Put aside the agonies of slave trade and colonialism for the time being and approach people of the West from a positive angle. Conventionally, by the people of the West, we mean Europeans and North Americans.
There has been contact between Africans and Europeans since the era of Greek and Roman civilisation. Greater contact stated after the Portuguese navigator Vasco Da Gama sailed along the western coast of Africa and upon reaching the southern tip, now called Cape of Good Hope, turned northwards and reached India. Thereafter, some Portuguese sailors went on shore and visited African kingdoms and chiefdoms.
In most cases, in the interior, the Portuguese came across Arab trading settlements. People of Arabia had been trading on the east coast almost within a century or two of the advent of the great prophet. Though they exerted tremendous influence on some coastal tribes and converted them to Islam, their impact on African civilisation pales thin compared with what western people have made on Africans since they began penetrating the interior and partitioning of Africa.
By the time they were penetrating the inside of Africa, the Arabs had largely given up the inventiveness that had enabled their Mesopotamian and Egyptian ancestors to build pioneer civilisations. They arrived without advanced mechanical devices of civilisation.
People of the West brought in with them the advanced culture of the Renaissance and Reformation. Not just religion; they brought superior fighting and hunting weapons, bicycles, motor vehicles, microscopes, cameras, books, schools; they built towns in places where there had been bushes or villages. They brought ideas of democracy and governance. In the past 200 years, African societies have undergone transformation that took half a millennium in the West itself.
Africans have given up their loyalty to the Union Jack and the Tricolour but continue to borrow from western civilisation the findings of science and make use of devices such as computers and cinemaligraph. As soon as a new device has been invented in the West, Africans learn how to use and repair it. Recently, Malawian women flew an aeroplane from Lilongwe to Dar es Salaam and back. Certainly, Africans do not find it impossible to acquire western knowledge and skills.
We have learnt to use and enjoy western inventions but have not made enough inventions of our own. The English saying ‘necessity is the mother of inventions’ is well known. We face many challenges such as incurable diseases such as HIV and Aids, cancer, asthma and problem of landlessness among others.
To become inventive, we must set up enabling institutions such as the western people have. What are functions of the British and French Academics? Should we not set up our own?
Of course, many of the inventions and devices of the western civilisation and culture were made by individuals not groups though the individuals were surrounded by assistants. For example, Thomas Alva Edison at Menlo Park, Wright Brothers worked almost alone in inventing the aeroplane through they made use of what scientists had done in Germany.
There is still scope for isolated inventors and innovators but group approach has more potential. Whoever is engaged in research must have means to sustain their life or must be supported by someone else. Without means they are compelled to spend much time minding the stomach.
If Africa is to hold its own in the global market, it must breed its own inventors and innovators. Official policies should be put in place. Tremendous progress, whether scientific or cultural, does not come about serendipitously. Behind them, there is organised effort.
Take, for example, the story of Portuguese navigation, there was Prince Henry who organised and funded the navigation. The King and Queen of Spain were behind Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America.
Individualism is a term that sometimes sounds anti-social as being opposed to communalism. But when it means individuals assuming responsibilities, it has tremendous impact. Instead of waiting for people in high places to back you up, just start something; take the initiative. This is what the Marconis, Bill Gates, Edisons, the Jobs, Einsteins did. Their individualism produced results while contributing to the wealth and culture of their countries.
Almost annually, someone from the Nairobi Embassy of the United States comes to Malawi to find out what new books Malawians have written and published. No doubt, agents of American Embassies do this in every other African country. Is there a lesson to learn from this? A very big lesson. Great nations value knowledge; they do not want to be ignorant of what other nations know.
To boost inventiveness here, there must be research facilities apart from the National Library. We must plan for inventiveness.
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