Freelance journalist Howard Wolinsky reasons that “the sequencing and analysis of ancient human DNA has helped to rewrite human history.” At the same time, he also claims that “it is also tempting politicians, nationalists and supremacists to abuse this research for their agendas”.
The debate about science and society is not new but there is a need to once more bring the discussion to the fore one more time. My interest is in the use of DNA to qualify and or disqualify occurrences and events that took place in the past. Slave trade is one phenomenon that has relied on manipulation of facts to fit certain narratives. Genome research has played a part in advancing agendas and to absolve others from the gross violations as well as to conceal the footprint of the damage caused by beneficiaries of the primitive economic practice of trading in humans.
In recent years, so many high profiled black people from the diaspora, particularly in America and the Caribbean, have come out to declare their “love” for Africa. These individuals also want to trace their roots, and to do this they rely on the DNA to navigate this personal journey. Mysteriously, this pseudoscience pretends to have all the answers whereas it entrenches misinformation, propaganda and lies.
That now gets us to one of the major limitations of DNA tests. As people, we want them to tell us who we are and where we are from, but the “where” can be especially tricky. To understand why, we must look at how the tests work, and what they are. Euro-science, and where modern genome research belongs, is nothing but a political tool that is designed to create economic and political advantages for the Aryan race; and should therefore be always treated with suspicion.
Gina Paige who is the co-founder of African Ancestry.com, a genetic ancestry tracing company that was started with the express purpose of helping people of African descent answer questions about their roots. Paige adds that we all have DNA in every cell of our bodies, and 99.9% of every human’s DNA is the same. “In that 0.1% of our DNA is where our differences lie,” Paige said. “Our hair texture, our skin colour, our height, our weight, our personality … Ancestry can be found in those differences.”
There are however two challenges with these DNA “banks”. First people share DNA – there is probably nothing that makes a Xhosa or Venda people different, or there is no difference between the Kikuyu in Kenya and the Zulu in South Africa or even the Duala people in Cameroon. The differences between these groups is based on human constructs like language, culture and other irrelevant features.
Another challenge is that not all humans (7.5 billion people worldwide) have been “mapped” for DNA purposes, and thus most of the major DNA companies, especially in America, have databases in which people of European ancestry are overrepresented, and those of other regions are underrepresented. In 2018, for example, the database named 23andMe could only match people to three broad regions in sub-Saharan Africa — which means, if one is Black, it is almost impossible to get very specific results.
The DNA tests are like a haze of smoke when looked at in wider contexts. Since they are inaccurate, they cannot help to answer some key questions like “Who were my people?”, “Where did people reside before the transatlantic slave trade?”, or “What were their cultures, cultural practices, their traditions, their values, their beliefs?” Funny enough, the experts think that one can obtain this information, according to Paige, “when you know the tribe or the ethnic group”.
Most people from the African diaspora are like all people who were removed from and or left their places of origins many centuries ago, like the Ngoni (Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania), Ndebele (Zimbabwe), BaLozi (Zambia), Boers (South Africa), Germans (Brazil or USA), and so-called Turcos in Latin America. They all yearn for a place they rarely know, which they also presume has not changed. For example, the Ndebele and the Ngoni would like to believe that they are “Zulu” because they originated from what is now called northern KZN.
The dilemma in this thinking is that people and places are static whereas there are many factors that may have drastically affected the population since the days their ancestors lived back at “home”. For example, the Zulu construct is recent phenomenon and therefore cannot be used a point of reference. The megatribe creation project during colonialism altered identities of people who are now classed under large groups like Zulu, Xhosa or Shona. The process of tracing the roots is cumbersome for the Ndebele and the Ngoni who only “left” under two centuries ago.
The black diaspora was kidnapped in a period stretching over five hundred years. Much like the Ngoni and Ndebele, they may also be unaware that so much changed in the places of their presumed origins, that includes identities, languages and cultures. The people have also been moved from their areas and are also mixed with others. For example, the Ndebele is an agglomeration of many groups such as Hlubis, Ndwandwe, Sotho and Venda speaking groups, Kalanga, etc. There is therefore nothing much to be learned from movements like Mthwakazi – ethnic purity is as flawed as racial purity.
Colonialism displaced scores of people across the continent, and the post-colonial state in Africa has not even tried to do anything about this. Without sounding cynical or pessimistic, Black Americans use DNA testing to know their past that has been tampered and destroyed. The DNA tests which claim to relocate them to the Mandinka, Fulani or Wolof peoples of West Africa could be simply described as a drive to a home that never was. The African diaspora may have originated from anywhere in Africa, the DNA is a directionless campus that cannot be trusted.
Bessie Lawton argues that “Identity is fluid, and people use a lot of different things or data points to negotiate their own identity internally and externally, [and] that includes family narratives, their lived experience, what others ascribe to you, and their DNA profile. And a lot of this identification is formed through interaction with others.” Thus, DNA or genome sequencing is probably the biggest bullshit of the modern times. It is utter garbage that seeks to mislead and also gives false hopes. The truth is that no one can trace back the footsteps of slave trade and colonialism: so much was lost, and no one knows the scale of this loss.
Whether the DNA results reveal for large groups, again using the American context, “that just means a geneticist ran your DNA through an algorithm with the reference DNA in different combinations to get a similar variation of SNPs that you have”. A computer can never give a perfect match, but it is just its best guess. In concurrence, Paige remarks that DNA can “hold a lot of valuable clues, but it can’t tell the full story”. The DNA tests lack specificities, otherwise such things as tribalism and racism would have long died.
Scholars such Walter Rodney have attempted to investigate how Europe “underdeveloped” the African continent, but such studies could not even scratch the surface like the DNA tests fail to point anything besides confirming that Black Americans are black. In some instances, these tests confirm large scales of rape that took place at the time. However, no one can be held accountable for such heinous acts as well as other abuses. In fact, the offspring of the perpetrators, who today claim to be “civil” and “righteous”, prefer to see things as they are.
No one really wants to bear the responsibility for slave trade, whether the West or Arabs, everyone would rather prefer that the victims let bygones be bygones. The horror, injustices and brutality involved in the hunting, sales and transportation of people were far worst than imagined. Scores of people died at sea and were fed fish, and many more perished from hard labour, illnesses and maltreatment. Profits were made from slave trade, colonialism and apartheid and these exist on the same continuum. The ill-gotten gains developed today’s “rich world” and its citizens.
The views expressed by Hadebe Hadebe are his and not Jambo Africa Online’s.