Truth in the Matrix

“It is not an invalidation of any individual story, but rather, an approximation of the transcendent truth that lies between multiple stories.”

In statistical analysis, data, such as randomly-selected stories, is distilled to investigate specific causes and effects.

The advent of algebra and probabilistic models, coupled with the widespread adoption of written records, created methods to collect, aggregate and appraise evidence using statistical models. In the pursuit of truth, statistical analysis circumvents critical shortcomings of plain anecdotal evidence (presented in The Bane of Lived Experiences) by distilling randomly-selected stories into data. Then, these data, ideally selected with minimal or well-controlled bias, are quantified and integrated into a cause and effect matrix. Therefore, it is possible to identify outstanding relationships between themes, and determine the likelihood that findings are due to chance. This analysis exceeds any limited selection of lived experiences by rigorously integrating diverse information, thereby arriving at conclusions that are verifiably more robust across the population. It is not an invalidation of any individual story; it is an approximation of the transcendent truth that lies between multiple stories. Moreover, it facilitates documentation for future reference, reproduction, and independent critical appraisal.

Most statistics reported in activism and media today are drawn from univariate analyses, which link singular causes to outcomes that are easy to digest. Although this improves upon plain anecdotal reporting, outcomes in complex systems never boil down to single causes. To this day, I still vividly recall encountering the statistic that males had shorter life expectancy than females. Conceivably, I was dismayed by the thought that the I would live a shorter life by the decree of a lottery that I could not do anything about. But, was it possible that something was missed in this conclusion? Was there a way that I could find out what?

Clarity in complexity

A growing propensity to contend with greater complexity steered me towards multivariate analysis. Multivariate analysis demands more knowledge about all plausible and known factors that are related to the outcomes under study, thereby integrating more requisite complexity. To bolster any deductions about sex and life expectancy, I needed to know the determinants of each and both, such as body-mass index (or its components), genetics, life choices, nutrition, environment, among others. Using statistical models, I could then determine to what extent each determinant contributed to the observed relationship, while being open to the possibility that one of these variables could indeed explain life expectancy better than sex. Thus, multivariate analysis became more than just a runway to analytical rigor, it became a practice in modest open-mindedness.

Progressing from a worldview shaped by anecdotal evidence to one elucidated by multivariate analysis has forever changed how I process new information. I was awoken to the contrivance in narratives that use simpler forms of sense-making to make broad conclusions, with adamant disregard for their methodological limitations. No where has this been more revolutionary than in my understanding of the contributions of socioeconomic status, culture and discrimination to societal disparities between identity groups. Unsurprisingly, outstanding explanatory factors revealed by multivariate analysis have frequently been at odds with those emphasized in broadcasted narratives based on anecdotal and univariate reports. Multivariate analysis is tedious and can be limited by manageable statistical artefacts like overfitting and multiple comparisons. However, it presents a self-conscious, incisive, and reproducible approach to identify and tackle the most consequential causes of complex challenges. More importantly, it urges healthy skepticism and nuance that edges closer to the truth than its simpler alternatives.

In contrast to anecdotes and univariate thinking, multivariate analysis undergirds a sophisticated worldview where complex phenomena are rigorously investigated as the product of multiple contributing factors.

The Bane of Lived Experiences

“For better or for worse, memories fade, misfortunes jade and at worst, personal biases pervade.”

Anecdotes are the first form of knowledge we encounter, and are often sufficient to build a functional worldview in childhood.

Knowledge serves many fundamental roles in our lives, none more grounding than making sense of the world around us. Like most people, the first form of knowledge I encountered were the stories passed on by people around me. When told about history, these were part of longstanding “oral traditions” and when told about life’s lessons, they were “lived experiences”. These stories, filtered through the perspectives of my immediate community, were both fathomable and sufficient for my juvenile existence. They contextualized my insular world, built on assumptions that narrators were reflective, unforgetful, impartial and self-aware.

As I examined myself and the information that I encountered over time, I grew to appreciate the diversity of human abilities, personalities and experiences that underlie narrative decisions. I gained more insight into how these factors manifest as flawed perspectives and ignoble motives. For better or for worse, memories fade, misfortunes jade and at worst, personal biases pervade. Unsurprisingly, this uprooted my naive assumptions, and laid bare the pitfalls of a worldview built on anecdotal evidence. To use lived experiences as the primary approach to sense-making, some narratives, and by extension narrators, are sanctified at the cost of their discordant counterparts. Therefore, local arbitrary systems of prioritization, often independent of impartial validation, take precedence in the determination of truth. This combination of subjective sanctification and irreproducibility tilts towards unfalsifiability – a cornerstone of divorce from objective reality.

In truth built on lived experiences, narratives are sanctified regardless of veracity or impartial validation.

In my own life, this conundrum was first exemplified by the divergent perspectives of my maternal and paternal families (owing to different vantage points) about the Ugandan regime change wars of the 70s and 80s. In reconciling this historic period, taking any one perspective was a recipe for inaccuracy, while any attempt to take both was mired by incongruence. On their own, the lived experiences of my narrators were insufficient in a complex reality where the truth required objective or rigorously-integrated knowledge, distinct from any individual perspective.

Despite their limitations, anecdotes possess an enduring appeal. They are sufficiently simple to underpin sensational news stories and vacuous ideologies, and proximate enough to feed self-aggrandizing inclinations towards “personal truth”. In transcending our lived experiences, we are challenged to consider that the truth often exists beyond our limited individual perspectives, and that it may be discovered by contending with other perspectives, including those of our critics. With the moderating effects of detached critical appraisal and knowledge integration, anecdotal evidence can be a cog in the wheel of veracious sense-making. In my case – what if there was a way to gather the stories I had been told (and more) in order to objectively investigate cause and effect? What if there was a way to determine the accuracy of my conclusions?

Anecdotes are sufficiently simple to underpin sensational news and vacuous ideologies.

The questions above are explored in Truth in the Matrix.

Steelmanning: approaching a transcendent form of discourse

Steelmanning presents an opportunity to learn from what we don’t know, which is certainly more abundant than what we know.

Coming up with deeply- and well-informed positions is often a challenging experience that requires time and/or rigorous research. After we have built what we perceive to be solid positions, we laud opportunities to share our knowledge and have our insights valued. Given any amount of time and intellectual adventurousness in an environment that allows diversity of thought, we are bound to stumble upon other people that have similarly invested considerable effort into building an adversarial position. In these interactions, our well-honed perspectives maybe challenged by both new ideas and counter-positions that we believe we understand. The impulse to fall back on our understanding is not only effortless, but also a safe trip on a road well-traveled that circumvents the burden of considering paths we have long considered to be occluded. However, taking this approach raises important questions about our intentions and the transcendent function of discourse – as a tool to unilaterally disseminate our views and/or denigrate our opponents, or alternatively, an opportunity to grow from a robust exchange of ideas. If the latter is to be considered worthwhile, is it achievable without a thorough understanding of the perspectives we oppose?

You know what you know

In building our own perspectives, it is likely that we have been informed by a collection of congruent experts that shape and affirm our worldview. If our dive was extensive enough, it is likely that we encountered some form of the alternative perspectives that we deemed feeble in comparison. However, is it possible to scruplously assert that these alternatives are meritless without considering their strongest presentation? How we approach this question lands on a spectrum between two polar rhetorical devices. Strawmanning, which draws from the weakest (and often carricatured) version of a position, and steelmanning, which draws from the strongest (and often charitable) version of a position. Strawmanning is an easy, straight forward approach that diminishes the other side’s credibility by honing in on (often insubstantial) extremes and reduction to absurdity. In contrast, steelmanning is a valiant experience that requires the investment of effort into positions that we may consider illegitimate pre hoc and be biased against. In deciding between these two approaches, we choose to either love the exploration of what we know or what we dont know. Certainly, the latter is considerably more abundant for any individual.

A worthy adversary
Just as we believe that we (and our perspectives) are worthy of dignity and consideration, we ought to consider our adversaries as worthy opponents.

Perhaps even more salient than the intellectual considerations behind these approaches is a fundamental human consideration. While strawmanning diminishes others by undermining their personal and professional characteristics in comparison to our own, steelmanning challenges us to stave off our ego. It urges us to appreciate that sans the insight that a deeply personal conversation with our adversaries would confer, they could be our equals in intent and nobility. And just as we deserve to be treated with dignity in discourse, they too could be dignified worthy adversaries. While one rhetorical approach is a hallmark of prejudice and self-assessed supremacy over “weak” opponents, the alternative is a humbling exercise in self awareness and recognition of shared humanity.

Steelmanning builds understanding from impartiality and introspection while strawmanning builds on distortion and projection. In discourse about multi-faceted momentous issues, where trade offs are inescapable, the former recognizes that we are limited by our unique priorities and experiences. Although we may vastly outmatch our adversaries in our own domain of expertise, there may be more to learn from beyond our personal purview. This shifts the tenor of adversarial encounters away from oversimplified partisan adamancy towards nuanced reasoning from which all parties involved can learn. For example, in broad public policy decisions, individuals may land on opposite sides of an aisle because of differential expertise in (and prominence given to) healthcare, economic or legal implications – all foundational cogs in a functional society that cannot be incautiously compromised. Steelmanning ensures that all parties involved can learn from each other and craft a much more robust decision than any single perspective would surmise. While steelmanning is not a fool-proof solution to a polarized world, it is a bridge that upholds interpersonal dignity, while boosting the educative value of adversarial discourse.

Strawmanning builds on distortion and projection, while steelmanning builds from learning and self-awareness.

History VII: Who we were, are and can be

Echoes etched in history ensure that we can improve with every iteration of our evolution.

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.

To preserve its role in our improvement, all history – with its traumas and treasures – ought to remain part of our discourse.

History VI: Virtues of our forebears

The good
Nelson Mandela’s triumph over apartheid and democratic ideals epitomized successful post-colonial revolution.

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.

Einstein’s breakthroughs in nuclear physics were smudged by downstream application in atomic warfare.

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. 

History V: Vices of our forebears

The bad

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. 

Casualties during The Battle of the Bulge. Nazi Germany exceeded all evils of its time, wreaking unprecedented havoc that regressed socioeconomic growth and human rights worldwide.

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.

By peering into humanity’s darkest moments, not only do we appreciate our contemporary world, but also introspect, and avoid the repetition of past failures.

Continued in History VI: Virtues of our forebears.

History IV: Through the heart of every man

Continuation of Through echoes in time.

"Convoi de femmes captives"
Preexisting slavery was commercialized and expanded by Arab and European traders.

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.

"Pompe & magnificence du Roi Congo en donnant audience aux Etrangers"
The inheritance of preexisting power hierarchies was integral to the socio-political successions throughout African history.

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.

During the American civil war, the abolition of slavery united a diverse coalition of freed slaves and union statesmen. History is also riddled with tales of shared virtue that rectified past vices.
Verdict

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?

History III: Through echoes in time

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.

With the advent of civilization, East African trading ports like Dar es Salaam blossomed into coastal cities. Image by Jefferson Rusali from Pixabay.

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.

Ancient African civilizations expanded through conquest to sustain sophisticated monarchical hierarchies, which were coopted by colonialists. Image by Souza DF from Pixabay.

Continued in Through the heart of every man.

History II: Series on the rift valley

Continuation of Tales on the rift valley.

Trade caravans were the main link between the interior and coastal cities until the construction of railways in the colonial era.

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.

Portuguese conquistador Vasco da Gama.

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.

Soweto, details at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/29/world/africa/soweto-south-africa-inequality.html
Salient socioeconomic disparities have outlasted direct colonial rule and persist under successive domestic systems.

History I: Tales on the rift valley

The East African rift valley; home to Olduvai Gorge and East Africa’s early history. Photo by Barbara Schneider from Freeimages.

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.

Continued in Series on the rift valley.