This journey began when I adapted a fundamental question of all good science: “Has this been done before?” In science, this question ensures that lessons from past endeavours inform future directions in the iterative process of incremental improvement. In social life and political discourse, the answers to this question almost always lie in history. For every idea I have conceived about the world, a lesson has lurked in the past – yearning for the opportunity to illuminate. Over time, my appreciation for these lessons has continued to grow.
This particular dive into the history of East Africa draws from lessons that I first encountered more than 10 years ago. Back then, I was only mildly interested in history because it was delivered as a dispassionate set of dates and events meant to be regurgitated in an exam. This dispassion, unencumbered by ideology, also granted me the opportunity to formulate deductions from my historical education through rumination and discussion.
This process revealed a few cardinal lessons. History is a window into the human soul – a connection to our ancestors through which we can not only discover our heritage but also learn more about our own darkest impulses as a species. All historical figures are a product of their time. Just as an analysis of an individual is incomplete without their society and that of a nation is fragmentary without inter-national juxtaposition, an analysis of our ancestors is deficient without the context that their environment confers. Furthermore, it is impossible to judiciously discern contemporary angels and demons based (principally) on ancestral actions without disregarding individual content of character. History can be a source of hope. It is a testament to how far our species has come from absolute deprivation, and inspires us to do more in parts of the world where improvement is warranted. History tells us who we were, are and can be.
Therefore, history ought to be preserved in its entirety – vices and virtues included – because every time it is diminished, we too diminish along with it.
While the past is rife with precautionary tales of horror, it is also a source of hope. There is a lot of inspiration to be gleaned from the tenacity of founders, the courage of revolutionaries and the industriousness of inventors. We live in a time with the highest social mobility, individual liberty and standards of living in the history of the human race because of people in the past who persevered, innovated and preserved. In the story of East Africa, the post-colonial nation-founding revolution birthed exemplars like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Inspired by the nonviolent revolution of Mahatma Gandhi, Nyerere pioneered a non-racial movement that tore at the heart of tribalistic politics from the precolonial and colonial era. As the first president of a new nation, his bid for unity focused on individual equality, and pan-African cooperation with other East African states. He later liberated Uganda from the autocracy of the infamous Idi Amin and set Tanzania up for post-colonial growth and democracy. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela transcended this by not only quelling apartheid to become the nation’s first black president, but also honoring democracy with a transitory presidential term. However, many liberation movements from colonialism across the African continent simply ushered in decades of insurgency and corruption. George Orwell captures this ironically cyclical concept using the allegory of the pigs in Animal Farm. Led by Napoleon, they inspire a revolution against the oppressive humans, only to later banish their ideological opponent (Snowball), and progressively slither into the same totalitarianism for which they had previously condemned the humans.
Elsewhere in the history of science, my personal favorites are Albert Einstein and Alfred Nobel who made vital contributions to nuclear physics and mining explosives, respectively. Conversely, the momentous creations of these brilliant minds also facilitated massive fatalities during and after the wars of the early – mid 20th century. These tales of virtuous trailblazers and revolutionaries reveal that it is not sufficient to have good intentions, good methods are principal. It is not sufficient to wield conviction in our own beliefs, rational compassion (especially for adversaries) is critical. More importantly, it is insufficient to simply spark revolution, forethought is paramount. Preeminent leaders are revered not only for the success of their campaigns, but also the foundation for increased amity, prosperity and liberty that they left behind.
History, when disseminated in a climate of transparency and open discourse, provides a vast catalogue of such stories that inspire us to forge ahead on the shoulders of giants while learning from their shortcomings.
No history, of any nation or peoples, is devoid of horrors. Some evils, such as those of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, are utterly unconscionable based on the chauvinism that inspired them and the despotism with which they were executed. Cruelties like this were the culmination of peerless barbarism at their time; needlessly precipitating despair that relapsed global cooperation, prosperity and human rights. Other evils, such the African tribal expansions and concomitant slavery, were inspired by a mixture of noble and ignoble motivations. Colonialism scaled up the harms of imperialism across the globe by coopting indigenous systems and resources, thereby further concentrating wealth in industrialized nations. On the other hand, African tribal organizations were instrumental in liberation movements like the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, while colonial influence also spread technological innovation and democracy worldwide. Thus, while the harms of these “greyer” evils are undeniable, it is conceivable that their outcomes have begotten a mixture of progress and regress within a general pendular trend towards increased individual freedoms and socioeconomic growth. More importantly, these evils were commonplace among humans of every creed – the product of a time when most of mankind did not do any better.
Regardless of how the faults of our ancestors are categorized, there are several ways we can contend with the past. First, we may cite historical precedents in the apportionment of consanguineous guilt, reconciliations and reparations. Secondly, we may selectively sanitize historical records of tragedy to placate our contemporary sensibilities. Lastly, we may take these stories as precautionary tales in a complete and nuanced historical education. Notably, these three approaches to history are neither exhaustive nor frequently congruent with each other. Censoring hurtful or inconvenient parts of history interferes with a comprehensive historical education necessary for meaningful reform, thereby predisposing future generations to cyclical retrogressive revolutions. Reconciliatory empathy may skew the emphasis of historical accounts away from scholastic rigor and rational compassion. Furthermore, attribution of guilt and status across generations risks the repudiation of nuance in favour of regression to rigid social classifications where individual fate was deliberately sealed by group ancestry. As laid out in “Through the heart of every man”, this is an incredibly sciolistic process that exalts inherent characteristics and binary moral purism in a world where individual self-determination and “tribal” desegregation are higher than they have ever been. In today’s leading democracies and republics, where living standards and social mobility are considerably conducive for individual prosperity, tragic history can be more descriptive than it is prescriptive. While the present is imperfect, it is in many ways a distinct improvement from the past that warrants as much merit as it does refinement.
Pre-existing intertribal wars and social hierarchies created a constant supply of slave labor that the Arab traders commercialized at the East African coast. Thus, while the Arabs were familiar with and provided financial incentive for slave trade to facilitate their own expansion, they were not the originators of slavery on the continent. The Europeans later usurped this trade in their bid to control the African territories. Like the Arabs had sought to replace indigenous cultures with Islam and sultanates, the Europeans sought to replace these systems with Christianity and Western education as tools for assimilation and colonization. Effectively, the vicious cycles of conquest and oppression initiated by indigenous tribal expansions were succeeded by Arab economic expansions, which were in turn succeeded by European imperialist expansions. The distinguishing factor, and ostensibly driver, of this succession was not necessarily the uniqueness or extent of any group’s depravity but rather their tact, technology and wealth.
Socio-political successions of the colonial era inspired remarkable 20th century African prose like The Lion and the Jewel by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. In this critically-acclaimed play, Soyinka juxtaposes African traditionalism with post-colonial modernization in order to draw critical parallels. Lakunle, a modern ideologue, berates the traditional patriarch Baroka with whom he competes for Sidi’s (the jewel) hand in marriage. Yet, beneath the veneer of civilized social reform, Lakunle is motivated by the same male chauvinism as Baroka, seeking to subjugate the jewel with equivalent voracity. Soyinka’s prolific writing, through which he highlighted persistent oppressive behavior in both colonial and African systems, was critical of malfeasance that transcended race and tribe. Such comprehensive scrutiny begs an important question – if social hierarchies, imperialism and slavery are to be considered sins of our ancestors, aren’t they sins shared by all of humanity at some point in time? More importantly, what do these shared echoes tell us about humanity?
Just as human history is riddled with shared vices, it is also characterized by shared virtue. Despite the detriments of European imperialism in East Africa, the British also inaugurated the abolition of slave trade, quashing valiant opposition from sultans and African monarchs that had benefited from the lucrative trade. Despite Kabaka Mwanga’s ruthless desire to maintain autocracy over the Baganda people, his wrangles with the British and Banyoro were laudable campaigns for the sovereignty of his kingdom. His nobler descendant, Kabaka Mutesa II, eventually utilized Buganda’s political weight to seize national independence from the British. However, Uganda, like most African countries would later be plagued by domestic political malpractice and instability characterized by military coups, corruption and indefinite presidential terms.
Is it impartial to reprimand the avarice of the Arab traders without reprimanding their indigenous suppliers? or admonish the tyrannical racial hierarchy of the European imperialists without admonishing the hereditary social hierarchies that they usurped? or indict the colonial exploitation of resources without indicting the exploitation that benefits unscrupulous governments to date? Can Kabaka Mutesa II be celebrated for leading Uganda through independence without crediting the British for abolishing slavery, establishing formal education and inaugurating the democracy that united warring tribal contingents? In the Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tackles such questions of the dualism that characterizes the human soul, arriving at the iconic deduction that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”. While this neither justifies our future failings nor absolves our ancestors of theirs, it confers insight into our shared potential for both good and evil. If it is tortuous to parse through history in search of categorically evil ancestors to condemn or their existing descendants to chastise, what actionable benefit can be derived from learning about the past?
All history is unique. Every bit of historical knowledge that we encounter was a unique event in the life of a unique individual that lived before us. The uniqueness of history, especially as it pertains to culture, is a valuable tenet of personal identity. To me, the history of East Africa was a collection of formative tales that explained the specific culture within which I grew up. From the past, we can identify events that explain our contemporary circumstances and set us apart from each other. Arguably, the transcendent value of history lies in the perennial trends that are shared by people across time and space. Due to their recurrence and pervasiveness, these “echoes” are manifestations of innate tendencies that elucidate the human condition. For almost every salient political or socioeconomic phenomenon today, there is a historical precedent that serves as inspiration and/or a precautionary tale. The wisdom in these tales is at the heart of my rekindled interest in history.
Stories of perseverance against harsh natural elements or the concomitant mass migrations are hardly unique to Africa. Driven by a deep desire for survival, the journey towards sustenance inspired humanity’s traversal across the unforgiving wilderness to all parts of the globe. Eventually, humans of every creed were able to independently discover the merits of community. Shared customs blossomed into collective cultures while innovation facilitated the growth of primeval communities into civilizations. Just as all modern societies share an iteration of this general trend of development and prosperity (relative to prehistory), they also share horrors that have wrought great suffering.
The social cohesion that undergirded strong communities inadvertently fostered ingroup empathy at the cost of outgroup sympathy. Beyond staving off abject destitution, these communities set out to build firmer foundations for their continued survival through expansion. Conceivably, these expansions were often met with resistance from adversarial communities that valued their own sovereignty. In Africa, the growth of empires like Mali in West Africa and Chwezi of East Africa necessitated conquest and annexation of adjacent communities. If the annexed were fortunate enough to be spared, they were condemned to a life of servitude either by tribute or slavery. Caste systems trapped slaves and serfs in the lower rungs of society while conferring the prevailing monarchs complete authority over these subordinates across generations. Such inherent power hierarchies sealed socioeconomic fates and would later be coopted by the overseas intruders.
The first foreigners to contact the East African tribes were the Arab traders. Their own story of expansion had set them off to foreign lands in search of labor and raw materials for their relatively more industrious world. Arab settlement at the East African coast laid the foundation for Swahili culture, prosperous coastal cities and caravan routes that fostered slave trade and facilitated the penetration of technology and Islam into the interior of East Africa. This trade revolutionized inter-tribal relations in the region, facilitating the expansion of tribes that could harness the wealth and novel products of the trade. This lucrative trade would later captivate prominent European explorers like Vasco da Gama, setting up the stage for an even savvier foreign force.
Like the Arabs before them, the Europeans sought to expand their global influence and tap into the resource-rich region. Armed with unparalleled tact and technology, the Europeans quickly adopted existing relations and trade routes. They embarked on divide and conquer campaigns that empowered allied tribes to prevail in both pre-existing and novel inter-tribal conflicts. In the epic rivalry between Buganda and Bunyoro, the coalition of the Baganda with the British provided the wherewithal to ensure their triumph over the formidable Omukama Kabalega of Bunyoro. European expansion also enhanced slave trade, resource exploitation and religious (and thus cultural) revolution to the detriment of the indigenous status quo. This imperialism boosted European industrialization, and further exacerbated the growing global Pareto distribution of wealth that exists to date. Conversely, European colonial influence fostered improvements in healthcare and formal education, ushering in democracy and meritocracy that challenged monarchical hierarchies. In their bid to abolish slave trade and replace it with an agricultural economy, the British constructed the Uganda railway that links the landlocked country to the East African coast to date.
European inquisition was not without significant resistance. The tenacious Kabalega and Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda vehemently rejected colonial influence in the late 19th century. The latter went as far as assassinating the British archbishop James Hannington and burning African Christian neophytes (the “Uganda martyrs”) alive. Prominent uprisings in the 20th century, such as the Maji Maji and Mau Mau rebellions, weakened colonial positions in Tanzania and Kenya respectively. These momentous campaigns eventually expedited the independence of African nations from colonial rule. However, the deposition of colonial governors would not be the end of political malpractice on the continent. Most African nations have since been beset by military coups, protracted presidential terms and insurgencies. These cycles of survival, conquest and avarice echo across time, civilization and geography. The patterns they reveal are at the heart of my reflections.
Passed down through lore and ditty alike, collective wisdom first found its way to me as soon as I could form memories. More objective recollections of the past would later be incorporated into social and religious studies throughout my early education. However, it was not until the first day of my secondary education that this knowledge was formally christened “history”. Then, history simply represented dreary afternoons in still tropical air, and perhaps my greatest feats of raw memorization. Moreover, all the curricular decisions that I made were obfuscated in uneventfulness. To me, the decisions to pursue the allure of the Rhine lands over the mysteries of the Chinese economic revolution or to revel in the logistical marvels of Timbuktu instead of the anti-apartheid movement, were mired in inconsequentiality. Ironically, the impatience with which I darted out of my final history class has since been supplanted by an eagerness to learn from the past. Here, I parse through important historical stories (illustrated through East Africa) and lessons from my past that elucidate the contemporary world.
African history, as I have come to know it, began close to home. The story of Zinjanthropus roaming Olduvai Gorge was told as a story of solitary hominin ancestors that braved the East African rift valley. These solitary units would later discover the survival advantage that human community conferred in order to form the first ethnic groups of Africa. When shared values and a drive for mutual survival were no match for the deprivation wrought by natural calamities, concourses of Bantu and Hamites, among others, set off on mass migrations that established current anthropological settlements. The search for arable land and propitious climate often convened several migrants, sparking skirmishes and secessions into smaller tribal units. In a bid to control finite resources, fiercer tribes pillaged, enslaved, and assimilated feebler tribes. Somewhere in this process, abject survival progressed into a mixture of inter-tribal cooperation, expansion and avarice. These precedents for greater survival for the “winners” came at increasing costs to the “losers”. Tribes that stood the test of time grew to become the kingdoms and chiefdoms that have shaped the geopolitics of the continent. To this day, the epic rivalry between Buganda and Bunyoro kingdoms is etched into my memory as the epitome of African tribal war and diplomacy. Such geopolitical structures were commonplace and would later be instrumental in the outcomes of first contact with overseas counterparts.
Our species diverged from our last common ancestors several million years ago and have since transcended other hominins to become the most intelligent lifeform on earth. Our survival through a hostile history wrought by natural selection was predicated on our ability to innovate and adapt. We developed effective strategies to assess and avert existential threats. In such a world with limited recourse, making quick and often drastic decisions drew the line between life and death. An encounter with a lion on the savanna offered mere moments to avert the risk of death. Thus, an indiscriminate reflex was guaranteed to increase chances of survival. However, as isolated survival units congregated into increasingly complex communities, adversarial situations required more complex responses. Contrast the feral encounter with a feud with an adjacent adversarial tribe that is training an army. Both scenarios share a calamitous end, death. However, while a precipitous spear strike would have been the undisputed response to a close encounter with a fleet-footed predator, an adversarial tribe could be bargained with. Moreover, a treaty in the latter scenario could facilitate mutually beneficial cooperation. Assessing an equivalent threat in both cases based on their shared catastrophic endpoint may tilt the response of “the aggressed” towards similar reflexive anguish. Needless to say, conflating an inveterate predator with a human tribe would disregard the nuance of the latter, justifying the use of a blunt weapon in response. Such a critical failure of innate human survival heuristics to secern both the existence and gradations of threat is at the core of catastrophizing behavior. This inappropriate response is a precedent to deep personal and sociological consequences laid out in The Coddling of the American Mind.
Succinctly, to catastrophize is to perceive a situation as worse than it is. Whether by extension of a threat into its worst-case scenario or entirely projecting a different more insidious threat in its place, catastrophizing is irrational. It requires a fundamental dissonance between internal individual convictions and external reality. Diagnosing catastrophizing behavior can be difficult not only because it beckons a confrontation with the flaws in our deepest instincts for self-preservation, but may also be at odds with the ego. For individuals, failure to overcome this tendency can perpetuate feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and depression (if chronic). In interpersonal situations, it may distort our perception of other people’s motives and actions, prompting hostile attribution biases. Once misclassified as existential threats, the subjectively offensive actions of others lose all nuance. Thus, tactless retaliation against these demonized straw men may feel justified sans any real attempt at genuine understanding. On a societal level, catastrophizing widespread phenomena like infectious diseases, economic downturns and contentious speech may be used to justify anarchy and/or infringement of personal freedoms perceived to perpetuate these threats. Regardless, catastrophizing always risks turning the spotlight away from meticulous conflict resolution towards an unjustified offensive.
Opportunities in omens
Personally, I have had to contend with catastrophizing both within and from without. Growing up amid occasional encounters with catastrophe through socioeconomic and political challenges, I have always had ample reasons to catastrophize. Drawing out the worst-case scenarios of the mishaps in my life was not only effortless, but also seemingly well-founded by my circumstances. However, dwelling in the abyss of unrealized catastrophe was not only unremarkable, but also stagnating. As a species that is attuned to negative experiences by evolution, we are all capable of envisioning the “ultimate catastrophe” and focusing on the doom it represents. Conversely, forward thinking requires a healthy balance of optimism, innovation and discipline. In confronting precarious situations, I strive to relegate the ultimate catastrophe to one of multiple unrealized scenarios under consideration, diverting heed to the factors required to steer myself towards better outcomes. When effectively instituted, this forestallment of catastrophizing has granted me the headspace to respond to difficult situations more prudently.
Considering the unpredictability of life, the unrealized ultimate catastrophe is never irrevocably averted. Naively disregarding this worst-case scenario can be a dereliction of a useful evolutionary instinct that may leave one unprepared for debilitating blows. However, the crux of all unrealized catastrophes is their immateriality. Thinking of them as an opportunity for mitigation is not only prudent, but also the only way to limit the collateral damage of disproportionate responses. Certainly, it sets up the stage for better discernment of risk and may be an important safeguard against the unjust repercussions of catastrophizing behaviour.
Ever gravitated to someone you just met that made you feel perfectly understood? Or watched a story on the news that moved you so strongly because of how it connected to your own experiences? Certainly, I have experienced varying degrees of indignation towards the hurtful actions of others at several points in my life. These are a few scenarios that may instigate attraction, sorrow and anger. Such profound feelings are common manifestations of the broad spectrum of human emotion, and are a uniquely human adaptation that generally facilitates learning, fosters social cohesion, and occasionally protects us from harm. They can be a siren that draws our attention to both harmful and beneficial situations that we ought to mitigate or reinforce respectively. In this way, emotions are a compass that drives us through the complexity of existence at a “manageable” resolution, enabling us to spur reflexes when we need to seize the moment. However, everything that confers “low resolution” discernment its merits in reflex action also undermines its utility in long-term decisions. Further, the personal nature of emotions individualizes subsequent responses, diminishing their appropriateness for applications beyond the self. Through its perspectives on emotional reasoning, The Coddling of the American Mind burnished my understanding of the spatial and temporal limitations of emotions.
Injustice vs indifference
Unlike logical thinking, emotional reasoning dwells on how actions make us feel, as opposed to why they make us feel that way or why they truly happen at all. A judgement made about a stranger after a single encounter may unjustly relay them as unidimensional, setting us up for the disappointing realization that they are much more than the parts of them we love or hate. Beyond their vivid passion, even the most relatable stories are susceptible to confirmation bias, and may not be representative of broader contexts. Admittedly, the indignation I have felt whenever I was wronged always encumbered my inclination to fathom “the other side” of the story. Emotional reasoning can be a broad brush that paints over nuanced situations and tilts responses from impersonal to personal, regardless of appropriateness.
Although emotional and logical reasoning are often pitted against each other, the reality is that our daily decisions are usually a combination of both. Therefore, it is more realistic to identify situations where one might be more appropriate than the other, and clarify which thought process has been applied. Failure to make this determination risks injustice on one hand, and harmful indifference on the other. The harms of emotional reasoning can be especially far-reaching when it clashes with the pursuit of truth. Attempts to placate an individuals’ feelings may come at the expense of a proper investigation and impartial understanding of the other side of a complex story. In line with this is the assertion that “feelings are real, but they are not a substitute for truth”. However, it may be difficult to contemplate that our deepest convictions can be myopic, or even dangerously at odds with reality. In these moments when the combination of emotions and ego subdue truth, the value of logical reasoning approaches its zenith.
Personally, emotions have drawn my attention to situations that may need intervention, and also enabled me to appreciate life beyond mere existence. However, in situations whose consequences are temporally or spatially extensive, I aim to complement them with the nuance that logical reasoning confers. Perhaps the real solution lies not in the futile dismissal of emotions, but the diligent follow-up with the ever-important question “why”.
The first core theme of The Coddling of the American Mind that intrigued me was antifragility. Succinctly put, antifragility refers to a tendency to be strengthened by past adversity. It facilitates the development of effective coping tendencies that limit ramifications of a second encounter with similar adversities. Examples of antifragility are bountiful. In nature, the immune system typically responds more effectively on second encounters with identical infectious agents. In human psychology, surmountable challenges hone resilience. Antifragility is predicated on survival and adaptive learning. The organism must first survive and then mount a response that effectively attenuates the insult. Moreover, successful attenuation is best manifested by both internal and external moderation towards positive outcomes.
Antifragility fascinated me because it describes a lot of strategies that I have adapted to deal with conflict and adversity. Provocations earlier in life have improved my ability to transcend personal offense and concrete challenges. Growing up in a society relatively unsheltered from interpersonal confrontation, I had to learn to negotiate, reconcile, and in futile cases deflect inessential conflict. Similarly, enduring scarcity armed me with the mental plasticity to maintain hopeful but realistic mentalities about material possessions as well as inequity. Although gruelling, experiences like these have girded me for the similar and less catastrophic conflicts.
They have equipped me with techniques to maintain composure and seek solutions that are effective medium to long term. Antifragile adaptations do not construct perfect fortifications for the diversity and magnitude of adversity that a full human life entails, but they confer a fighting chance through tested coping methods.
Despite its tremendous utility, antifragility is not the only solution to adversity. Instead of adapting through difficulty, we can advocate to change the environment altogether to eliminate the need for adaptation. To be executed correctly, advocating for change necessitates an abundance of caution, humility and informed deliberation. While appealing, revolutionary change of predominantly productive systems can precipitate unanticipated deleterious outcomes. Even if these changes are individually or locally beneficial, they can be calamitous to a broader context and/or the future. Moreover, excessive activism risks externalizing all responsibility for resolutions, casting the light away from introspection and perdurable personal growth. While (good) advocacy targets well-understood threats by demanding change from others, antifragility fosters self-improvement and confers coping mechanisms that are adaptable to unprecedented threats.
For me, the solution lies in maintaining a healthy balance between advocacy and adaptation by conducting a genuine assessment of the long-term effects of specific challenges. Antifragility has offered me a firm background for survival, empathy, and conflict resolution. More importantly, it has empowered me to learn from uncomfortable situations. While I continue to strive for the wisdom to correctly discern the things I can positively change, I am certain that resilience and continuous learning are fruits of antifragility that I can get behind any day.