Africa Makes the Second Move
Black always moves second in any game of chess. However, the game ‘chess’ as we know it, developed within a particular European historical genealogy, began with cultural contact with the Persians some 1400 years ago. There were also various permutations of the rules of chess that varied in the contexts that was played, while in the early modern period the power of the Queen, which was a secondary piece, was afforded along with the Bishop a wider spread of moves. This was not without the prevailing attitudes emerging in reference to the game as ‘Mad Queen’s Chess’ set within the backdrop of a century of some of Europe’s most powerful matriarchs. Nevertheless, this redacted story of the origins of chess often bound to humanistic and enlightenment ideals, played as a means of intellectual stimulus, diversion or strategic simulation. The anthropogenic dominance ended recently however as human beings ceded dominance of this invented game to another mechanisaton of modern human invention, artificial intelligence, although Kasparov beat the computer system a number of times. This brief history strangely situates us in our African present, at least from the perspective of a certain imperial and colonial genealogy, which raises once again, the pressing question of epistemic freedom in a game of cultural conventions.
Symbolically and materially we, as Africans, find ourselves consistently beginning on one side of the board – the black side. This has occasioned the creation of realities that are often as non-existent as the racial, ethnic, national and linguistic categories imputed onto groups in order to fit the rules of a particular game. While some games are undeniably indispensable in the modern world, their rules are not static, and history clearly illustrates their malleability. It is therefore on these foreign ‘rules’ that we must discourse. Furthermore, it is our responses to these rules which have oriented our positions in a rigged game that we have all unknowingly agreed to, by signing the invisible social disclaimer contract, which states that we all begin on an equal footing, when this has never been the case. However, as we will come to see, we are also inventors of our own diverse and unique games and by extension our own rules. Thus, to assume the value of one game over our own indigenous games on the unjustifiable basis of constructed normative standards which drives the Western bandwagon concedes defeat by virtue of the fact that Africans will always make the second move in geo-politics, economics, history or philosophy. Yet, it is our survival in this imposed game that proves the contrary to be truer.
It is said these days – in the same breath with allusion to the same technology of the deep blue system that defeated the twentieth century chess master at the time Kaspervesky – that African languages are dying. This point like many other points relating to the arbitrarily manufactured modern-day under-development politics and colonial-era-style brigandry has been muted by the so-called evidence. Poverty, disease, war and ethnic conflict are considered inherent problems of the African condition. This scenario which has been labelled symbolically within the economic and geo-political realm as ‘Sub-Sahara’ or in a wider context ‘3rd World’ has vaguely stood for something so definite it is quite astounding that we prefer to participate in a world of language decoding rather than to get our hands dirty with the real issue that appears in our streets. We know, that these and other symbols of similar nominal value, in the context of this continent, usually stands for a pattern that has become endemic of the African politics 30 minute wrap-up on major news networks, presenting recapitulations of an age old picture of Africa’s condition even in the parts that this continent’s developing nations do well to hide. But beneath this state veneer and the corporate Chomskyean propaganda model, yet to be analysed thoroughly on the continent, is a game is hidden in plain sight, where entire territories are subjected to resource extraction of every kind viz. the mineral, human, intellectual, cultural and epistemic resources and reserves that have been mined out from the continent. The collateral damage and consequences of planned obsolesce of the African ecosystem and social system has resulted in the loss of unrenewable resources, entire environments and human populations. A microcosm of the effects of this abstract historico-political chess is clear on our human world today in the advent of language death.
This phenomena touted to occur throughout all of recorded human history, which it surely has given that no one speaks the language recorded on ancient papyri for example, yet modern writers, scholars and pundits alike agree that within the past few hundred years the rate at which languages disappear with their speakers occurs at an abnormal frequency on the continent. Last year it had been recorded, as with many statistics that are often founding wanting about the actual happenings in Africa given our long history with assumptions and wild guesses, that roughly 58 languages became extinct. Some may argue that is a by the by point, but when we consider the tremendous collaborative human effort the languages signify, in both understanding and the act or art of speaking it then becomes clear of the gravity of the situation we are dealing with. That is, it is not only generational issues that are to blame for such disappearances but that they are indeed a by-product of the principles of extraction that have donned various robes of justification such as capitalism, socialism, industrialisation, one-party-stateism as well as tacit utilitarian rationalisations where one life on one continent can be worth a several many more on another. Justifications or no, they have led to the same conclusion which is the extraction of resources.
What arises from the predatory neo-colonial and extractive discourse then operates on the same rubric as the myth of mutual exclusion out of the ‘terra nullius’ or empty land narrative. The theory went that that Africans by nature had inherently been conflict-driven and marred with the tribal animosity, an image still capturing the modern imagination of primeval fear associated to Africa and its inhabitants, which interestingly has been used to segregate when convenient and unleash when necessary. Like many other colonial era myths however, this rested on some suspect assumptions.
In the Eastern Cape for example, a theory espoused by historian George Theal backed by the British administration in the nineteenth century claimed that on the basis of observations, the Xhosa groups were in a state of perpetual conflict with the Khoekhoe with case in point being King Rharhabe’s conflict with a widowed queen of the Khoe, Hoho. They believed further, that the Xhosa must have arrived around the same time as the Dutch some few centuries earlier, given the conflict. This theory is of course complicated by the known intermingling, use of khoekhoe place names by the Xhosa and the oral recounting of the peace agreement between the two parties by way of marriage. Furthermore, what is confirmed above is found in recent studies in archaeology of pottery that show settlements in Eastern South Africa around 800 years ago as well as the Human Genetics project which illustrate that the Khoe are in fact descendants of East Africans who assimilated with the San drawn from the remains of the San of Lake Chrissie. This dates the migration of ‘Bantu speaking’ Africans as being 2000 years old with the first migrations out of West Africa 2000 years earlier. The burden of proof has always been on the writers of history, but even when debunked, their theories have cast into stone, justifications for land-dispossession as well as ethnic and racial typing that were far more fluid than some annuals of myth-as-fact purport. One may retort that such discussion is merely divisive and only leads to a stalemate, and there again we can be reminded that Black always plays second, and for this reason narrative stalemate is equally agreeable for those who are aware of what ceding to this narrative, without question, in the past has caused.
We can then see into our own times of some of our under-scrutinised narratives around xenophobia which distort the real suffering and tragedy befalling migrants labourers in South Africa and in a presentist fashion fail to address the basic cause of the animosity – an unequal society with violence as a historical foundation at the heart of uneven distribution or access to resources. De Doorns in the 2008/2009 xenophobic attacks was then the only rural area to participate in South Africa, mainly against Zimbabwean migrants. However, during the second phase of attacks this anger shifted to the Lesotho migrant workers who were previously considered as South Africans but not outsiders. Clearly the people of De Doorns manifested anger not solely on the category of other, but on those immediate groups within reach that were perceived to unwittingly risk the survival of the community accepting low-paid salaries thus halting the need to raise salaries. Furthermore, the entrenched stigma of Apartheid on other racial groups, asymmetrical labour relations rooted in rural and colonial-era labour practices and national and local governmental failure lead to the violence. One only need look at another Cape settlement to understand the extent of the issue, where a recent study found that the capital for foetal alcohol syndrome was in a town called Wellington, precipitated by the ‘Dop’ system. This system imposed rules such as that labour tenants and farmers were to be paid in alcohol instead of wages, but without proper income led to dependency, abuse and addiction, which could be exploited for labour purposes. Herein lies another dimension to a historical narrative of xenophobia in Africa than a myth of senseless and causeless black on black xenophobic violence, as recapitulation of an older far more entrenched myth.
However, some may argue, that this is merely a deflection and does not come as a surprise since the African condition has clearly shown regardless in the underlying causes, ultimately Africans were perpetrators of violent acts. Furthermore the ‘Sub-Saharan problem’ drawn from statistical and model-based evidence from 1st World financial institutions have all shown that Africa chose the path of ruin over simple modernisation. Thus, it is partly the cultural stubbornness of Africans who refuse to part with their out-moded ways that has lead them to be left behind in cycles of spasmodic violence. Stimulus packages which have been injected into economies by international foundations but just like botched pharmaceutical experiments piloted the continent, people would have been much better without them as free medical care and schooling became privatised. Thus for those who did survive the asphyxiation by arbitrary austerity, returned hardened and more disillusioned by the moral hazard of a free market, and were less likely to resist and more likely to adapt. Those who were even further away from the periphery of the so-called ‘global village’ in the rural areas were blighted with rural urban migration as well as brain and labour drain while they fend for themselves in poorly politically represented crecels, regional states, municipalities, districts and territories. These are all the sites of language death, making apparent, the damage caused in establishing any real independence and freedom. Perhaps then, the very ones who you wish to protect yourself from so as to establish an equal footing with as Lumumba attempted, have compiled archival evidence on your heritage as an intellectual past-time. From this they could list various underlying tensions and desire for power such as Chombe’s secession of Katanga from Congo, or the fault lines between the other 250 or more ethnic groups to rehash old tensions. Thus, from the archives anthropology, it was laid bare like a book of spells, to the administration of the time, that gave them access to the very linguistic fabric of insults, expressions, values and meanings that can be inferred, distorted, subverted and crushed, from a position of military, economic, theological and social power.
Language, when reduced to a matter of survival within such a totalising system undergirds the colonial experience in Africa and becomes pertinent to note when we I ask you to imagine what the world might have looked like without the contributions of non-Anglophone languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese to epistemic annuals of humanity. Yet these distinct linguistic nominalisms that veneer further groups and sub-groups under these categories, are unproblematically assumed to have contributed to the epistemic wealth of mankind from the position of the metropolis. Many of these contributions, however, largely came in the form of those subjected by the dominant target language which they were forced to learn, producing undercurrents of culture that would be later monetised and incorporated into mainstream urban culture or neglected into obscurity, depending on marketability. Many people in Africa’s largest modern cities, today, are bilingual or pluralingual, as a matter of survival. This being a legacy from when the dominant lingua franca was enforced as the target language for civil discourse as opposed to customary discourse and used a social dom-pass, without it the so-called ‘native’ could not be seen as the ‘Évolué, ‘assimilado’ or the ‘urban black’. However the reality of pluralingualism arises out of a long history of movements, migrations and inter-marriages or the strategies of continuity found on the continent by its people within that environment.
It therefore follows that in some industrialised urban contexts, or human-zoo’s established in the wake of the colonial administrations’ urban planning of African cities, the ‘under-class’ began to borrow from, appropriate, amalgamate and creolise target languages as a viable response to an inhospitable scenario. This would have allowed for free expression outside of structure as well as to routinely confound those authorities who would have sought to know the mind of their subjects for their subjection. One need only look at the similarities in features of dialects like pidgin, patois, fangalo, kaapse all invented by people of African descent and the Cockney accent of East London developed by the working class of London keep their community affairs and business private in densely populated city and hierarchical society. In both cases this was done by the employment of new patterns of meaning and linguistic inventions, a markedly similar response to a similar imposition of linguistic domination, but in a more precarious context. However, as with any creation came destruction. These creolisations likewise meant that African migrant labourers in the urban complexes, increasingly lost contact with their homes or original birthplaces and would be forced to abandon or supress their languages in the cities, leading to linguistic decay. In the diaspora, this case with reference to language death was evident in the way that the plantation system suppressed slaves’ languages through social death. What remained were traces of the substratum features which were etched out on given European names thus robbing them of the ability to identify, unify and call for autonomy. A similar history punctuates slavery in the Cape and East Africa too. Thus, for many of the future generations of African descent, they would be forced to play the second move and field a board but often with one or missing Castle pieces. Malcom X’s frustration at the Black community’s refusal to demand freedom by any means necessary becomes clear but also lucid, Blacks were requesting freedom since from the very beginning of the game of racial politics they were playing defence, with missing pieces.
Epistemic freedom, it is clear cannot be extracted from economic freedom which is invariably tied to historiography and the colonial archive that was written and funded by the same economic system that causes our modern calls for epistemic freedom. This paradox however, has led to both the epistemic liberation of Africans via institutions of higher learning and also to their confinement in inferiority complexes in various levels of African society leading to what can be described as a mass-demoralisation. Communities thus appear fragmented, like pieces spread out on a board, porous and disunified. Yet this merely the pessimistic view of the past prevails with the contemporary political ethic of moral progress and lazy skepticism that fails to adequately deal with the profound complexities of humanity and culture and its mystification of imposed hierarchies, chronologies and categories.
In Ancient Egypt, senet, or the ‘game of passing’ one of the oldest board games came into existence five thousand years ago moved from a secular to a religious or symbolic game some two thousand years after its creation. This game would be played outside Ancient Egypt up to Babylos, and more boards were purported to be found outside of Ancient Egypt in Cyprus due to trading relations. This being another example analogous to the idea that as an artefact known as an embodiment of Ancient Egyptian civilisation famously founded in The Great Pyramids, pyramids themselves are actually found in greater number in Sudan, than in the entire Nile valley. To return to our board game, the rules of the senet game are unknown, but this board game along with Chaturanga were the ancestors of modern chess, with other significant contributions from other regions. The latter was played from about the sixth century in India and would be adopted as Shatranj in Persia around the same time before the game defused to Europe.
This would later be introduced or re-introduced to the continent in the form of Senterej in Ethiopia but with the exception that exhibits a marked distinction from the more well-known rules in chess and Senterj. Markedly, the Black king is replaced with the Green Negus or King, and the White King with the Golden Negus which easily destabilises the black-white dichotomy. Another example, in this indigenised system of rules, can be found in the game’s ‘Werera’ or mobilisation phase, which occurs at the beginning stages of the game, where players move pieces as fast as they can without waiting for the respective opponent. From this phase, the board appears disorganised but players then go about strategizing to checkmate the king, disarray here is merely returned to order in the course of the game. Finally, the ‘rule’ which is more normative than hard and fast purports to various levels of valour or honour in checkmating a rival’s piece by virtue of which piece attempts to deliver the final blow. Here, we are given an insight or window into a variant set of rules, which I have briefly summarised, showing a divergence on the cultural, normative standards and even the precepts of honour upon which the rules of many games apply.
Those that seek to separate the continent in order to forward the Sub-Saharan hypothesis would be disappointed to find that board games exist in many forms throughout the continent outside of the grand imperialistic monarchical societies of but not exclusively limited to the Nile valley. The game mancala which is found throughout the world, and regarded as one of the oldest board games too, has been indigenised throughout Africa and found in localised forms and variation appearing as Bao in East Africa played by Central and Southern Africans too, in the horn of Africa as Gebeta and in West Africa as Oware, where from Ghana it was shipped to the Caribbean during the Transatlantic Trade where it persists today. In Southern Africa it appears as Moruba played by the Pedi of Limpopo which arose alongside a similar version of the game called Tchouba from Mozambique. As men of different backgrounds met in the mines, they played this game adjusting the similar operating systems, so to speak, until an agreement was found in the rules of the game. This is further transliterated in the South African context with a game played amongst the youth, in which Sotho girls test their hand-eye coordination by throwing stones into the air and catching them in a game called Diketo.
According to modern thinkers like Zulu, this forms part of a fluid based approach to mathematics and philosophy of science in the African context gleaned via linguistic analysis and seen practically in the application of geometrical shapes in Ditema or sacred wall art, Sotho architecture and what he describes as the ‘modelling based’ phenomena that Diketo represents. Such scholarship should be seen in line with the recent development of the Ezumezu system of logic by Chimokonam, which attempts to account for an ‘African’ account of logic based on the reasoning that was proposed by Sogolo, “logical rules, like other conventional rules, are drawn up for those who wish to play the logician’s game to learn and apply”. African Americans and in my experience Africans too, repurpose the chess game to play draughts or checkers, confronted with a set of rules they either do not know or find expedient to playing the game and hence the saying of ‘chess not checkers’ being widely used in the African American community. It can be no puzzle then of how we come to see ourselves as all connected and in struggle with the imposition of a similar game we are forced to play in spite of the gross denial or rejection of our own forms. Never given a fair chance to develop and rid itself of the rules that impede its development, as modern chess has, but rather to exist in a state of moderate abandonment. Pan-Africanism thus, in one way, arises out of a similar African confrontation with the unjust rules of an abstract board game.
The connecting link between all these games, apart from being artifices of human invention, is that they are all fundamentally abstract whether theoretically or mathematical, in that they refer by way of model to how the world would be after our mind’s eye accounts for the necessary variables. These veritable linguistic games are thus merely analogous to Schrödinger’s Cat, and appear to exist in the box only when opened, but are often related to the observers view due to the relativism of perspective of what is real. Thus, it appears that games all bound up with their logical rules are not as fixed as we might imagine, especially when, as Africans we are forced to consistently make the second move. We therefore adapt these games, repurpose and invent out of very little what has hitherto not been imagined as possible. The cultural products which arise out of the diaspora and the continent in spite of the episodes of slavery, colonialism, the post-colonial and neo-colonial can then be viewed, in context as autonomous demarcations or spaces against the dominant narrative, similar to how evidence has been seen the mainstay of the recent protests in the United States. This approach, only seems to arise in a contemporary storm of the mind-numbing Skinnerian reinforcement or the heightening simulacra of media narratives that consistently narrate events from the moral authority of the Western present, often without full account of the causes of these events as they play out. It is therefore in the attempt at the creation and creolosation of imposed systems, in media, art, thought and culture as well as our own creative wellspring, ancestry and gourd that we become aware of our similar circumstance in reality with others, regardless of race, on the continent and abroad. Thus, if we are forced to play the second move we must not forget that we have the power to end the game in stalemate to expose the futility of a deeply undermining project against the epistemic authority of this continent.
In Youruba there is a saying, “You win, and I win, does not make for victory in an ayo game." Meaning: If every person succeeds, nobody is stronger than his adversary.”
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Zulumathabo Zulu – The Basotho Origin of Mathematics – A Public Lecture
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