Learning About Africa

There’s Never Been a Better Time

Tom Nickel
8 min readOct 29, 2023
Political Map, Public Domain image

Learning about Africa as an outsider is something like learning about Quantum Mechanics without being a trained quantum physicist.

Rules that apply everywhere else don’t always apply in either realm.

Both are foundational.

Quantum Mechanics describes the origin of matter and energy and the world we live in. Africa is the home of our species and the economic foundation of the modern world.

Can an outsider develop any kind of meaningful understanding?

I decided to learn more about Africa because I made a close human connection through VR with someone who lives in Kenya. We’ve become real friends. I plan to visit him and his family. He is why I started reading fiction and non-fiction based in Africa.

I continued reading because of Africa. Because of how little I know, because of how many great stories there are, and because I am fortunate to be learning about Africa at this exact moment in history.

There is a major shift in attitudes emerging. Scholars and journalists are describing Africa’s past in new ways. Global corporations and wealthy nations both know the path to the future runs through Africa.

A Paradigm Shift Book

Born in Blackness,” (2021) by Howard Fast is a radical departure from the standard view, or non-view, of Africa.

I did not realize as I read it last year what a new perspective he described — Africa as the source and center of the modern world. Adom Getachew‘s piece in the New York Review of Books, (8/17/2023), is helpful.

I know from my friend in Nairobi that Tech Giants are establishing themselves with branding and the first large data centers on the continent. Abeba Birhane outlines what is at stake in the, ‘Algorithmic Colonization of Africa,’ in SCRIPTed, (August, 2020).

colonialism in the age of AI takes the form of ‘state-of-the-art algorithms’ and ‘AI driven solutions’ to social problems … the AI invasion of Africa echoes colonial era exploitation.

Africa is the youngest continent, demographically. It has the greatest upside. The algorithm people know this.

What counterforce can prevent another wave of servitude?

India famously resisted ‘free’ Internet from Facebook in favor of local development. It still is. There could be millions of tech-trained people in Africa just like there are millions of tech-trained people in India now.

Maybe Africa could teach us all something, again.

Maybe Africa could show what ‘harnessing’ technology to drive development really means, as Birhane states in her conclusion:

guidelines and safeguards for individual rights and freedom put in place, continually maintained, revised, and enforced. In the spirit of communal values that unifies such a diverse continent … prioritizing welfare of the most vulnerable in society and the benefit of local communities, not distant Western start-ups or tech monopolies.

I think the best I can do is support grass roots projects there through my friend and keep learning.

What I’m Learning

1. Africa has always drawn people from other places

Africa is where our story begins and where people keep returning to. The continent and everyone living there were not just acted upon by people from the east and the west — Africa acted on everyone who came. Its wealth, its people and their African ideas have spread continuously all over the world.

Malay and other Polynesian people sailed to Africa over the open Indian Ocean a thousand years before the Europeans, trading and even establishing the first permanent settlements on Madagascar.

Most of the gold in Europe and Asia in the Medieval period came from Africa. One of the main reasons Portuguese sailors carefully crept down the western coast was to avoid Arab and Berber middlemen controlling the overland route to Africa’s fabulous treasure.

2. No African Nation was ever ‘given’ or ‘granted’ independence.

Every little taste of independence was a battle, every step a victory over Europeans and in some cases over local elites or neighboring nations.

The only exception is the extraordinary case of Liberia, the first independent nation in Africa (1847). Formed by freed slaves from the United States, it was a de facto US colony until the 1980s. Then things really got strange.

I had been taught that Europe was just too exhausted after World War II and gave up the colonies because they didn’t have the energy to manage them any more. Even though I was vaguely aware of uprisings like the Mau Mau in Kenya, I hadn’t put together the bigger picture of how much effort and violence and sheer will it took to get the colonizers to withdraw at all.

It took so much longer than I had ever stopped to think about.

Today there are 54 politically sovereign nations in Africa. Before World War II, there were 3 — Liberia, South Africa, Egypt.

Only two more became independent during or soon after World War II — Ethiopia and Libya. Both had been colonized by Italy, a country on the losing side of the war.

The biggest of the African empire builders, Britain and France, were on the winning side and they did not even start to let go of anything on the continent until the late 1950s — over ten years after the end of the war.

Ghana, colonized by the British, led the way in 1957. Guinea, colonized by France, followed in 1958. Then, THIRTY-TWO new sovereign nations were created between 1960 and 1968. Every one of them required years of underground operations and resistance along with above ground political organizing.

Portugal, the first European country in, was among the last out, holding onto Mozambique and Angola until 1975. Thousands died over decades of fighting. The Portuguese dictatorship only surrendered the colonies when its own military officers rebelled against the government in Lisbon over the endless war.

3. Boundary Lines in Africa were drawn by Europeans with regard to resources and blocking rivals and without regard to people.

Most of the boundaries drawn and imposed by outsiders became national borders within about 75 years, which was never the intent. The intent of the Europeans, launched overtly at the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, was to own Africa without fighting each other over it.

Current nations are difficult to govern because the lines between them do not define natural groupings of people. They describe physical areas containing specific resources Europeans wanted to control. The entire continent was gerrymandered to keep arch enemies away from each other in what would become a death cage match without negotiated theft.

Now, there is a strange disincentive to attempt any cure for the resulting difficulty in governance. The inherent divisiveness on which almost all African nations are based can be conveniently exploited by politicans and used by strong rulers as a reason to operate a harsh and restrictive state.

The instability also enables outside parties seeking influence to support one faction or another in a never ending battle, based on ballots or bullets or both.

4. The Colonial Powers Never Envisioned Fully Independent Independence and They Still Don’t

All that independence back in the 1960s? Smoke and mirrors. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Families that had been wealthy for generations through business or property or both jostled for position in a new political landscape that did not change economic relationships at all.

French companies continued to get special deals in Senegal, Ivory Coast and Mali, while English companies bought below-market in Kenya, Ghana and The Gambia. Well-established local powers kept it that way and were nicely rewarded with new titles and political positions.

Decades of military coups and civil war, layered on top of tremendous population growth and urbanization have changed some of the players, but not much else.

Most African nations are still not independent. They’re working for someone else — the powers they are in debt to and depend on for humanitarian relief.

It takes money and expertise to develop a nation’s economy that could, in theory, help some money flow to its own people. Money was borrowed across Africa, but most of it was stolen and what was left wasn’t enough to build a strong foundation. Debt service and bankers’ oversight that comes with it undermines independence. They have a deal you can’t refuse.

5. The Best Way to Learn About Africa Today is by Getting to Know People

Reading helps. Fiction and Non-Fiction. But it is by definition a still photograph of yesterday.

News is terribly filtered everywhere. Some African news sources are a little bit useful but not much.

What we want is Neighborhood News!

We want regular people anywhere in Africa giving us a little on-the-spot feel for what’s going on right where they live.

That’s how I met Waiyaki wa Hinga.

It was a few days after George Floyd was killed. People all over the world needed to talk and since many of us were in some form of lock-down — VR became a place for Neighborhood News.

I was hosting people there from Maryland and Madrid, Montreal to Mumbai. No one from Africa until Waiyaki’s avatar appeared and he walked right up to the front, not raising his hand, and said he needed to be part of the conversation.

He was in his maumau phase then (his words) and we’ve been best friends ever since. I know his wife Diana and I’ve spoken with his son. I share things with him in a way I don’t with anyone else. We’re in touch every day.

He is my teacher and I could not have found a better one.

He loves Africa but he also sees how screwed up things are, for whatever reason. He is part of the dynamic there that is determined to do something about it. Not just leave.

The hope for Africa is in its sheer numbers of energetic young people.

Who will those energies serve? Africans? Africans who care about a more equitable distribution of wealth and power throughout Africa?

It could happen but not without leadership. And right now there’s not enough of that precious commodity — some, but not enough. It tends to leave.

The Elders can’t leave so easily and they could help if they weren’t so sad and angry and drinking too much. That could change too.

My friend Waiyaki is courted by the Elders and might be part of their rediscovery and relevance in a time of new hope.

My friend Waiyaki is also surrounded by young people, boys and especially girls. He and Diana help them with everything from not-getting-pregnant at 15 to seeing a place for themselves in a global village.

He tells me their stories.

This is how I am learning about Africa.

Image by David Denton

Tom Nickel writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about, such as Abdulrazak Gurnah and Africa.

Tom and Abdulrazak were both born on December 20, 1948. They both went to went to London to study in 1968. Abdulrazak went on to become a Professor and a Nobel Prize winner.

Tom holds a Black Belt in Learning and loves writing. More here.

You can join a small but growing number of people like you who subscribe to his little gumballs of text for free on Sub-Stack.



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos