Africa has long been the target of an unfathomable amount of stereotyping. People often perceive it as an impoverished continent suffering from decades of severe conflicts, diseases, and environmental problems. These widespread negative public images of Africa stem from common social ideas as well as our life experiences and beliefs. John Iliffe (one of the preeminent historians of Africa in the twentieth century), described Africa as an abandoned and inhospitable place.
His inaccurate views about Africa are challenged by the two travelers in nineteenth century, Muhammad al-Tunis and William George Brown, who portrayed Africa as a thriving place with abundant resources. After examining the two excerpts written by the travellers, it is clear that Africa is a continent that is as fertile as it is beautiful. Since there are pervasive generalizations about Africa which are distorted fallacies,, it is essential for people to learn about the actual living conditions of the continent and its people in order to gain an impartial judgment and have accurate perspectives.
One of the major misinterpretations about Africa is its resources. According to John Iliffe, the poor environmental conditions, such as ancient rocks and poor soils in Africa, made it impossible for agricultural productions. 1 He mistakenly thought that the many problems that were harming the residents consisted of living with limited food and water. This argument is challenged by Muhammad’s experience in Africa. In Muhammad’s travel account, he expressed his inner thoughts and gustatory responses about typical food of Africa.
When he was first presented with the food weykeh, which was used to welcome guests, he felt it was impossible to touch and eat it because it was so stinking and disgusting to him. However, it was considered as a great delicacy to the African residents, who think of weykeh as a favorable and healthy food. It is understandable that people from different cultures have different senses of taste, and they might react differently to various foods that are provided. Foods such as weykeh and un-winnowed millet might be perceived as untypical and even intolerable to people from another culture, but Africans enjoy them.
This experience demonstrates that just because the nonresidents (like Muhammad) didn’t enjoy the local food of Africa, since the food of their culture was so much different, it does not mean that there is a shortage of food and natural resources in Africa. Later in the article, Muhammad wrote about how he was also served with other natural resources such as rice, fresh milk, butter, and honey. 2 Clearly, John Iliffe had misjudged the fact of African natural resources or food variety.
In addition, William George stated that there was an ample amount of water that had always been supplied to the residents. “The wells which are dug for domestic consumption, except during the rainy season”, 3 “the rainy season lasts from before the middle of June to the middle or end of September”,4 and “I have observed that the rain, which is generally very heavy. ”5 These descriptions of usage of water resources indicate that there was a great amount of water available for daily use. Therefore, these facts opposed John Iliffe’s assertion about lack of resources in Africa.
Regardless of the conflict of individual perspectives on the food, the evidence proves that Africa was indeed habitable with sufficient resources such as food and water. Another misinterpretation of Africa is the so-called danger associated with wildlife. In Muhammad’s account, it is shown that there were plenty of wild animals. African inhabitants often went hunting for a living, “They hunted rabbits, hares, gazelle, the wild ox, and so forth”7, In fact, Muhammad didn’t mention any report of a fatal accident due to hunting.
Thus it can be inferred that Africans were skillful in hunting. Life experiences taught the African inhabitants to camouflage, set traps, and use arm weapons like lances and javelins to avoid danger and to protect themselves. 8 In addition to poor food resources, John Iliffe also mentioned “fickle rainfall” in Africa. 9 In this case, William George’s Browne’s description enables people to take a deeper look at the weather in Africa. “and with a South-East that the greatest quantity of rain falls.
When the breeze is from the north or North-west it is most refreshing,”10 Browne expressed his enjoyment of the wind, and showed that the appropriate climate made people feel pleasant. Moreover, John Iliffe stated that “those agricultural systems were mobile, adapting to the environment rather than transforming it, in order to avert extinction by crop failure,”11 This assertion can potentially mislead people to think that Africans were passive and incompetent at farming, but it is, however, inaccurate and fallacious.
Based on Muhammad’s description, “The Forians, in their autumn season, which corresponds to our summer, take advantage of the rain to sow the ground. ”12 As a result, “the principal thing cultivated is the millet; but they also cultivate different kinds of maize. ”13 In fact, the evidence illustrates that the Africans strategically took advantage of wet seasons to irrigate the soil and grow crops such as millet, which supplied the food needs for many people.
After analysing the two excerpts from the travellers, it is clear that their descriptions of Africa are very different from that of John Iliffe. By understanding the real living conditions of African people as described by the two travellers, such as their sufficient natural resources, skills in hunting, and the ability of taking advantage of the weather for agricultural purposes, the readers can infer that Africa was indeed more than habitable. The living conditions and the environment in Africa were suitable for people to live.
All the distorted and pervasive fallacies represent misinformation, and they are rooted in stereotypes and lack of knowledge. However, when the facts (such as the travellers’ accounts) are being presented to the readers, it might motivate them to explore more details, and help them to differentiate between the real living conditions and the false and derogatory descriptions of Africa. Since perpetrating stereotypes about Africa and its people have detrimental impacts on black people, it is imperative for people to learn the facts and be able to rethink Africa with objectivity.