it is rare to find Black Africans in South Africa and elsewhere eager to write and publish their experiences at high level technocrats or judicial officers in post-independent governments.
The author is a prolific writer. He starts the book with a one page powerful poem, The Prelude, which captures the essence in the main body, especially in Part 1 (pages 1 to 146). As a guidance to the readers of this seminal literary epic, it needs to be pointed out that the references appear as Notes, arranged in a chapter by chapter sequence from pages 311 to 323. This is followed by a Bibliography from page 331 to 342 where the referenced authors appear in an alphabetical order, followed by an Index on pages 331 to 342.
In the Introduction, the author weaves from the Prelude and leads the reader to the historiography of the origin of life, followed by the demystification of the distorted history of ancient Egypt and Nubia (the Sudan), that were the centres of early civilisation as opposed to Greece, up until the later capture and enslavement of Africans, followed by conquest and imposition of colonialism on Africa by the Western European powers of the time. Military hardware and Christianity (the New Testament and the Old Testament) were the main tools used, simultaneously with the conquest and domination by Arabs who used Islam to subjugate indigenous peoples and expropriate their resources.
In Part 1, Chapter 1 that deals with the historical evolution of the continent, the author throws in the concepts of the 4th and 5th ‘industrial revolutions’ which, in my view, are ideologically loaded terms that require convincing contextualised argument; the same goes for mentioning the evolution of the Earth, life and humanity at page 15. It is only further in Chapter 1 on page 35 that the Big Bang theory of the beginning and evolution of life on Earth is explained. The author should have introduced and discussed here the counter belief that the Earth and life are creations of some supernatural force or forces and to follow this with reasons for choosing evolution. To his credit, he does this much later on from page 44 where he agrees that creation and evolution are contesting paradigms of knowledge about the Earth and life, especially human life. He further on in the book devotes a whole chapter, Chapter 12: Religion – My God is more powerful and wiser than yours (pages 133-146), providing an objective narrative of the unending wars within and between different spiritual beliefs and religious formations, including indigenous African belief systems.
On page 21 it is stated that the Earth was centred in Africa before it started to split and drift as other continents. There is omission, however, to mention the Americas, Euro-Asia and Oceania. This apparent contradiction is more as a result of sequencing. The following Chapters 2: In the Beginning and Chapter 3: Evolution of Life which draw from published geological and palaentological scientific studies to explain theories and hypotheses around the Big Bang, the formation of the Earth and the centrality of the African continent and its relation to parts that formed other continents, including many islands. From the studies and analyses of fossils and rocks, the Earth and human evolution and spread across continents is given. This moves effortlessly into Chapter 4: Through the mists of time – Changing climates that shaped the continent. This is where a multiplicity of sciences meet; from geology, climatology, biochemistry, anthropology, genetics, history, etc. A critical summary of relevant literature is carefully presented; the period cover hundreds of billions and millions of years, up to the more recent centuries.
Chapter 5 that follow, Super Continent – The Earth as One, continues the narrative effortlessly. The chapter narrates the ‘continental drift’ hypothesis authenticated by geological scientific evidence and indicates that the Earth was one, hundreds of millions of years ago, and has been slowly and imperceptibly moving and changing. Some animals, and not human beings, have developed sensing abilities that predict forthcoming major continental shifts such as the Tsunami that affected some parts of Asia and Africa in 2004. Reading this part of the book may cause uneasiness to people who believe in the permanency and stability of the world as we know it.
The truth, however, needs to be told, whether it is comforting or uncomforting.
Humanity Emerges, Chapter 6, which is later extended in Chapter 8, Modern Humans Emerge, are at the centre of the battle of ideas between the creationists – anchored in a diversity of religious beliefs and mythologies, though not inclusive of indigenous African spiritualisms – and the multi sciences-based evolutionists. Chapter 7, War of Skulls also forms part of this on-going contestation. In the tradition of Stephen Bantu Biko’s ‘I Write What I Like’ and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s ‘Decolonising the Mind’, Mr. Mafolo demonstrates unambiguously that African Odyssey – Volume One is providing a Pan African evolution perspective but one that acknowledges the co-existence with ideas based on creation. The book provokes dialogue, which is essential in intellectual discourses.
Archeological and palaentological findings and their analyses places Africa at the centre of the once a single earth before it later split into the diversity of continents of today. Humanity had evolved before the continental drifts, confirming the commonality of the human species. The evolution of humans is based on analyses of skulls and the projection of development of brains, physical and mental capacities. It is shown that evolution of humanity did not follow a clear, linear process; some sub-species disappeared and some survived. Although scientists arrive at different conclusions, it is generally accepted that the study of the remains of an African woman, a homo sapien, who lived between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago, has been verified by genetic evidence and Mitochondorial (mtDNA). Such studies confirm that North Eastern and Southern Africa were the cradles of humanity.
Naturally, survival depends on ability to cope with all-natural forces and competition among living things. Advancement in tools needed to fend-off competitors (human and non-human) and to harness life sustaining consumables became imperative; this is what Chapter 9: Humanity Making Important Technological Advances narrates. The period is fairly recent, between 10,000 to 100,000 years ago; generally presented as ‘prehistory’ – according to UNESCO’s General History of Africa, Volume One. The period is regarded as ‘Stone Age’ since human beings started shaping stones into weapons such as spears and production of other tools. Innovation for adaptation to the ever-changing environmental conditions is essential in life.
The reader is then led smoothly into Chapter 10: The Art of the Continent which cogently examines how humanity moved forward into what is regarded as the ‘Iron Age’. This is recorded in rock art, graphics, paintings, engravings, jewelry, pots, sculptures, writing (especially in hieroglyphic texts and petroglyph. It is also the era of domestication of some animals. All these occurred concurrently in northern, western, central, eastern and southern Africa regions. The same may have taken place in the different continents in the world and not only in Africa. Concurrently, the development of languages, linguistics, religions and cultures, the subject of discussions in Chapter 11: Language, Traditions and Religion – The Mother Tongue, Through the Word of Mouth and Chapter 12: Religion, My God is More Powerful and Wiser than Yours.
These two chapters, 11 and 12, takes the reader through societal transformation journey that often evoke contestation and emotions as they touch on the very core of all human beings, identity and dignity. Chapter 11 in particular deals with the evolution and development of indigenous languages in Africa. The author concentrates more on Kiswahili, perhaps the most widely spread and spoken indigenous African language whose genesis is undergoing rigorous studies among linguists, anthropologists, historians etc. Taasisi ya Uchunguzi wa Kiswahili (Institute of Kiswahili Studies) at University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, is one of the leading centres of excellence in Kiswahili research and publishing. Kiswahili is also specifically recognised as one of the official languages of the African Union.
The other official languages of the African Union are those that were imported and imposed into the continent by slavers and colonisers. Chapter 12, referred to above, focuses on supernatural beliefs, spirituality and organised religions; some of them local and other global. In their contestation they have played contradictory roles – conflicts and violence, on the one hand, and building of harmony and peaceful coexistence, on the other hand. The Chapter also delves into the genesis of herbal medicines and traditional health care systems, some of them expropriated and refined in pharmaceutical industries in the former colonising countries in the Global North.
Part 11 of the book starts with Chapter 13: African Civilisations, which details how the recent history and identity of Africa and African peoples we distorted and mystified by racist Western philosophers, such as Hegel, and academic historians from top universities – propagators of racist Eurocentric epistemology. Such distortions and mystifications that presented Africa as devoid of history during the Stone Age through the Bronze Age to the Iron Age are gradually being refuted through archaeological findings, ethnographic accounts and scientific analyses. Africa was not the ‘dark continent’ without civilised people. Chapter 14, The Civilisations of the Nile Valley: Who were the Ancient Egyptians? extends this discourse. Efforts to decapitate Africa and place an integral part of it in the north into either southern Europe or the so-called ‘Middle East’ is a long and unfinished war of ideas and knowledge. Some even extend Egypt southwards to include parts of Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. In fact, current terms such as ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ is an aspect of this divide and rule global scheme. Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity and Islam, have been part of the tools used in this ‘mental civilisation war’.
Interestingly, most of those who distort and mystify the historiography of Africa, especially of Egypt, as well as those who dispute and debunk their discourses are also from the Global North. The Egyptian medical doctor, leading feminist, social activist and writer, Nawal El Saadawi, in her short essay written in 2017 which appears in an international anthology puts it very succinctly ‘[I] stopped hiding my dark skin very early in my life. Since I discovered that Egypt is in Africa, not in the so-called Middle East. In fact, I never use the term Middle East’.
This Chapter provides a very scholarly insight into people’s migratory and inter-racial mingling between southern Europe (Greece), northern Africa (Egypt and Ethiopia), and Arabia. The area is also the site of the origin of monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The author makes references to highly acclaimed scholarly writings of Cheikh Anta Diop, Martin Bernal, and Basil Davidson and religious writings and teachings. Chapter 15: Egypt – The Cradle of Civilisation is asserting Egypt and not Athens in Greece as the centre of human civilisation. It is evidence- based analysis and affirms Africa as being not only the cradle of humanity but also the cradle of human civilisation.
The following Chapter 16: Black people’s gift to the world – Egyptian civilisation is asserting the already established historical reality that positioned Africa and not Europe both as the cradle of humanity and the cradle of human civilisation. This narrative is continued in Chapter 17: When blacks ruled the world, and Chapter 18: Greece as a colony of Egypt. When delving in these two chapters, there is need to take into account that ancient civilisations also developed among indigenous peoples in some parts of Asia and Southern and Central America during the same period. Africa did not rule these parts of the world at the time. Underscoring the historical fact that Egypt colonised Greece should also be regarded as a correction of historiography of Europe which has been claimed to be the centre of human civilisation. It should not be regarded as a glorification of colonialism.
Together, chapters 16, 17 and 18 narrate the rise of governance and leadership by Africans and they are a precursor to what is presented in Chapter 19: Africa after the civilisation of the Pharaohs – The Decline of the power of black people. In human history, village councils, chiefdoms, kingdoms and empires rise and fall; it is not confined to black African people. However, Egyptian African civilisation should not be isolated from the rest of Africa. The similarity and overlap between Egypt and ancient African civilisations such as the Nubian, Kush and Ethiopian kingdoms and empires, as well as those discovered across the Sahara desert, such as in Timbuktu, Mali, and in the Western, Central, Eastern and Southern Africa are equally important. Mafolo correctly covers them in subsequent chapters in the book. Societies’ are in perpetual motion and the wheels of history are in perpetual movement. Dialectical and historical materialism provide useful tools of interpretation and analysis of these phenomena, supplemented with relevant aspects of realistic idealism.
African Odyssey – Volume One does not disappoint; it goes far beyond narrow nationalist perspectives that often diminish the veracity of many such publications – they promise more than what they deliver. It continues in chapters 20 to 25 to unearth details of the real history of different parts of the African continent. Chapter 20 covers the Kingdom of Kush in the Sudan while Chapter 21 deals with the vast Ethiopian civilisation with an empire that traversed modern Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and bits of northern Kenya and western Somali – collectively called the Horn of Africa. Chapter 22 traverses West and Southern Africa with its rich minerals and architectural heritages. In between is Chapter 23: The Cross Roads of African and Asian Civilisations – The Ancient Cities of East Africa.
The chapter captures the history of Eastern Africa from Somali to Mozambique, the melting pot of African, Arab and Asian interactions that is embedded in numerous ancient city states before the advent of European colonialists starting in the 15th century AD. Kilwa, Sofala, Zanzibar, Pemba, Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu, and parts of Somali had developed urban settlements and robust markets for trade within and across the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. These are further explored in chapters 24 and 25. Chapter 24: Laced with Gold and Diamonds – Southern Africa and Chapter 25: Civilisations of Southern Africa – Phalaborwa, Mapungubwe, Thulamela and The Great Zimbabwe.
The two chapters cover the rich ancient civilisations in the Southern Africa region, especially their endowment with minerals and recorded advanced political economies. The Great Zimbabwe, for example, was a city state kingdom with monumental architectural buildings. Mapungubwe was another kingdom traversing the borders of today’s South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe and had developed gold mines that were beneficiated and molded into artworks and other ornaments. In Phalaborwa, there were advanced copper smelting, iron ore mining and beneficiation. Very sophisticated and rich social and cultural practices accompanied all of these. Part 11 ends with Chapter 26 that focuses on some of the natural resources, River Congo and its tributaries (water, fish etc), tropical forests, oil and minerals that existed and are still in abundance today in Congo and Angola.
Part 111 of this seminal work, incorporating chapters 27, 28 and 29, deal with the more recent traumatising historical experiences of the continent and its people all over the world – the enslavement of and trading in black people by Europeans, mainly from Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal as well as their descendants who had occupied the Americas and the Caribbean Islands – they carried out genocide of indigenous people of those lands. This started in 1441 AD and lasted until the second half of the nineteenth century. It was a precursor to direct colonisation in Africa which began in the fifteenth century by Portugal along the coastal areas of West and Central Africa on to the Eastern Africa coast. This was followed in the seventeenth century when the Dutch occupied the southern part of today’s South Africa. Germany, Italy and Belgium joined the mentioned European states in the violent scramble for the continent.
Chapter 27: Strangers at the Gate is a historical account of early conquests by Assyrians, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans and Persians of parts of Northern and Eastern Africa. There was a mixture of territorial occupation, trade and religious crusades. Other ‘strangers’ were from China who were more interested in trade. A sprinkling of scholars accompanied the conquering and occupation forces to record and study the terrain and socio-economic conditions.
This was accompanied with a floodgate of immigrants into the continent – this is captured in the last narrative part of the book, Chapter 28: The Floodgates are opened. The seeds of the scramble for Africa had been planted and were taking root. Naturally, the different colonial forces were pursuing their own national economic, religious and racial interests; gold, ivory, capture of young energetic Africans and enslaving and trading them. Free forced African labour then started feeding European industrialisation with raw materials. Europeans were brutal in their mission as capitalist industrialisation was replacing land based feudal modes of production. They unleashed systemic violence against indigenous Africans using superior military hardware against the resistance by the Africans who used arrows and spears to resist occupation and expropriation of their land and livestock. Systemic rape of African women and pillage of resources became the order of the day.
Portugal was the first major colonial power in Africa. Centuries later, in 1884, the then powerful Western European states met in Berlin, Germany, to claim territories in Africa and surrounding islands. The history of Africa since then will be unraveled in other volumes of this monumental Trilogy. The last chapter in this Volume One, Chapter 29: Slavery Timeline, provides a useful chronology of major events of the enslavement of Africans by Western European powers and their immigrant diaspora descendants in the Americas. It starts in 1441 and ends in 1865, even though the racial, class and gender impact of the slavery is still very much alive in the twenty-first century AD. What the chapter does not cover is the history of Muslim-Arab enslavement and slave trade of indigenous Africans, especially across the Sahara and in the Eastern Africa coast. African Odyssey – Volume One does not have a concluding part or chapter since it is part of a trilogy. The reader should move on to read the other two books, Volume Two and Volume Three.
Magashe Titus Mafolo’s African Odyssey is a three-volume book that should be in the private collection of all those with an interest in unravelling and understanding what Africa is and who Africans are in the history of the world and its peoples. More so, it is a book for high schools, universities and other tertiary education institutions. It is also relevant to peoples of African descent wherever they are in the world and for all persons willing to reeducate themselves. It is in the multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary genre of scholarship and intellectual discourse. The review of Volume Two and Volume Three will follow. As a reviewer, I hope the second or revised editions will benefit from this review.
Emeritus Professor Shadrack B. O. Gutto, PhD is attached to the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs at the University of South Africa (UNISA). He’s reachable on firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Catch Titus in one of his interviews with the SABC by clicking on this link: