This guest blog was written by Eline Sleurink, MA student African Studies at Leiden University. Eline has won the blog competition for first-year students of the (Research) Master in African Studies! The assignment was to write a blog about what is ‘African’ in African Studies and what is your motivation to study African Studies. Eline’s blog was selected by the jury as the best among the sixteen papers submitted. The jury consisted of Han van Dijk (programme director), Rijk van Dijk (course instructor) and Azeb Amha (coordinator Research Master). Congratulations, Eline!
One of my favourite quotes about ‘Africa’ is – somewhat incongruously – not from an individual living in one of the 54 countries today, an African scholar or an internationally renowned policy maker or leader. It is not a quote by Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah or any other ‘famous’ historical figure that is often associated with carving the history of the continent. It is a quote of which the origins and meanings are debated, but which I believe can be transposed and made relevant again today:
“Semper aliquid novi Africa affert”
The author of this quote was the Roman administrator Pliny the Elder, who lived from 23-79 A.D. (Van den Heever, no date). Translated freely, this quote means:
“Africa is always producing something of novelty”
Pliny used this quote in his Naturalis Historia, a 37 volume work on the wonders of the natural world. The expression is found in his passage on the manner in which lions and leopards would interbreed in ‘Africa’ to create new hybrids of species. Pliny borrowed the quote from a common Greek saying, which itself was probably coined by the Greek sage Aristotle (c. 384-322 b.c.). Aristotle used the saying in his Historia Animalium (another volume on the natural world) stating that the wild animals of ‘Africa’ are the most ‘new’ in form (Van den Heever, no date). The phrase was henceforth borrowed, transmuted and decontextualized throughout time. Today, the phrase and its variants can be found in newspaper articles, journal headlines (Stein, 2012) and it has adorned the seal and coat of arms of the South African Museum in Cape Town since 1877 (Van den Heever, no date).
But why refer to this somewhat obscure and dubious saying? Why have I chosen it to answer the question of what I believe is ‘African’ in African Studies, as well as what my motivation is to pursue this master’s degree? Why refer to an expression coined more than 2300 years ago, whose author was not from Africa and whose knowledge of the existence of the continent was limited to areas north of the Sahara?
The original meaning, origin and connotations of the saying can most certainly be contested and debated. It is the sentiment that the phrase carries which renders it a metaphor for my views on the continent. To me, “semper aliquid novi Africa affert” can be distilled into the concept of novelty and most importantly, innovation. In my eyes, Africa is a continent of ‘firsts’; in the past, now and in the future.
Scientific consensus locates the origin of mankind in the East of Africa (Sample, 2015). Coffee finds its origin in Ethiopia, while the first objects of mathematical use (thought to be at least 35,000 years old) can be traced to neighbouring countries (Anyangwe, 2015). This is a continent which is said to have inspired the movement of modern art (Anyangwe, 2015) and it is claimed that “every musical element… is essentially African in background and derivation” (Gunther Schiller, cited in Anyangwe, 2015).
While some of the above might be disputed, (much) more recent sources of innovation can not be. As of late, we have seen technological advances which perhaps surpass those of other continents. The rise of mobile money and use of applications such as M-PESA have led to a situation in which “paying for a taxi ride using your mobile phone is easier in Nairobi than it is in New York” (Why does Kenya lead the world in mobile money?, 2013).On his recent trip to Nigeria, Mark Zuckerberg argued that “Africa will build the future”, encapsulating his belief in the continent’s innovative future by visiting business hubs and meeting socially conscious entrepreneurs (Shapshak, 2016).
Technology and entrepreneurial innovation aside, the continent also offers a rich array of cultural and artistic avenues to be explored, both in its history as in present day. As I write this assignment, London’s Somerset House has just finished hosting the annual 1:54 festival, showcasing contemporary African art and attracting over 10,000 visitors (About 1:54, 2016). In late 2017 the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art is set to open in Cape Town. The museum – “Africa’s largest museum in over 100 years”- will host an enormous collection from Africa and its Diaspora and may “shift the contemporary art world as we know it” (Hancock and Page, 2016).
In essence then, change is afoot in Africa. I have only managed to scratch the surface of changes that have occurred, are occurring and are set to occur in the continent. Africa is home to such a rich and complex diversity that is so full of nuances – on all manner of subjects – that we could study what is ‘African’ ad infinitum. But of course, this notion is applicable to any continent.
I have failed to mention the many, many atrocities, civil wars and disasters which have blighted Africa’s history or are currently dominating the headlines. These events deserve just as much attention as the positives and ‘firsts’ I have listed here. But it is my belief that Africa as a continent is entering a period of momentous change, energy and above all, innovation. We can turn to Africa’s history to learn an incredible amount about the birth of humanity – both in the literal sense (see above) and in terms of the origins of our thinking and actions. Modern day debates on colonialism and slavery continue to be just as relevant today as they were 20, 50 or 100 years ago. The question of whether ‘neo-colonialism’ is occurring in light of key foreign investors has become a controversial topic (China and the new scramble for Africa, 2016). All in all, there is plenty to discuss.
What is ‘African’ in African Studies to me, then, is the concept of innovation and novelty. It is not the concept of a singular ‘African’ identity, which I think is impossible to define. My first and foremost motivation to study African Studies is my unwavering belief and optimism that the future of Africa will bring an incredible amount of opportunity.
I do not wish to dismiss the ‘problems’ the continent has and is currently facing. Nor those that it will have in the future. But I vehemently believe that endogenous, inclusive growth – particularly through innovation – can shape the future. I stand with Ashish Thakkar, Chair of the United Nations Foundation, when he says that “Africa’s time is now” (Thakkar, 2015). I believe that Africa has undoubtedly been shaped by its history, but it is its future and that which we cannot predict – the ‘unknown’ – which make it worth studying. The opportunities are endless and I believe the continent’s future will not only shape its own population, but that of the entire world.
Pliny’s reference to Africa may be more than 2300 years old, but I believe it is just as relevant now as it was then. As we can trace the origins of mankind to Ethiopia, it is my hope – and belief – that we will one day trace the origin of most of the world’s most spectacular innovations to the continent. That which we cannot predict and visualize might very well be what advances the entire being of humanity. The role of Africa in this is, in my mind, undeniable. Just as it has in the past, so semper aliquid novi Africa affert.
About 1:54 (2016) Available at: http://1-54.com/london/ (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
Anyangwe, E. (2015) 10 things Africa has given the world. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/08/10-things-africa-given-world (Accessed: 22 December 2016).
China and the new scramble for Africa (2016) Available at: http://southernafrican.news/2016/09/16/china-and-the-new-scramble-for-africa/ (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
Hancock, C. and Page, T. (2016) Is this the new home of contemporary art? Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/05/31/architecture/thomas-heatherwick-zeitz-mocaa-cape-town/ (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
Sample, I. (2015) Jaw bone fossil discovered in Ethiopia is oldest known human lineage remains. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/mar/04/jaw-bone-discovery-in-ethiopia-is-oldest-ever-human-lineage-remains (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
Shapshak, T. (2016) Africa will build the future says Zuckerberg, visits Kenya on First African trip. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/tobyshapshak/2016/09/01/africa-will-build-the-future-says-zuckerberg-visits-kenya-on-first-african-trip/#586dd9665214 (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
Stein, D. (2012) ‘Psychiatric contributions from South Africa: Ex Africa semper Aliquid Novi’, African Journal of Psychiatry, 15(5). doi: 10.4314/ajpsy.v15i5.39.
Thakkar, A. (2015) Africa’s time is now. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ashish-thakkar/africas-time-is-now_b_8119528.html (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
Van den Heever, J. (no date) Semper aliquid.. Available at: http://academic.sun.ac.za/botzoo/paleo/africa.htm (Accessed: 12 October 2016).
Why does Kenya lead the world in mobile money? (2013) Available at: http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2013/05/economist-explains-18 (Accessed: 12 October 2016).