I love alternate histories and alternate maps! (My favourite world map is the dymaxion map; check out this rendition.)
Here’s an alternate Africa called Alkebu-lan 1260 AH by Nikolaj Cyon (full-size version). It’s set in 1844, on the eve of Europe’s Scramble for Africa, but in a world in which Europe dwindled completely during the Black Death — a world in which Europe’s Scramble for Africa will never happen.
This is a Europe-free Africa. That makes Alkebu-lan 1260 AH a pretty monumental effort; it’s one man’s attempt to categorise an entire continent — bold, if nothing else! And I love that. Here though I want to ask what it leaves out. Sure, it’s not really an ‘uncolonized’ Africa as it’s been titled at Big Think and io9, but let’s dip a bit further down.
Let’s zoom in on the place known today as Tanzania, where I live. It’s home to a large number of tribal groups; 120 is the round number usually given. Alkebu-lan 1260 AH acknowledges only five of those, and depicts them as nation states: the Swahilis (on the left), the Gogo, the Hehe, the Nyamwezi and the Maasai.
These five nation states mask more than just ethno-linguistic diversity and smaller tribal structures, however. There is a long history of movement and displacement. As Tamie has previously recounted, the Ugogo region was in flux around 600 years ago, long before European involvement in the region.
The Wagogo began as a hybrid people, but so did other tribal groups. One student I meet with is from the Ngoni people of southern Tanzania, who emerged in the early 1800s after a defeated army moved up from further south. This small group, an offshoot of another tribe, carved out a new state and became the ruling elite. Existing local communities could either move or be absorbed. Alkebu-lan 1260 AH doesn’t depict these histories — histories which show that borders and nationalism can be a product of conflict and colonialism rather than a precursor to it.
The artist’s own commentary on the map shows his concern for African societies and initiatives. I reckon it’s great to recognise and celebrate the riches of these societies, and God knows it’d help set us Westerners straight. Yet Alkebu-lan 1260 AH still seems like a map for the powerful people: the civilisations, the known quantities, the groups that were more dominant or expansionist.
Alkebu-lan 1260 AH represents an alternative history, a thought experiment, a what-if question, and as such it’s a worthy fictional prompt and imaginative device — and an invitation to rejoice in Africa and its peoples.
It can also be read as a depiction of a pure Africa. That can be a beautiful idea: an Africa free from the cancer of foreign acquisition, consumption and classification which continues to this day.
Yet a pure Africa can also become a single Africa, fixed and idealised, as static as any colonial map. That’s what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called the danger of a single story.
So while I applaud this white guy’s efforts to rethink Africa and come to grips with Africa on its own terms (hey, I’m that white guy too), filtering out European interests is not enough to grant us a vision of the full diversity and beauty of Africa. An alternate narrative can be powerful and beautiful, but the fact that it’s alternate is no guarantee that it will recognise local intricacies, or that it won’t paper over the smaller stories.
So here’s another thought experiment: what would it look like to not only filter out Europe, but also dial down national power? This would leave us not with a map of nation states but with a map of cultures and languages. It would be mind-boggling in its complexity! [Update 18 Feb 2015:] There are some examples of this very thing at These Amazing Maps Show the True Diversity of Africa (Mic).
Here’s another fascinating example from Australia:
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.