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Lost Kingdoms of Africa

(US DVD: 6 Oct 2010)

Kingdoms Come!

A friend of mine recently groused that it was foolish for academics to teach African-American children that that they were descended from royalty, on the grounds that most weren’t, but more importantly, why did black kids want to adopt a prideful, fawning attitude about aristocratic forebears, given the dubious nature of such classism?  My mind concocted little argument at the time, but what I should have said was that Americans of European heritages had enjoyed ample time to study their kings, embrace them, denounce where appropriate, and finally, romanticize them. One need only glimpse the imposing magnificence of Bavaria’s sprawling Neuschwanstein Castle, allegedly the model for two Disney theme park palaces, to grasp the ahistorical adoration Americans of various ethnicities feel for Europe’s storied ruling classes.


The point being: African-American children have never known enough information about Africa’s ancient kings or queens to form any coherent ideas, positive or negative, about them. This situation is starting to be remedied, though not necessarily in America’s schools. Rather, cable television, not yet thoroughly colonized by self-styled ‘reality’ programs, has been a wellspring of solid documentaries on African history; witness the BBC’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa. Yes, one can carp that it took a foreign media outlet to produce this erudite four-part series for an American audience, but at least it exists. And it’s even presented by a black fellow, albeit one with a charmingly plummy British brogue.


Part 1 explores the fabled Nubia, which occupied a northerly section of contemporary Sudan, a massive and massively troubled state. It’s fashionable in certain un-analytic lefty circles to imagine pre-colonial Africans living in Edenic harmony with each other, but that’s no more accurate for Africans than for Native American societies. The ancient Nubians were conquistadores, until they themselves, apparently weakened by climate change, were overrun by the Egyptians. And speaking of those legendary pyramid builders, traditional Nubia actually contained more of these conical structures than Egypt, though none quite so grand as the Great Pyramid at Giza, the inspiration for Las Vegas’ menacing black-glass Luxor Hotel.


The grand city of Kush was Nubia’s heart, though Kerma was an important center, as well. Cattle were a primary source of wealth for residents of Kerma, and this is reflected in the runes which date back to 6,000 BCE, and depict livestock owned by the citizenry. We also witness rock ‘gongs’, boulders that produce an eerie chiming sound when struck. Surely somewhere there is a band using these as instrumental fodder, waiting anxiously for whatever’s left of the American recording industry to fashion them into the next Big Thing.


Although ancient Nubians failed to develop a system of writing, their pottery predates the agricultural age, and their unique mode of wrestling – not radically different from Graeco-Roman – survives today, as demonstrated by Afro-British host Gus Casely-Hayford, who acquits himself surprisingly well against a modern-day combatant. Little did they realize that the desertifying creep of the Sahara and rapacious Egyptian invaders would doom their society.


We move on to Ethiopia, certainly more renowned than its Nubian neighbor, and consistently in the news during my teen years, becoming a synonym for famine and suffering. The world is keenly aware of the life of Emperor Haile Selassie, whose rule was terminated in a 1974 coup, as well as that nation’s fierce resistance to colonization by Italy. What you may be ignorant of – I was – is that coffee, mankind’s epic, ubiquitous legal stimulant, was first cultivated in this region, or that more crop species are grown here than anywhere else on the African continent.


Dr. Casely-Hayford also chats with the current leader of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, who presents several elaborate paintings to be found inside church structures. Apparently honey, another essential global product, has always been a staple of Ethiopian religious life, and the Bible’s famed Solomon and Sheba may have been denizens of Ethiopia.


Sadly, contemporary Zimbabwe has become a tragic exemplar of governmental malfeasance and mismanagement, with its horrendous inflation rate, plummeting agricultural output, and rapidly decreasing life expectancies, all at the hand of the treacherously impractical Robert Mugabe, an octogenarian dictator only now being marginalized.


Prior to his ill-advised ousting of white farmers under a corrupt plan of land re-distribution, Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of sub-Saharan Africa. No more. And amidst the horrors of 21st-century Zimbabwe, President Mugabe still finds time to denounce his LGBT constituents.


A German ecologist stumbled across the ruins of the metropolis of Great Zimbabwe in 1871, a mere decade or so before the Berlin Conference of the mid-1880s, at which the five major European powers would divide the African land mass among themselves, as casually as a family would carve up a pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving.


At its zenith during the 14th and 15th centuries, this civilization was rigidly hierarchical, and a gold-mining hub, as adjacent South Africa would become centuries later. Trade flowed freely from the Swahili Coast, and intricate buildings, formed from coral, dotted the landscape. In fact, it’s argued that the very concept of “kingdom” may have originated in southern Africa.


Finally, Dr. Casely-Hayford travels to the verdant expanses of West Africa, the cradle of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, a 400-year abyss of human nature, during which millions of Africans—many captured by competing tribesmen – were transported forcefully to the Americas, creating an international diaspora, and perhaps setting the stage for the culturally devastating colonization that would last well into the 20th century.


Casely-Hayford focuses primarily on the city-state of Benin, homeland of the Dogon, who held animist beliefs before European contact, and have retained them. Their predecessors were the Bini, who dared to defy British encroachment in 1897, and were brutally punished for this transgression, the city quickly sacked and looted by Queen Victoria’s troops. During its heyday, this region enjoyed flourishing outdoor bazaars and produced lovely bronze castings, many of which now reside, ironically, in London’s British Museum. Romanticizers of pre-colonial Africa would do well to remember that the Bini were deeply involved in intra-African slavery, some of which was closely modeled on the American form. It was a wickedly convenient method of subjugating enemy communities and obtaining sophisticated weaponry from the Europeans.


As with any DVD package worth its salt, there are several extras included. A 16-page “viewer’s guide” contains study questions, making it an excellent choice for college of high school classrooms, and additional facts about the aforementioned kingdoms. We also receive biographies of several prominent early African potentates, as well as profiles of present-day Sudan, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria, which occupies Benin’s former territory.


Lost Kingdoms of Africa is a compelling combination of reportage and archaeological exploration, and as such, it mirrors countless similar programs on PBS, History Channel, and Discovery, although, obsession with ratings and the bottom line, may ultimately banish this sort of programming from basic cable, which would be a tragedy. Speaking strictly about Africa, the world needs to comprehend fully the complex, bloody history of the so-called ‘Dark Continent’, with all its attendant ironies and contradictions.


Gus Casely-Hayford is himself a valuable case-in-point. Sartorially, this erudite art historian and National Portrait Gallery trustee embodies the Great White Hunter archetype, even his elegant intonations evoking the fabled 19th century English adventurers. But he’s not a pasty, mustachioed Anglo-Saxon. One could in fact label him the Barack Obama of archaeological expedition, however reductionist that may sound. Queen Vic must be rolling in her grave.

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